Jody Watley: Three's a crowd
To many Jody Watley is a bona fide living legend. To date arguably best known for her pioneering role in setting new standards for style, music and video in the late Eighties, her three-decade-plus career impressively encompasses global record sales of over 20 million; a Grammy Award; plus a Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award.
Indeed, with her remaining to this day one of MTV’s most nominated female artists ever (alongside Madonna and Janet Jackson), Ms. Watley’s innovative talents have over the years not only found her breaking new ground in the fields of music, video and fashion (she was prestigiously named one of ‘People’ magazine’s ‘Most Beautiful People Of 1990’) but also - more recently - significantly becoming one of the few already-established best-selling female artists to produce, create and own her own recordings through setting up her own label Avitone.
All of which leads us to the arrival this month of former Shalamar member Jody’s first fully-fledged UK album release in over 11 years, the critically-acclaimed ‘The Makeover’. Which - boasting an international cast of taste-making producers like Philadelphia music guru King Britt; Spain’s Marco Zappala; plus the UK’s nu-jazz/electronic maestro Mark de Clive-Lowe - has already been favourably described as “a stunning collection of soulful electronica that weaves timeless and treasured songs together with contemporary production and soulful nuances”... Cue a charming and articulate Ms Watley hooking up with Pete Lewis from her Los Angeles home to discuss her aforementioned new LP, which is also accompanied by the double-A-side single ‘Borderline’/’A Beautiful Life’.
“The idea for ‘The Makeover’ really started from some concerts I’d done”, begins Jody in unhurried, warm tones: “I did a series of shows called Songs In The Key Of My Life in San Francisco a few years ago. Where I decided to have some fun not only revising some of my OWN songs - something I’ve always done because l feel it keeps me creatively fresh - but also flipping around some songs done by OTHER people that I’d always enjoyed. You know, I basically wanted to make over songs like Madonna’s ‘Borderline’ and Bob Marley’s ‘Waiting In Vain’ in a way that was completely different from the originals, so it would make people see them in a different light. And from there I basically went on audience reaction as to which ones I’d hold onto. You know, if I didn’t get tomatoes thrown at me I knew it was a keeper! And because the crowd response turned out so great - people were like ‘You should do an ALBUM like this’ - I guess those shows pretty much proved the catalyst for me putting together ‘The Makeover’!”
With Jody balancing what is largely a covers set with two original compositions (“I wanted to remind people that I am a songwriter as well”), its lead-off single appropriately combines her heartfelt, slowly hypnotic take on Madonna’s 1984 US Top 10 smash ‘Borderline’ with one of the aforementioned new songs - the uptempo, self-empowerment-themed house track ‘A Beautiful Life’.
“Well, by releasing a double-A-side single I’m able to give a glimpse of Jody Watley’s new original material, as well as a completely re-imagined version of a song many people already know”, she acknowledges: “So, in that way, you get two different looks at the ‘Makeover’ project. You know, ‘Borderline’ is a song I’ve always liked. Because - even though the way it was originally recorded was very poppy - for me the song always had a melancholy side to it, which I think my version taps into. Then ‘A Beautiful Life’ is simply one of my favourite tracks on the album, because I feel it says a lot about me as a woman and where I’m at today. And so I thought it was important to have that message on there for OTHER women too who are also finding the strength right now to get out of unhealthy relationships or environments.”
While highlights on ‘The Makeover’ include an enchanting, bossa-soul take on Bob Marley’s 1977 reggae classic ‘Waiting In Vain’ plus a sparsely-arranged version of Carole King’s early-Sixties ballad ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ (in addition to newly-produced covers of Watley’s own late-Eighties breakthrough singles ‘Looking For A New Love’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me’), possibly the most interesting moment for soul music connoisseurs occurs on Jody’s update of Diana Ross’ 1976 disco smash ‘Love Hangover’. A 10-minute opus that, unlike Ross’ chart-topping reading, incorporates the full original prelude as penned by legendary Motown songwriter Pam Sawyer.
“Yeah, the change actually occurs in the slow build-up at the start of the song”, explains Jody: “It’s actually very subtle. So a lot of people may not even recognise what the difference IS. But, when I first contacted Pam Sawyer to let her know I was going to be covering her song, she was really excited! She told me that she’d always wanted the arrangement at the beginning to be the way she first envisioned it, but that Berry Gordy had kinda revised it a bit before Diana Ross recorded it. So she actually sent me the original demo. And for me to be able to honour the songwriter by being the first artist to record and release her song in the way it was originally intended was truly awesome! Because I’d had no idea WHAT she was going to say before I first contacted her!”
With Watley’s depth as a diverse songwriter and performer being showcased on ‘The Makeover’ via tracks like the poignant ‘Bed Of Roses’ (co-written and produced by UK Mercury Music Prize Nominees 4Hero), the album does also reflect how, in recent years, she has continued to broaden her musical evolution and growth as an artist working successfully within the jazz-influenced ambience of electronic soul.
“Oh, I love 4Hero! They really inspired me for this next phase of my career, which pretty much started when I first heard their ‘Two Pages’ album back in 1998”, she admits: “At the time I was in contractual limbo and very frustrated with the corporate side of the music industry. And, because I’ve always loved dance music anyway, I started digging around places like Amoeba Music here in Hollywood for music that was more outside of the mainstream. I mean, anyone that’s followed me as an artist knows that I’ve never done the expected, or adapted to a particular formula. So for me it was probably a natural progression. I particularly liked the eclectic nature of the more underground electronic music. Which is why many of the producers I’ve worked with on ‘The Makeover’ also come from that scene. Because, rather than taking the easy, more commercial route and saying ‘Get me Swizz Beats’ or ‘I wanna work with Ne-Yo’, for me it’s always more interesting to collaborate with people who are a bit more outside-of-the box.”
Born in Chicago, Illinois in January 1959, Jody made her first on-stage appearance at just eight years old alongside then-family friend (and the man often referred to as her Godfather) Sixties soul legend Jackie Wilson. However, it was at 14 when she first attained national notoriety as a prominent dancer on the high-profile TV music show ‘Soul Train’ (then Black America’s equivalent to Britain’s ‘Top Of The Pops’), where she quickly became recognised as a trendsetter for both her style and moves.
“’Soul Train’ was a lotta fun”, she recalls with a smile: “You know, I’d been living in the Mid-West. And most kids at that time, if they had the opportunity, wanted to be on ‘Soul Train’! It was probably the equivalent to kids who sing today wanting to be on ‘American Idol’ in the States, or ‘X Factor’ in the UK. So, when my family moved out here to LA, I was determined to find a way to be on the show! It was a bit of a challenge at first, because you either had to be invited or already be a regular dancer -and I was neither! But I kept going back, sneaking in… And eventually they let me STAY! They liked the way I danced, I’d put all my outfits together myself... And it was definitely during my ‘Soul Train’ years that I learnt to embrace my individuality, and how to stand out and not fit in. Because it was a very cut-throat show! You know, it wasn’t like everybody was supportive of everybody else - there was a lotta drama behind the scenes! But it was from my time on ‘Soul Train’ that I then went on to a music career.”
… Which occurred in 1977, when Jody was recruited as the original female member of R&B trio Shalamar. With the internationally-successful threesome’s career highlights including their 1979 US R&B Number One single ‘The Second Time Around’ plus their Platinum-selling 1982 LP ‘Friends’, nevertheless - following several reported conflicts within the group and disagreements with Shalamar’s label Solar Records - Watley abruptly quite the group in 1984. Today she predictably looks back on the experience with mixed feelings.
“Shalamar again was a great opportunity for me”, she acknowledges: “So, while in the end it was something I really couldn’t wait to get as far away from as possible, it’s still not something I’d CHANGE. You know, while I don’t see Shalamar as my ultimate destiny, I still think it was an experience I was meant to have at the time. Because to be in a group that was successful and gave so much joy through its music is a beautiful thing. And then to leave it and become successful in my own right - which isn’t something that happens that often - and to continue to do the things I’ve continued to do, is definitely something that’s a blessing. So, as I said, through the good and the bad Shalamar is not something I’d change.”
With Shalamar having become mainstays in the UK Pop Top Ten during the early Eighties, Jody’s exit from the group was immediately followed by her moving to London for a couple of years: “I stayed in London because I was under a lot of stress and pressure from the people at Solar Records at the time”, she reveals openly: “I honestly wanted to get as far away from that organisation as I could, and the music scene in London at the time was really exciting - plus I had some friends there. So, though initially I was going to stay in London for just three months, I ended up settling there for two-and-a-half years!”
During which time Jody’s highest-profile moment arguably occurred with her participating (alongside the likes of Bono, Sting and George Michael) in Bob Geldof’s history-making Band Aid project - featuring on the record and in the video for the record-breaking Christmas 1984 charity chart-topper ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’.
“Oh, Band Aid was such a fantastic, important event to have been a part of”, she recalls with pride: “I mean, it was a huge who’s who of superstars in music - and it was just all good vibes! There was no drama. And I remember when Sir Bob Geldof showed the documentary, literally everyone was in tears. But overall the atmosphere on the day was just really uplifting. So I feel very honoured to have been part of something that raised millions of dollars for Famine Relief in Ethiopia. Even if I AM always in awe when I look at the video and I see my hair! Because it just reminds me that, over the years, I’ve probably had every single hairstyle known to womankind!”
Eager to establish her own identity away from Shalamar, in 1986 Jody signed her first solo deal with the then-mighty MCA Records. Which immediately resulted in major mainstream success with both her debut single ‘Looking For A New Love’ and album ‘Jody Watley’ topping the US R&B charts (in addition to hitting the US Pop Top 10), and winning her a 1988 Grammy Award for Best New Artist. Meanwhile, Watley’s second LP - 1989’s ‘Larger Than Life’ - would go on to sell over four million worldwide; the video for its lead-off single ‘Real Love’ gaining a then-unprecedented seven MTV Video Music Award nominations (a record held until Michael & Janet Jackson’s video ‘Scream’ received 11 nominations in 1995). While Watley’s continued high-profile involvement in fashion additionally during this time found her featuring in the first celebrity-ad campaign for clothing-line Gap, as well as in such internationally-respected publications as ‘Harper’s Bazaar’, ‘Vogue’, ‘Rolling Stone’, ‘Essence’ and ‘Vanity Fair’.
“Oh, those first two albums achieved success beyond what I’d ever imagined!”, she recalls proudly: “And I certainly felt vindicated. Because, when I quite Shalamar, everyone in that organisation - including the guys in the group - pretty much said that going solo would be the worst mistake of my life, that I’d never make it, that I’d regret it… So, while people still question whether (in terms of the Grammy) I really was a ‘New Artist’, my answer is definitely ‘YES I WAS!’! Because this was the first time that people got to really know about JODY WATLEY! And one of my proudest moments was the night I won that Grammy Award!”
“I mean, for me it was such a triumphant night”, continues Jody, now in full flow: “And one thing I always remember about it actually is that the first person to greet me when I won was Michael Jackson! He ran up to me, hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, told me how happy he was for me... I mean, I’d written fan-letters to Michael when I was kid. So to find him waiting there for me just made the night even more magical… And, when I think about it now, it just makes me want to cry. Because obviously I was just so sad when he passed away.”
With Jody’s next two albums for MCA (1991’s ‘Affairs Of The Heart’ and 1993’s ‘Intimacy’) both being released during the increasingly-formulaic ‘new jack swing’ era of R&B, neither fared as well chart-wise as her previous material. Nevertheless, apparently undeterred by the disappointing sales, Watley’s artistic vision of broadening her creative boundaries while putting out lasting music of substance continued unabated. And in 1995, having parted ways with MCA, she decided to take an independent and entrepreneurial path by releasing her fifth solo LP ‘Affection’ through her own new Avitone label. Since which time - aside of a short-lived detour when she briefly signed with Atlantic in 1997 (which resulted in the critically-acclaimed LP ‘Flower’, which never actually attained a US release) - she has continued putting out albums independently; including 1999’s ‘The Saturday Night Experience’ and 2001’s ‘Midnight Lounge’.
Hailed by some today as perfectly exemplifying the successful global 21st century recording artist - exercising creative freedom and directing her own career path - the ever-warm-mannered Ms. Watley concludes our highly-interesting conversation by discussing her current state of independence: “Well, looking a the big picture, I never wanted to be pigeonholed in any way. So what I’ve always done is just gotten on with being an ARTIST, as opposed to being a pop star”, she asserts: “And to me - and you can go back years and I’ve always said the same thing - being an artist means not being afraid to fail, and not being afraid to try new things. So in that way my starting up Avitone in ’95 was simply another progression of that vision. And the inspiration actually came from Prince. Because, at the time, he’d left Warner Brothers and started his own NPG label. And so I was like ‘Yeah, I wanna do that too!’!”.
“And as it happens now, with the way the music industry has continued to shift, I think more and more artists eventually will become independent”, she adds: “Because the major label system is a different beast, so to speak, and one hasn’t necessarily adapted too well to the changes. Whereas l love EVERYTHING about the digital age! I love all those things like being able to connect directly with my fans on Twitter and FaceBook - because you get to be right in the middle of the vortex, so to speak. You know, I really do view everything about it as a definite progression.”
The album ‘The Makeover’ and double-A-side single ‘Borderline’/’A Beautiful Life’ are both out now through Avitone/ADA Alternative Distribution Alliance
Words PETE LEWIS