Toni Braxton: From the heart
With global record sales in excess of 40 million and six Grammy Awards to her name, Toni Braxton is unquestionably one of the most successful female R&B singers in history. This month, meanwhile, sees the release of her sixth LP, ‘Pulse’. Which -pioneered by the surging power-ballad single ‘Yesterday’ - marks her first album release in five years, in addition to being her debut for the time-honoured Atlantic label.
Born in Severn, Maryland in October 1968, Braxton and her four sisters began singing in her minister father’s church as girls before eventually going on to release one single - ‘The Good Life’ - for Arista Records as The Braxtons in 1990. Despite the single’s lack of success, Toni’s distinctive contralto nevertheless caught the attention of then-red-hot R&B/pop writer-producers L.A. Reid & Babyface. Who in 1991 prestigiously made her the first female solo signing to their then-new, Arista-affiliated label LaFace. Becoming first introduced to the public via a couple of high-profile tracks on the 1992 Soundtrack to Eddie Murphy’s movie ‘Boomerang’, Toni soon went on to score immediate US chart-topping success with her 1993 self-titled debut LP. Which - pioneered the haunting, Grammy-winning global ballad smash ‘Breathe Again’ - went on to sell a whopping 15 million worldwide.
Nevertheless, it was Braxton’s second album - 1996’s ‘Secrets’ - which would catapult her to bona fide superstardom. Its two Grammy-winning, chart-topping singles - the uptempo ‘You’re Makin’ Me High’ and anthemic power-ballad ‘Un-Break My Heart’ - ultimately propelling it to over 20 million global sales; with (her now-signature-tune) ‘Un-Break My Heart’ prestigiously becoming the second-biggest-selling single by a female singer in the history of the US chart (behind Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’).
The lofty musical accomplishments of Toni’s decade as “the first lady of LaFace” however were nevertheless also tainted with personal challenge. As 1997 found her unexpectedly dealing with a much-publicised bankruptcy prior to the release of her third LP for the label - 2000’s ‘The Heat’. Whose initial success with its Grammy-winning, worldwide smash single ‘He Wasn’t Man Enough For Me’ proved relatively short-lived; its eventual sales of two million proving somewhat disappointing in the wake of its blockbusting two predecessors.
Meanwhile, with Braxton’s next two albums - 2002’s ‘More Than A Woman’ and 2005’s ‘Libra’ (her first and only release for Blackground Records) - also attaining disappointing sales, in August 2006 her stage career nevertheless received a significant boost with the commencement of a highly-successful, record-breaking headlining show ‘Toni Braxton: Revealed’ at Las Vegas’ Flamingo Hotel & Casino. Nevertheless, personal trauma would sadly rear its head once more when the show’s near-two-year run was abruptly cut short in April 2008 with Toni unexpectedly suffering a career-threatening minor heart attack.
All of which ultimately leads us to this month’s aforementioned release of a now-considerably-recovered Toni’s new, sixth set ‘Pulse’. Whose quality blend of soulful love ballads and upbeat pop/R&B grooves (including the punchy forthcoming single ‘Make My Heart’) finds her working with such seasoned producers as Harvey Mason, Jr.; London-based Lucas Secon; and David Foster.
As a charmingly charismatic Ms. Braxton (whose career also impressively embraces starring roles in two Disney Broadway shows) warmly welcomes Pete Lewis into her plush suite at Park Lane’s opulent Dorchester Hotel for a revealing 15-minute chat.
PETE: What was the thinking behind titling your new, sixth album ‘Pulse’?
TONI: “It comes from when I got ill. I went into cardiac rehab, and there was this older lady there. She was like ‘What are you doing here so young? It must have been your heart. You know what? This is my fourth heart-attack and you’re so young, you can’t be AFRAID! You can’t stop LIVING!’… Then she told me how she’d just got back from holiday with her 40-year-old boyfriend! I mean, she was a cupcake! She had red hair, blusher, high-heeled shoes - she was a lovely lady. And because I’d lost hope - the doctors had told me I’d never be able to record again - her conversation was like that heartbeat, that pulse that gave me back the love of life.”
PETE: What did you want to achieve musically?
TONI: “For me it was important that this album was organic, plus I wanted it to be indigenous of who I am as a PERFORMER. So I was like ‘I’m not gonna think like a record company; I’m not gonna think like an industry person… I’m gonna be an artist and do music that I love, and find music that I can IDENTIFY with!’… You know, because I’ve been in the game for a long time, I’m comfortable with being older and a little wiser. And I wanted my music to REFLECT that.”
PETE: ‘Pulse’ has been acclaimed lyrically for covering so many different stages of a romantic relationship…
TONI: “Well, this album was therapeutic for me. In fact, it’s probably the most personal album I’ve ever done in my entire CAREER! Because my husband and I - even though we’re still best of friends - recently separated. So because of that, recording this album around that time was a bit challenging for me. Like with the song ‘Woman’, I had a session booked - and I called and CANCELLED it! I was like ‘I can’t DO this song right now! I just don’t feel like being emotional today, and that song is my LIFE!’... So yeah, a lotta the songs on there do reflect the things I was going through at that time.”
PETE: I understand the album release actually got put back by around three months due to most of the tracks being leaked - a problem that didn’t exist back in your Nineties heyday!
TONI: “Yeah, EXACTLY! You know, I love the new industry. Because music is instantaneous, and I can go to I-Tunes and hear any older song I want from, say, The Doobie Brothers or whoever. But at the same time, what also comes along with that, is that everyone can get the music at any time they WANT. So, of the 12 songs we originally picked for the album, all 12 were LEAKED! EVERY SINGLE SONG! So we were like ‘What can we do to fix this?’... And we came up with the idea of doing four or five new songs, and then doing remixes on some of the OTHERS… You know, I was very disappointed. And from that moment on, the songs were under lock and key! We didn’t send anything more via the internet - we had to do everything via Federal Express! Which is why no-one - including you press guys - could hear all the songs before the album came OUT! It was just something we had to do - which was unfortunate.”
PETE: What to you are the main ways in which ‘Pulse’ represents a difference from your five previous albums?
TONI: “For me this album is not just another chapter, it’s a whole ‘nother BOOK! I feel I’ve gotten a second chance at life, a second chance at my career... So yeah, I look upon it completely differently. I think in my past career - because I was so young and it was so surreal - I didn’t really APPRECIATE everything. Whereas now, when I look back at all the accolades and things I was awarded, I do appreciate them a lot MORE. Basically I’m just glad to BE here, because I didn’t think I’d EVER be sitting here talking to you right now! They told me I could never make another album, I could never promote it, I could never sing again... I mean, I remember being in the studio for just 10 minutes and being completely out of BREATH! Whereas now here I am, doing shows and all KINDS of things! So yeah, I feel very fortunate!”
PETE: How do you now look back on the multi-Grammy-winning, chart-topping global success of your first two albums - 1993’s ‘Toni Braxton’ and 1996’s ‘Secrets’, which between them sold over 35 million?
TONI: “The ‘Toni Braxton’ album represented the first time I’d ever done this. You know, on that record LA & Babyface helped me find my sound and they helped me make my dreams come true. Then ‘Secrets’ represented me getting COMFORTABLE as a performer, and as an artist who enjoyed singing. Plus on that album I was very fortunate to get a song like ‘Un-Break My Heart’. I remember (then-Arista Records boss) Clive Davis coming to me and telling me ‘This song will change your life and your career for EVER!’! You know, he KNEW that before I’d even PERFORMED it! And then I also remember, when we were recording it, that (the record’s producer) David Foster was desperate to get off to a Lakers game! So we actually did the song in like an hour-and-25-minutes just so he could get to the GAME! And it was during that session that, as soon as he said ‘This song kicks ass!’ - which is like the trademark thing David Foster says when he thinks something is hot - I first kind of thought ‘Well maybe this IS gonna be an OK song for me!’!”
PETE: It was actually between ‘Secrets’ and your third album - 2000’s two-million-selling ‘The Heat’ - that in 2007 you experienced your much-publicised bankruptcy. What was the story there?
TONI: “The bankruptcy situation was very unfortunate. A lotta people think I’d spent my money, but they don’t know that my royalty statement was less than $2,000! They don’t know what happened to me, what happened to TLC, what’s rumoured to have happened to Usher… You know, we were all on the same label (LaFace). And, while we did sign a fair record deal, it wasn’t reflective of the number of records we actually SOLD. Plus I didn’t get my money until the record company got THEIRS. So, when I did get it - my less-than-$2,000 - I’d already had the whole tour which had cost millions to set UP! And I couldn’t pay the creditors, because I didn’t have any money TO pay them! But since then I guess my case helped OTHER artists, because it went all the way to Congress. I remember Prince calling me and saying ‘We’re all slaves in this industry, and this is how you have to make it better for the NEXT generation!’! And, while it was challenging going through it, afterwards I was very fortunate - because I got a really good payday!”
PETE: So what are your views on how the way the music industry has changed since your multi-million-selling days of worldwide success throughout the Nineties/early Noughties?
TONI: “Back then music was different, because you couldn’t get it immediately - which made record sales a lot higher. You know, whereas you’d have to go to record-stores to get music back then, today there’s hardly any record-stores at ALL - maybe one or two left in each country! Also, music now is almost treated more like a marketing tool, to go on tour or to set artists up for OTHER things... So yeah, the industry has definitely changed. And, while I wish it could go back to the old skool, I guess at the same time I am glad it is bringing us new technology.”
PETE: And what about the way the music itself has changed? For example, many of today’s quote-unquote ‘R&B’ artists are actually making pop-dance music as opposed to genuine R&B…
TONI: “Exactly! I mean, music is like fashion. It changes, and you can’t STOP that. And so what’s important is to find your own STYLE. But then, though I think I have been fortunate TO have a style, when the industry started changing I still think I kinda lost my way through it. I didn’t know where to fit or where to belong. Whereas now, with this album ‘Pulse’, I think I HAVE once again found my way. So, while I have gone through a lotta hardships getting here, I do actually feel very comfortable with this project.”
PETE: So what’s generally in the pipeline for Toni Braxton right now?
TONI: “Main thing in the pipeline right now is going on tour. Which I’m so looking forward to because it’s what I love! But, at the same time, I do have to be very careful. I’m gonna have to pace myself, because I can do like an hour-and-20-minutes show, but I haven’t tested the CONTINUITY of it yet. So I’m planning on doing two to three shows for a month or two so that I can get comfortable, and then hopefully adding four or five shows. So I am gonna take it a little slowly. But, at the same time, I get to TOUR! And they said I COULDN’T! Then I also have a kids’ film coming out this fall called ‘The Oogieloves’ - which is by the same producers as ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’ - and my character is called Rosalie Rosebud. She’s a singer, and she travels with over 200 pieces of baggage! So she’s definitely over-the-top, and they told me she was inspired my Mariah Carey - whom I love! So she’s a really fun character, and she comes full-circle when you see that she really has a good heart and that she’s a great person.”
Toni’s album ‘Pulse’ and single ‘Yesterday’ are both out now through Atlantic. The single ‘Make My Heart’ follows on August 2
Words PETE LEWIS