In 2006, Jody Watley released "The Makeover," the fourth album on her own Avitone Records. In 2009, she worked out a global deal for the album's release with London-based ADA Distribution, adding some bonus tracks for good measure...
David Nathan: I want to welcome today, a lady I’ve known for many years through different incarnations in her musical career and different incarnations in my own career, and I’m referring to the legendary Ms. Jody Watley. Hello, Jody!
JW: Hi, David. Thank you for that introduction.
DN: Do you feel legendary?
JW: I don’t even know how to answer that. I just feel like me (laughs).
DN: Okay, well it’s okay for others to call you that.
JW: I appreciate that.
DN: I think that anyone who looks at the longevity of your career, and looks at the many things that you have accomplished, I think one could say the longevity alone is enough to push you into legendary status.
JW: Well, I appreciate that, and I’ve certainly paid my dues, so I’ll take it.
DN: For the benefit of our Soulmusic.com community, the purpose, or what’s been the catalyst for us doing this interview today is the international release of an album that you recorded a couple of years ago, The Makeover. Tell us a little bit about how The Makeover came to be made in the first place, and then we’ll talk about the international edition of it.
JW: The Makeover initially came about rather organically. I had the inspiration to do a show in the Bay Area, in San Francisco, and the show was called ‘Songs In The Key of My Life’, and I just wanted to have some fun and do some songs that I liked from some artists that I had liked, so it was a bit of a storyteller. I would talk about a particular incident and why I was performing that song, and it went over so well, a lot of people in the audience would email me at my website and said I should do an album like that. At the same time, I had been considering doing a remix album, because a lot of, especially my early material, was danceable. It was pre-remix era, and there were extended versions but never remixes, and MCA/Universal has never released a Jody Watley remix. So I thought, “I’m going to re-sing all of my songs and do a remix album myself.” Once I did two vocals I thought, “Well, it’s not really a remix if you re-sing the vocals and start it from scratch. They are more like makeovers”. So anyway, The Makeover came together from those two elements. It kind of blended both ideas together.
DN: When it came time to choosing the songs in the key of your life, I assume since you referenced doing an entire show in that realm, that there were many more songs than are on this particular album, so how did you narrow the selections down?
JW: I didn’t really give it a lot of thought, to be honest. I was spontaneous with my choices, and I would love to do another show, because the thing about the show, when I did it, it wasn’t just the songs; it was sharing the stories. People just loved it. They laughed, and there were some elements that were very poignant, so the songs that I picked were very spontaneous. Because I’m always writing new material, The Makeover was framed with two new songs: ‘A Beautiful Life’ and also, ‘Bed of Roses’, which I recorded with 4hero out of the UK. It was terrific for me to work with them because I really love what they do, and they inspire me to move forward in the direction that I started taking with my music and the whole electronic genre; that really began with 4hero, so it was great to work with them.
DN: As those who have already purchased the album in the US, and those who intend to purchase it in the UK and Europe will know, one of the songs on there is your cover version of Diana Ross’ ‘Love Hangover’. I guess I should say more correctly, and I don’t know if you knew this, a song that was also recorded by the 5th Dimension.
JW: No, I did not know that.
DN: The song was actually recorded by both of them. I don’t remember the 5th Dimension version of it, but apparently it’s quite different from Diana Ross’. They were released around the same time, and of course Diana Ross’ version is the one that everyone is familiar with. I know from conversations with you that Diana Ross is someone that’s been an inspiration for you, but for those who are listening and reading, would you like to tell us a little bit about how you felt about doing that particular classic?
JW: The Makeover International will have the up-tempo makeover of ‘Love Hangover’, and the domestic release in the US has a more ambient, totally re-imagined, late night after-hours chill version of ‘Love Hangover’, which I adore. The nice thing about doing ‘Love Hangover’ is that I was able to get in touch with Pam Sawyer. She wrote the song, and was so happy that I was going to be recording it, and she asked me if I would do the arrangement that she originally intended for the song to have. I guess when Diana Ross recorded it Barry Gordy changed the arrangement a bit on the slow portion of the song before it goes into the more up-tempo. She sent me the demo of how it was supposed to be, which blew my mind, that we were having this creative conversation, so my version has the arrangement of how Pam Sawyer always wanted it to be. I feel very honoured to have a tiny bit of connection in that way, and I’ve said throughout my solo career that Diana Ross is one of the first female artists that I looked up to. I loved The Supremes, and there was something about her. She has something very special, and I love her voice, the simplicity and tone and what not, and so I can only hope that people know that it’s done in the utmost love and respect for a wonderful artist.
DN: Have you ever had an opportunity to interact with her?
JW: I met Diana Ross many years ago, and it was a party for Herb Ritts. I did the first campaign that GAP did, and Herb Ritts hosted a party; he was the photographer for the series, and Diana Ross came, and actually made a b-line for me before I could make a b-line for her. It was so humbling and surreal that I met her and she knew who I was. Another time I went to see her at the Universal Ampitheatre, and I had great seats, almost in the front row, and she saw me from the stage and clapped her hands together and pointed and said, “Hey! I know you!” from the stage, and I felt like I was 5 years old; I just started grinning from ear to ear. It was very nice meeting her, because I know not every person in the public eye, no matter how much you love them, it may not always end up a positive encounter, but my encounter with Diana Ross was very positive (laughs).
DN: That’s good to hear. One of the songs that I think will probably surprise people who are not yet aware of the album, is your choice to cover a Madonna song; a brave thing unto itself. What was going through your head when you made that choice?
JW: I guess I was being cheeky. I don’t know. I always loved that song. I always loved ‘Borderline’, and when I did it in the show, the story that I told was, Madonna and I shared a manager for a short time at the beginning of my solo career, and I talked about how basically they couldn’t manage her and manage me, and so I put it together in a funny way. Even though when we would meet in the office and I would encounter Madonna, she was always really nice to me and everybody would say, and I told this in the show, “She’s not nice to anybody, but she’s so nice to you.” Anyway, one of the other managers in the office ended up keeping me on as a client and then he left the company. It was Freddy DeMann. So, that was the story, and ‘Borderline’ is written by Reggie Lucas, who did a lot of great songwriting with Mtume and so actually, although she sang it, it’s his song.
I did it in a way that I think makes people who have heard it say to me that it gave a quality to the song that they never really thought about, and I think it brings out the melancholy, the sense of longing that the song is actually about. Again, it was just one of those things; if I had spent some time thinking about it, maybe I would have thought, “How are people going to take this?” Actually, we do have a similar fan base, but some of her fans weren’t happy that I was covering the song and I got some hateful emails at my website, but the majority loved it. Fans can be crazy, and very territorial. The fans started having a debate like, “She was also inspired by Jody” and they were going back and forth. I was hearing about the debates or seeing comments here and there, but I think it’s a beautiful song, and I’ve had people tell me that they didn’t like the original, but they like what I did with it, and people who liked the original that said it’s like a different song, so it’s all good.
DN: It’s interesting that you mention Reggie Lucas and James Mtume, who I knew back in the 70’s really well and went to quite a few sessions that he had with Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman and I was aware that Reggie started working with Madonna very early on in her career, in fact at the beginning of her recording career, and I never listened to the song the same way as when I listened to it when I heard your version of it, which was only a few weeks ago, and I am struck by it. I think it epitomizes the concept you had in mind of a makeover, because you really did give the song a makeover, and one gets to hear the lyric in a completely different way. Kudos to you for introducing it in a way that people have probably never heard it before.
JW: Thank you.
DN: I wanted to ask you, and we’ll go on to other subjects, but I wanted to conclude our conversation about The Makeover by asking you how it felt to do two songs that you are very associated with: ‘Looking For A New Love’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me’. How was it to do those again?
JW: Again, those two, and why they were included, those were two that I had re-recorded the vocals for when I was thinking about doing ‘Jody Watley Remixed’ and after doing those I thought, “This is cool” but then I went off the idea of the remix record, because that was a whole different process. I think when I do live concerts, I’m always changing my songs around, so that’s part of it too; to keep them fresh for me. For ‘Looking For A New Love’, some remixes were done on that in 2005, and those remixes went to #1 on the Billboard dance chart, and the thing with those mixes is, they were all pretty much house or circuit, big room, really up-tempo mixes, and in the end I felt that after we had finished those remixes, we still didn’t have one that was a little more down-tempo and funky as a version to have, and so that’s where this one came in, and I did this with the producer Marco Zappala from Spain, and so I’m done. There will be no more ‘Looking For A New Love’s. I’ve pretty much satisfied the remix quota for that, but again it’s a new look for those songs that may fit seamlessly into The Makeover because they are different from the original, but as a co-writer of those songs, they are like children of mine and I take great care of them.
DN: Before we conclude talking about the album, I was curious about your choice to do a very classic song, and to do it in the way that you did it, which is essentially just you and a piano, unless I’m missing an instrument, which is ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’.
JW: That’s one of my favourites actually, of the songs on this version of The Makeover, because it’s just stripped down and bare, and it balances against the more up-tempo things. You have the bossa nova feelings on ‘Waiting In Vain’, and again, I loved Roberta Flack growing up as well, and when she did it, it was very little production and just beautiful. I wanted to end the project with something that was very bare to round it out. I think when you put a complete project together, because I love dance music, I love bossa nova music, electronic music and all types of music, and so in the course of an album, I always hope that people feel like they went on a journey without being musically schizophrenic in the project, but at least you are showing different things and shadings, like a painting. You’re giving it different textures and what not, so that’s why I picked that particular song and that stripped down and bare way.
DN: Just so people understand, the international edition is out now. It’s out October 5th, which is about the time when this interview will go up on Soulmusic.com. How did that situation evolve, that you actually had an international edition distinct from the US edition, which came out a couple of years ago?
JW: Originally, The Makeover that came out in America in 2006 was an exclusive for the Virgin Megastore retail chain and it did great for them. It debuted as their #1 seller and remained in their Top 10 for a month with no radio play whatsoever. It was finding a new way to get my music out, and they gave me great support with listening stations, window displays, and it was great on a business level, trying something new for my company, Avitone. As time went on, Neil Blanket at ADA contacted me and was very interested in bringing the project to Europe. So, Avitone entered into a global distribution deal with ADA, and that’s really how that came about. I didn’t want to release it in the same form, because obviously there will be people in Europe who bought it domestically here in the United States or on import, and so now it’s reverse, because I have people asking me that either didn’t know about The Makeover, and it’s like The Makeover had a makeover. The cover art is new, the track listing is different, there are some new songs on it, and so it’s very special. We’re very happy to be on this next part of the journey with ADA Global.
DN: Alright, so I’ll ask a couple of other things that we haven’t touched upon. I know that for our US Soulmusic community, they are probably aware that you were featured on the television show Unsung as part of one of the episodes they did on Shalamar. I’m just curious what kind of reaction that got, and if you got any feedback about it?
JW: The reaction that I got was positive. A lot of people though, said that they felt there was a lot that was still left untold, and I agree with that. I think it gave people a little more insight into me and my experience in the group, but there was still a lot that was left out. Currently, Shalamar is using a picture that has me in it for a concert they have coming up in London at the end of October, and it’s not good because I’m not in it. It should be a picture reflective of the people who are actually going to be there. I think there is still a level of disrespect for me that existed and manifests in things like that, like people wouldn’t notice or something, but I think there are people who still feel that they don’t know everything, or there are some people that still have the impression that I have bad feelings towards those guys, and I don’t. I still to this day don’t know why that is. I never had a reason to be angry or bitter about anything, because I moved on. I think when I say that I moved on, that people take that in the wrong way. It’s actually a good thing in life, and other people that haven’t let go, I think it makes them angry, but I have nothing to be angry about.
DN: I should assume therefore, that there isn’t likely to be an original Shalamar reunion any time soon?
JW: I don’t see it. I just really don’t see it. I’ve read comments where people say, “She owes it to the fans” but I don’t owe anything to anybody. When I was in Shalamar, I gave it 2 Million percent and that was it; it was over. If you missed it, I’m sorry you missed it in its form at that time, but I don’t do anything that I’m not passionate about. Life is short, and I’m just not that girl.
DN: I think it’s a good jumping-off point to ask you about what you’re up to now. Obviously you have The Makeover coming out here. Are you planning to come over here to Britain and Europe to do anything with it?
JW: I am. I hope to be coming over to do some shows. At the same time, I’m still finishing Chameleon, which is coming out next year. It’s my next full original album, and so I’m spending a lot of time on that. I’m still working on my memoirs. I call it ‘My Life Thus Far’. That won’t be the title, but that pretty much is it. That’s a process, and I’m looking forward to that, because I actually think it will make a great musical or feature film. I’m always thinking. When I was a kid, my Mom would tell you I was always the kid who was saying, “I’m gonna do this” and having my sketch book with drawings and pictures and ideas and everything, so I am older, but I’m still very much the same person that’s always moving forward and trying to do things that I haven’t done yet, so that’s what I’m doing.
DN: Just for those who will be expecting and anticipating Chameleon, can you tell us a little bit about what we can expect, musically?
JW: That’s the thing, because it’s been changing. It’s taken many shapes, so I cant say what the end result will be. Whatever it is, it will be good. Whenever I release music, I’m very selfish about it in a way, because I have to be happy with it first, and every record that I’ve released, I’ve been happy with it, and still trying to perfect on it and do something, like I said, that I haven’t done, like not writing the same songs again, or as a vocalist, “Do I sound better than I did on my last record?”. It’s always a process of trying to improve. I’m like that as a person, not just as an artist, because I think in life, we’re always works-in-progress, or we should be, in trying to be a better person, or be a better whatever, so in my music I take the same approach.
DN: One thing that I think is worth noting, and I want you to comment on it, is that you have now been the person responsible for putting out your own records through your Avitone company, and would I be correct in saying it was for a decade?
JW: Actually, it’s been over a decade. I formed Avitone in 1995, so I’ve been at it a while, and now it’s becoming more common for artists to start their boutique labels and to be self-released and everything. It’s something that I started a while ago, and the industry is changing, and the old model and old way of doing things is making it, I think. It’s a lot of work, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t mind work, and if you don’t mind rolling up your sleeves, then it’s the way to go. There’s artists like Jay-Z and P Diddy, and you hear about more artists with their own labels, like Jay-Z putting out his own record. That’s more recently, but I started in 1995 with this part of my journey.
DN: In many ways, one could legitimately say that you are a pioneer in doing that, in being someone that took the reigns of your recording career, so to speak, and said, “I’m going to do this”. I think it would be correct to call you a pioneer in that respect, don’t you think?
JW: When you say pioneer, I think cowboy boots, horse and covered wagons, but yeah I guess so (laughs).
DN: That wasn’t the imagery I had in mind.
JW: I know, I’m totally kidding. The thing is, with my solo career, even when I signed to MCA, I’ve been very hands-on and Jheryl Busby who signed me, he passed away this past year, and he was just such a great man. As an executive, he really got where I was coming from, and when he signed me, he appreciated that I was focused, and I wasn’t looking for someone to give me a vision. I had a vision of who I was and what I wanted to be, and the types of songs and so forth. A lot of times, with female artists, people assume that you are, and in many cases girls can be, the creation of someone else, but I’ve been very diligent about myself from the moment that I decided I was continuing with my career and became a solo artist. I think with my career going over three decades now, I feel actually better than I did when I was in my twenties, but just to be authentic about everything that I do, other than winning a Grammy, I think my greatest success is being authentic. This industry is very much set up to take authenticity away from you, especially for female artists, trying to get you to be other things, and I hope that I never lose that. When I talk to kids or other artists, or people who want to be in the business and they ask for advice, I tell them, just always be yourself. Never lose the essence of who you really are as a person, and as an artist.
DN: I really want to end there, but I can’t. That’s a great way to end an interview, but I can’t completely end our interview, because I do have to let people know that you and I had the opportunity to work together in a different setting in 2008, when I worked with my co-producer Preston Glass and we did a recording with you of the Stevie Wonder song ‘Heaven Help Us All’ for the project that we did for Time Life Songs 4 Worship Soul. I don’t know how it was for you, but I can say for me, it was a true joy and highlight of working on that particular project to have you in the studio and to see you in action. Do you have any comments on how that was for you?
JW: David, you are horrible to work with, I’m sorry (laughs). I kid! I kid! It was great. Working with you and Preston, it was great. I loved singing, and that that was the song that you guys thought I would be the person to record it. It has a personal connection as I told you, with my father and everything. It was great. It was a joy for me to be on the project, and I’m sure my Dad was smiling down from heaven that I was on Songs 4 Worship Soul. It was really great working with you guys, and it was a wonderful project. I got great responses from people, and a lot of people were surprised that I was on it, so that’s good.
DN: It was a total joy, and it’s one thing to be aware of someone’s skills and obviously hear the music that they do, and to interview them, but it’s another thing to actually see them in action. I think the thing that was so great was how easy it was. You came in prepared and just did it. For those of us who have been in recording sessions, and I’ve been in a few over the years, it doesn’t always go that well. So, I just wanted to say thank you again for that. Also, it’s just really great to talk to you and what I always appreciate about the conversations we have both on and off the record is that there is that degree of authenticity and honesty and realness, which you bring to your music and to your career. If anyone asks me why I think Jody Watley has been able to hang in there and have the longevity that you’ve had, I would say that it’s really that element; that you’re someone who takes a stand on yourself and your career and how you want it to go, and you don’t waver. That’s a distinct asset in an industry where that is not commonplace.
JW: Thank you. I really appreciate that. Thank you. I appreciate you, and thank you so much.
DN: You’re welcome, Jody. We appreciate you, and we want everyone who is reading this article when it’s transcribed, and all those who are listening to the podcast, which they will be hearing, to go check out The Makeover, which is available at our website Soulmusic.com. We must make a plug for that, and you can hear clips of it, and you can click on the link to purchase it. It is a great project, and of course for those who are here in Britain and Europe, we look forward to seeing you sometime very soon, and we’ll all be looking forward to Chameleon in 2010.
JW: Yes. Thank you, David.
DN: Thank you. Take care!
JW: You too. I’ll talk to you soon!
Transcription by Nathan Stafford - You can e-mail Nathan here for transcription service info
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.