"Julee Cruise . . . isn't she that chick from Twin Peaks?"
That's what one friend said when I told him I was interviewing the New York chanteuse. And he's right. Cruise was the otherworldly voice of "Falling," the theme to David Lynch's groundbreaking TV series, and contributed to the soundtracks of both big- and small-screen versions of the show, in addition to making cameos as the "Girl Singer in Roadhouse."
Her affiliation with Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti also spawned Blue Velvet's "Mysteries of Love," Cruise's 1990 debut Floating Into the Night (featuring her dreamy, '50s-style gem "Rockin' Back Inside My Heart"), and the multimedia Industrial Symphony #1; in the latter, Cruise found herself suspended 80 feet above the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music crooning in a prom dress. "That harness was extremely uncomfortable, and I'm afraid of heights," she says without a hint of bitterness. "You've got to be able to make a fool of yourself or to walk through your fear in order to get through things."
But there's much more to Cruise's career than her haute couture high-wire act. When Cindy Wilson of the B-52's went on maternity leave at the height of Cosmic Thing mania, Cruise stepped into her pumps. ("It was like being asked to be one of the Beatles!") She's also sung with artists including Moby, Delirium, Hybrid, former Deee-Lite mixmaster Supa DJ Dmitry, and nutty New York electronic artist Khan. Her stage credits include A Little Night Music, Little Shop of Horrors, and Cabaret, and for the past five years, she's performed with Bobby McFerrin's vocal ensemble, Voicestra. So even though she's back in the Pacific Northwest this weekend to play the Twin Peaks Festival, you can bet the Creston, Iowa, native's got other fish to fry . . . including promoting The Art of Being a Girl (Water Music), her first solo full-length since 1993's The Voice of Love.
A carefully calibrated concoction of vintage exotica, contemporary electronics, and theatrical flair, the laid-back yet lively vibe of The Art of Being a Girl was inspired primarily by the grooves Cruise encountered in chill-out lounges while touring Europe with Khan. "I started thinking, 'Wow, I could do something really interesting like this—with wit and theatricality—and make it my own." Ultimately, she wrote, recorded, and—with assistance from Khan, Mocean Worker, and chief collaborator J.J. McGeehan (a vet of Off-Broadway shows and The X-Files)—produced the 12-track album in three months.
Infused with the dark humor Cruise's fans have come to expect, the disc owes just as much to the influence of contemporary acts including De Phazz and Thievery Corporation as '60s mainstays like Henry Mancini, culminating in her rendition of the seductive Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 nugget "Slow Hot Wind." "In Europe, they call it 'couch music,'" says the singer, so Cruise dubbed her variation "davenport music," in reference to the voluminous, upholstered sofa beds popular during the bygone era she sought to evoke in song.
But do "wit and theatricality" still play in the provinces? Can cuts titled "Beachcomber Voodoo" or "The Orbiting Beatnik" move units at Sam Goody? Hell yes, she insists. "Look at Beck and Eminem and all the people that write with irony and such incredible humor in their music. That's why those guys are so successful. The people are starving to be entertained. That's why I'm drawn to [their music].
"Moby told me one time, 'Nobody listens to lyrics.' That's complete crap," she continues. "Lyrics mean a lot, especially in electronic and chill-out music. It might not be profound, but you better come up with a message—in a clear-cut sentence—because that's all you have."
Cruise's upcoming projects include portraying an evangelical Christian in Alex Shaoul's independent short The End of the Line, which takes place at a suicide hotline center "gone horribly wrong." "Originally, they wanted a real Southern fat woman, like an Aunt Bea-type character. Then I walked in, very thin and nervous, and they thought, 'She's the one.' I play it so earnestly that it comes off quite funny. I even do a striptease, which is pretty sad, because I'm all bones." She's also up for a role in the Broadway-bound Keith Haring bio-musical, Radiant Baby, and, in her copious free time, plans to record a full album with Belgian producer Sven Van Hees, a.k.a. Gemini.
And for the record, Cruise says she doesn't regret being "that chick from Twin Peaks" one iota. "I don't think anything else I've done has been, or will be, that big," she concedes. Perhaps The Art of Being a Girl will prove her wrong. Regardless, she's grateful for the association with Lynch. "Without that happening, I'd probably be doing Paint Your Wagon at the Paper Mill Playhouse," she laughs. "And I'd be gosh-darned good in it!"
For more info on the Twin Peaks Festival (Fri., Aug. 16-Sun., Aug. 18), visit www.twinpeaksfest.com. The Art of Being a Girl is in stores Aug. 20.