In Living Color: An Interview with Karyn White

by Justin Kantor 

In 1986, soul fans around the world were introduced to a dazzling new female voice, delivering a funky tune about "The Facts of Love." Within two years' time, Karyn White's name was a mainstay atop both the R&B and Pop charts, with songs ranging from the declarative self-empowerment ballad, "Superwoman," to the seductive dance floor call, "Secret Rendezvous." But after three hit-laden albums, the Los Angeles native abruptly disappeared from the music business. Justin Kantor catches up with the newly recharged performer as she fills in SoulTracks readers on her rise to the top; her retreat from the spotlight; and her new CD, Carpe Diem.

by Justin Kantor 

In 1986, soul fans around the world were introduced to a dazzling new female voice, delivering a funky tune about "The Facts of Love." Within two years' time, Karyn White's name was a mainstay atop both the R&B and Pop charts, with songs ranging from the declarative self-empowerment ballad, "Superwoman," to the seductive dance floor call, "Secret Rendezvous." But after three hit-laden albums, the Los Angeles native abruptly disappeared from the music business. Justin Kantor catches up with the newly recharged performer as she fills in SoulTracks readers on her rise to the top; her retreat from the spotlight; and her new CD, Carpe Diem.

I understand that your parents were very supportive of your childhood aspirations to be an entertainer. Tell me how that played into your everyday life growing up.

I was a leader, a person who would gather up everybody and say, "Let's make up a dance. Let's listen to Deniece Williams and see who can do the high runs. Let's do a talent show and ask the teachers if we can perform at the PTA." I was also very athletic. I ran track and played basketball. I was very competitive.

Didn't you also participate in a lot of pageants?

Yes. I went to a school that was sort of like Fame during junior high and high school. It was a summer government program for underprivileged kids. It was incredible.

One of the early signs you showed of maturity as a performer was actually quitting cheerleading to preserve your singing voice!

Yes, I was always hoarse. I did like the sound, in a way—that character, that kind of grit, because sometimes my voice is so sweet. I wanted to put that rock edge into my voice, but not at the cost of losing my range. I wasn't able to hit those high notes in my natural voice. So I put a stop to the cheerleading.

You set out from early age to not only be a singer, but an all-around entertainer. Who or what inspired you in that way?

Well, my sister's a choreographer and dancer. Also, I took part in a program called the Ebony Showcase Theatre. And of course, being in pageants, I had to be able to speak, dance, model, and act. It's what I was doing. As far as professional artists, Diana Ross and Stephanie Mills inspired me.

Making your way into the professional side of things, auditioning for Dreamgirls, Shalamar—what were those early experiences like? What did you get out of them?

I got to see that there's so much talent in Los Angeles—and you know what, it's nothing but the favor of God. It made me appreciate any kind of callback, or making it to the top five. It also let me see that, as you keep getting close, if you don't give up eventually you're gonna get it.

How did you land the gig of touring vocalist with O'Bryan?

I auditioned for both him and Don Cornelius. That came from just having access to musicians and people in my band that I wrote with. At that time, he was the Eric Benet, and Don Cornelius was intimidating. So it was a big deal. Don gave me a wink and let me know!

What did you learn about the music business from that first tour?

You have to carry yourself in a way that is presentable, especially being the only female on the road. You take your butt back home on the bus after the gig! Don't get caught up in hanging out. This is a business—you gotta wake up in the morning and perform. You can't stay up all night, party, and think you're gonna sound good.

Also, through the tour, I was able to get with some musicians from the Bay area who helped me put together my demo tape. It's never the big things. It's the small stuff. You never know how it's gonna come. You've gotta just be everywhere and audition for everything. I came across the person who told me about the gig of life simply because I was doing my demo at a studio in the Bay area.

You've stated that getting a deal is the easy part, but proving yourself is where the real work comes in. Did you have to do a lot of that after securing your contract with Warner Bros. Records?

Yes, the record I did with Jeff Lorber ("The Facts of Love") had to perform in order for me to obtain my own deal. After Warner gave me the go-ahead on my own career, then I had to get to know who I was and what separated me from every other artist. I had to know my lane. I started working with writers, and at first it didn't come together. Then, I got with L.A. Reid and Babyface. They really helped shape who Karyn White was. That was their gift, to be able to see what was special in me.

The crossover success you had as a young female R&BB artist at that time is particularly notable, as you were very involved in the making of your albums—writing- and production-wise. Did you intentionally set out to appeal to fans of various genres of music?

That's just who I am. I love Pop and all kinds of music. Prince was probably my biggest influence, and he's everything!

People often first think of "Superwoman" when they hear your name. Interestingly, although you have written a lot of your material, that song was not one you were involved in composing. Did you foresee that as an anthem? What is your take on its meaning to your career?

That was my blessing. I had nothing to do with it. It's something that L.A. & Face saw in me. They could've given that song to anybody. Everybody wanted to work with them at that time. So, for them to see in me that strength and that I could really carry that song was brilliant. Besides, Babyface is one of the most prolific writers of the century. For him to have that sensibility of what a woman really feels, he just gets it. And L.A. really worked with me vocally. He had to really get me upset. We spent a lot of time on that vocal, because I was too young. I hadn't lived life for real to know all that stuff. I wasn't married, didn't have kids. My focus was all on making it. A "Superwoman" is a person who endures all of that and rises above it. So, today when I sing it, I kill it!

I've read that you always approach the making of your records from an artistic standpoint—not just thinking about the sales. So, comparing, say, Ritual of Love to Make Him Do Right, those two albums each showed a different side of your musicality. Ritual had very big production, while Make Him had a pared-down sensibility. When you're in the trenches of recording, are you keeping in mind what's going on in music at the moment, or strictly vibing off what feels good to you?

First, it's the integrity of the song. I'm very in tune with who I am and what I sing. If I write with people, it has to be something that I really believe. I don't sing stuff that I don't relate to. So, I start from that point and go from there. Sometimes a song requires big production, sometimes the melody is really simple. Ritual of Love is just a special album. That was just a magic time for me— being in love with the love of my life. You could just feel it. It was easy to write, because it was where I was; whereas Make Him Do Right was me getting back with Face again, yet kind of feeling awkward with not having L.A. around. It was kind of a transition, also, with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis saying, "Maybe you should let him do more." I had just had a child, so I don't think I was as focused. I kind of lost that on that album.

What ultimately caused you to walk away from the music business for such a long time following Make Him Do Right?

Well, I was raising my child, and then I went through a very tough time. I lost the two loves of my life, with the passing of my mom and getting divorced from my husband. I had been trying to be famous and driven since I was eight years old. I had been doing it a long time, and I was successful at it—but I wasn't successful at life. Karyn had to become a woman. I had to go on my journey and say, "This isn't success when you have everything in the world and you lose the things that mean the most to you." To me, success now is being in the will of God.  It's not just being famous.

In 2007, we got our first clue that you might be coming back to the scene when Shout! Factory released Superwoman: The Best of Karyn White, including two previously unreleased songs ("All I Do" and "Disconnected"). How did those tunes come about?

Those were songs I had been working on. I was supposed to do a fourth album for Warner Bros., but everything changed when Benny Medina left. I got dropped. Then, I signed with another record company, but something happened where we ended up not finishing. "All I Do" was really special to me. That was my vocal direction: gritty! I was singing with such a passion that was different, because I had lived through some pain. It was a trip. That was my first demonstration of the new Karyn. The song is about Terry and what I was going through losing him. I was singing from a different place. I'd never sang from pain before.

You've branded your new style "retro-acoustic." When you're recording now, do you keep musical past in mind, or are you totally starting over?

I know who I am, and I know my lane. I have such a big following with women. So, what I'm looked at as definitely plays into when I sing songs now like "Unbreakable" and "True Colors." They're inspirational and about overcoming things. That's who I am, so that's just smart. But of course, I want to be today. Vocally, I think I've grown. My voice has a warmer tone to it now. I sing richer and deeper. I'm a grown woman.

Tell me about your new collaborators, Derek Allen and Bobby G. How did you hook up, and what attracted you to them as producers for your new CD, Carpe Diem?

Derek and Bobby are both cream-of-the-crop musicians who were with me on my first tour. They're from northern California, which has the best musicians in the world! Derek recently had a #1 song with Anita Baker: "Lately." I didn't want to go with anybody who didn't get me. It was real important for me to be comfortable this time, but not to lose the talent. I wanted them to do the whole project. I don't like working with a lot of different producers.

When you decided to do a new album, did you consider signing with another label, or had you decided on the independent route from the get-go?

When I was away, I became an entrepreneur. I'm a businesswoman now. I'm flippin' homes, tryin' to be Donald Trump. I'm not the same artist. I'm a smart woman who wants to be famous at the bank. There's no way I'm gonna sign a 360 deal, where a label gets paid off of everything that I do  That doesn't make sense. Why would I come back to that situation when I have a name? Warner Bros. spent millions of dollars for people to know my name. All I have to do is get back out there. I saw the business opportunity doing it through Karyn White Enterprises. I considered a joint venture, but unless the label was giving me millions of dollars, it didn't make sense.

How did you come up with the title Carpe Diem?

It actually came to Bobby G. I was in the hospital. I had three surgeries that were unplanned—all of a sudden! I had female problems, and then it turned into a mistake that the doctor made, and then something happened. Bobby said, "Carpe Diem. Seize the day... you're gonna be alright." I said, "That's it! Can I have it?" He said yes, so I started writing with my longtime friend Tony Haynes. I had to keep going, since it was right in the middle of making my album. All of these years, I've been healthy. Then I decide to work again as an artist, and I've gotta have three surgeries—in a month! i

Let's talk about a few of the songs on Carpe Diem. One of my favorites is "My Heart Cries," a moving ballad. What drew you to that?

Bobby G. wrote that one. He also wrote "All I Do." He writes very simple melodies, but his lyrics often deal with messing up in a relationship. It's brilliant. For some reason, this past summer I was on a big Maxwell kick. I was looking at his concerts and thinking, "This guy is incredible." That's some of the feeling that I was trying to put into that song.

What inspired you to remake Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors"?

Derek gave it to me as a birthday present. He had done the track over. It's a song about the truth of who we are, the good and the bad, being able to accept them all. I think it's a great song to do live, especially with that rock edge. I wanted to showcase that side of me.

Isn't this is the first time you covered another artist's song?

Yes! This time around I don't have any fears or reservations.

How about "Unbreakable"? I get the impression that it's kind of like a theme song for you.

It's about being an overcomer. It can apply to a lot of things: the end of relationships when you can lose yourself and your spirit can be broken; or just doing what i'm doing, seizing the day—being unbreakable! We're not sure exactly which songs are gonna catch on, we're just doing what we like. The whole industry is different now.

Did the big changes in the industry since you left it give you any pause when you were planning your comeback?

At first, but then I began to understand that it's really the best time. It doesn't cost that much to make records. Back in the day, I'd spend $100,000 a track with Babyface, or $50,000 with Jam & Lewis. My videos would cost $300,000; now I'm doing them for $700! So, I embrace the changes. It's a different day, because with Karyn White Enterprises, I own myself, and I'm controlling my masters. I'm not in a 360 deal. I don't know how any artist can make money in that situation now. I'm afraid for them.

Do you see music as your sole pursuit from now on, or part of a bigger picture?

I'm going to be doing my whole brand. I'll be encompassing my designs—I'd love to have something at Kohl's, like my bedding collection. I also do jewelry, perfume, and hair products. I'm an older woman now, and I think I look great for 47. I'm a brand, and I'm gonna show people how I do that.

I'd like to close with a quote from you: "I care about yesterday, because there wouldn't be today if those artists didn't pave the way." Tell me how that plays into your career and personal legacy.

It is so important to know your history. If there weren't a Whitney, Dionne, or Aretha—these women opened up the door. It's so hard, what we do. It's a sacrifice. Sometimes the music industry doesn't really love you back. So, any artist I see, I don't care if they had one hit, half a hit—if they've done it, they just get my respect. Because I know how much we sacrifice. There's so many talented people that never get to see the light of day. More than anything, I'm grateful.

 
Choice Cut - Maysa - "Lovin' You Is Easy"

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