What was your first big break in the music business?
It was definitely meeting Randy. I was playing in the band of an artist that he had signed at the time when he was A&R person for Columbia Records. The artist’s name was Dionne Farris and she had chosen me to be in her band. She took me to Europe for the first time and I met him and he chose one of my songs (‘Hopeless’) to be on a single that she was putting out. It became her most successful single. And that was the break right there.
What led you to join Capitol in 2004?
I was living in Atlanta, Georgia, and there was a producer there by the name of Dallas Austin and he was a huge name at the time as he had produced TLC and Boyz II Men. I had given him a bunch of my demos and he never really responded to anything then finally one day out of the blue he just called and told me that the marketplace was ready for what I do. So we talked about maybe going in the studio and finishing my record but in the meantime he sent my demos to the new president of Capitol Records, Andy Slater, and then Andy unbeknown to Dallas contacted me and worked out a deal which became a little awkward for my relationship with Dallas but I think it’s all smoothed over now.
What memories do you have of making that first album 11 years ago?
My main memory is trying to protect it from the opinions of different people within the industry and people within the label. I know that major labels have an awful reputation but the process of making and releasing a record could be really beneficial to an artist if so much greed and corruption wasn’t involved. If you could remove some of those elements it really would be a beautiful process. It was a good process for me in many ways but I ended up trying to protect my music from other people’s ideas and opinions that were really formed in order to try and get the music played but not necessarily to qualify the music. It really becomes a dangerous thing because you can bring attention to the artist but what happens after the artist gets attention for something that the artist can’t duplicate?
So was it the marketing of the album that you were concerned about?
Capitol wanted to shape the music to the marketing ideas rather than the other way round.
Did you feel that you didn’t have much control over that situation?
Well, I did actually and that was part of the problem for them. I had a lot of control over what my music was going to sound like once it reached the public. They wanted it to sound a certain way and I wanted it to sound a certain way and we couldn’t often easily reach an agreement. That’s not unusual (in the music business): if you think about (Sly Stone’s) ‘There’s a Riot Goin’ On,’ and (Marvin Gaye’s) ‘What’s Going On,’ those records faced the same issues though they were made in a different time where the support that you would find for a record like that, even if the label wasn’t all the way confident, they quickly found out they were wrong and jumped in line to support the record. Those mechanisms weren’t in place in 2004 like they were in 1974.
So did you feel that there was some resistance within the company to what you were doing?
Yeah, but there’s resistance to what I’m doing now (laughs). I think it’s hard for people to believe me when I say this but as an artist I actually understand that there will always be resistance to what I’m doing. It’s just that in order to have the greatest impact you need to get in the ring and wrestle with an artist. Many people are unwilling to do that and I understand that because it can get crazy when you’re trying to tell an artist: ‘yeah, you can put crazy strings all over this beautiful melody but it makes the melody more difficult to hear.’ That’s just hypothetical. But I believe that an A&R man, a producer or even a band mate has to get in there and wrestle with that artist. That’s why records by Parliament/Funkadelic, and Earth, Wind & Fire sound the way that they do because the band mates, the producers and the arrangers are wrestling with each other. The Beatles are a great example. Lennon & McCartney. You see what they do on their own and then you see what they do together. You have to have somebody battling with you. That’s why it’s so difficult to make a record on your own, especially in this day and age, because there’s not much money in music anymore, and not many people are willing to get in battle with an artist. So now I have to police myself.
With your second album, ‘On The Jungle Floor,’ were you able to resolve some of those issues or was it a similar scenario?
No, it was a similar thing going on where people chose to battle with me but in a more passive-aggressive way. They accused me of being passive-aggressive as a means of being passive-aggressive themselves. If a producer was producing my record around that time, if he didn’t like the direction I was going in, what he would do instead of hammering it out with me in the studio, he’d wait until I’d go home and then create his own version of the album and then play it for the president of the label and then my manager and then they’d try and talk me into it that way. Sure, that’s one way to handle it, but it’s not the most respectful way when you talk about collaborating in the studio.
Did that happen then with ‘On The Jungle Floor?’
Yeah. That happened unfortunately because I had a lot of respect for the person that I was working with (his co-producer) and unfortunately that was the way that he chose to handle trying to change my mind when really, what needed to happen, was that he needed to trust that I respected him enough to give him this idea and that he should have trusted me and respected me enough to give me his honest opinion. And then we could’ve battled that out, even if it turned into an argument. Lennon and McCartney argued. Even Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson argued. So that was part of the process and I tell people this all the time, people who are now on my team today. They say: ‘you don’t understand, you’re a difficult guy to talk about ideas with.’ I tell them: of course I am – I’m a confident, strong-minded artist but that’s part of the process. You’ve got to get in there with me and show me the error of my ways. I’m inviting you to do that because, yeah, I’m a successful songwriter, and I’m an artist, and it’s difficult to tell me what I’m doing is wrong. But I’m not going to beat you (laughs).
(Promo CD of ‘Popular’)
So what happened at Blue Note with your album ‘Popular’?
To be honest I don’t know why they optioned not to support the record. But I was appreciative of the fact that they said they weren’t willing to support it before it was released so that I could just move on. Instead of you asking me why did that record flop you can ask me why it wasn’t released.
Have you tried to buy the masters back so you can release it yourself?
It’s an issue that has never been really addressed. I actually cut that record when I was still with Capitol and then Blue Note signed on to release the record. They spent money on mixing and mastering the record so in the end when it came time to discuss owning the record myself, both costs came back. I wasn’t just only having to pay back Blue Note or Capitol, I was having to pay back both of them in order to get the masters and that just wasn’t feasible especially given the current lack of revenue in the music industry.
Did it disillusion you about the music business or did you just put your head down and carry on?
Both. It was certainly disappointing but there was no choice other than to carry on.
You won a Grammy in 2007 performing ‘Family Affair’ with John Legend and Joss Stone on a Sly Stone tribute album. How did that feel?
It was great. Being a part of anything that has Sly’s name on it was great for me and then to receive a Grammy for it, I thought that they were essentially handing me a Grammy for everything that I had done up to that point and everything that I would continue to do because I didn’t expect to be back. And I haven’t been back (laughs). I took it as the industry essentially saying: hey, we’re not going to give you many thanks but here’s one, here you go.
Are you going to support the album in the UK with any live appearances?
I’m going to see how feasible it is. I just don’t have any interest in dragging around a band and playing to empty clubs. If there’s a real interest in seeing the band, then yes. There’s nothing better for an artist and being on stage to a crowd that’s there to hear some music, even if the crowd isn’t familiar with your music. When you have an appreciative crowd there’s nothing like that, so I’d love to do it but there has to be something that makes sense practically.
What are your hopes for the new record?
Most of my hopes have been achieved to be honest. It’s received a really popular response so far. I think my last record really sent a jolt through my fan base and it was really polarising (laughs). It was almost punk rock in a lot of places and I think that was disrupting to some people and I think you need that.
Do people expect you to do straight up R&B and soul then?
Oh sure. I understand that but what I try to do and remind them, though, is that I’m a musical historian. I get what it is that I’m doing. I know that underneath all those crazy guitars on the last record is rhythm & blues and soul. It’s all there but on the last record I just chose to amend that sound with heavier, distorted guitars, which is not anything different than what Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry did or certainly Bad Brains for that matter.
How important is it for you to push musical boundaries?
I think it’s important to express yourself when ideas come to you because ideas are really special. They don’t really feel like mine. They seem like something that comes from an anxiety-free environment, like what you feel when you’re dreaming a happy dream. Great ideas come to me then and I feel like they’re gifts. You can say gifts from God if you want and I think it’s important to share those ideas so that’s what I try and do and it’s actually nothing more heroic than that. It’s just me giving a great idea by some other force. It has nothing to do with me. I’m just trying to share it.
What’s next in the pipeline?
Maybe I’ll come over there (to the UK) and cut a record. You guys have got some great recording studios over there. Actually one of the songs I wrote over there in Maidstone. The song is number eleven on the record, ‘I Wanna Dance With You.’ I wrote that over there. I came over with a rock band called Afghan Whigs. They were on Jools Holland and I was featured on one of the songs on their record so they were kind enough to bring me over and we were playing around in one of the cemeteries over there. It was the Holy Cross Cemetery and being there sparked a song.
‘The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets’ is out now via Godless Hotspot/Thirty Tigers