Avant: Getting down to the letter
While this month’s release of his new, sixth album ‘The Letter’ may surprisingly mark his first-ever UK release, in terms of US chart stats Cleveland, Ohio-born-and-raised singer/songwriter Avant is already something of a veteran, having attained his first American R&B Number One way back in 2000 with his breakthrough single ‘Separated’. Since which time he’s gone on to attain three Platinum-selling albums, in addition to collaborating with such globally-successful superstars as Nicole Scherzinger, Diddy and Snoop Dogg.
Indeed, with ‘The Letter’ also marking Avant’s first release for Universal Music’s respected Verve Forecast label, the man originally hailed as “the new voice of ghetto soul” appropriately now kicks off his first round of British interviews by hooking up with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis - to discuss (amongst other things) his aforementioned new album. A record Avant himself has described as “a letter from me to my fans, to tell them what’s going on in my life, what’s going through my head, and my struggles as a man.”
“What I’ve tried to do with this new album is let people know that, while I’m still doing my own thing in R&B, I’m also bringing across a DIFFERENT vibe”, begins an immediately personable, humble-mannered Avant: “In that I’m now starting to make it more modern, by using a lot of classic-type instruments - horn sounds, violin sounds - in my music. While lyrically, with me always having been a storyteller, my focus this time is very much on bringing across what goes on in everyday LIFE. Like on the new (US) single ‘Kiss Goodbye’ the basic message I’m trying to get across to men is that, if a woman tries to kiss another man, then she’s kissing your relationship goodbye. So don’t let your relationship get to a point where she starts looking for other people!”
“You know, I do feel that - in a lotta cases - those types of messages or themes are something we’ve gotten too far AWAY from in R&B”, he continues: “Like while in my days growing up I had people like Luther Vandross and Babyface - who showed us how to be men and how to cater to a woman - to me young kids these days have nothing to really listen to and GROW from. I mean, while it’s great to have records that are all about partying and having a good time, I still feel you need to have a BALANCE - where you also put in those records that are gonna help the kids get through life, PERIOD… So yeah, that lyrical balance is definitely something I’m shooting hard for with ‘The Letter’.”
Meanwhile, with production input coming from the likes of The Pentagon (Mary J. Blige; Fantasia); Mike City (Usher; Jamie Foxx); Marshall Leathers (India.Aire); and Kajun (Ludacris), ‘The Letter’ finds Avant’s yearning, gospel-raised tenor adapting to soulful contemporary R&B moods that range from ballads like the midtempo male cautionary tale of ‘Kiss Goodbye’ and swaying, thought-provoking ‘Where Did We Go’; to the harder urban club vibe of the solidly stomping ‘Nightlife’ and sexually driving ‘Had Enough’... Mention of which in turn prompts an ever-personable Avant to break down some of his own favourite tracks on the album and discuss the stories behind them.
“Well, the opening track ‘Graduated’ is really funny. Because it deals with the situation where you see people out there, and they either look terrible now when they used to look good in school, or vice versa! So with that song I decided to take the high ground and say ‘Wow! She wasn’t so attractive in High School but she’s definitely graduated since she LEFT!’!… While ‘Body Police’ is also amusing, in that through the whole song I’m playing around with the police theme! Which is why there’s so many little innuendos in there, where I’m talking about stuff like taking you down to the 69th Precinct and doing a strip-search! Then ‘Walking On Water’ is a song I felt I HAD to do! Because so many people are always asking me to sing at their weddings - but then, when I say yes, they ask me to sing, say, a Brian McKNIGHT song! To which my response is always ‘Wait a minute! I’m not Brian Mc Knight!’… Which is why with ‘Walking On Water’ I decided to do something I’ve never done before - which is to write and record a song just for those people who want to get married!”
“Then with ‘That Dude’ I’m talking about the situation where a woman might see a guy in a club, go home and sleep with him, and then be like ‘Well I’m gonna CHANGE him! I’m gonna make him THIS person or THAT person!’!”, continues an animated Avant, now in full flow: “Whereas in the song the guy is basically saying ‘No, I’m still that dude you met in the club. You said you’d ACCEPT me! Don’t try to CORRECT me!’!.. While with ‘Where Did We Go’ I’m dealing with the problems that arise with relationships in today’s digital world. I’m basically saying that things like the internet, cellphones and I-pads have created a void BETWEEN people, to where you’re no longer putting your focus on the other person as much as you’re putting it into your work or your business. Whereas if you want to have a good relationship then you have to find that happy MEDIUM!... So yeah, it’s basically all about making music for people to vibe to AND understand, melodically AND lyrically.”
Born Myron Avant in Cleveland, Ohio in April 1978, the church-raised US R&B chart-topper is also happy to speak openly about his tough early background: “Yeah, my neighbourhood was rough”, recalls Avant without hesitation: “Because right around the corner was the projects. And so any time of the day OR night you could hear random gun-shots - you know, the typical ghetto neighbourhood! So for me growing up became all about fighting the demons in order to do the RIGHT thing instead of the NEGATIVE thing. Because right around the corner people would be hustling and trying to make a dollar or two - and so you’d run away from that... But then, around the OTHER corner you’d run to, there’d be somebody smoking weed or drinking - and so then you had to get away from THAT!... So yeah, that was my growing-up! You know, you just had to make your mind up that you wanted to get OUT of those situations! And so my main focus became to get both myself AND my family out of there... And I was blessed enough to be able to DO that!”
“Plus, I think my mother being very spiritual also had a lot to do with me keeping myself away from the negativity too”, he adds thoughtfully: “Because she grew up in the church, she brought her KIDS up in the same way. To where all six of us just basically kept God first and fought our way out of the neighbourhood, while at the same time still RESPECTING it! Because without that neighbourhood none of us would be who we are TODAY!”
So how did all that lead to a successful career in music? “Well, that all happened basically because I went to The Cleveland School Of Art”, replies an ever-forthcoming Avant: “You know, my mom put me in that school - and at first I thought she was vey cruel for doing it! Because at the time there was a TV show called ‘Fame’ that was out, and so the reason I agreed to go to the school because I wanted to be like the kids in THAT! I was like ‘Wow! They’re dancing and they’re hanging in the hallways! That looks like FUN!’!... But then, when I got there and discovered that we still had to work and do homework, I was like ‘Oh, they never showed THAT on TV! I wanna get OUTTA here!’!.. But my mom was like ‘No! You’re gonna stay there and LEARN!’... And looking back now, I’m so glad that she DIDN’T pull me outta there! Because I learnt so much from that school and the people in it.”
Interestingly, an unlikely - but essential - figure in Avant’s chart-topping national career launch was unquestionably NBA basketball legend Magic Johnson. Whose MCA-distributed label - Magic Johnson Music (MJM) - Avant first signed to in 2000, and for whom he went on to release four US hit albums - 2000’s million-plus-selling ‘My Thoughts’; 2002’s ‘Ecstasy’; 2003’s ‘Private Room’; plus 2006’s ‘Director’ (Avant’s fifth album - 2008’s Avant’ - was released through EMI’s Capitol Records).
“Well, once I got outta High School, I decided straightaway to just shoot for the music career”, relates Avant, as our breezy half-hour transatlantic chat draws to its inevitable close: “Because I’d been really into drama at school - I’d done a lotta stage plays and things of that nature - I already knew how much I loved that whole vibe and that whole feeling of being onstage. So, because I definitely wanted to perform and continue to feel that same energy, I decided to pursue the singing thing. And in doing so, I ended up stopping in Chicago and meeting my manager.”
“Then from there we actually put a record out entitled ‘I Wanna Know’”, he continues; “You know, we were hustling it like we were Master P - selling it straight outta the car-trunk! And, because I then started getting quite a bit of local airplay in the Mid-West, a lotta record companies started becoming interested. So, with Magic Johnson just opening up his label at the time, he was like ‘Yo, I guarantee you that you can do it your way. I’ll step outta the way and let you guys just do what you DO!’… So, because I found that really intriguing, we decided to go with him; he kept his word and let us do it our way - and so we made it work from that point ON! You know, I released four albums for Magic Johnson Music, and it was a beautiful relationship - because we were able to do exactly what we WANTED TO do!... So yeah, I do very much appreciate him for lending a hand and helping me out in such a major way.”
The album ‘The Letter’ is out now through Verve Forecast
Words PETE LEWIS