“Let me tell you, I don’t know,” laughs a buoyant but slightly bamboozled SYLEENA JOHNSON, in response to being asked how she manages to juggle a professional music career with looking after two young children. “I can’t answer that question because I’m still trying to figure it out,” says the stunningly beautiful multi-tasking, multi-talented, Grammy-nominated Illinois singer/songwriter who is due to appear in concert in London and Birmingham at the end of February alongside fellow R&B singer, Faith Evans.
The 38-year-old Chicago chanteuse – the daughter of ’70s soul legend, Syl Johnson – also has a new album out, the superlative ‘Chapter 6: Couples Therapy,’ which is arguably her best yet. But that’s not all. To complicate the singer’s hectic work and domestic schedules even further she has a self-help book being published later this year and is also destined to appear with her husband on a new US reality TV show called Marriage Boot Camp. Despite her heavy commitments, Syleena managed to squeeze in an interview with SJF’s not-quite-so-busy Charles Waring and talks frankly about her life, career, a new album and her deep appreciation of old school music values…
What can your UK audiences expect from you when you come over in February?
I don’t know yet, I’m trying to put that together now. I’m going to have a little bit of everything: music from ‘Chapter 6,’ of course, and some old stuff – some oldies but goodies – and maybe something from the reggae album (last year’s ‘9ine’ with Musiq Soulchild). I’ll put some of that in there too. I’m still working on compiling things. I’m very excited about coming. I’ve been to the UK tons of times. I’ve sold out the Jazz Café twice and I also performed in Birmingham before.
How do British audiences, then, compare with those in your native USA?
I like the UK audience because you guys are more in tune with soul music. You receive it better and you know the worth of it and the value of it. In America, everything is watered down but in the UK it’s more authentic. The music you have there too is more authentic and I always have a great response. I’m received really well there because I’m into doing authentic music. I’m still young – in my thirties – so I’m still connected to the new pop culture but I feel I lean towards more the true authenticity of soul music. I don’t buy into a lot of the music that I hear today. They’re not really talking about anything; there’s no substance, it’s negative and you can understand why our kids are killing each other and are unhappy and angry. We’re living the soundtrack to our lives and if this is the soundtrack then I’m struggling. When I was coming up we had Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Prince, Michael Jackson and Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King – real music, and a variety of it. That was the soundtrack of my life but now this music today is about being in clubs doing drugs, being aggressive, and being sexist to women. It’s ridiculous actually and it’s not feeding us anything positive anymore. It’s also giving us a lack of hope. But you can still have great music. Take Faith Evans for example. Faith Evans is from both pop culture and hip-hop culture but the music she makes is jamming and about having a great time. I think the UK is a place where authentic music is still appreciated. You can still go there and the people know what your music means and really care about it a lot.
UK audiences tend to be loyal and stick with artists through thick and thin and follow them from their first album for the rest of their career…
That’s unique. We definitely don’t have that here (in the USA).
We’re at ‘Chapter Six’ now in your recording career with ‘Couples Therapy.’ What’s the story behind it?
Basically my husband and I were in couples therapy and were going through a lot of different difficult situations, such as me being in the R&B Divas: Atlanta TV show and being so busy and having small children, so that put a lot of strain on the marriage. So I wanted to write an album that talked about those different situations because a lot of couples go through stuff and they can’t relate, so that’s the basis for the album. I’ve always talked about where I am in my life on my records.
Have all your albums been autobiographical?
Yep. Every single one of them. They’re all the exact same in telling where I am in my life. The very first one, ‘Chapter 1: Love, Pain And Forgiveness’ (released by Jive Records in 1999) was about a very turbulent relationship that I went through and I actually used text messages that were sent to me to my actual phone so that’s how autobiographical that album was. I talk about everything and show people where I am in my life. I’m not afraid to explore the darker side of anything. I just feel I need to tell my story and no one can do it better than me. I’d rather do that than sing about somebody else’s experiences.
Talking of darkness, your brilliant song ‘Perfectly Worthless’ from the new album finds you in a bleak place. What’s that about?
Oh my goodness. Basically it’s about being at your wit’s end and finding out that your relationship has been a waste of time.
Have you found your music has empowered your female listeners?
Yes, all the time. I had a woman come up to me and say you helped me walk out of a bad relationship. So all the time people are always telling me how my songs lift them when they’re having hard times. The best part of the industry is when you’re reaching someone and touching them.
How important is the storytelling aspect of your songwriting?
Storytelling is the absolute number one focus. Before I used to sing I used to write plays about myself in my room. I was always in my own little world because I had a vivid imagination. I was creating stuff all the time. I had such a vast imagination that I could paint pictures in my mind. I’m a very good communicator so that’s why I’m able to communicate through a song. It’s a great gift. We’re all living a big story. Everybody’s got a story and got one to tell. That’s why (rapper) Biggie Smalls is my favourite MC because he told good stories and that’s why I like him. Tupac, too, was amazing and a legend in his own right but for me, I always loved Biggie more because he told stories and I could see what he was saying in my imagination. When you have a good storyteller they paint a picture and you really can live it.
Has making your albums been good therapy for you?
Always, which is another reason why I tell stories because it’s a release for me as well. I need to tell my story. I’ll get bits and pieces from other things and other people. Like if someone has written a song for me; I can sing a song that someone else wrote but I have to relate to it. There’s no way I can sing a song if I can’t relate to it. I haven’t sung songs or made records that I haven’t experienced myself. I have to have a certain connection with it in order to deliver it. It’s one thing to be able to write a song and another thing to be able to sing a song but to deliver a song is a totally different thing. That’s when people start to get goose-bumps and start crying and stuff because of your delivery and the way you tell the story.
You co-wrote several songs with your producer Jean-Pierre Medor. What was he like to work with?
Pierre Medor has OCD (Laughs). Musically he’s a genius. In fact, both of my producers – Kajun is also a genius – are musicians and they both sing. So it was such a pleasure to work with two singers. I can’t fool them and they can’t fool me as far as the notes and what sounds good and what sounds bad. Together, the three of us as a team put together a phenomenal project. I’m very proud of ‘Chapter 6.’ It’s probably my best chapter yet. I don’t know how I’m going to top it. (laughs).
All of your albums have shown a remarkable consistency but this one, as you said, seems to have taken you to a new level…
Yeah, lyrically, musically, and sonically. I think it’s a masterpiece. I’m very proud of it and I’m so glad and grateful for every single collaboration and every single lyric that I wrote and somebody else helped me write and that we worked on together. I’m grateful for every single piece of the puzzle.
Dave Hollister duets with you on ‘Harmony.’
He’s amazing. A super-duper guy and probably one of my top male singers in the world. I love his voice.
Leela James appears on ‘Fool’s Gold.’ What was it like collaborating with her in the studio?
Leela’s one of my closest friends so it was easy and was always going to be fun. She’s got an amazing tone and it didn’t take her that long because she’s a professional. She’s a great person, a sweetheart. I picked people specifically because they’re good people. Like Willie Taylor (who appears on ‘No Beginner’), who’s a great guy and is super-duper talented: a writer, singer and actor. I picked the people that I knew that I could work well with. I wasn’t interested in trying to find someone because they were hot right now and whether they were going to benefit me or not. So I picked people who I know would be great to work with and super-duper talented.
Last year you issued a reggae album with Musiq Soulchild. What’s the story behind that record?
We met up in the studio by accident. We were working with a mutual producer named Kemar ‘DJ Flava’ McGregor and we just got to talking and said let’s make an album. So we wanted to fuse soul with reggae music and create something special and we recorded it in nine days, and that’s why we called it ‘9ine.’ We wrote the whole thing together and slept in the studio and everything. It was crazy but we were so excited that it was easy and we were inspired.
As well as being a musician and a singer and you’ve also appeared regularly on TV in America. Most recently you were on R&B Divas: Atlanta. What has that been like as an experience?
R&B Divas has been a great way to get a platform and I’ve been very grateful for the show. I love the fact that they highlight female R&B artists so I was excited about being a part of the franchise.
(Syleena’s father, Syl Johnson, pictured in the ’70s)
Going right back to the beginning, what was it like growing up having a father who was a famous soul singer?
I just basically grew up in a house with music. There wasn’t anything different or spectacular about it. That’s all that I know. Music – and the sound of good times – filled the house all the time. My mum kind of sheltered us so we weren’t really clear on what my dad was doing and where he was going. But I guess because of him that’s the reason why I’m here now.
Did you think it was inevitable that you’d follow in your father’s footsteps and go into the music business?
No, I didn’t. And actually I didn’t want to be in the music business until I started with him (as a teenager). I was into sports and different things like that. Even though I was doing music and plays and all that kind of stuff I didn’t believe in myself enough at that time to want to do it professionally until my dad got me interested at fifteen. I had been doing music but before I was fifteen I was doing other stuff.
Which singers and musicians inspired you when you were younger?
Oh my goodness. I don’t have a set person but it’s everyone from my father all the way up to now. I find inspiration from anywhere. From Aretha Franklin to the classics. Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Anita Baker, Evelyn Champagne King, Deniece Williams, Prince, Michael Jackson, Talking Heads, Eurhythmics and Duran Duran. The list really goes on and on. If it was on the television and video, I was all over it and I used to sing classical music in college as well. I started in high school. I’d sing classical music, I’d sing jazz. I’ve also been in a jazz choir and in a gospel choir. I love music. I’m a slave to the rhythm.
Going back to your very first record deal, what circumstances led you to sign with Jive Records in 1999 for your debut album ‘Chapter 1’?
I was outside at a party and started talking to R. Kelly’s so-called road manager, who was a friend of Wayne Williams at Jive Records. We were talking and I was saying I was 19-years-old and I had a record out (‘This Time Together By Father And Daughter’). He said OK, well give me your number. I sent a demo to him and he passed it on to Jive Records where Wayne Williams heard my voice and the rest is history.
What’s been the highlight of your career to date?
R&B Divas was a big highlight. Being nominated for a Grammy with Kanye West (‘All Falls Down’) for a Grammy was a big highlight, and actually we won. That was a huge highlight. Man, there’s been a lot. Performing with I AM, a French rap group: that was a big highlight collaborating on a different genre of music. That was cool. There are a lot of highlights.
And what’s next in the pipeline for you after this album?
More touring and television. That’s what I want to do.
Is it true that you’ve got a book coming out?
Oh yeah, I do have one coming out. It’s called The Weight Is Over and that’s coming pretty soon, probably this spring. It’s a book about my body image and how that has affected my journey as a woman in the entertainment industry both negatively and positively. It’s about the industry putting pressure on you to be the person you’re not.
SEE SYLEENA JOHNSON LIVE AT BIRMINGHAM’S INSTITUE ON FEBRUARY 27TH FEBRUARY AND AT INDIGO 2 AT LONDON’S O2 ON FEBRUARY 28TH FEBRUARY 2015.
SYLEENA JOHNSON’S NEW ALBUM ‘CHAPTER 6: COUPLES’ THERAPY’ IS OUT NOW VIA E-ONE/BLAKBYRD ENTERTAINMENT.