In Conversation: Nancy Sinatra

The kohl-eyed doll with the velvet voice is back in her boots...

Bang bang!

After bowing out at the top of her game to raise her children in relative anonymity, the kohl-eyed doll with the velvet voice is back in her boots, baby.

The Start Walkin’ retrospective is a treasure trove of Nancy Sinatra’s richest pickin’s – a 23-track trip through the career of the New Jersey cowgirl: from her bubblegum beginnings through the Hazlewood era to that Tarantino moment.

Replete with the satisfying trappings of Physical Music (CD edition – 64-page hardcover book, two-disc vinyl set – 24-page booklet) and an interview with Amanda Petrusich of the New York Times, it’s an investment in you.

Classics are present and remastered by Grammy award-winning Hunter Lea – broken up with the appearance of rarer gems, like ‘How are Things in California?’ – a long-lost nugget of Billy Strange melancholia that inhabits the same atmospheric postcode as the Mamas and the Papas.

‘Lightning’s Girl’ is a stomper of cautionary verse, strikes of fuzzed guitar slicing up the otherwise slick pop structure. On under-acknowledged anthem ‘Kind of a Woman’ she unleashes her phrasing on a run of lusting lyrics: “I’m a sweet smelling, truth-telling, city dwellin’ kind of a woman/Looking for a slow-walkin’ sweet-talking, hungry kind of a man” – Her three-year collaboration with Lee Hazlewood is mined in all its density, source of sumptuous ballads and three perfect albums. 'Some Velvet Morning' is as mournful and eternal as it ever was – a song that will never decay, despite infinite repetitions. – And oh! Paris Summer! Their greatest duet. Hazlewood’s voice like weathered leather, croaking its way through that cinematic storyline, whilst Sinatra sails above.

Her collaborations – and the double-edged blessing of her famous father – has sometimes meant that Nancy’s role has been presumed to be ‘chanteuse’ – a poisonously reductive word in the hands of a male music critic, with its implication of a tamed songbird drafted in for some producer’s symphonic vision. Woman as instrument alone.

For all the moods and musicians that run through this record…the attitude, voice and spirit belongs solely to Nancy Sinatra. A life-long feminist – she’s suffered at the hands of lazy comparison, but learned to turn the other cheek and keep her eyes on her horizon.

Through email, she passes on some of her wisdom on the past, present and future.

– – –

– – –

You’re a vocal, lifelong feminist but you’ve had strong, collaborative relationships with men: Hazlewood, Billy Strange, and of course, your father. What did you learn from these relationships?

I learned that I was right 95% of the time. My downfall was that I didn’t take advantage of some of the opportunities that came my way.

I should not have been so particular, I suppose. Maybe being particular saved me from being a cliché. Who can say?

Another thing, I was quite shy. Looking back, I don’t think I asserted myself enough. I tried, but I could have tried harder.

What did you teach each other?

Respect. It was difficult for me to earn. Believe it or not, I was being compared to my father! I think I navigated that well in the studio, but in the press and public forum it was a real challenge.

The journalists and folks who made that comparison showed their ignorance and probably never listened to my music in the first place. Or if they did, they didn’t give it a chance. I finally stated, “Nancy Sinatra will never be the man her father is.”

The music you made with Hazlewood in the late 60s symbolised a new, darker kind of pop. Did it feel like a risk to step into that world?

The bubblegum stuff was flippant and silly. The world was serious. Our country was embroiled in a nasty, immoral war in Vietnam. People were dying and it was colouring the lives of every single young American. Some folks were leaving the country; others had no choice but to go in for the draft, send their loved ones off to an uncertain future or no future at all. It was a very difficult time. It didn’t feel right to be making music that didn’t reflect at least a piece of that.

– – –

– – –

Do you credit yourself with the effect you’ve had on empowering femme musicians?

In retrospect, yes. But at the time, no.

When I look back, there was no forethought whatsoever in that regard. Truly. It just felt like I was stuck. I had nothing to lose, so I just decided to take some good advice and do what I felt like doing. – I wish I had been more serious about my life and my work. I was mostly just having a good time which turned out to be (basically) a pathetic waste of time. I could have done so much more.

What’s one piece of advice you’d pass down to young women in the music industry?

It's all about the song. In the days when I was really working, there were so many amazing female artists. Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Linda Rondstadt, Carol King, Janis Joplin and others were serious musicians.

They did it right, and they had the voices to match their ambition. I felt that I was lacking in ambition and vocal ability. – The trick is to know yourself, your strengths and your limitations. Be honest. Make a plan, stick to it, and fight hard. Maybe it’s getting easier for women now, I don’t know. Still, I feel like it continues to be a man’s business and women have to continue to fight like hell. It’s the only way.

You retired from music to devote more time to your daughters. Looking back, would you do that again?


Would you do it if you were famous, in the here and now?

Yes. No regrets.

– – –

– – –

What did you learn from that period of your life?

I grew up. Reality hit me hard. My life had always been too easy, but the reality of wanting to continue to be successful was a tough lesson. When you fail, or you are disappointed with your efforts, you must get back up and start over again until you get it right.

There is something to be said about the kindness of strangers – the people who help you along the way even when there is nothing in it for them. I’m speaking about my career of course, but I am also talking about my personal life. Failing your children is just not an option. Every parent’s worst nightmare is the spectre of failing your children. I learned this is inevitable, but you try your damndest to avoid it. That’s a different kind of disappointment altogether. That’s real-life stuff.

What’s your favourite period of your career?

Whatever I was working on at the time. It didn’t have to be a hit, though that is always a welcome relief. I knew a record was a hit three times in my life: 'Lucille', 'These Boots Are Made For Walking', and 'Something Stupid'. There were times when I truly thought that we had a hit and the record did nothing. Like 'How Are Things in California?'. Great song, amazing recording, incredible musicians. It just didn’t hit.  

It was a joy to see that Light In The Attic and co-producer Hunter Lea loved the track enough to include it on the new compilation. Circling back, it is disappointing and a bit embarrassing when you don’t hit it out of the park. As a recording artist, you feel a certain obligation to the record label that puts the money up for the recording sessions. It’s tough when their faith in you falters.

– – –

– – –

If you could do one thing about your career differently, what would you do?

I would go to college and learn a trade to fall back on. Growing up, I idolised Margaret Mead. Not only was she a brilliant anthropologist, but active in promoting women’s rights.

I would have loved to follow in her footsteps, but music was like a strong gravitational pull. I suppose it’s because I was born into it. Or maybe it was just destiny.

If you wrote a record now, what would it sound like? Would you ever do it?

It would be strong and reflective, and I'd do it in a second if given the chance.

– – –

– – –

'Nancy Sinatra: Start Walkin' 1965-1976' is out now.

Words: Marianne Gallagher

– – –

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.