Dolly Parton is saying my name. It's thrilling—even if she's talking about someone else entirely. "ES-telle," she says. "My mama's sister is named Estelle. We call her Aunt ES-telle. Yours is Est-ELLE. You can say it either way," she reassures me. "Either is correct."
Thank goodness. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Parton has the personal touch. From turning a simple request to license her songs into a full-blown soundtrack complete with new original songs, to sparking viral Twitter threads after casually dining with a fan, the country musician has a special attitude. As we head into the holidays, some of us might need the reminder to take the high road. But not Parton: "I try to truly remember what Christmas is supposed to be about, which is goodwill and peace to mankind, that sorta thing. So I try to do that every day, live my life in a Christmas frame of mind."
While it's not a holiday movie, the forthcoming movie Dumplin', based on the young adult novel by Julie Murphy, possesses a similar spirit. Coming to Netflix December 5, its tale of "fat girl" Willowdean Dickson—dubbed "Dumplin' by her mom, a former beauty queen (Jennifer Aniston)—celebrates longing and drive and pageantry in a way that's likely to warm up the chilly season. Asked for permission to license the songs, Parton ended up penning new songs for the soundtrack. and reworking old favorites like "Here You Come Again" with friends including Sia, Miranda Lambert, and Macy Gray.
ELLE.com spoke to the legendary singer about forcing Jennifer Aniston into the studio, saying yes, and how even a superstar can still get her dreams crushed.
Originally, you were going to just write the theme song for Dumplin', but you wrote six songs for the soundtrack. Of course, you're a bit of an over-achiever. How did you get so much more involved?
Well, it's so funny how that happened, 'cause when they first contacted me, they just wanted to license some of my old music for the movie, and I said, "Absolutely yes!" Then I got another call asking if I would write a theme song, and I said yes. Then they called back and said, "Would you be willing to write that theme song with Linda Perry and have her produce it?" And I said yes.
So I got with Linda Perry just to write the theme song, and boy, we clicked as musicians and singers and writers. And we just hit it off and soon as we wrote the theme song, we just went one to another, writing songs. We didn't even know if some of these would go in the movie or not. I was basing them on the themes and the characters, the feel of the movie. So I knew if they did use 'em, they'd all fit. But anyway, we just kept writing all these great songs because we were loving the process of writing. So it was just one of those things that snowballed.
"The Girl in the Movies" made me cry.
You've had a really long, illustrious career, but still tapped into the longing of someone who's not a star yet, who wants to feel special. How did you access that wistful emotion?
Well, first of all, I had that kind of wishful thinking back when I was young, wanting to be a star—not necessarily a movie star, I wanted to be a music star. I wanted to be successful. And then when I saw the movie, that little character Willowdean, Dumplin'—her mother affectionately calls her Dumplin' because she's overweight. When I saw her little heart, I just pictured her going to the movies, living through other people, trying to live her life through other people, dreaming that she might one day could be that.
I just came up with that, with all those lines, thinking that that was how she would feel and me just pulling from my own life: wanting to be special, wanting to stand up, be counted and to matter. That's one of my favorite things in the movie, too. I think a lot of people will relate to that little song, don't you?
"I THINK A LOT OF PEOPLE WILL RELATE TO THAT LITTLE SONG, DON'T YOU?"
Absolutely. But I imagine you don't feel like that anymore—you're Dolly Parton now.
Well, you know, I know that I'm a star. I did see my dreams come true. But there's that part of me that's doing just what I'm doing right now. I still work, I never think I've done enough. I never think I'm good enough. I never think that I've accomplished everything I'm supposed to, so I'm out there working every day.
I still want to stand up, I still want to matter, and I've had a lot of my tears that's been splattered, still being splattered. I've still got dreams. Sometimes they get crushed by other people, certain new dreams. You never get over that. If you continue to grow in the business, you're going to get smacked around, it doesn't matter how big a star you are—there's some company or somebody that's not gonna go for everything you want to do. And if it's your dream, and someone ain't seeing it, well then, hell—it hurts. So yeah, I'm still that girl.
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You recorded "Push and Pull" with Dumplin' stars Jennifer Aniston and Danielle MacDonald. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
They didn't want to sing. When I went to see the movie, I thought the relationship between the two of them was where they just kept pushing and pulling each other. They couldn't ever get along. So I came up with that title.
Linda and I wrote the song, she's actually great on the melodies and I usually work more on the lyrics. And she said, "Let's get their asses in the studio, make 'em sing! So I told 'em, "Look, we want you to sing." And they said, "We can't sing!" And we said, "We don't care, we'll make you sound good. You've gotta be on this record. And they actually did pretty good! They don't claim to be singers. You can always make it sound better if there's a little note that's not necessarily right on pitch or whatever.
Danielle rapped in her movie Patti Cake$, so...
Oh yeah, she did good. She said, "It took me forever to learn to rap, I can't sing, I damn sure can't sing no country music!" I said, "Yes you can, get your little ass over here and sing with me." After we were done, they loved it, but she was so nervous. They both were! They said, "We're standing here with you and Linda Perry that does this all the time!" I said, "Yeah, but we can't act like worth a damn, so y'all got that on us."
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You re-recorded some songs for the soundtrack, including "Jolene." You've probably performed it a million times. It's so beloved. Why that song for the soundtrack, and how did you approach this version?
Linda had this idea to do it like "Eleanor Rigby," like with an orchestra. She wanted to do it with me and strings. And we did it, it was one take! I just went out and started singing with 'em and I was just feeling what they were doing. It really turned out really emotional. Hearing it like that, me singing it slower with just the strings, it had a haunting kind of feel, like some ol' Elizabethan-age music, chamber music almost. I thought it turned out really nice.
I don't know if you heard about the Twitter thread by a fan who ran into you one night at a diner, and you ended up eating together and talking.
Somebody mentioned something about that. Lord knows, I've been around a long time, I run across all kinds of people, get myself in all sorts of situations, so I'm sure it's true.
Dumplin' premieres on Netflix on December 7. The soundtrack is available for pre-order and will be released on November 30.