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JODY WATLEY 2002 INTERVIEW
Even though she hasn’t had an album released in the U.S. in 1995, Ms. JODY WATLEY has been more than a little busy in the last few years . Usually, the absence of a new U.S. record would mean that an artist is considered ‘out of the loop’ but in the case of the Los Angeles-based singer, that’s far from being the truth. Rather, operating from the perspective of an artist who has always cherished her creative freedom, Jody has recorded three whole albums and has done some special guest appearances since the release of “Affection” on her own Avitone label. Two of those albums – “Saturday Night Experience” (a concept album rather than a straight-ahead regular Jody Watley set) and “Midnight Lounge” – have been available only as Japanese imports and are certainly among the best-sellers at THE SOUL MUSIC STORE.

Back in ’95, it looked as if Jody might have a promising run with Atlantic Records as her first major label affiliation since a long run with MCA Records that ended in 1993. In anticipation of the release of her Atlantic debut, ”Flower,” the label issued the single “Off The Hook” which became an R&B-charted single and a No. 1 dance single. It was followed by another dance music hit, “If I’m Not In Love” and then there should have been the “Flower” album. Instead, the CD gained release only in Japan, the U.K. and Europe. In a phone interview just weeks after she wowed a packed crowd at the Los Angeles Gay Pride Festival, Jody was typically candid in sharing what happened. “To this day, it’s a huge mystery as to why the album was not released in the U.S.,” says Jody. “Artists with less exposure on their singles had their albums issued. Everything was in place: there were positive reviews and maybe Atlantic expected Top 40 domination with the album, in which case the first single should have been different and,” she laughs, “they should have poured at least 25 million dollars of promotional money into it! And a prime-time television wouldn’t have hurt!”

Instead, Jody recalls, “The short version was that when asked why they didn’t release the album, I got no answer, just the opportunity to take the CD to another label if I wanted to do that. I told them they could take the CD and….” Well, no prizes for guessing what Jody said to complete the sentence but the lack of a U.S. release left her “in legal limbo for almost two-and-half years. It was a nasty situation and almost permanently changed my desire to be involved in any level in the music business. It didn’t make any sense. So, what I did was continue to be with my family and be domestic…”

It was after hearing a 1998 record from the British jazz-funk/dance outfit 4 Hero that Jody’s interest in making music was reignited. “It was a magnificent album called “Two Pages” and it was kinda jazzy, it had some spoken word stuff in it (by Ursula Rucker), some wonderful vocalists, the rapper Butterfly (from Digable Planets). It was one of best records I had heard in a long time. I got a spiritual feeling from it, it was so refreshing that it made me go back into what I loved about making music and reminded me if something is worthwhile, sometimes you have to seek it out rather than waiting for it to come to you. The music industry had become more corporate-indeed than it had ever been in the past and began to squeeze out the whole reason people become artists. Listening to “Two Pages” helped me remember why it is I wanted to make music…it put into a whole new perspective…”

Duly inspired, Jody began working on a project specifically for the Japanese market in 1999. With the release of “Affection,” she had started a deal with Universal Music in Japan who had also been responsible for her previous MCA albums. “It wasn’t like doing a regular Jody Watley record and in fact, I didn’t have my name or photograph on the front of the album,” she explains. “We called it “Saturday Night Experience” and I produced it with Rodney Lee who has been in my band for the past six years playing drums and bass. We recorded in mostly in Los Angeles but we did a couple of tracks in London because the vibe there is always so good. We did it at our leisure and there was no pressure. Universal recognized that it wasn’t one of those records that was meant to be mainstream but that it was designed for a sector of people who buy music who are looking for something different. It was meant to be a side project: one of the things about not being signed to a label is that you have the freedom to do things under a different moniker. Recording “Saturday Night Experience” was very liberating for me. I went to Japan to promote it. We did a lot of press and television just prior to its release and I did shows in Japan as I’ve been doing since I started my solo career…”

Ironically, it was during the record of “Saturday Night Experience” that Jody made contact with Dego and Mark Mac, the two producers responsible for the 4 Hero that had inspired her to go back into the studio. She recalls, “I attempted to get together with them when I was working on the album and it was funny, because one of them didn’t think it was me when I called! In fact, he hung up on me twice! I was able to convince him that it was really me and we’ve been in touch since. In fact, they are reworking one of the spoken word pieces from “Saturday Night Experience” entitled ”Another Chapter” for a project they are doing…”

The “Saturday Night Experience” album did well in Japan but, says Jody, “I didn’t even want to be bothered with trying to get it released in the U.S.” Instead, she accepted an invitation from renowned dance music/remix producers Masters At Work to perform on the song “I Love To Love” and in the summer of 2000, she performed the song with Roy Ayers at an outdoor event in New York for some 20,000 people. The record did well in the clubs both in the U.S. and in Europe and ultimately ended up on Jody’s 2002 album “Midnight Lounge.” Jody notes, “I love working with Lil’ Louie (Vega) and Kenny Gonzalez (aka Masters At Work) …I think of Masters At Work collectively as the ‘Quincy Jones’ of dance music although I don’t like to use that term, ‘dance music’ because I think it can be limiting…”

Continuing her ongoing love affair with the dance-oriented community, Jody decided to license the track “Saturday Night Experience” to the New York-based company Giant Steps Records. “They are a boutique kind of company and I loved their organic approach to what they do. They market primarily through the streets and on the Internet. In fact, the album “Nuyorican Soul” that did in 1997 started out on Giant Steps. “Originally, “Saturday Night Experience” was supposed to come out as a 12” single on September 11, 2001…and I’m sure there’s some reason that was the date…” As it turned out, the track ended up on the recently-released 2002 “Soul Sessions” set from Giant Steps. Jody comments that the “Soul Sessions” CD is “really for future-minded lovers of soul music. It’s an amazing compilation that not only includes the original version of "Saturday Night Experience" which has been called a modern lullaby but many worthy new artists in the progressive soul movement as well as a wonderful collaboration with Chaka Khan and Herbie Hancock…”

During 2001, Jody worked on her “Midnight Lounge,” once again recording with Rodney Lee and covering a range of material including a cover of the Peter Gabriel song “Don’t Give Up”; a remix of “Saturday Night Experience”; the track “Whenever,” done with Dave Warrin of the popular house and dance music company Naked Music; and a new cut “Photographs” which Jody recently licensed to Chillifunk Records for release as a 12” single in the U.K. (where it was recently named ‘Single Of The Week” in ‘Blues & Soul’ magazine). “I like the idea of mixing stuff up,” says Jody, “and not just doing stuff for radio. I want to do my part in making sure people get exposed to ‘underground’ stuff…”

Making “Midnight Lounge” was “again, a project that was stress free. I think the lyric of the title track refers to the ultimate chill zone place. You know, the whole album reflects my mantra - no stress, no worries, just good vibes!” Once more, the album was issued in Japan by Universal Music where Jody finds herself miraculously working with some of the same people with whom she’s worked with since the 1987 of her MCA debut album:”It’s very unusual to have the same people at Universal still there but fortunately it hasn’t gotten to the point where executives are coming and going…”

“Midnight Lounge” got a great response in Japan (where Jody also collaborated with one of the country’s top groups J-Pop) and also sold quite a few copies at The Soul Music Store to boot. Fortunately, U.S. fans who didn’t get it as an import CD may well luck out since Jody is planning to license the album in both the U.S. and the U.K. likely with the addition of some new tracks she’s done recently and a new version of the cut “Photographs” which received a great response when Jody appeared at the L.A. Pride Festival. “Every year, I try to do the Pride Festivals because I have a huge, longstanding audience within the gay community and that’s one of the most loyal fan bases a female artist can have. After we did “Photographs” at the show, we got a lot of hits at the website…”

In addition to track dates she does from time to time in the U.S., Jody’s been performing in Japan and Europe and she reflects on a recent gig at The Jazz Café in London: “There are new people that know nothing about my past and like the new stuff I’m doing. They are between 19 and 25. Then, there are people who are fans of my previous solo work and there’s a third tier of fans that go back to my Shalamar days and they’re usually disappointed because I don’t really do any Shalamar material other than a remix version of “Friends.” You see, I’ve always been forward thinking in my career and tried to keep intentions as artist pure. I’m proud that I haven’t been jaded, tainted or disappointed so much by what’s happened to me in this industry. I always tell my own kids how important it is to be your own person and that’s constantly being challenged by others who try to define you by who they think you should be…”

As the owner of her own masters for three albums, Jody’s demonstrating a pattern that will surely continue in the future: “Since junior high school, I’ve wanted to have my own business,” she states. “Slowly it has happened. The music industry has had to reevaluate how it does business. Using the Internet and that approach to marketing your music, you may not get a lot of money upfront but it’s about reconditioning your mind to what you can do. There used to be such a stigma in being independent and I tell any artist that thinks about owning their own masters, there’s no stigma in it. Not only do I make my money from my CDs but since I also write songs, I get income from that too.” In fact, Jody truly lucked up when current supergroup Destiny’s Child covered the song “Sweet Sixteen” from her “Flower” CD: “I guess every cloud has a silver lining, right? Even though “Flower” didn’t come out in the U.S., that song was on the Destiny’s Child album “Writing’s On The Wall” that sold eight million copies worldwide. It’s funny because people never seem to realize that I've have written most of my songs over my years as a solo artist.”

That she hasn’t had a new album in the U.S. inevitably means that “not a day goes by when people don’t ask me, ‘what are you doing?’ They ask, ‘have you stopped singing all together?’ and people get upset because they think they need to see you on MTV to think that you’re active. These days, I think you have to separate yourself from being an artist and being your own business person. You have to be willing to put the work in and be an entrepreneur and that appeals to me. I’m quite happy to be selling my CDs and my merchandise at my shows!”

Current plans include a performing schedule that Jody plans to put in place once she has secured a U.S. release for “Midnight Lounge.” She has also done a new recording entitled “The Essence” with Philadelphia-based d.j. and producer King Britt for his upcoming “Black To The Future” project and expects to include the track on the expanded U.S. edition of “Midnight Lounge.” Jody will be performing as part of the annual “Colors Of Christmas” tour with Oleta Adams, Peabo Bryson and Jon Secada, fulfilling a long-held wish to sing seasonal songs and she adds, “I have been thinking of writing a Broadway musical that is roughly based my life from growing up as a church gypsy. I had a very odd childhood beyond what people know. It’s an ultimate triumphant story from being a featured dancer on a prominent music show through my tumultuous tenure in a successful R & B trio (Shalamar), through quite a solo career and journey of self discovery with all the drama in between! Sort of a “Dreamgirls” meets “Rent” - something new definitely new and different!”

Constantly grateful that she has maintained a loyal fan base through the years, Jody says that she takes time to read e-mail that comes to her website: ”Having the site has inspired me because I get mail from all around the world from people. I try to give personal responses as much as I can and take a hands-on approach. I want to try and say thank you to all the people who have supported me and stood up for me…”

Without a doubt, Jody Watley is exemplifies what it is to be a successful global 21st century recording artist, exercising creative freedom and directing her own career path: “It’s not always the easiest task to stay true to yourself as an artist and as a human being,” she concludes, “but the rewards are so much greater when you do…”

About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.
  

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