The release of Teena Marie’s new album, “Congo Square” on Stax Records marks the end of harrowing period in her life. As she reveals all, Jeff Lorez takes notes.
She stood outside Philadelphia’s Kimmel Centre on the red carpet in an unassuming short cream dress, clutching her handbag, her teenage daughter by her side. As the likes of Chaka Khan, with all her hair, pomp and majesty, the always upbeat, gregarious Betty Wright and smooth, media savvy Wayne Brady charmed the press and received compliments from public, the diminutive Teena Marie passed by almost unnoticed by the masses of onlookers. A few moments later on the stage, as Lady T was honored with a 2008 Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, it was a different story. Even Chaka Khan was aghast at Marie’s mesmerizing performance and emotional acceptance speech. On stage, among her peers, among those she loved and cherished and those who had taken her to their bosom almost thirty years ago previous, she broke down in thanks. It marked the end of a trying and at times harrowing period in her life, culminating in “Congo Square”, perhaps her best album since some of her ‘80’s classics. Named after the musical district in New Orleans, it seems fitting that the album has found a home with a label associated with another city steeped in musical history, Stax Records.
The album’s first single, the fittingly classic soul slanted, “Can’t Last A Day” with Faith Evans is generating the kind of buzz Marie hasn’t experienced in a while. Elsewhere, “Congo Square” is highlighted with a string of scorching ballads (“Lover’s Lane” with Howard Hewett and the heartfelt “Marry Me” particular standouts) meaning its shelf life, doubtless extended with a customary summer/fall trek in support, could see the veteran R&B label and singer enjoy a memorable first date.
Jeff Lorez: "Congratulations on a great album. Some of these ballads are so romantic and intense anyone would think you must be leading this amazingly romantic lifestyle!
Teena Marie: No I’m not at all. I’m actually single and haven’t dated in quite a while.
JL: Where does all this passion come from?
TM: I have enough love to last me a lifetime! Thank God I’ll never lose my imagination and my passion. That’s really what it is. I’m still passionate about what I do.
JL: Do you find men are intimidated by you?
TM: Sometimes...I went on a date a few months back and all he wanted to do was ask me questions like we are doing right now, like we were doing an interview. It just finally got to the point when I said, ‘there’s a whole lot more to me than music. Maybe we could gear our conversation in another direction’. Music isn’t necessary what I’m about all the time. There’s another side of me.’ Questions like, ‘What were you thinking about when you wrote “Dear Lover”. I was like, ‘I don’t know. That was 25 years ago!’ It’s funny. Sometimes I get the ones that are really intimidated or the ones who are trying not to be like that.
JL: What strikes me about hearing you sing today is how youthful and supple your voice sounds. With some singers their voice ages with them but yours is crystal clear. If anything it’s got better.
TM: I saw a lot of abusive things coming up, watched a lot of my friends be very abusive. It was easy for me not to want to do those same things. This is a gift. This is a gift from God. It’s really like the old Biblical passage that talks about your body being a temple. That’s not to say that I’ve never done anything but I’ve never abused myself. Never gone over the top for a long period of time.
JL: When were you at your lowest? When you left Motown and had the lawsuit/court case going on?
TM: Rick (James)'s death. I was very depressed after that and was hooked on Vicodin for about a year. That was the most depressive I’ve been. I really don’t get depressed over record sales. I might have my moments but it doesn’t last for a long period of time.
JL: When I met you at the R&B Foundation Awards, you told me you had finished “Congo Square”. When did Stax come into the picture?
TM: I met them that night, actually! We had been talking to someone over there that wasn’t moving fast enough for me so I told my manager to let that go. But I met John Birk that night. He said, ‘I hear you’re talkin’ to one of our guys?’ I said, “Nah we stopped talkin’ months ago because it didn’t seem right’. He said, ‘I’d love to hear the album. I hear you have an awesome album’. I said, ‘Well I have one album here. You can listen to it.’ He heard it and said, ‘what do I have to do?’. I said, ‘You have to call very fast because there’s two other labels looking at the project’. He called immediately and bidded for the project and won out. So I actually met him and the Rhythm & Blues Awards.
JL: What does a label have to do to get Teena Marie to sign for them?
TM: What really appeals to me is if I feel like I have a home. That they’re really excited, they’re really going to be into the project, they’re really going to push it. Obviously, the money’s important too. They have to pay for it. It was already done. I went in and mixed it. They didn’t have to do anything. I like to work like that. No one can get in your way. You can do the record you want to do. They were very excited and it felt like a home that maybe you could be there for a while.
JL: I think anyone hearing you for the first time with this album would find it hard to believe you first came out in the ‘70’s. Your voice and production style is very contemporary.
TM: I try to keep my ear to the streets without sacrificing who I am as an artist. If a song needs a drum machine I’ll use a drum machine. If it needs a drummer, I’ll use a real drummer.
JL: How was the creative process for you this time round?
TM: It was deeply spiritual. I was going through a lot after Rick passed away and it lasted quite some time. I also entered pre-menopause and that was scary. So I was doing a lot of praying. The song “You Baby” was written for my daughter. I felt like I was dying. Even though I was really frightened about life I wrote some very positive upbeat music in a period when it could have got really dark because it seemed like I was being attacked.
JL: Really. Why did you feel like that?
TM: You don’t understand it because you’re a man and you don’t go through menopause. It’s a very scary thing for a lot of women. I had to reach out to some older women who had been through it. I’d never been scared of anything my whole life and here I was not wanting my daughter to walk round the corner from me in the market and she was teenager. I had to pray myself out of that existence.
Between that and losing Rick. Between coming off Vicodin I needed to pray. I came up with a lot of positive things like the song for Coretta King (“Ms. Coretta”). Wanting to lift her up in spirit. She could have been a professional musician. She was a music teacher. A lot of people didn’t know that. She gave up her dreams to carry on Dr. King’s Dreams. The “Soldier” that I did with Pastor Shirley Murdock, wanting to lift them up in spirit and make feel good in their darkness and their sadness.
JL: “Marry Me” could turn into an anthem. I’m sure a lot of women relate to that.
TM: It’s inspirational without being preachy. It’s something that happens everyday. People have kids, they’ve been together years and years and years. I’m saying. “C’mon let’s let the kids see us walk down the aisle” It’s really something I used to say to a guy I used to date kind of in fun but as Rick would say, in all ‘seriosity’ as well!
JL: There are some beautiful chord changes especially when it resolves at the end of the chorus.
TM: Paul Riser is a very amazing string arranger. I flew him out here from Detroit. He’s anointed. He’s one of the musicians that are anointed that have been touched by the hand of God. He did a lot of my early stuff: “Cassanova Brown”, Portuguese Love”, “I Need Your Lovin’” When the song was finished I thought this really would be awesome with a Paul Riser string chart as would the last song on the album, “The Rose & The Thorn”.
JL: On this album you really made Howard Hewett sing! (on “Lovers Lane”)
TM: I didn’t make him sing! The song made him sing. It’s a beautiful song and when you have a beautiful song and a great singer and a great duet with two great singers on it, it just becomes magical. Even though his voice doesn’t resemble Rick’s at all. People have really been saying to me that this song really has the same kind of magic that Rick and I had. He’s a great person and great human being and the two of us really sound good together. At one point he’s singing higher than me!
JL: What I found interesting about the introduction speech you were given at the R&B Foundation Awards was the story of you in the hallways at Motown with your guitar.
TM: I would walk down the hall with my guitar and play for anyone that would listen. As a young kid I was really driven and I was going to make it happen no matter what.
JL: Did you ever get intimidated?
TM: When I met Diana Ross I did. I couldn’t even speak. I idolized her more than anyone. She was who every young girl in America wanted to be. Including me!
JL: And your love of Chaka Khan’s music really came across
TM: The best songs she sang are the ones she wrote herself. That album “Ask Rufus” with “Egyptian Song”, “Everlasting Love”, “At Midnight”. If I was on a desert island and could only bring one album that would be it.
JL: If you were doing an album of covers who would be on there?
TM: Definitely some Smokey Robinson who I adore more than anyone. When I was growing up I would sing everything he wrote. I would go to the parties with my guitar and my friends would call me Little Smokey. I knew every word and phrase. Maybe a Chaka Khan song, “At Midnight”
JL: To whom would you most like to say sorry and why?
TM: Pretty much everyone that I’ve had to say sorry to I’ve already done it.
JL: What’s your most treasured possession?
TM: What I treasure the most is my daughter, even though she’s not my possession so would say my guitars I guess.
JL: Do you write in all keys? I know you probably sing in them all.
TM: I write in all keys. I’ve always written in all keys. I’ve probably written a lot of songs in A.
JL: What’s your favorite book?
TM: Besides the Bible, probably Oliver Twist. I’ve always loved that since I was a little girl. The struggle, finding his family at the end. His mother ran away from home because she didn’t want to shame his family.
JL: I’ve noticed you’ve been becoming a lot more religious recently. A pastor friend of mine saw you perform a gospel song at an awards show and was really impressed.
TM: I’ve always been deeply spiritual. I have my moments when I’m religious and my moments when I’m spiritual. I think they’re two different things. Going to church every Sunday doesn’t necessarily make you spiritual. It might make you religious. It’s really things that you do for other people that make you spiritual. I have my moments where I’m both because of growing up in the Catholic church. I still love to sit in the church, see the Priest in his robes and listen to the songs in Latin. But there are other experiences that might have nothing to do with the church. Like meeting an Islamic lady when I perform in Philadelphia. Every time I go there she’s there in the front row. That’s very profound to me.
JL: If you could go back in time where would you go and what would you be doing?
TM: To Egypt and I’d want to be with Chaka when she did the “Egyptian Love Song”! I got a chance to go there in 2005 after Rick died. I took my daughter and my best friend and her daughter. I’m an artist and we sailed down the Nile and I was with the radio station, GCI in Chicago. They gave me the State Room. The front room in the boat. I was the first person on the boat to see the Nile. I opened all the windows and was listening to the “Ask Rufus” album and was drawing a King Tut.
JL: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
TM: I’ve always had integrity in my music. Stayed honest and truthful. My lyrics are the best thing about me. I’ve always loved words. Even as a little girl I’d be under the covers with a flashlight, reading Oliver Twist and Lorna Doon. Because of my love of literature and grammar I became a great lyricist.
JL: What single thing would improve the quality of your life?
TM: A really good man that I can grow old with.
JL: If you had ten minutes with President Obama what would you talk to him about?
TM: I’d want to talk to him about his favorite musical groups. We know about Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie but those are everyone’s favorites. What other songs did he listen to growing up?
JL: If you had one year to live and unlimited funds to spend on yourself what would you do?
TM: I would take my daughter and travel all over the world. Greece, Italy, Paris, Africa. I would probably go to Majorca, Spain, Portugal.
JL: You are one of the few artists who have the luxury of not having to depend on record sales.
TM: I do and that’s a wonderful thing. But it’s nice to have a hit record. It looks like “Can’t Last A Day” is doing very well.
JL: How did that come about, getting Faith involved?
TM: The song was finished. I love Faith. She reminds me of me. I had Rick, she had Biggie and we had careers on our own. She’s my favorite singer of the current R&B princesses. We know each other through mutual friends and have kicked it together at parties. I played it for her and she loved it."
About the Writer
Jeff Lorez has enjoyed a long and varied career in the music business. As a journalist he has written for a slew of publications and web sites including, Blues & Soul, Billboard, Yahoo.com and the Daily Telegraph and as a music publisher he has been involved in recent chart topping hits by Alexis Jordan and Cher Lloyd.