The iconic R&B, Pop, Dance Diva sits with Amalgamation to discuss a range of topics that include Shalamar, a hit-blazing solo run, and her latest endeavor “Nightlife,” the kick-off single from her forthcoming project, Paradise.
What kind of space are you currently in creatively?
My mantra is to be fabulous. I’m happy and rejuvenated, excited about what I’m doing. I’m the type of person that tries to live in a state of gratitude.
Talk a bit about “Nightlife,” the new single from your upcoming album Paradise, and what the song represents.
With “Nightlife” I wanted to find a way to bring back that classic Disco and Soul vibe—something I’ve done from the beginning of my singing career since Shalamar—but in a way that is very me and very now. It’s a call to be fabulous and to have a good time. This is a club song and it’s a worldwide song. People say its classic Jody and I don’t mind that; I think I know what they mean. On “Nightlife,” I also reunited with Gerald Brown, the original lead singer of Shalamar, who is singing background vocals.
“Nightlife” is currently making a splash on various UK Charts, and the Billboard Dance charts here in America. There seems to be a more aggressive promo campaign this time around compared to some of your more recent work.
The underground vibes from my previous albums, Midnight Lounge and The Makeover, didn’t necessarily lend themselves to the mainstream…although I did Regis & Kelly and various morning shows for The Makeover. In terms of being more visible with this project, I have to work it; it’s that type of project. I’m proud of “Nightlife” and wanted to take it to the UK first. And seeing it on the [UK] charts with Justin Timberlake, Rihanna, Eminem, Wiz Khalifa, Robin Thicke…and then Jody Watley, I feel just like a kid! They’re all on major labels. I’ve been self-released (Avitone Records) since 1995. It’s rewarding from a business aspect. I don’t have a machine fueling this. So, it’s really about the music I believe.
Talk about your forthcoming album, Paradise.
I’m pretty much done and I’ve gone back and forth about the concept of an album. Part of me is thinking that albums may not be really as necessary today. People have short attention spans and I’ve gone back and forth about whether Paradise should simply be an EP, or just an experience where maybe I roll out singles periodically and people can create their own album instead.
As for the music, its dance but soulful! Soul isn’t always about sad ballads and rooted in Blues. For me Soul has been about the groove. Just being reminded about songs such as McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now,” the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers” or Phyllis Hyman’s “You Know How to Love Me,” they came out during the disco era but they were very soulful records. Paradise is along those lines.
What are your thoughts on the current EDM phenomenon? And how does your music fit into that musical landscape?
I love all of it. My records were always successful in R&B, Pop and Dance. The past 10 years, my songs have been more geared to the electronic dance market. Some veteran artists just cater to their existing fan base and that’s it. The fan base gets old and they stop buying music. I feel I have to keep it moving forward. A lot of veteran artists tend to live in the past. I don’t ever want to be jaded or stagnant. I’d like to think I’m always bringing new fans along that have no preconceived notion of me; they may not know about “Looking for a New Love” or Shalamar. They may have come across something I recorded recently, like my version of “I Want Your Love.” A lot of kids tell me they didn’t know that was a Chic record. I love that. When I’m doing a concert, I know I’m doing my job when I look out and it’s diverse – a melting pot of people and of all ages.
Who are a few of the current artists that you are into now? What do you think of someone like Rihanna whose music and style is somewhat reminiscent of yours? And do you think she is aware of you?
I love Rihanna. She has to be aware of me. If she’s not, I think her people probably are. I love that she changes up her style. I love the Dance-Pop songs. Everything she puts out, she adds her signature to it; and she’s great at it. I even like the bad girl Ri-Ri. I would love to collaborate with her; maybe at the Grammys or something. Recently, people say Solange Knowles reminds them of me. I can see that. She’s kind of quirky with fashion. She’s been able to create her own niche, her own vibe. I think Janelle Monae is a great performer. She reminds me of my Godfather, Jackie Wilson. She’s like the female incarnation of him.
You spent many years in the major label system, so what’s been the benefit of working independently?
Some people say you have more control now that you’re independent but when [the late] Jheryl Busby signed me to MCA, I told him the type of artist I wanted to be and that I wanted to be very hands on. Jheryl was very supportive. I always say he was like my Clive Davis for one album. Jheryl left the label by my second album and I always had to convince people in the system that things were going to work out fine; just trust me. Take a song like “Friends” with Eric B. & Rakim, that hadn’t been done before. That’s how you set trends – that’s how you pioneer. Even coming out of Shalamar, I never wanted to be just the girl in the group.
Being independent works in my favor. I guess I am kind of a control freak. It’s probably why I didn’t last long in Shalamar. I’ve always known who I was and I never wanted to change who I am. As a label head, I’m wearing many hats and it’s definitely more challenging in that respect. With “Nightlife,” if I had the infrastructure, we’d be working Pop radio and Urban radio, but that’s a whole different price point of promotion. Now, there are so many options like internet radio, and there’s social media which is big for me. I’ve been doing press. To be an artist for as long as I have and to be met with such enthusiasm, respect and love is really nice.
Are you firm in your decision about no Shalamar reunion?
I did do a Shalamar reunion with Babyface and LL Cool J and people kind of overlook that. Secondly, it’s a business and that for me, as a businesswoman, comes before anything. I did propose a “Farewell Tour” in major markets for America to give those fans some closure but the business and creative didn’t work. In the U.K., they’ve already done a “Reunion” billed as “The Second Time Around” using old photos of my time in the group to market it, unfortunately, but with Dick Griffey’s daughter Carol who has been in the group for 10 years.
Groups have always had a difficult time throughout the history of Pop music, whether it was the Beatles, Eagles, Destiny’s Child or TLC. Quite often they do reunite.
I’ve always said there’s a big difference with Black reunions. It’s like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles can get major corporate sponsorship, private jets, first class everything…that makes it a lot easier I’m sure. $50 million on the table for a Shalamar reunion: I’ve never been made that offer [laughs]. It’s also a chemistry thing. You have to get people on the same page.
Briefly talk about the late Don Cornelius, creator of “Soul Train,” and what he meant to your career?
Don Cornelius was everything to me. He was a visionary. With “Soul Train,” he created a platform that didn’t exist, not just for dancers but for performers. Don Cornelius was the one who picked me to be in Shalamar. He was very supportive of me. As he got older, it was sad that he never got the reverence and the tributes. It was such a tragedy how he died. I can’t say enough about Don Cornelius.
From your own catalog of work, do you have a favorite album or favorite video(s)?
With the albums it’s very difficult because they’re all so different. I can’t pick one. Midnight Lounge is one of my favorite albums. It’s under the radar, but it’s a warm, ambient, groovy album. I love Larger Than Life; “Friends” is on it which was groundbreaking, and the single “Real Love.” My favorite video is “Real Love” which still remains one of the MTV VMA’s top nominated videos. And I love “Still a Thrill,” which we shot in Paris and featured “Soul Train Gang” dancer Tyrone Proctor.
You’ve got your family, Grammys, hit-selling singles and albums, a new record, you’ve got your new single “Nightlife” and are respected around the world. What’s left to accomplish?
I’ve achieved and accomplished so much. There’s a lot left, though [smiles]. I’m still fulfilling new dreams and setting new goals all the time. Beyond the sky is still the limit!
By David A. Mitchell