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Interview Tue Jun 22 2010
For Chicago native Jody Watley, there really is no place like home. With over 20 million solo records sold worldwide and Billboard chart-topping hits that include "Looking for a New Love," "Everything," and "Real Love," the Grammy-award winning singer and songwriter, performing in a special homecoming concert this week in Chicago, talks about returning to her Windy City roots, her record label and upcoming album, Chameleon, and why performing in Chicago will be extra special this time around.
Gapers Block: Transmission: Your godfather, the legendary Jackie Wilson introduced "Jody Watley" to the world — was that when the bug hit you?
Jody Watley: Well I think I always had the desire to be a performer from my love of Motown and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Jackie Wilson was very close with my mother and father. At one time, my father was a gospel radio personality on WVON before I was even born, and he always had a lot of friends that were in show business. That's how the relationship with Jackie Wilson came to be.
GB: Describe for us what that experience was like, being exposed to Jackie Wilson and his music at an early age.
JW: The first concert that I remember attending was Jackie Wilson at The Regal Theater, which of course is where the Harold Washington Cultural Center is now located. That was one of the reasons [I chose this venue for my show] is because when I did some research on it, I realized this was simply meant to be because I haven't been on that spot since I was a little kid. My first time on stage was with Jackie Wilson at his show and it definitely had a profound impact on me; the people — and the women — were going crazy! He was such a phenomenal performer and even at a young age, you know when something is really special. So that is a little known fact [about me]. Jackie Wilson was definitely very influential and whatever my desires were, experiencing that time with him probably sealed the deal in many ways.
GB:You definitely have your own style — did your Chicago roots have an influence or impact your style as an artist, then and now?
JW: Oh, absolutely. This goes back to my parents and growing up in Chicago where people dressed up a lot. My father was a minister and also a phenomenal dresser — he had fabulous robes and everything. And my mom, well, she's the original "Watley diva." I would play dress up in her clothes all the time, so that was very influential. But in Chicago, we do have such an incredible and rich music legacy and style.
GB: Chicago does indeed have a certain "style."
JW: Yes. And when you're little, you don't even know what you're being influenced by and that's why it's important that kids get exposed to good people who care about their appearance because it's subliminally embedded in your own conscience. And this goes back to when I was on "Soul Train;" well, I wasn't on it when it was in Chicago, but then, it really wasn't about stylists and things like that — it was all about creating your own identity. So that's definitely a part of who I am and it's always been that way.
GB: You are very active with social media via MySpace, Facebook and Twitter; in fact, you are one of the "Celebrity Tweeters" who actually responds to fans. Talk about why you stay connected that way.
JW: Well I think if you're going to do it, you have to do it. With the state of the music industry and things being so fragmented, I think it's very important to have that type of connection — maybe not sharing everything you're doing every second, but I just think it establishes a bit more of a connection beyond, "Hey! Check out my latest song!" People get to see a different side of me that they may not have necessarily have gotten through my music or in an interview or something and I think it makes people feel connected in a more human way as opposed to just a piece of product. Even as a singer myself, I've met Alicia Keys and India Arie [on Twitter] and am now connected to other artists I've never actually met in person and even I've been shocked when I've gotten a reply! So I like to be able to give that to someone else. It's the small things that can make a difference in someone's day.
GB: You also have a blog, "Jody Watley: StyleFile"--what is that like?
JW: My blog has taken a couple turns over the past few years. I've loved to write ever since junior high school; I used to write poetry and short stories and full length books at that age, and the writing then evolved into songwriting. I just found lately that I wanted another extension to express myself creatively, but also it's a way for me to do something because I don't see enough mixture. [My blog] is a fashion and style, life affirmations and some things that are very specifically geared to honoring black beauty in a positive way. I got tired of going to entertainment blogs that always had a negative context. Though I feature all kinds of things on it, that is my number one goal I wanted to achieve. It's an eclectic blog, and I do get to express my love of fashion and style, but I do include some things about healthy living, too. People seem to really appreciate the posts I've been doing.
GB: You have sustained longevity in the music industry and are a part of its evolution. What do you think about shows like "America's Got Talent" or "So You Think You Can Dance?" Would you ever consider being a judge on shows like that?
JW: I think I would be a really good mentor because with so many years of experience, a love of music, and being woman in the music business, I have seen so many different sides of it. You know, if I were 16 and wanted to be a singer, I would be one of those kids trying to get on those shows, you know, just like when I was trying to be on "Soul Train," which of course, led to me being in Shalamar. But there is a downside to it though: What they're judging on isn't necessarily what artistry is or what longevity will represent, because the music business has a lot of intangibles. Being in the business for anybody is a lot of hard work — there's an emotional commitment to it and you have to be strong enough to withstand the downs and in-betweens and all of that. As a judge or a mentor, I think I'd definitely bring a level of enthusiasm and perspective. Since I do a lot of social networking, I get a lot of questions from aspiring artists like, "Could you give me some advice?" I try to impart a little preventive wisdom that way.
GB: With your song "Friends," [featuring Rakim] you were one of the pioneers of the R&B/Hip Hop collaboration — would you ever consider doing another collaboration, maybe fellow Chicago artists, Kanye West or Common?
JW: I would love to — with both — absolutely! I like both of them! The collaboration with Rakim — I remember when I first brought him up to then label, MCA, they didn't get it. I just told them, "Trust me." I just saw it. It was such a contrast and I was a fan of his. Everybody I work with, I try to have it not be some fake thing like, "Oh, this will be hot"; it's like, I really like them. But I really appreciate both of those guys. Kanye is so creative. He pushes things to the limit sometimes, but I think his heart is really in the right place with what he's trying to do. And also, with Common as well, he's always been very conscious and just really top quality. And we've got the Chicago thing happening, so both of those — I would just love it. Kanye appreciates the whole fashion thing, too — I could just see the video and everything.
GB: Your upcoming album, Chameleon, on your own label, Avitone, is due later this year — what can you tell us about this project?
JW: I don't know if I'll be done this year — probably more like next year, but I am closer. Originally, I hoped to have it out this summer, but as I continued to write, it just continued to get better and better. But after this interview, maybe I'll get to Kanye West and then I'll really be done! I mean, it must be a reason why I'm slowly inching this thing along! [Laughs]
GB: With your career steadily evolving, something tells me the title, Chameleon, has some meaning behind it.
JW: Yes. When you think of a chameleon, think about my evolving style and how music has change. But the idea initially behind Chameleon was really about women and just how diverse and adaptable we are. We do so many things so it really is a celebration of all the complexities and layers of being a woman and trying to do it all. That's really what it's ultimately about. I'm all those things just like other women: A mom, aunt, sister, best friend, wife, and ex-wife — all the things we are and how we always try to make ourselves look good in the process. It's really a nice celebration of that. In my songs I always try to be honest and authentic about what I'm feeling. I haven't heard anyone lately really do something that really is celebratory of those complexities and diversities. We're all chameleons, really. A lot of the songs will be very thematic that way. People can dance to it but also be inspired and uplifted by it.
GB: You are known for recording lots of danceable tunes — something that many people connect to you. Is it conscious on your part to always bring the dance tunes to your albums?
JW: Well, that's just a part of what I love. I like all types of music and as I've developed over the years as a solo artist, the dance part has to always be anchored in whatever I do. But I also love really melancholy, jazzy things, too. Even through my more recent songs like "A Beautiful Life" and back to my first solo single, "Looking for A New Love," even with those dance grooves, I try to write lyrics that still mean something. A lot of dance songs don't necessarily have particular lasting messages or meaning to them, but my music is always reflective of where I am. "Intimacy" was written during my divorce and so the music is far more introspective, but even on that one, there were a couple of dance cuts on that record as well. Dance will always be there. I do a lot of house music, which started in Chicago and it's something that I love.
GB: You are coming to Chicago this week — what are you looking forward to most, performing in your hometown again?
JW: I am just looking forward to the whole thing — performing at the Harold Washington Cultural Center. This show is one of my best shows that I've had. People sometimes might ask, "Where have you been?" Well, I'm working all the time, even when you don't see me — I'm always working. And this particular version of the show, which we just did in Japan back in April, I just can't wait for people to experience it. It's a party and coming to Chicago is always special. It's going to be even more special because I'm sure I'll probably get emotional being at that location, because it's really going back to my roots — where things really began. And that's very special to me.
GB: So in addition to performing here, will you be catching up on any other things?
JW: The last time I was in Chicago, I had the opportunity to go back to a couple of the places that I used to live growing up and I've always asked my mom all these questions, so this time when I come, I'm going to finish that part of my journey as well. I've also been documenting it and a part of what I hope to include in Chameleon will be some of the stories that I would like to share being a child in Chicago and growing up with my father.
GB: So this really will be a true homecoming for Jody Watley.
JW: Yes! And my grandfather's church is still in Chicago, too. There's a rich Watley history in Chicago that dates before me and it's always special to come home. I always get overwhelmed. I wish my dad were still alive, because at the time of his homegoing, he was still in Chicago. My father was also the first true Jody Watley fan — he used to say, "My daughter's gonna be a star." It used to get on my nerves when he said that, but I can't thank him enough for knowing that.
GB: In addition to visiting your "old stomping grounds," will you visit any other Chicago haunts?
JW: Well, I always make my way by a Harold's Chicken Shack; you know, that's kind of a touchstone, too!
GB: What can fans expect from the show?
JW: It's ironic that the concert is called "A Music Experience" because my shows really are an experience — it's a party — we really do create an atmosphere. Life is hard and stressful so I hope that I give people an atmosphere where they can let loose and have some fun and go home with a big smile on their faces. That's my job.
GB: Is there anything else about the show?
JW: Yes! June 25th, the day of my Chicago concert, is also the first anniversary of Michael Jackson's homegoing. That was very traumatic for me and the millions of his fans. There's a part of my show at the end — which ironically, I had started doing this before that whole tragedy occurred, we celebrate the music of Michael Jackson. That's another reason I hope people come out. He had such a huge influence on me and I want to celebrate his incredible legacy.
GB: You will also perform on ABC 7's morning news show the day of your concert here — what will we hear?
JW: I'm looking forward to that, I really am. I did a poll on my Facebook page asking fans which song they wanted me to sing, but that's been all over the place, so I don't know what I'm singing yet.
Jody Watley will perform live at "The Music Experience" concert series on Friday, June 25, at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. King Dr. Doors open at 7pm; show begins at 8pm.Tickets are $28 and can be purchased online or at the The Music Experience, 1959 ½ E. 73rd St. For more information, call 773-493-0154.