It’s 10:30 on a Friday morning in Atlanta, and Cindy Wilson has just finished her second cup of coffee. She’s chasing away the cobwebs from a night of revelry that ended at 2:00 a.m. after the B-52s—the seminal Athens, Georgia, group of which Wilson is a founding member—played the first of two shows with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The band is celebrating its fortieth anniversary since playing its first gig in 1977, after forming in the wake of a now famous drunken night at an Athens Chinese restaurant, and the symphony gigs are a unique twist for an outfit that has never wavered from a fiercely independent, creative path.
“People get a real kick out of hearing our songs with an orchestra,” says Wilson, an Athens native, in her Georgia lilt. “It makes you feel like you’re in a movie with unexpected bursts of energy. It’s really kind of psychedelic in a way.”
Wilson is also celebrating a milestone of her own in
December with the release of Change, her first solo album. Layered with her celestial, breathy vocals, gurgling electronic beats, and lush melodies, the material trades the B-52s’ exuberance for something more ethereal but still instantly memorable. If the B-52s are there to rock the party, Change is for the morning after.
It’s a style of music that fits the usually shy Wilson, who demonstrates that she is just as comfortable cooing as she is hooting and hollering on B-52s songs. But it wasn’t easy. “I had to learn how to sing differently,” she says. “After all these years, it was like I was back in school.”
The origins of the project go back to a birthday party for the younger of Wilson’s two children. When he turned ten, Wilson hired an Athens-based Beatles tribute band—dubbed Beatles for Sale—because he was obsessed with George Harrison. Duly impressed, she invited them back to play at one of her legendary Halloween parties, and soon after, she struck up a friendship with front man Ryan Monahan and drummer Lemuel Hayes. The three performed together for the first time at a 2010 party for the thirtieth anniversary of fellow Athens legends R.E.M. Still, it took years before they began collaborating more regularly with the local producer Suny Lyons, quietly releasing two EPs before the full-length Change.
The album opens with the dreamy swirl of “People Are Asking,” which supplements the electro-pop stylings with soaring strings. From there, it swells to the hypnotic title track before peaking with the feedback-laced “Brother,” a song written by the now-defunct Athens rock act Oh-Ok. Monahan was impressed with Wilson’s willingness to experiment. “We could have done something closer to the
B-52s’ sound, but it never would have been as good,” he says. “So why even try?”
Performing on her own, Wilson projects a more downtown-cool vibe than the kaleidoscope kitsch of the B-52s, dressing mainly in shades of black and donning oversize sunglasses. Gone is her trademark enormous blond beehive wig. “It’s hot and scratchy,” she says, laughing. But after forty years, the B-52s remain a cultural touchstone for legions (surely you remember where you were when you first heard “Love Shack”?), a voice for the LGBTQ community (Wilson is the only straight member of the original group), as well as a beacon for society’s misfits and mavericks.
“People come up to me and tell me how they were in a dark place and our music helped them out,” Wilson says. “It’s mind-blowing. It’s not just ‘Rock Lobster’ or ‘Love Shack,’ there’s much more there.”
Wilson will juggle commitments with the B-52s—more
gigs, possibly recording a new song, and helping to oversee a documentary about the band—with her own tour, a back-to-basics road show with everyone piling into a van and scouting hotel deals online. It harks back to when the B-52s were grinding it out in the late seventies. “Some of my fondest memories are of being in a van,” Wilson says. “It can be exhausting, but many adventures can be had. I’m just loving it again.”