A lot of people seem to be jumping on the 'old school soul' bandwagon and it comes off as fake or forced. What kept your new CD sounding so honest?
"I am a throwback, so 'old school' is really not the right term to me. It wasn't really hard, those (influences) are people that you just cannot copy. That music's been a part of me for a long time, before I started making records, before I was even conceived, so it came to me real natural and just something that I enjoyed on listening back on once I was through making it."
How long did the process take?
"Well, the first song that I ever heard that first made me want to be in the business of playing music was 'Pride and Joy' by Marvin Gaye. I was maybe in the third grade, and I wanted to play an instrument from hearing that record. It took me 2 years to make this album in-between working on other projects, but it's still new to me and I'm learning about the record just hearing about it from what other people say."
It doesn't sound canned, contrived or anything like that, it's just to-the-bone soul right there.
"I like that, thank you. It was a real natural progression for me, it wasn't forced and I didn't feel like I was copying the past. I liked what they (the past musicians) did, and it was about the feeling, how it made people clap, come together and have a good time, walk away feeling special. I wasn't old enough to witness 'My Girl,' 'Shop Around,' and "Just my Imagination (Runnin' Away With Me)" being performed live, and I could just imagine how people felt when they walked into a venue hearing it, or when a DJ would hear the record, take it to the radio station and want to play it right then. I wanted to make a record that was so good that people would play it and go to programmers saying, 'Listen to this.'"
My favorite song is "Oh Girl," it's just so sweet and innocent, you don't hear that much these days.
"I said the same thing: when I sang, 'you know you saved me from myself, you knew I needed help,' it just came out---I don't think I even wrote that down. There's a couple of different people that said that particular song reminded them of the Stylistics, the Delphonics, Blue Magic. My older brothers would play them around the house, and when I grew older, I realized that the songs never went anywhere, and now they always end up in soundtracks and movies. My song, "Keep Marching," for example, has already been licensed for 2 films."
How did "Big Easy" come about?
"I was watching When the Levees Broke... by Spike Lee, it was on the screen and I made the music while I was watching it, it just came out like that. I don't know. I'm listening to it like everybody else is and taking it all in. It's like cooking a huge meal for everybody that you don't really eat and now I'm getting the feedback now from anybody.'
What was it like to work with Stevie Wonder?
" (Laughs)I never can get used to him being my friend. He calls me and says, 'This is Stevie.' I always say 'Stevie Wonder?', and he'll just say, 'Stevie.' Remember when I said, 'please welcome Stevie Wonder' on that song ("Never Give You Up")? He wasn't on the record when I said that, I called him afterwards and told him, "I need you on this record real bad." We've done a couple of things together; we did the Luther Vandross tribute, where he sang and I produced that, so we have a history. We're also both Tauruses, and our birthdays are one day apart, so we call each other 'Taurean Brothers.' My old friends back home in Oakland probably fell on the floor when they heard it, because they know how we all used to just sit there and go 'wow, Stevie Wonder....' He did the same thing when he invited Dizzy Gillespie to be on his song ("Do I Do"), and just then, it was my turn. It's pretty incredible: people asked me what it was like to win a Grammy, and I say 'Man, I won when I got Stevie Wonder to play on my album.' It's just a blessing."
How did you achieve the musicality?
'I played everything live; the drums, the guitar, the bass, the keyborards, I played almost everything on the album. I played everything separately, just taking my time. When I was singing, I would have David Ruffin in my head, close my eyes and act like I was him. Or, I'd be Smokey on the next.
Any personal favorites on your new CD?
"There are different ones, some I like to listen to a lot, and others I like to perform. "I love listening to 'Oh Girl,' the character that I brought out on that record."
Your resume seems endless: is there anyone else left that you want to work with?
"I wanna work with Trick Daddy, I wanna do something with Steve Perry from Journey, and Bill Withers. I like them a lot."
How do you generally feel about today's music?
"I think that there's a lot of feel-good music in the south, but in today's R&B, you don't have that real joy to me. Motown made people feel things, and these days, I don't see the tears, the love or the emotion. Slow dancing is missing for the young kids now, and I want to bring those good feelings back. There's a place for everything, so I don't really criticize anybody's music because I listen to it all, but urban black music is the music that everybody in the world likes, whether they're black, white, latino, whatever they are. Look at Lil Wayne, that's as black as you can get, but it's also the most pop that it could be, because he's doing himself since the very beginning.
What do you think of the homogenized pop/soul ruling the charts these days?
"I see a lot of urban artists tryin to be pop, and people get mad at me for saying this, but the blackest R&B artist that we've got right now is Justin Timberlake. As far as I'm concerned, his album sounds closer to Michael Jackson's than anybody else's. The black guys don't sound black to me, and people want you to be you. If I started rapping, rappers would be looking at me like, 'what's he doing, we like what he did.'
What's your goal as a musician?
"When it's said and done, my music will always exist. I continue to be me and make hits as good as I can make em' and hopefully it catches on. In my career, I've always shot to the left, that's always been my thing and my fans appreciate that, so I try to deliver to myself and my listeners. It's not just bout me, it's about passing it on to others and giving other kids the opportunity, so maybe when they're 16 or 17, they might come out doing it better than what I'm doing. Stevie gve me the chance, Al Green, Earth Wind and Fire and the Whispers gave me the chance to know what that kind of music was. If my album sells, cool, but if not, I know somebody's gonna pick it up and learn from it."
Will you ever reunite with Tony! Toni! Tone! ?
"Probably not, I'm just gonna take it from here and keep moving, man . Maybe one day we'll perform together one day or something like that, I've got other things to do now. I tried to some years ago and it didn't work, due to timing and different ways of thinking, and I'm always trying to grow and do things the correct way, so I had to move on.'
What do you hope people take away from The Way I See It?
"Maybe some kid in the 8th grade will feel the pain in the song "Sometimes," or a 50 year old will remember that first kiss from the wife. I want people take it home for Thanksgiving and for Christmas and play it in the house for the whole family and have a real good holiday. I put myself out there on the line, It's an honest record. There's nothing like it, even from the British stars making R&B."
Eric Benet ended our recent Soultracks interview telling fans how they must make their voices heard in the upcoming election. Any parting words of your own?
"That's a good thing, yeah. Tell em' to vote...vote for Obama."
By Melody Charles