FAMILY VALUES… FDELUXE’S SUSANNAH MELVOIN TALKS TO SJF

Wednesday, 09 November 2011 14:28 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

Article Index
FAMILY VALUES… FDELUXE’S SUSANNAH MELVOIN TALKS TO SJF
2
3
All Pages

fdeluxe_stairsRewind to 1985. Prince Rogers Nelson was on top of the world. The global success he had experienced as a result of his 1984 smash movie, 'Purple Rain,' and its platinum-selling, hit-packed soundtrack, led to the prolific Minneapolis genius spreading his creative wings – on the back of 'Purple Rain's' success he started his own Warner-distributed label, Paisley Park (located at his million dollar studio complex that boasted the same moniker), and when he wasn't making his records under his own name, he was busy providing the music for a welter of his musical protégés and various side projects.

One of the first signings to Paisley Park was The Family, a group that rose from the ashes of The Time (which had disbanded when lead singer Morris Day pursued a solo career). Comprising keyboardist Paul Peterson (aka St. Paul), drummer Jellybean Johnson and vocalist/dancer Jerome Benton from The Time, saxophonist Eric Leeds and Prince's then girlfriend Susannah Melvoin (the twin sister of Wendy Melvoin, who was the guitarist in Prince's band, The Revolution and went on to form the duo, Wendy & Lisa), The Family issued a couple of singles ('Screams Of Passion,' a Top 10 US R&B hit, and 'High Fashion') and a self-titled parent album, which was an alluring blend of pop, soul and funk that boasted dramatic orchestral charts by jazz pianist and Rufus arranger, Clare Fischer.

But just as they were about to take flight, St. Paul suddenly quit the group and The Family all but disintegrated. The remainder of the group went their separate ways but over the years, The Family's eponymous album gained a cult collectability (the original vinyl is almost impossible to find these days); a fact that is underscored by the album's failure to materialise on CD in the digital age.

But now SJF can confirm that rumours of The Family's reunion are not bogus – in fact, Susannah, St. Paul, Jellybean and Eric Leeds have reconvened and recorded an album together called 'Gaslight,' which has just been released. Not only that but the quartet has also started performing live (they recently played Joe's Pub in New York to a packed house). Sadly, though (and for reasons which are explained below), the group were obligated to change their moniker and are now known as fDeluxe. The group's co-lead singer, the lovely Susannah Melvoin (who also co-penned much of the album's material) recently talked at length to SJF's Charles Waring and shed light on one of the '80s most enigmatic and short-lived bands...

 

 

I suppose the obvious question is: how come it's taken 26 years to get you all back in the studio?

It was an organic thing: nothing was planned, nothing was thought of in terms of how long it took. It just happened that way. We were asked to do a show around four and a half years ago for (drummer) Sheila E. She was doing a benefit concert for her Lil' Angel Bunny Foundation and she made phone calls for about a year to all the bands associated with Prince and all the people that had played back in that particular time; all the folks in The Revolution and some other bands. We all just ended up rallying behind it and showed up. The puzzle finally came together and we decided that once we'd done that show and had such a great time doing it, all of us decided at that moment, "well let's make a record." We didn't really go in to the studio knowing that we were going to do another Family record. We just wanted to get in and write music together. We had all had extensive careers outside of what we had done with Prince. We've always kept in touch and always been great friends and we've all seen each other throughout the years. It just seemed like the right time. So we went in (to the studio) and cut 'Sanctified' (which appears on 'Gaslight'). That was the first song that we went in to do and it was with our really dear friend, one of my closest friends and who's also our guitar player and an amazing producer himself, Oliver Leiber. We went to his studio. We got together and had no expectations. We said "okay, this is sort of the bones of our young lives playing; let's see what happens."

So there wasn't a big game plan to recreate the spirit of what you'd done before then?

No, that wasn't until later, six months into the first recording session that we had done. We were going back and forth from Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Paul (Peterson) did most of the travelling at the time because at that one concert that we did for the Angel Bunny foundation, I didn't know until afterwards that I had already been three months pregnant with my second baby girl. So I did a lot of staying in town and Paul would come here (to LA). I had a Pro Tools rig in my back garage, which I'd converted into a room. We started writing more and at that point we started talking to fans online - there were so many people at the show and we were lavished with so much love from the audience who wanted us to do another record. At that particular point, Paul and I said: "okay, well, what are we doing here?" A good 20% of the record was inspired and motivated by the first record ('The Family'). I can honestly say that back in that time Paul and myself, Eric Leeds and Jellybean Johnson - even Jerome Benton for a part of it, even though he's not working with us right now - we were all characters that were part of a great novel that Prince was in the middle of writing. These characters had a life to them but the novel was never finished.

So was it a case then of unfinished business as far as The Family was concerned?

Yes, it's unfinished business. That's why I used that metaphor that we are all characters in this book and the novel never got finished. There was another two chapters left but it had to be finished. We took it and wrote the rest of it, wrote the ending. Most of the book had been written but we finished it. So that's what this record is. That's what influenced it. We continued to be inspired by what had been done in the past but we're now taking it somewhere else. We're grown-ups and it's different.

Winding back 26 years do you recall how The Family first came into being?

Yeah. Everybody was in rehearsals for the 'Purple Rain' tour and I'd been working with Prince as his background vocalist, so I was already in the fold, as was Paul Peterson and all the other guys that were with The Time. The Time dissolved right before 'Purple Rain' was released and Prince said "I want to keep everybody working," and I think that he felt bad that The Time dissolved because there was so much great talent in it. He really believed at the time in Paul (Peterson), who was this young kid - both of us were babies. We were 18/19 years old and Paul was really incredible: he had this great voice and Morris (Day) and him used to do sing-offs. You could always hear Paul doing his thing and he was just fantastic and a great keyboard player and he's also one of the best bass players there is. So Prince got the band together – he also brought in (saxophonist) Eric Leeds. His first gig was with us. Eric is Alan Leeds' brother, who was Prince's road manager. Prince was given a tape of Eric's stuff. So Prince said, "I'd love to be able to put a band together and I'd like you, Paul, to be lead singer in this. How do you feel about that?" He said "yeah man, that would be great." It was the right thing and we all came together and Prince designed the record. He didn't give us songs he had in the vault: these were fresh songs designed for us.

What was it like them working with Prince during that period?

He wasn't working with us at all through that. He just went in and recorded songs and then just handed them over to me and Paul and David Z, who was producing it. And then he stepped out of the way.

 


Family_LP_pic

 

What are your memories of the recording sessions?

I had a great time because a lot of the time I was here in Los Angeles and Paul was in Minneapolis. Paul and I were never together in the studio very often. I won't say never but not very often. So Paul would do his vocals with David Z and I would do my vocals with David and then David would do his thing. He pre-produced that record; he made those sounds on the album. It was great because his brother Bobby Z had written 'River Run Dry' (which appeared on the first album). We had an outside track on that record, which was again something that was an indication that Prince was letting it be what it was going to be on another kind of level for him. He relinquished a lot of the control. He wrote the tracks, designed them for us and then we took them. When we had the string date and went in with Clare Fischer, Prince wasn't actually there - it was all of us as a band and David. It was pretty nutritious. It felt really great and we knew that we were doing something really special. But then again we were also really young. I'd done sessions for other people but it was like 'here we are, doing our own record' and it was pretty great but no one really knew what was going to happen with it. Eric (Leeds) said that Prince wanted to write a hit record, that was his intention period. But Paul and I were not aware of any of that. We were just doing it.

Did you play any gigs together at all?

We played one big gig in Minneapolis (at the club First Avenue) when we'd released the record, We'd rehearsed for a year until our eyes were bloodshot. We knew how to do that stuff like the back of our hand.

What happened after that, because the band had a very short lifespan, didn't it?

It was very, very short. We'd come out and done a video and we were about to do some more shows but there was a like a three-week break after 'Purple Rain' just before 'Under The Cherry Moon' (Prince's second movie) came out. During that break I guess Paul had gotten a phone call from John McLean who was running A&R over at A&M Records at the time and called Paul and said "hey, we're thinking that it would be great to fly you out here and meet with Janet Jackson. We want you to produce a couple of tracks for her; we're going to play some of her stuff." He was like "yeah, okay, I'll come out, I have the time, let's do it." When he got out there, it wasn't for that reason. They wanted to sign him. They got him out there and said: "here's the deal: we have a lot of money to give you and we'll make you a giant star." When you're 20 years old you go "okay, yeah. Okay let's do it." So nobody was totally surprised by that. He was the one who was getting the solo deal with tons of money up front. None of us were working for a lot of money. We were all getting paid a pay cheque and those paycheques were tiny. I kid you not: teeny. It was enough to sustain us as single people living in tiny little apartments but not, God forbid, should there be a family involved. So Paul went and did what was right for him and his family. There were some of us who were like "well, that's a big fucking drag" but we all were musicians and just accepted it and moved on. It's not like we were pulled off the street to get this opportunity and then never to see it again; that's not who we'd ever been - we've all been players and singers and writers and producers so we just were like okay, on to the next.

Do you think that Paul felt a sense of guilt for pulling the rug from under your feet?

He did for a while yeah. It took a lot of convincing him not to feel that way. He felt obligated to really apologise for that and I was like "please, don't." But he's one of those kinds of guys that's just such an honest, loyal, person and I think he just carried that weight and wanted to apologise. And even apologise to Prince; he felt that Prince couldn't really stand him for years. But I said to him Prince never thought twice about it after that. Prince was totally relieved that he didn't have to deal with it. On one level he was like "okay, so what? They are my songs and I'll just figure out something else with them" and then they went into the vault. He didn't think twice about it and nor did he think that much about Paul. Prince is too self-involved to hold that many grudges.

 


 

After that you joined The Revolution for a time.

For a minute, yeah, but it was more like I was the girl that Prince called and said "I need you and want you to sing on this." I sang on the 'Black Album,' I sang on the 'Crystal Ball' record. That's all me. I sang on the Apollonia Six stuff as well. I did a lot.

 

familyscreams

So 26 years on from 'The Family' album, which has accrued a cult following today, how do you view that album now?

I'd like to go back in there and give it a little bit of a boost in audio terms. Although I love the analogue sound of it, it's just a little tinny. I would like it to have a little bit more of a big, fat, bottom to it, but it's fantastic to listen to; it's a great record. It really is.

Do you have a favourite track?

'Yes,' and 'Nothing Compares 2 U.'

It's always been rumoured that Prince wrote 'Nothing Compares 2 U' for you.

Maybe... yeah, but you know, it's not like he said: "Babe, I wrote this song for you" (laughs).

So how did you feel when Sinead O'Connor had a massive hit with the song five years later in 1990?

I was like "fuck, that doesn't sound like ours!" It was just the way she went and got a hit out of it. I was so used to not hearing it that way. I wanted to say to everybody: "wait a minute, we have our version - you should hear our version!" But I ended up getting to know her later on and I was flattered that she and her mates were digging our record, so it was flattery and it was great.

What about the name-change from The Family to fDeluxe? Is it true that Prince prevented you from using the name the family?

He doesn't own the name: there's no copyright to it. He owns the branding. So we could have used the name but we couldn't go out even representing who The Family is. If we used the name The Family, we would have litigation problems that we would never be able to get ourselves out of.  He would make it difficult. It's not that he would win the battle because it wouldn't show him in a good light but it was just something that we didn't care enough about to fight about. What were we going to do? So we went for fDeluxe because - and I kid you not - there was nothing else available. Nothing. Trying to copyright a name and own a name, we couldn't get it. You couldn't get anything. So fDeluxe worked and the 'f' when we were designing the logo with Steve Park, had that very familiar kind of feel that it did with The Family. And it looked good on a T-shirt (laughs).

How has fDeluxe as a live experience been going?

It's been fantastic. We had a great time and Joe's Pub (in New York) is a great venue. It was great.

What does your set list consist of?

From the first record we've got 'Screams Of Passion,' 'Nothing Compares 2 U,' 'Desire,' 'High Fashion,' 'Mutiny' and then sometimes we put in 'River Run Dry.' The only songs from this new record we're not doing are 'Beautiful You' and 'The Vigil.'

Are you coming to the UK?

We're working on that right now. I can't wait to get over there. I think Europe is really going to respond well to the album. The further east we've gone, the more people really love it. LA is a tough crowd, man, although we got them up off their seats. We had Wendy and Lisa playing with us, who made it all the better so I'm hoping that if we can manage to get something going in Europe, we would love to have Wendy and Lisa join us for those shows.

Have you got any future plans beyond this album?

We're just taking it one day at a time. Who knows what's around the corner for anybody. All of the intentions are to keep creating.

'Gaslight,' the new album by fDeluxe is out now via Art Of Groove/MIG Records.

For more info go to: www.fdeluxe.com

 

fdeluxe

Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 November 2011 20:07

 

In order to comment on an article you must be registered and logged in. Registration takes only a few moments and gives you increased capabilities.

    

Search

My Account

To comment on an article you must be registered and logged in.