Phone interview recorded September 29, 2010
El DeBarge is back. The lead singer of one of Motown's most popular '80s group with a '90s solo career that held much unfulfilled promise has been off the scene for a while, dealing with personal challenges that included a spell behind bars and conquering a drug addiction that essentially halted his career in mid-stream. Now signed with Interscope Records, working with producers like Jam & Lewis, Babyface and the Avila Brothers, El is in gear, on the road with Mary J. Blige and prepping for his first new album in years. David Nathan - a self-confessed DeBarge fan - catches up with the soulful singer/songwriter just before his Blige tour starts...
David Nathan: Well, I am elated to welcome to Soul Music.com today a gentleman whose music I’ve been listening to since he began recording with his family and I’ve followed his solo career avidly… I’m going to be completely honest and upfront and say that I’m very biased—El DeBarge is one of my favourite singers. He has been one of my favourite singers since the days of DeBarge and on to his great solo albums, which I personally feel have never been given the full due and respect they deserve, because I think some of his solo work is absolutely exceptional. I know that’s a big introduction [laughs], but I am really thrilled today to welcome to Soul Music.com El DeBarge on in conjunction with the [forthcoming] release of his brand new album, Second Chance, on Interscope. So welcome, El DeBarge.
El DeBarge: Hey, how are you, David Nathan? It’s good to talk to you again.
DN: You too, you too, man. And I know that was a big buildup, but I had to say it [laughs].
ED: Hey, I was loving every minute of it—you didn’t have to stop [laughs].
DN: [Laughs] Okay. Well, I do want to talk a little bit to you about some of those albums; the previous albums, but of course what we’re going to focus on, primarily, is your brand new record. First, tell us a little about how the album was conceived. I know you work with some great people; I want to talk to you about some of the people you worked with but just basically, when it came time to record did you have a concept in mind? How did this whole album develop?
ED: You know, I didn’t have a concept in mind with the Second Chance album when I approached it, because… it was like... this whole second chance was just new to me. I didn’t know how to approach it; I didn’t know where to begin except just to step to the microphone and just see how I could open up from that point. As I began to sing and write one song, then other songs developed out of that. Then another song would come. It was like, just getting started and then waiting on the flowers just to blossom. And what ended up happening, David, was that my soul, once again, was crying out. I was expressing music from my soul, and what generally happens then is love songs; up-tempo ballads; feel-good music; soulful harmony; laughter; joy, pain… you know, all of the human emotions. And I see this album as the triumph of the human spirit as God has given me strength. And I’m dedicating this to the whole world, to everybody out there that’s looking for a second chance. Okay, I know, so that sort of matched your introduction in length [laughs].
DN: [Laughs] Almost—almost. Well, let me ask you: what was the originating song? In fact, what was the very first song that you sat down at the piano and wrote, or the first song that you stepped up to the microphone and sang for this project?
ED: The first song that I sat down to the piano and wrote was “Second Chance”.
ED: [Yes] “Second Chance”. Now, I had been doodling with a song here and dabbling with a song there, and so on and so forth, but the one I actually sat down at the piano and it just was all there—once I opened my mouth, everything just started coming out. Songs are like babies to me, David—I said, “This baby is ready to be born right now.” Because the minute I sat down, it was like… it was like having a mother about ready to deliver triplets, or whatever: you can tell the first one that wants to come out is the one that’s pushing his way through. “Second Chance” just said, “Write me, El.” “Second Chance” was screaming out, “Write me first, sing me first. The testimony of what you want and need to say, El—I’m that. Write about this first.”
DN: Wow, wow. And then… I mean, we don’t want to go into every single “what happened next,” but just out of interest, what was the next song that came along after that? Do you remember?
ED: “The Format” with 50 Cent—the one that I’m doing with 50 Cent. That song is basically about… switching up the format for me [which] means that I understand what is going on in the musical climate today, and I understand how to be myself without changing, but at the same time, how to fit in and ride this wave of music that’s happening today.
ED: So I switched up the format. 50 Cent, his collab [sic] in this is the same thing for him, as he has switched up the format and he’s really on that gentleman-type vibe right now.
DN: And who were the first producers that you worked with on this project? Let me say—before you respond to that question, let me just point out to those who are going to be listening to this interview that some of the people you have been working on this album include Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds, two brothers that I’m very familiar with—the Avila Brothers—Michael Angelo and a gentleman called Mike City. I think I named them all. So who were the first people that you actually worked with on the project?
ED: Well, let me add some more to that: Ron Fair.
DN: Oh, okay. Yes.
ED: And Polo.
DN: Who I’m not familiar with.
ED: Polo? Okay. Yeah, well …you’ll be hearing about him. He’s made quite a name for himself. But anyway, as you were saying? I got distracted [laughs]—
DN: No, that’s okay. That’s fine. Who of the producers were the first ones that you actually worked with in the studio?
ED: The first one that I actually worked with in the studio was actually Mike City.
DN: Really? Okay. And how did those sessions go?
ED: Well, Mike City, he had songs that he felt …were just for me. He was like, “These songs are just for you, El. You can sing these and bring them home like they need to be brought home.” So what that meant was that he was very detailed and specific about what he wanted as a producer. He had an idea of how he wanted El DeBarge to sound on his song. And I liked that, because he knew what he wanted and it made it easier for me to put myself in his hands as an artist [with] him producing me.
DN: Yes. Now, I know that you have worked with Babyface before, if I’m correct, and—
ED: You’re correct.
DN: I am; I thought so [laughs]. And in fact, was that on one of your Warner Brothers albums?
ED: Yes, it was. It was my second Warner Brothers album that Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds and I wrote and produced together.
ED: It was an honour then, as well as it is an honour now.
DN: And how was working with him again?
ED: Well, it was just like riding a bicycle. Once he and I got in the studio it was like, hey, man, let’s do this. I like the fact that he understands me as an artist; I like the fact that he can produce not only as a producer, but he can also produce as an artist—he understands both sides.
ED: You know what I mean?
ED: It makes it so much easier. Not to mention the fact that he is a musical and lyrical genius.
DN: Did he write some songs specifically for you, for this project?
ED: You know, he and I and Ron Fair, we wrote a song together called, “When I See You, I Just Die”.
DN: Okay [laughs].
ED: It’s so beautiful [laughs].
DN: Okay. And how about Jimmy and Terry? How were they?
ED: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—oh, my god. You just don’t even know. They are like… okay, I’ve never worked with them before. When I came—walked through the doors of their studio, they embraced me like my big brothers. They said, “Listen, man, we’ve been waiting for this opportunity. Don’t worry, we got you.” They said, “Just sit down at the piano and play. We already know what you can do. Just play.”
ED: And I started playing. They brought in the Avila Brothers, so it was Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and the Avila Brothers, Bobby and Izzy…They were sitting there listening to me play and they said, okay. And while I was playing, they were just absorbing ideas. And then they played back to me what I was playing, they said, “This is what we’re going to write about.” And they just played back to me what I was playing and… nobody’s ever worked with me like that before.
ED: That was how they were able to just capture me. Then we sat down and just formatted the songs out. They started writing with me and producing. So that’s how that was.
DN: Wow. Well, I know we could spend probably an hour talking about the album, but we’re not going to do that since we have a certain amount of time to get this done. But let me ask you, and I know this is a tough question, but in the context of your solo career, how do you feel about this album?
ED: In the context of my solo career, I feel that this album is the best reemergence of my career that I could have had right now, because I’m in the right space. I mean, I’m totally in line with the universe, with all the good energy that’s out there. And all of that is inside this album, all of that feeling. The growth is there. I feel so positive and so hopeful and so joyful about this solo project right here.
DN: Now, I know, obviously, I referenced at the top of the interview some of your previous solo work: the two Motown albums, the two albums at Warner Brothers—I don’t think I’m missing anything, am I? I just think that they’re just excellent pieces of work, and you worked with some great people. And the mystery to me has always been—one of the mysteries about El DeBarge in terms of your solo career has been—why those albums didn’t get more response and acclaim, because I really think that they deserved it. I can think of tracks—songs like “Broken Dreams”; I can think of “Heart, Mind and Soul”, I mean there are great songs on each of those albums. So why do you think, objectively as best you can, that those albums didn’t get more response and reaction at the time that they came out?
ED: Well, I believe that the record company really need to feel that the artist is one hundred percent, and that he is on top of his game.
ED: When I was on my drug addiction, the record company could see it. It made them less enthused about really getting behind the album. So because they saw a decline in my energy, they saw a decline in my professional work ethics.
ED: And you know, I managed to pull it off in the studio and do the songs to complete an album, but I still wasn’t all there.
DN: I understand.
ED: And so… you understand what I mean?
DN: Yes, absolutely.
ED: So they couldn’t get behind it.
DN: Absolutely. Now, when you listen—do you ever go back and listen to those records?
ED: Yes, I do and I love them. It’s a part of me; it’s a great part of me. In the Storm? I love it, because clearly I was in the storm and it’s the way I was able to express that. The storm was just…the whole montage of different musical tastes that I had that would show up on that album. Heart, Mind and Soul, my first collaboration with Babyface: the feeling of he and I coming together and bringing our souls together—it’s all in that album.
DN: Yeah, and then I know you worked with Maurice White—
ED: He and I did “Broken Dreams”. I loved that. Oh, my god, it’s just feel-good music, and that’s the way this album is—Second Chance is—now. It’s just feel-good music.
DN: Yes. Well, I have to tell you, I have a U.K. radio show and I must have played some of those songs over and over again [laughs], because I just really love them. I mean, there’s one song… I don’t want to dwell too much into all those albums, but there’s a song called “Love Always” that is absolutely—
ED: Oh, I love that.
DN: —one of my—
ED: Written by the great Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager.
DN: Absolutely. Brilliant song and brilliant performance; I absolutely love it.
ED: Thank you.
DN: Well, one thing… there are many voices in soul music, there are many voices in contemporary music, and you certainly have one of the most distinctive voices. And what is it do you think about the way you sound—just the sound of your voice—that has managed to sustain you, your name, that people know who you are… what do you think it is, actually, about your voice itself?
ED: I was given a voice by the almighty God to bring love—give love to the world, and that’s what this “Second Chance” is all about. That my voice—that God’s love can flow through the voice of my music. I know that I’m a very passionate person and I have so much love for people and I think that that spirit is in my voice.
DN: It’s also true to say that as a group, DeBarge has a place in pop and soul history. Did you ever think when you started recording that people would still be listening to songs like “All This Love” and “Time Will Reveal”… did you think that people would still be listening to them at this point, so many years later?
ED: I had no idea. I had no idea. All I knew was that it felt good to me: I loved singing it; I loved writing it. I had no idea it would be timeless.
DN: Well, let’s bring us back to today. And there are a few more questions I have for you about the making of this album. I read in some of your bio material that when you actually first began recording, you were unsure about how it was going to go. You were maybe a little nervous; concerned about how it would be. Is that actually true, and how did you actually feel in the moment when you stepped up to the microphone?
ED: Well, it is true. I was nervous, I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I stepped to the microphone, I cried. I stepped to it and I sang “Second Chance”, I started the first verse of “Second Chance”, and I didn’t get two words out of my mouth before I was just bawling.
ED: And it took me all day to sing that song—to finish recording it because—I kept crying.
DN: Yes, yes.
ED: You know, just to let you in on something, there are certain parts of that song where the crying part is still there. You can sort of hear it when I was holding the mic. The producers that I worked with, they kind of kept it in there...if you listen hard enough, you can hear the spots where it’s...
DN: It’s real emotion.
ED: Where it became sort of tamed tears. You know?
DN: Yes, yes.
ED: The crying’s still there.
DN: Now who produced that particular track?
ED: Ron Fair.
DN: Okay. And did you know him before working on this project with him?
ED: No. I knew his work, what he did with Christina Aguilera…
DN: Yes, yes.
ED: And work he did with Keyshia Cole and various other artists. It’s been a great experience, a great musical experience for me.
DN: Yes, yes. Well, I have to say I haven’t heard the whole album—actually, I’ve only heard “Second Chance” [laughs], so I can’t really talk about the rest of the music. But how would you describe the music on this album?
ED: It’s joyful: you laugh with me, you cry with me. Some of it is—well, I wouldn’t say some of it—all of it is basically feel-good music: up-tempo ballads to slow, crooning ballads. It’s full of harmonies. It’s the El DeBarge sound as we’ve come to know it.
DN: Well, I want to ask you—and I have purposely not gone into too much personal stuff—but I do need to ask you, and I think it’s only fair since this is already in your bio, so there’s no secrets here: how did it feel to you, once you came out of prison? How did you feel about that experience and facing the world again?
ED: I knew when I got out of prison that I wanted my career to reemerge. I knew who I was again, because I got back in touch with myself and I got my willpower back when I was in prison. So I took all of that with me to my manager, Pete Farmer, and I said, “Pete, I’m ready.” And he said, “Okay.” He took me to Interscope, they saw that I was ready, and they embraced me—they didn’t just sign me up, but they embraced me like family. And all of that felt good to me. They walked me through this whole thing, even as they’re doing now—they’re with me, one hundred percent. I couldn’t be with a better record company right now.
DN: Now, when you go out in public, do people respond to you, speak to you, say they’re pleased to see you’re back?
ED: Yes. Oh, it’s so wonderful, man. Everywhere I go: if I’m in the mall; if I’m at a movie theatre; if I’m just in a restaurant, people come up to me and that’s exactly what they say. They say, “El DeBarge, welcome back, we’re so glad that you’re back.” There’s so much goodwill out there. I just love my fans, they’re the greatest. I just love people. And I want the whole world to be my fans [laughs].
DN: Okay. Well, let me ask you: obviously I know you have other members of your family, talented members of your family who have made their own records—your brother Chico and others. How do they feel about this project, and have they had a chance to listen to it yet?
ED: My family—we’re each other’s fans. I’m a fan of theirs; they’re a fan of mine. They just get so behind me, and encourage me, and I get nothing but just positive strength from them.
DN: Well—what’s next? [Laughs]
ED: What’s next? I’m on tour with Mary J. Blige, I’m coming at you. I mean, it’s great. I get to do Radio City Music Hall again, you know what I’m saying? I get to do the Gibson Theatre here in Los Angeles, and I’m just going everywhere, all over the United States with Mary J. Blige.
DN: That’s fantastic. And how did that particular situation come about?
ED: She has also Jazmine Sullivan—and Miguel. That situation came about—basically [since], Mary was going on tour and Mary and I are mutual fans of one another. And she was so gracious. She said, “Hey, El, come and do this tour with me. We got room for you. We got Jazmine Sullivan and Miguel already, but we got room for you, we would love to have you on this tour.” And of course I embraced that with such gratefulness. I’m just so thankful—thank you, Mary.
DN: And when does that kick off? When does that tour begin? When does the tour kick off?
ED: The tour begins October… yeah, October 5th.
DN: Like, two weeks from now—a week from now. Wow. So are you ready for the road [laughs]?
ED: I’m ready for it, I’m ready. I’ve been doing some promotion for the album already; I’ve already caught my colds and sore throats, cleared my immune system from that, you know what I mean—
DN: [Laughs] Yes.
ED: And so I’m good [laughs].
DN: Good. Well, I just want to say on behalf of everyone who hasn’t already said this to you, I am absolutely thrilled that you have a new album out. I am sure that it will be embraced by millions of people who have been waiting for a new El DeBarge album. I’m still going to go back and listen to the old ones as well. And it’s just really great to hear your voice again, because you have, as I said, one of “the” voices in soul music and pop music. And I’m sure this is the beginning of a new chapter and we can expect many more great projects from you.
ED: Yes, yes, you can expect many more from me. And I’m so happy for this second chance, and this second chance is going to last a long, long time—for years, because I’m never letting it go. I’m here to stay. Like the end of the song “Second Chance”, man: “I’m not giving up/I’m here to stay/second chance,” [laughs].
DN: All right, well, I think that’s the perfect note to round out our interview today with El DeBarge. All I can say to those who are going to be listening to the interview is, go check it out, buy it, support this project, and just welcome back, El DeBarge.
ED: Thank you. Thank you guys, I love you.
DN: Thanks, bye. Take care, now.
ED: Okay, take care.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.