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CARL THOMAS 2011 SOULMUSIC.COM INTERVIEW
CONQUERING A NEW SOUND
Phone interview recorded November 22, 2011

Carl Thomas was at the top of his game with his Bad Boy Records debut in 2000. That album, EMOTIONAL, went platinum and solidified his spot as one of the top male vocalists of the era. As he prepared to reach even higher levels with his follow up, 2004's LET'S TALK ABOUT IT, a family tragedy put a complete stop to his music and his music career. An independent album in 2007, SO MUCH BETTER, would be a source of healing, but didn't garner the attention of his previous releases. After four years, Thomas reveals why he's back with a group of A-List producers, and an evolved sound. He also shares with Darnell Meyers-Johnson his thoughts on music trends, and on the loss of his friend Heavy D...

Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m speaking with a Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling recording artist who brought us hits like “I Wish” and “Emotional” back in the day, as well as his hit “Can’t Believe,” with Faith Evans. It’s been four years, but he’s back, and he’s ready to conquer us all over again with his fourth album, aptly titled CONQUER. Today I’m speaking with Mr. Carl Thomas. How are you, sir?

Carl Thomas: How you doing, man? What’s going on, Darnell?

DMJ: I’m good. How are you? That’s the question.

CT: I’m doing great, man. I am just eagerly anticipating the release of my album, as I hope everybody else is, as well.

DMJ: Well, the most obvious question becomes where are you, or where have you been the last few years? We haven’t heard from you, at least on record anyway, since 2007. So what’s been going on since then?

CT: I toured, because SO MUCH BETTER in 2007was an album that … actually, first and foremost, that was an album that I did myself, and I’m really proud of it. I had a helping hand from the late Jheryl Busby, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, but that was basically my brainchild and baby. And I toured with the album for about a year and a half, and after touring with the album for about a year and a half, I think, I was in the studio with different writers and producers for about another eight months after that, before I had actually been introduced to the Verve situation. So I got introduced to that situation, and … the negotiation point between me and the label was a little bit longer than to be expected. But we were able to come to something that we both thought was cool, and I’ve spent the last year recording songs for CONQUER--and I recorded a bunch of songs in order to get the best ten records, and I worked with some of the most talented producers in the game.

This album is really special to me, because the idea for this album just started with a conversation between me and my friends. I actually have to credit my SO MUCH BETTER project for actually putting me back on the track, and letting me know that the fans were still there and that they still supported real R&B, and that this is what my place was. And then the Verve situation … all this situation is doing is just further fortifying that this is where I belong, and what I’m supposed to be doing.

DMJ: Well, let’s catch everybody up. I think most people who are going to be reading this or hearing this are going to be familiar with you, but just for those few who may not be, let’s just cover your history real quick.

CT: Okay. In the year 2000 I released my debut album, which is entitled EMOTIONAL. It was a breakout success, and introduced me to millions of fans all over the world. There was a little break in-between that and the second album, four years later. There was another album on Bad Boy entitled LET'S TALK ABOUT IT. Right after the release of that album, I had a personal situation to where my only and older brother was shot and murdered in our hometown, and that just kind of brought my recording and my recording career to a screeching halt.

It took some time for me to come from underneath that block of grief, shall we say. It took some time. And that’s why I say I really credit the SO MUCH BETTER project for really doing that for me, helping me to do that through that situation--because I was sitting at home and my friend Mike City--who is responsible for songs like “I Wish” and “Make It Alright,” and things like that—Mike City just gave me a call and said, “Let’s just get in the studio and record some songs. We don’t necessarily have to be recording them on anybody’s clock, and we don’t have to be recording them for a reason; let’s just get in the studio, and just do some good music.”

And we got in the studio and we started recording, and our friends started coming by the studio, just dropping by—people like Brandy and Lalah Hathaway, and my man E-40, and what-have-you—and somewhere in-between us having a good time that summer and having a ball in the studio and laughing and joking and being kids and drinking wine … somewhere in-between all of that fun we got a project out of that. And so we needed a vehicle when we got done, and Jheryl Busby and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis helped us with that vehicle in order to carry the album to the people. So we had moderate success, but given the fact that we didn’t put any money into the project, it was very successful to me. And it just basically set up the current situation—it set it up lovely. And I couldn’t be more grateful to the fans for them making the message clear that they’re glad I’m back. I feel the same exact way: I’m glad I’m back, and I don’t plan on going anywhere.

DMJ: As I said at the top, you’re a platinum-selling artist—that first album went platinum. “I Wish” was a big, huge song, your debut song, just coming out the gate that way. Were you surprised at the success of that song, with you being a new artist at the time?

CT: To be perfectly honest with you I wasn’t surprised, because at the time … you have to understand what I was dealing with at the time. I put the album out on Bad Boy; it was a phenomenal record. I knew that. The label knew that. The program directors that got a hold of it--we knew that they would know it. And at the time--you have to understand the things that we were putting out at Bad Boy--we really weren’t missing. So what would make me think that I was going to miss? You gotta understand: when you’re an artist over there, your head is pumped with nothing but success. And we were just a bunch of kids with a lot of talent, and we were just looking for Puff to make us a star.

DMJ: Now are you still in touch with any of the Bad Boy people?

CT: Absolutely. You can no more separate your past from your future any more than you can your right arm from your left arm. It was very much my people and my family.

DMJ: I want to go in on the new album in just a second. I just want to ask you, real quick, about Faith Evans, in particular, because that’s another song that was huge: the one that you guys did, “Can’t Believe,” that was on one of her albums. What was that experience like, working with her, and what was she like in the studio?

CT: In actuality … I could tell you what you know about that record, or I could tell you the truth.

DMJ: Tell me the truth.

CT: Which pill you want? You want the blue pill or the red pill?

DMJ: [Laughs]

CT: Okay, okay, okay—here we go. Here we go.

DMJ: Okay, let’s go.

CT: That song was actually a remix to my single “Emotional,” that at the time that it was done, I just wasn’t feeling it. And what happened was, at the time, we had a ten-year reunion BAD BOY GREATEST HITS album that was going to be released. So what happened is, because I wasn’t interested in it at the time, he took it and gave it to Faith, and then I was just featured on it, and then we released it as the first single from the Greatest Hits album. So that was, you know…

DMJ: So were you feeling some kind of way about that?

CT: No, not at all, because I still got all of the juice out of the record anyway. I still got paid for the airplay; I still got the sales royalties … I got all the juice I needed to get anyway. So it was more so a learning experience for me, to make sure I take a second look at things, because the people really received that record greatly.

DMJ: You also mentioned about your brother. We don’t necessarily need to go into that in detail, but I just want to ask you, just generally speaking, when you’re going through such a hardship like that, such a difficult situation—and I’ve lost a brother as well, so I can relate to a certain degree—I know you said it had an effect on your music, and it kind of stopped everything for a minute, so how do you come back from something like that? How do you come back?

CT: For me, it was a process of reprioritizing what was important. And then, once I reprioritized the things that were important, I had to reassess how I was going about accomplishing those things. So what I found out about my music is, as deeply as I felt it, and as passionate as I was about it, I wasn’t being as honest about it as I absolutely could be. And I found out that there were deeper levels that I could go with it, and that music was able to do more for me than to simply make other people feel good. I learned that music was also able to soothe my own wounds.

DMJ: And so did you use your music, in particular, as part of your healing process?

CT: That and the prayers of the saints, which availeth much.

DMJ: So you’re about to release CONQUER on December 6th, and word on the street is you’re coming back with a new sound. Is that true?

CT: I like the way you said that, “word on the street.” [laughs]

DMJ: They’re talking about it already.

CT: “Well, word on the street is ...” I will tell you this, man—I will tell you this: I don’t really think that it’s a change as much as it is an evolution. It’s just the point that I would be to at this time, anyway--the point in music that I’m supposed to be, the point in growth that I’m supposed to be. My demographic is extremely weird; it can go from nineteen to fifty-five, you know what I mean? It’s very weird. So that means that I have to speak to a lot of different people—I have to speak specifically in a very general language. Sometimes I have to be really blanketed about personal things, just so you can make sure that every demographic understands what you’re saying … because I don’t care how old you are, everybody understands a stop sign. You understand what I’m saying?

DMJ: Yeah. So particularly for the fans who’ve been there since day one, what is it that they can expect from this album in terms of your musical direction?

CT: My direction is this: my direction is assisting urban lifestyle. I didn’t point at a demographic; all of those elements that you hear are things that I really am. You’re going to hear a hopeless romantic; you’re going to hear a heartbreaker. You’re going to hear someone who is extremely versed, and then you’re going to hear somebody who’s non-versed. You’re going to hear a lot of different things, and all of those things are who I am … as a singer, as a person, as a musician, you’re going to hear those things. One thing my fans have always told me is, “Man, with your music, you really wear your heart on your sleeve.” And I do it, but I do it in a way that I know that everybody can get it. I don’t want to just be stagnant, or create an atmosphere to where I’m stagnant towards a certain audience. People are always misunderstood about what their era is; they’re very misunderstood about that. They say, “My era of music is this, and my era of music is that.” Let me tell you, Darnell, what your era of music is: your era of music is the year you’re born and then the year you die. In between those two years is your era of music.

DMJ: All right.

CT: You get what I’m saying?

DMJ: I do, I do—I feel what you mean.

CT: So for somebody to get caught up in a certain sound made by God knows what bass player from God knows what band in the 1970s is competently ridiculous to me.

DMJ: So where do you sit on the argument that’s going on … well, I don’t know if argument is the right word, but the conversation that’s going on among R&B music fans who are saying there’s very few acts that are making what they consider to be real R&B music? A lot of people are jumping on the techno-dance wagon, or whatever you want to call that kind of music.

CT: You know what that means? All that means is that, to those people, their musical journey and experience is almost coming to an end. That’s all that means—that’s all that means.

DMJ: And some people feel like you’ve been a part of that experience.

CT: Listen, you have to be very, very careful at how you handle the future. Music is always trying to go forward; it’s always trying to do new things. It’s always trying to be new. And if you deny things like that, then you’ll never be able to sit in a seat, or to even think with the mindset of a Quincy Jones, who has had the foresight to embrace all of us young people, and not only to embrace us, but to bridge the gap between what was cool when he was young and what was cool when we’re young. So when people start feeling like that, that means that they’re just simply not willing to accept where music is going.

Now I will tell you this: this concept is true in every facet of society. This is totally beyond music. Now if, in fact, the present or the past does not allow the future the room to be the future, the future usually rises up and becomes rebelliously murderous. And you can take this example from any generation you want to. So the past and the present have to allow the future to be the future, especially the present, because the present is actually living in the future.

DMJ: Right, and it all kind of comes full circle in a way, too, at least with music, because it seems like everything that’s old is new again, and it seems like music goes in cycles.

CT: I feel you, because I feel something extremely nostalgically soulful when I listen to Janelle Monae.

DMJ: And also, the lead single from your project, “Don’t Kiss Me”, has kind of an old-school feel to it.

CT: Oh, it’s a modern-day throwback, absolutely.

DMJ: Why was that song chosen as the lead single?

CT: That song was just … I can’t really give you an explanation beyond--it was just the one. It was simply the one, man. That was the one.

DMJ: I want to ask you about Heavy D. I know that he co-wrote a track on your album called “It Is What It Is.” As everyone knows by now, he recently passed; the funeral was just last week. What are your thoughts about Heavy at this time?

CT: I just hope that those components about Heavy that a lot of people didn’t know--I hope that he’s celebrated for those things, because he definitely deserves it. A lot of people really didn’t understand how deep Heav’ was in soul music, but he had his hand in R&B really heavy. A lot of people don’t even know that Heavy D is responsible for “Summer Rain” on the EMOTIONAL project. And he was somebody that I respected as a peer, as far as a musical peer. I know he was a rapper, but Heavy knew his craft. He knew the craft of music. And not only that, but he was somebody that you could call at three in the morning, and he’d pick up the telephone--which is a lot more than I can say for most people. He would interrupt his agenda for you, and I thought that was an extremely unique characteristic. And we loved each other dearly, and I’m going to miss him a lot. That’s pretty much all I have to say about that.

DMJ: All right, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. Let’s get back into the album before we run out of time. You’re coming back strong with a lot of A-list producers. You mentioned Mike City. Just talk about some of the people on the project.

CT: I had a chance to work with Blac Elvis out of Memphis, Tennessee by way of Atlanta. I had the chance to work with a really good friend of mine, Mr. Rico Love, who is actually responsible for the first single, “Don’t Kiss Me,” and another record on the album called “Long Distance Love Affair.” And I had the chance to work with my brother Mario Winans, of course, who just came off the number one record in the country with Trey Songz, when we got in the studio.

DMJ: What was the song he did?

CT: He did “Just Can’t Be Friends”.

DMJ: No, no, I mean on your album.

CT: Mario did “It Ain’t Fair.”

DMJ: I was trying to remember, because I was listening to it right before we started talking, and that was the last song that I heard, so it stuck in my mind. And Rex Rideout is on there, right? ?

CT: Rex Rideout actually co-produced the song with Heavy D—he coproduced “It Is What It Is” with Heavy. And I had the chance to work with my brother Snoop Dogg … a lot of people that lent a hand on this album being what it is and having the sound it does.

DMJ: No real “collabos,” though, in terms of other vocalists. Was there any particular reason for that?

CT: Well, I just really felt like that was something that I was going to save for the next project, because the gap was so long--I wanted to just be selfish with that, and give people a hundred percent of me.

DMJ: I want to ask you about the song “Running,” because of the lyrics. What does that song mean to you and why did you decide to include it on the album?

CT: I recorded the song “Running” because a very, very, very close friend of mine named DJ Rogers--he was in actuality going through something. For about a year before that song, he was actually going through a situation, and I was going through it with him, and being that listening ear. I’d pray with him when he needed somebody to pray with, and I’d listen to him when he needed somebody to listen to him. And the record was actually a culmination of him coming out of that experience, and when he wrote the record I heard it, and I told him, “DJ, I’ve got to record that record for my album. The world has got to hear that message, man. They’ve got to.”

DMJ: I shared the message of that song—not the song itself but the message of that song—with people on my Facebook page, just some of the lyrics in there, and I think you’re right: I think it’s a message that people are starving for today, because so many people are going through so many different situations.

CT: Right.

DMJ: So the album is called CONQUER. Before we wrap up, tell me what is it that you hope to conquer that you haven’t conquered yet?

CT: Vegas.

DMJ: How so? … because one could take that so many different ways.

CT: I haven’t conquered Vegas. I just want my music to be a fixture in that town.

DMJ: … any particular reason why there?

CT: You have to understand, for artists, Vegas is considered the cash-out. It’s touring in reverse—you stay in one spot and the audience comes to you.

DMJ: But, until that happens, will you be out on the road promoting the new album?

CT: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You can catch me at a city near you real soon. We’re just about done mapping out the promo tour, and you’ll see me out on my tour bus in a week or so.

DMJ: Because everybody is on some sort of social network, just let us know if you’re on anything like Twitter or Facebook.

CT: Yes, you can catch me on Facebook under my name, and you’ll see me in a wonderful, wonderful black-and-white suit.

DMJ: … lookin’ sharp, huh?

CT: Or you can catch me on Twitter: Mr_Carl_Thomas.

DMJ: And is there anything you want to say that we haven’t talked about?

CT: Man, I think we’ve covered the moon.

DMJ: Well, I do appreciate your time. Again, for anybody checking out the interview: CONQUER, December 6th. Carl Thomas, thank you so much.

CT: Thank you, Darnell.

DMJ: Our doors at SoulMusic.com are open anytime you want to come through and let us know what you’re doing.

CT: Thank you.

DMJ: All right, brother. Be blessed.

CT: Much appreciated.

About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.
  
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