Now and Then with Justin Kantor: A conversation with O'Bryan

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    "Now and Then With Justin Kantor" is a new SoulTracks feature where we have an in depth conversation with a classic soul star about his or her career, including what's happening now. Noted soul music writer Justin Kantor is our guide bringing SoulTrackers up to date on their favorite stars. Do you have ideas for future "Now and Then" features? You can connect with Justin on Twitter. And let us know what you think!

    "Now and Then With Justin Kantor" is a new SoulTracks feature where we have an in depth conversation with a classic soul star about his or her career, including what's happening now. Noted soul music writer Justin Kantor is our guide bringing SoulTrackers up to date on their favorite stars. Do you have ideas for future "Now and Then" features? You can connect with Justin on Twitter. And let us know what you think!

    From 1982 to 1987, O'Bryan won the hearts of listeners with both his tender ballads ("You and I," "Lady I Love You") and gutsy, rock-fueled funk ("The Gigolo," "Lovelite," and the opening theme for TV's Soul Train). The timeless passions of his recordings have continued to resonate with fans around the world long after his sudden disappearance from the limelight. For Soul Tracks' first installment of Now and Then, Justin Kantor talks with the multi-faceted artist about what he's been up to lately—as well as some of the history (and mystery) behind his earlier years in the music industry.

    What prompted your decision to leave the music industry during the mid-1990s?

    It was almost a forced hiatus. It seemed like so many things were changing. I was in transition from Capitol to A&M. That took two years of negotiations. By the time I got signed to A&M, the gentleman who had brought me there, John McClain, was on his [way out]. Things went south. I didn't have the support that I needed. Then, the people left at A&R—I didn't like what they wanted me to do and how they wanted me to do it. I felt like I had to totally change what I was doing in style of music. Taking all that into account, plus the political games and new jack swing coming up at that time—it just kept getting harder. I needed to do what I had to do to make money, so I decided to get a job and go back to working. I figured, "I'll chase this rabbit down later." When you come from where I come from—I was working when I got discovered, singing in the choir—Hollywood has never been something that I'm super fazed by. It was easier for me to just go, "Hey, down inside, I'm a country cat from a country town with humble beginnings. I can go somewhere in between there and be just fine." And that's what I did.

    While you were away, were there particular ways in which you grew as a person?

    Being away for awhile gives you a different perspective on how things change and move in the industry. Back in those days, we were like crazy kids out there in that life. It was like one big party. A lot of people don't make it through that phase. They end up on drugs or drinking too much one night and getting into a car accident. So, when you have a chance to step away and look at it for what it is—a job—that's important. I saw some people who never got a break from this industry. I saw what it did to them or how they continued to think they were doing what was necessary to keep themselves afloat, when really they weren't. The music industry was changing around them.

    Were there any parts of your music career that you missed?

    You find an appreciation for what you had. It's important to teach young artists to appreciate some of the things that are going on and who makes them happen. You tend to just do all the time; everything is par for the course. But you don't thank the promoter when you do a concert, you don't remember to thank the DJ's, or the people working behind the scenes to make that show go on. Those things that the normal guy O'Bryan would never have had. When you're young, you just do what you're told. But you see more when you're going 35 mph than at 75. At 75, things are a blur; at 35, you see the countryside. You've gotta cross those same roads and people on the way down, so it's important that we learn to appreciate the people who help us to get to where we are.

    You quietly came back on the scene in 2007 with the F1rst CD. Tell me about the process of putting that together and getting your music back out there.

    At the time, I was in St. Louis. If I could have lived both the family life and that life on the west coast, [I would have]. It wasn't convenient for me to pursue a music career. But when all of these online aggregators for digital music came along, that changed. It used to be that record companies were the only establishments that could stamp records and print CD's. But when all of that came to be something that anybody could do if you had the money, I used CD Baby, TuneCore, and I-Tunes, and DiscMakers to print my CD. I saw a way that I could get my music out there from the comfort of my own home.

    What kind of reception did you get?

    It's not the same as being with a major record company and having terrestrial radio at your fingertips. Through the Internet, it has to trickle down. It spreads like a slow fire. There are people today who don't even know that record exists. But I was trying to accomplish a couple of things. Throughout the time that I was gone, there were many rumors. There were blogs claiming that I was dead, or that I was on drugs. Not only am I not dead and not on drugs—I can still sing! Those who heard it, loved it. That's all that matters to me. If I could've gotten it on the radio at the time, O'Bryan fans would have loved it. I know that and I'm happy with it. Those who come across it today ask, "How come I never heard this on the radio?" They don't realize that I was a major recording artist who's no longer signed to a major company. I don't have that huge machine working for me any longer.

    One song on the F1rst album seemed like it might be autobiographical: "Caught in the Middle"?

    Yes, that one intertwined my father's life story and mine. In the beginning, that's him not wanting to leave us in North Carolina, but having to go west to provide a better life for us. Then, he sent for us. The second part is me out there in California, where everyday is a beautiful day—coupled with beautiful women and all the rest. The end did actually happen to me, where I ended up with two people having my child at the same time. We'll just leave that as that! [laughs]

    A couple of years ago, I saw some sample packaging for a two-disc anthology you were planning to release of your '80s recordings. Is that still going to happen?

    It's still on the table. Capitol got involved and connected us with the masters. So, the quality will be off the chain. If I want to, I could actually play with some of the tempos to get them a little more today. I'll probably end up leaving them just as they were. But it's funny how things change. In my live show, I don't play "I'm Freaky" as fast as it originally was; because it doesn't feel good anymore. The pocket has changed. Now, you can really sway back and forth, rock and dance, and do something that you would do today.

    Speaking of that, you've been doing a good amount of live work lately. What are some of the venues and locales you've played thus far?

    I did my first Los Angeles show at Rooftop 3100, a club with a nice stage. Then I was at the Savoy Entertainment Center and the Pomona Fairgrounds for the Soul Festival with Kashif, Joe, and After 7. I'm still trying to get traction. This year, I've got a Valentine's Day show with Surface at the Frauenthal Theater in Muskegon, Michigan. It's beautiful. Hopefully it will lead to more and more live performances. The show is called "Lovers' Holiday."

    Part of the thing for me, as I was trying to come back, was that I fought with this whole new trend and idea of venues. It's not like it was a long time ago. In my day, I very rarely played a club. I played theatres, Budweiser Superfest, the L.A. Sports Arena, and big venues across the country. I couldn't wrap my mind around track dates. But I'm getting cool with it and going to attack it full force. If others are doing it, I can, too.

    What can people expect at your current shows?

    It depends on if I'm headlining. It's all on the promoter and what they're willing to do. What I'm pushing for on a consistent level is that every time I play, I have at least my core rhythm section: guitarist, drummer, bassist, and keyboardist. For a promoter to make money, it's got to be feasible. But for me as a musician, live music is not live music if you're not playing it. I think it's unfair to an audience. I want to give my audience live music. Today, in order for things to be lush and full, most artists are going to run backing tracks along with their band. In order for a four-piece to sound like a seven-piece, you've got to bring some technology into play. I'm all for that.

    Let's talk about your history in the business. What were the steps leading up to your deal with Capitol Records and recording your first album?

    It's funny; I wasn't pursuing a career. Soon after I got to California, I [attended] Santa Ana Valley High. They put on talent shows there, and I would sing in them. Consequently, the choir director at the church around the corner heard me and said that I should join the young adult choir. Melvin Davis, the bass player, met a lady who knew producer Ron Kersey. She came to church one day, heard me, and told Ron about me. I sang for him. He wanted to put a group together. We all played one time on the Queen Mary for the Long Beach Policeman's Ball. After that, the group disbanded. Ron took me to his friend, Don Cornelius, since they were trying to start a production company. So I went to Don's house. I sat down at the piano in his living room and sang a little bit. He asked me, "Are you ready to do this?" I said, "Yeah, I'm ready as I'm ever gonna be!" We started trying to place me. First, we met with Larkin Arnold from CBS. Then, with Varnell Johnson at Capitol Records, and it was a go!

    Working on that first album, you wrote and produced with Don quite a bit. What stands out about that experience?

    My first album was the most unique experience, because I was a rookie. I was more of a spectator. It was done with Ron at the helm. He called all the musicians he knew. The Waters and Jeffrey Osborne sang background on it. Some of the LTD musicians played on it. Bruce Miller did the horn and string arrangements. I was in amazement of everything. We took a different direction once I started getting into synthesizers. I was already into them before I got signed. I had one that I was playing for the church choir, that had been stolen. As I made money, I started to buy things to produce music. The sound changed. That's when we started going into songs like "I'm Freaky" and "Lovelite." Don saw that we could make albums without so many people.

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