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GORDON CHAMBERS 2011 SOULMUSIC.COM INTERVIEW
SINCERELY YOURS
Phone interview recorded September 26, 2011

Gordon Chambers, the accomplished Grammy-Award-winning-songwriter-turned-singer, has released his third solo album Sincere, featuring a bevy of new songwriters and producers to help create a sound that soul enthusiasts will enjoy. In this interview with Akim Bryant, Gordon shares his songwriting history as well as insight into his prosperous singing destiny...


Akim Bryant: Alright, Akim Bryant here for SoulMusic.com once again. In this go-round we are talking with a Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer who has penned songs for such artists as Whitney Houston, Usher, Aretha Franklin, Marc Anthony, Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé… and the list goes on for a few more pages. Over the years this songwriter has embarked upon a solo singing career which began with his 2005 debut, INTRODUCING GORDON CHAMBERS. So welcome to SoulMusic.com, Gordon.

Gordon Chambers: Hey, it’s a pleasure to be here. And David Nathan and I go back many, many, many years and he was the first person do actually do an interview with me in Billboard Magazine, I think in 1995. So it’s always a pleasure to work with him and support him and his website as he’s supported me.

AB: Wow, full-circle moment.

GC: Yes.

AB: All right. So you have a new album that drops this month—September.

GC: Yes, it drops tomorrow. Called SINCERE.

AB: And it is your third solo project to date?

GC: Yes, it is.

AB: So first off, I wanted to know why did you decide to go this route after having had such a long, successful songwriting career?

GC: Because I’ve always been a singer, and even so many of the records that you talked about that have been recorded by other artists; I sang the demo on “I Apologize” by Anita Baker, I sang the demo on Brownstone’s “If You Love Me”, I sang the demo on “Missing You”. So I’ve always been a singer and I’ve always sung in the studios. On many of the recordings that I’ve done you can hear my voice in the background, but I always sung the demos, so it was really just a situation of wanting to give myself a chance at expressing myself as a lead voice, just wanting to hear what my voice would sound like carrying through a whole album. And also, as a songwriter it was a chance to reach more people, because as a songwriter in this business you pitch songs to this artist but it has to be this kind and it has to be this and it has to be that… whereas when I decide to take matters into my own hands as an artist I could set the tone of an entire project, you know what I mean? Not just be a piece in a bigger puzzle but actually put together a whole project. As a songwriter it gave me a whole other outlet and a whole other venue to get my songs heard.

AB: So coming back to this new album, SINCERE. What should music lovers expect from this project?

GC: Well, my music lovers who’ve enjoyed my first two albums, they can still expect some of the wonderful balladry that they’ve associated with me—because I’m a balladeer by heart, so I’m definitely going to have some of those beautiful ballads. But what the surprise will be is that they’ll hear some really fun uptempos. There’s two uptempos—not just midtempos, but uptempos—on this album and there’s some really nice, really great midtempos that are done with younger producers this time, so the sound is a lot more edgy; I guess a lot more current-edge. And it sounds really good, it feels really good. It’s a nice sort of remix, you could say. And then there’s also a couple of… I remade Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You” and I played piano on it, because on every album I always do something that’s unplugged where you just hear my voice with the piano. But this time I did Donny Hathaway’s “A Song For You” because I wanted to do something I felt honoured the period of music that influenced me the most, which was the soul music of the ‘70s. The reason I am a musician is because my father had such an amazing record collection that included the Donny Hathaways and the Diana Rosses and The Temptations and the Mavis Staples and the Isaac Hayes and Miles Davis. I used to listen to all this music in his basement and read those liner notes and dream about being a musician, so my doing Donny was a way of honouring that legacy that I learned from. I also remade “Missing You”, which was a song that I did for Brandy/Tamia/Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan that I wrote and co-produced for them on the “Set It Off” soundtrack.

AB: The “Set It Off” song, all right.

GC: Yeah. And I remade that, and I dedicate this version of it… it’s very unplugged, once again it’s me on piano with a guitar player and a percussionist—Bashiri Johnson played percussion—and I remade this version as a dedication to two of my early mentors who were always people who encouraged me in this business, both as a singer and a songwriter, and that was Phyllis Hyman and Gerald Levert. And I changed the lyrics so I wasn’t just singing to my sister; I said I’m singing to my brother too, because both those singers were amazing people who always encouraged me in my writing and my singing and performing and were always available to me as mentors. And were good friends, we had a lot of laughs together, and I wanted to do something to honour them and honour who they’ve been for me.

AB: Speaking of Phyllis, she was one of the major influences in your singing career, right?

GC: Yes, she was. And Phyllis was one of the early mentors—she was the first person, first big star that I got a chance to write with and write for, and she introduced me to… I met her on a session with Dave Hall but she really took a big interest in me and she said, “I want to introduce you to some other producers.” And she introduced me to Barry Eastmond, and he was the person that took me under his wing as a writer and I started writing a lot with him. He was producing Anita Baker simultaneously to the time he was producing Phyllis, and he had an unfinished song and he gave me some lyrics—just the concept, two words—and he said, “Can you make this into a song?” And I turned it into a song and that song was “I Apologize”, and that was the first Grammy-winning thing that I was involved with.

So if it really wasn’t for Phyllis then I would never have met and got the chance to work with Anita Baker, so she was really a guardian angel. And I took that same energy of mentorship in the making of SINCERE. On this album four of the songs—including the first single which is called “I Can’t Love You If You Don’t Love You”, as well as a duet which is called “Love You Better”, which is a duet with a new singer out of D.C. called Candace Coles, and then two of the other songs—four of the songs were produced by a young man called Darien Dorsey, who’s in his early twenties. And he’s somebody that moved to New York a couple of years ago and I was introduced to him by friends, and he actually had played keyboards for me at a couple of gigs I did in the D.C.-Maryland area. And he had just graduated from Berklee School of Music and had come to New York to make his way in New York City. When I met him I thought he was extremely gifted and talented and humble and a great person, and so we started hanging out and becoming friends and I kind of took him under my wing, started introducing him to different people I knew in the music business, and we started writing songs. And he’s a fantastic producer, so four of the songs on this album were produced by him, and I took that same legacy of mentorship that Phyllis passed on to me and passed it on to Darien. He’s really the preeminent producer of this album. And it feels good to be at a place where I can give people that opportunity—I can use my platform to make way for others in the industry, because these are his first album credits ever.

AB: Wow, that’s incredible. That’s incredible. So what was the process like, the creation process? How did that change for you, working with such younger, fresh talent?

GC: It was great, because I’m at a place in my life where I’m like, “If you’re talented, bring it on.” I love talent, I attract talent, and I know talent when I’m in the presence of it. And when I trust somebody’s talent and they want to take something and guide the show I say, “Do it. Guide me, take me there.” I don’t feel a need to have to control every situation that’s really collaboration, and especially with uptempo records. Ballads I kind of know my format, but when it’s uptempo and a different edge you want to bring out to projects, I let myself be led. And it was a pleasure and it was an honour, because when you’re in the presence of talent you have to let talented people be creative. You can’t rein in their creativity, you have to let their creativity feel free and that’s how you get the best results out of them.

AB: Exactly, exactly, which I think is a lesson for a lot of people. You cannot stifle creative energy and talent. So I know you spoke about the “I Apologize” single that you wrote for Anita. I personally am a huge, huge fan of Anita’s and unfortunately I don’t get the opportunity to hear her sing this song live much.

GC: Yeah, she doesn’t sing it live very often, and I asked her about it one time and she said because of the key—it’s in a lower key for her. She said a lot of the songs that are on her albums are higher key, and sometimes she gets her voice revved up to be in a certain key, and that song takes her voice to a different place. But people do call for it live and I’ve seen her do it a couple of times at shows, but the audience does scream for it and I wish she would really make it a permanent fixture in her shows.

She knows what’s best. Having done my third album now, when you’re putting these set lists together it’s really hard because you really cannot sing all the songs so you try to do the ones that you put together in a set that you think makes the most sense. But it is hard.

AB: Definitely. Now coming back to SINCERE, the new project. This is your third solo project as well as your third independent project. So why did you decide to go the independent route?

GC: I decided to go the independent route in 2005 because I wasn’t a dummy and I knew that the mainstream—even though I have a lot of relationships in the mainstream record company system—I knew that in the whole decade of the 2000’s that basically it was all being geared to young artists: teenagers or artists in their early twenties. And I knew that I was not that age, but nor was that audience my demographic, and for me, I wanted to make music that reached my demographic. I felt that there was a deficit of quality music being made for the R&B adult contemporary audience, and I felt like, “Gordon, you can sing, you have the producers, you have the publicists, you have the relationships… you can do this.” It wasn’t easy to do it—it’s not easy being an independent and it wasn’t easy, but I knew that I could. I knew that first off I had faith in God and that he would not have put that desire in me for me to fail. And I knew that I had the resources. I knew that it was going to be hard work—it was much harder than I thought—but I knew that I had the relationships to make a movement, and I did. I made the record, started performing out the bat, got bookings, networked, worked with people, publicists, friends… just started gigging, doing all kind of gigs from jazz clubs to performing at the Congressional Black Caucus where I met Obama to doing things at churches… even doing really small, intimate things in people’s living rooms. Like listening parties—if they had a piano we’d come and just literally come to people’s living rooms and they’d invite twenty-five friends over and I’d serenade them and sell CDs. I’ve done every kind of gig, from singing to ten thousand people to something like a listening party for ten people. But one thing I do know is that I knew when I started this, I knew I loved to perform. I knew there was a desire in me to perform that I had denied for so long, and that even when I was having hits on the charts as a songwriter I still knew that there was something inside of me, “But Gordon, you love to sing.” Because I’ve been singing since I was a child, so I knew that I missed that and that I had to get back to that to be honest with myself. Whitney Houston was very encouraging when I was producing her. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “I think you want to do what I do and if it’s what you want to do, if you want to sing, you should go for it.” she kind of spiritually connected with me, and that gave me the vote of confidence that I think I needed.

AB: And when Whitney says it, you should listen.

GC: Exactly. Whitney tells the truth.

AB: Exactly. So I want to go all the way back to way, way, way back in the day. What was the very, very first song that you ever wrote?

GC: I started writing songs at the age of seven and eight. I would just write these little songs for fun. Literally, when I was eight years old I was writing this song that I had envisioned Gladys Knight and the Pips singing. I mean literally. Then when I was ten and there was a sixth grade assembly, some of the words from this book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull—it was like a childhood book that we read—I took some of the words from that and made a song out of it. And my sixth grade teacher thought my song was really good, so she had the school band learn the song and she had the whole sixth grade sing this song at the assembly.

AB: Wow, that’s big.

GC: That was the first affirmation that I felt that I had a ministry to do this. And there was a student whose parent was at the assembly who worked at the New York Times and wrote about it. So situations like that as a child made me feel… and there were music teachers even in the school system who even gave me music lessons for free because they were like, “Your child is gifted and he needs more support. And so I was just really glad that I came from a school that had a strong—it was a public school system, but it had a strong musical… there were a lot of musicians that lived in the town. So that made being in the music business seem tangible, because Millie Jackson was our neighbour and Kool and the Gang lived around the block and Ray Barretto, the Latin percussionist, was a neighbour. There were a lot of recording artists that were living in Teaneck (New Jersey): Diana Ross had a condo in Teaneck at one point at Glen Point Hotel. So it made it seem tangible. And right in Englewood there were people like Regina Belle, who was a little older than me but made it big. So it seemed like if these people could do it then I can do it too.

AB: That’s awesome. Living and breathing music, all day every day. I like that. And you also wrote a huge hit song for the R&B trio Brownstone back in the ‘90s, “If You Love Me”. Did you ever get a chance, writing that song with the group and the group being signed to Michael Jackson’s label, did you ever get a chance to meet Michael?

GC: Michael called on the phone one day. It was the most shocking thing ever. I was at the MJJ label one day having a meeting with one of his executives and he said, “Gordon, there’s somebody who wants to say hi to you,” and he put them on speakerphone and I said, “Hello?” And I heard this voice that said [Michael Jackson impression]: “Hi, Gordon. I can’t talk long, I’m on my plane, but I just want to tell you, really great song. Bye!” Then he was gone. I was in complete shock.

AB: That is awesome, I love the voice and everything.

GC: And then he was gone.

AB: Yeah, in and out… that sounds like Michael. So who haven’t you worked with yet that you would like to?

GC: I would love to work with Rihanna. I worked with Mary J. Blige before but I would love to get back together with her again. I’m a big Ne-Yo fan. And then there are people like Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder that I’m a huge fan of that I’d love to work with on some level. That could be anything: it could be writing a song with Stevie… I’d go on tour with Stevie and sing background, I don’t care; any time to work with him would be amazing. I will never forget, he loved “I Apologize”, and at one of the Essence Awards when I was working there Susan Taylor introduced me to him and told him that I had written that, and he sang it in my ear. That was like, wow… that was one of the most momentous moments of my life. Singing my song in my ear.

AB: That’s major. All the songs that he’s written, oh my God. So where does the inspiration come from when you sit down to write a song?

GC: It comes from a love affair with music. The inspiration comes from really wanting to put music in the marketplace that I believe in. I believe in love, I believe in the power of music as a healing force. Some of the people that I’ve worked with over the years have been role models of mine and I’ve been admiring their talent for so long, and the music that I was inspired by was music that was about love—and not just relationship love and romantic love, but spiritual love. And I believe in love… I believe that music can be a great element even for our children to have a loving environment. Some of the most fondest memories of my life were growing up in Teaneck, New Jersey when we’d have family parties and my father would DJ downstairs and we’d play soul music, and the entire family would get together and eat and laugh and dance and joke around. That joy that music brings into my family’s life; that’s the reason why I do this, because I know the joy that people get from music. I know the relief it provides, the escape and the joy. Last night I did a listening party with Lenny Green for the new album. It was the first time I heard the album in loudspeakers in a public space with people listening to it, and to see people dancing jubilantly… it almost moved me to tears, because I’m like, “This is why I do this—because I love people and I love life and I love music.”

AB: Wow, that’s amazing, that connection to the people that you seem to have to know exactly what your audience wants to hear.

GC: Yes.

AB: And like you mentioned before, you know what your demographic is and the audience that you’re trying to serve, and give them exactly what they’ve been missing and what very few people do nowadays, especially when it comes to R&B music. And to backtrack just a little bit, you mentioned that you wanted to work with Rihanna, which would be probably the most out-the-box scenario of all the people that you’ve worked with thus far. So what is it about Rihanna that…?

GC: I like Rihanna’s voice. I think she has a rhythmic swagger, and I like the sound of her voice. She tells a story. I think she makes a song exciting; she can make a melody memorable. I like her.

AB: I’m also a huge fan too and I agree, I think she has that conviction on everything that she sings that just makes you believe it totally.

GC: Yes, totally.

AB: That’s great for an artist to have. And then you also mentioned that you were working as a journalist—entertainment editor for Essence—once upon a time. How did you transition into that and then eventually transition out of it into songwriting, or was it all simultaneous?

GC: I was pursuing songwriting while I was at Essence, there was a lot of studios that were right around the corner from Essence. Sometimes I used to literally go to Puffy’s studio during lunch break and after work. I worked in midtown Manhattan and there were tons of studios that were there, so I was pursuing it. And while I was at Essence I actually interviewed Queen Latifah, and she was like, “Are you a musician, brother?” and I said yes, and she said, “I could tell by the way the questions you asked and how you asked them; something about you I could tell.” And she said, “I want to hear some of your music.” So I gave her a tape and she loved it, she called me that same night. She said, “This is dope. Can you meet tomorrow morning?” And I came to meet her the next day and then a couple of weeks later we were in the studio writing something for her album. It was a tribute to her brother, the song called “Winki’s Theme”. So she was the first vote of confidence, and I met Phyllis shortly thereafter. And there were a lot of music producers that I started to meet who were great beatmakers that needed lyrics, so they started having me just come by and put my lyrics down and just seeing… I think I was a kid who had an excitement about myself, an excitement about music, and people could feel that excitement in me just as I now can meet young people and feel that excitement in them. And they were like, “Come on,” and the opportunities started presenting themselves to working with artists.

And when it came time to work with the artists, even though I was pretty young and new in the business, they trusted me that I knew how to conduct myself in front of stars and that I knew how to do my job; and that I could not only write the song, but when it came time for the artist to come in and learn the song in the studio or sing the song and get their vocal produced that I could handle it. I’ll never forget, Chaka Khan had just flown in from Japan and she came in to do the “Missing You” song. You could tell that she had listened to the song but she didn’t really know it. So I was there with the producer, Barry Eastmond, on the session and she needed help with the melody. So at one point she was there trying to sing it but she really didn’t know it, so Barry’s like, “Sing it to her.” I was like, “Wait a minute. I’m twenty-three years old. I am not going in that booth to show Chaka Khan how to sing anything.” And then Chaka said something about, “Gordon, will come in here and sing this for me, please?” in her very unmistakable way. So then the next thing I know I’m in the booth with Chaka Khan and I’m singing her the melody. I’m like, “Is this surreal or what?” But when those opportunities present themselves you have to be ready and you have to deliver.

And now I have that same sixth sense in musicians, whether it be band members or producers… people that work with me. Even photographers, I’ve given a chance. The guy who did my new album cover has never had an album cover done before. I met him and I was like, “You have an eye. Let’s do this, let’s do a shoot.” Life is about having that eye for talent.

AB: Definitely. I like that: paying it forward. I like that.

GC: Thanks.

AB: Let’s see… so we went over the Essence magazine thing… so recently—I’m not sure exactly how recent—but you taught a songwriting course at Berklee University (Berklee College of Music), right?

GC: Yes, I did.

AB: How did that go?

GC: Amazing. That was an amazing experience, because growing up I always wanted to go to Berklee and I was afraid to ask my father if he would fund that, because my parents are Jamaican so they were very into the lawyer, doctor, pre-professional… that immigrant dream thing, you know? So being back on Berklee’s campus and being a guest instructor was an amazing experience. Just the energy… these kids in music school are amazingly talented, and their technical knowledge of the technology… they’re like, wow. It’s going to be amazing to see in ten years what they’ll do with the industry because they have a command of the technology that’s way beyond… at least, I know what it was when I was that age.

AB: Wow. So what do you think would be the future of music in their hands?

GC: What would be the future of what?

AB: Of music in their hands.

GC: Well, I’ll tell you: when I was teaching there I had to keep telling them, “Keep it real. Don’t try to just make it cool, but keep it real. What is your truth? Tell your truth.” Because right now they want to get in the industry and they want to make it happen and they want to be the newest, coolest thing so they can get in the industry and make their mark. But I kept encouraging them; I said, “A song’s gotta be true. It’s got to tell a truth.” And so that’s what I kept encouraging them to do.

AB: And you spoke about the immigrant dream. You were supposed to be a lawyer at one point, right?

Yes.

AB: So how did that not come to pass, I guess?

GC: I was in poli-sci for five semesters straight and I said to my father, “Daddy, this is just not it. I’m sorry, but this is just not my ‘it’.” and he said, “Well, what do you want to do? As long as you finish your degree, it’s cool with me.” So I ended up finishing with journalism and African-American studies—I combined a lot of those courses with the poli-sci courses—and I ended up graduating with a degree. It was an interdisciplinary department called American Civilizations. But I graduated on time; I graduated college at twenty years old, moved back home and started working at Essence three weeks later.

AB: You definitely have a great story, a lot of inspiration for other singer-songwriters who want to make it into this business and also do it on their own terms.

GC: Thank you.

AB: So how can your fans keep up to date with everything that’s going on with Gordon Chambers?

GC: They should just go to gordonchambers.com. That’s where they can buy the album, that’s where they can join the email list of all the live shows and the touring that I do, and that’s where they can see the music video that we just shot. It’s just a one-stop shop, gordonchambers. And my Twitter is Gordon Chambers, my Facebook is Gordon Chambers, my MySpace is Gordon Chambers. I’m lucky that there are not a lot of other Gordon Chambers’ that are trying to do music. I could easily patent myself with my own name.

AB: I like that; very fortunate. Well, thank you very much Gordon for taking this time.

GC: Thank you.

AB: And good luck with the new album. I’m sure you don’t need the luck because you’re so talented and you already have a very strong and loyal fanbase who will definitely support, I’m so sure of it.

GC: Thank you so very much, and it’s always a pleasure to support SoulMusic.com because I love SoulMusic.com. I have a Whitney Houston story to tell you that’s relevant: when I was producing Whitney—that same session when I told you that she encouraged me to do the solo thing—I wanted to give her a gift, and I bought from David reissues of some of Cissy Houston’s recordings with The Sweet Inspirations and I gifted them to Whitney. She just screamed, she was like, “Oh my God! Gordon, I love you,” blah-blah-blah. So because of SoulMusic.com’s website, it helped me to really bond with Whitney and help me get my relationship with her starting out on the right foot in the studio, and that was some of the inspiration that led me getting to do my own work as a solo artist. So I’m always grateful for this website and will always support it. I’m glad that they support me.

AB: That’s a great story. David will definitely appreciate that, that’s awesome. Cool. All right, thank you again. And I’m sure we’ll talk soon.

GC: Cool. Thank you again.

AB: All right, thank you.



About the Writer
With nearly a decade of experience in programming content for Music Choice (24/7 music channels, cable-on-demand shows, website and cell), Akim Bryant has just begun to scratch the surface of journalism having already written for GIANT and The Source magazines as well as a number of start-up publications. This self-professed R&B junkie also has a strong knack for the art of interviewing. Be on the lookout for his semi-autobiographical debut novel coming out in 2012.
  
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