Interview recorded on February 24, 2012
Before we became inundated with so many talent competitions on television, there was "American Idol," which captivated the world in its premier season in 2002. All eyes were watching the following year when Ruben Studdard emerged as the show's second season winner. Four albums, one divorce, and a couple of record companies later, Ruben is back with an autobiographical concept album, LETTERS FROM BIRMINGHAM.
Studdard offers reflections on his ten years in the business, and reveals to Darnell Meyers-Johnson why he decided to tell his story in this way...
Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for SoulMusic.com. Today I’m speaking with the man Gladys Knight called the Velvet Teddy Bear. He first caught our attention when he stepped on the American Idol stage, and won that show’s second season in 2003. Since then, the Grammy-nominated singer has released four albums which produced hits like “Change Me,” “Sorry (2004),” “Make Ya Feel Beautiful,” and one of my favourites from his last album, “Don’t Make ‘Em Like U No More.” He’s about to release his fifth and perhaps most personal album to date, LETTERS FROM BIRMINGHAM. Today I am speaking with Mr. Ruben Studdard. How are you, sir?
Ruben Studdard: I’m good. How are you, sir?
DMJ: I am great. I am glad that you’re taking time out to speak with us today; we do appreciate it.
RS: Well, thank you for having me, man. I appreciate that.
DMJ: Sure thing. As I was preparing for this interview, I was just thinking back, and it’s kind of hard to believe that it’s been almost ten years since you won American Idol. Does it seem that long to you?
RS: Man, it went by so fast, I feel like I blinked my eye and I was on my fifth album.
DMJ: When you won everybody was crossing their fingers for you. What do you remember most when you think about that whole Idol experience?
RS: The thing that I remember the most is the camaraderie we had while on the show, and the friendships that we built while there. We were one big family, and it was just so much fun to be there. We did work hard—a lot of days we worked sixteen-hour days; you know what I mean? But it was just so much excitement, so much fun going on all the time, so that’s what I think I’ll take away from it, and still remember to this day, is the amount of fun we had.
DMJ: You once said in a previous interview that people didn’t know how hard you were working to get into the business before Idol. So what was going on in your life, musically speaking, before you got on the show?
RS: Well, I did everything most people do: make demo CDs, try to give them to people that can hear you; I was in a gospel group called God’s Gift, and we were trying to be the next Winans. We opened for everybody: we opened for Yolanda Adams and several other gospel artists in and around the southeast—we were making a name for ourselves. I was also in a jazz band called Just a Few Cats, and we were doing pretty well. And honestly, I had no intention of auditioning for the show because I thought that I would have an opportunity to make it the traditional way. But yeah, God had a different plan for me, man.
RS: And I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to do what I’ve been doing.
DMJ: After you won on Idol, your debut album, SOULFUL, came out; it went platinum. Thinking back on that now, how much of that album was the real Ruben Studdard?
RS: Oh, man, I did that album so fast … [laughs] The thing about that album is I was on tour with the Idols. We were on tour for about five months, and I recorded a lot of that stuff on my off days. So basically, I was jet-setting to one city and then coming back to the tour, and it’s really a blur. Honestly, I don’t really have a lot of memories that I can just recall offhand about recording that first album, other than the fact that I got a chance to work with Babyface and R. Kelly and some other people that, of course, I had been looking up to for a while. But other than that, I think when I recorded my third album is when I had the opportunity to let it sink in.
DMJ: So that second album, I NEED AN ANGEL--it surprised and probably confused a few fans in that it was a gospel album. And a lot of people--they knew you had a church background, but they weren’t expecting you to come out with a gospel album so soon.
DMJ: Many people felt like you should have capitalized on your growing R&B base. Thinking back on that now, why did you decide to come out with that gospel project when you did?
RS: Well, that album actually started off as a Christmas album, and we did it because we wanted to really be able to take our time with the second R&B album. And if you notice, the majority of the songs I did on the album, with the exception of one of them, were all cover songs. So it was basically an album paying homage to the people I grew up being fans of, from the Canton Spirituals to the Winans to Commissoned … Richard Smallwood.
And I never expected for people to feel like I was going to change to being a gospel artist, because everybody that I looked up to—especially people like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston—all these phenomenal singers that grew up in the church all had gospel albums, and Aretha had several. Elvis Presley recorded gospel continuously during his career. But I guess it’s because I was never afraid of letting people know about my upbringing and my affiliation with the church and being a Christian, and I think people just assumed that I was “going gospel.” But I love all kinds of music, and gospel was really the first genre that I ever sang--know what I mean? Truth of the matter is, I spent the majority of my life singing gospel music.
DMJ: The next album after that was THE RETURN—that’s the one you remember more of.
RS: Yeah, it’s because I had the opportunity to sit back and enjoy the process, go to different sessions, live in different cities, and work with different producers, and really, really, sit down and enjoy the process. It wasn’t like the first album, where I was going in, doing a song, and leaving; you know what I mean? It was just fun. The whole THE RETURN project was just a fun project, man. It was fun … I had a ball.
DMJ: The thing about that, though, is that that would end up being your last project for J Records. It featured your hit “Change Me.” And I was wondering, were people at the label trying to change you at that point?
RS: No, man. That song was written by The Underdogs, and I just thought it was a hit. When I heard it I was like, “I gotta record it.” And people responded to it really, really well. Also, the song I did on that with Ne-Yo, “Make Ya Feel Beautiful,” was a song that almost got left off of the project, but it made so much buzz that the record company … we pushed for it. That album, I think, is still one of the most underrated R&B records that have come out in a long time. Whenever I go out, people always tell me how much they enjoyed that record.
DMJ: After J Records, you went over to Hickory Records, who are owned by Sony Music. They released a couple of albums on another American Idol finalist, Elliott Yamin, but your only project with them was the album LOVE IS. I was just wondering, why did you do only one album with them?
RS: It was a one-album deal, man, and I was still with 19 Entertainment—the parent company of American Idol—and so we just went out and looked for the best deal that would give me the opportunity to make some great music. And with that album, man, I had the opportunity to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on the majority of the album. And it was just wonderful … it was like going to school, man.
I do believe everything happens for a reason; you know what I mean? I needed that time with them to sit back and be taught by legends the importance of really, really going super-hard: putting the music before everything; you know what I mean? … other than family and God, but making sure that it's the most important thing to you. A lot of times we say it is, but your actions speak louder than your words.
And working with them--it gave me the opportunity to sit back and watch how it was really done. These guys have been able to stay current. They may not have the number-one records like they did in the '80s with Janet and in the ‘90s with some of the other people, but if you notice, they still have been able to make hit records on people like Usher, Yolanda Adams … the list goes on and on and on of the amount of records that they’re still doing for people.
DMJ: Still relevant.
DMJ: You’re now with Shanachie Entertainment and you’re about to release your new joint, LETTERS FROM BIRMINGHAM. Tell me how you and Shanachie got together.
RS: I first met them when they called and asked me to do a duet with KeKe Wyatt.
DMJ: “Saturday Love,” right?
RS: Yeah, “Saturday Love”—and we did the song. Really, I was just looking for a place that would allow me to do an album exactly like I wanted to do it, with the people I wanted to work with. And we talked back and forth for a couple of months, and it just worked out, man. I got an opportunity to work with my friends Harold Lilly and Elvis Williams, who have written hits for everybody. Their discography, especially Harold, is pretty extensive, the amount of people that he’s written singles for. And we had a great friendship over the years. He was the first writer I ever worked with at J Records, and we just hit it off, and have been friends ever since then. We both wanted to make a great project, so we got together and did it. And I think the fans are going to be pleasantly surprised.
DMJ: So do I, and I’m going to go into the record in just a moment. But I want to ask you something—and I know you’re aware of this, because as I was doing my research on you I think there were a few other interviews where other people have asked you the same question. But I’m just going to ask it again, just for the record here in our interview: the general manager of Shanachie said something to the effect that he thought that you were an undervalued artist. And I wanted to ask you, do you ever feel that way when you’re looking at other people who’ve come from Idol—the big success of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood and even Fantasia—do you ever feel that you’ve been undervalued?
RS: Well, I think—and I think it comes from how people look at success—I think a lot of times, especially now, people value success in the amount of records that you sell, and for me that’s really not the case. I’ve been able to do so many different things. And we were talking about the gospel album: I broke all first-week sales for gospel records; you know what I mean? Nobody had ever sold more records than me in the first week of sales on a gospel album.
I’ve been able to cross into Broadway musicals, and get a Grammy nomination for "Ain’t Misbehavin’." So I’ve been able to do a lot of things, and I think, for me, the things that I’ve been able to do have been even more a testament to the show; just because when you’re on the show you’re asked to perform a number of different genres of music, and do so at a high level; know what I mean?
And what I’ve been able to do over the past couple of years is go back and forth from jazz to gospel and R&B and still stay relevant for ten years. And for me, when I look back on what I’ve been able to accomplish—especially when you look at people like Marvin Gaye or Dionne Warwick or any of those major R&B legends, no one is at the peak of their career forever. There’s peaks and valleys; everybody has ups and downs, ups and downs; but the thing about it that’s important is to sustain. We know in R&B it’s just a fact: they don’t sell records like they do in country music and rock & roll. That just is what it is. So we can have faith that people will go out and buy units like they would for Carrie Underwood, but the truth of the matter is that people in country music buy more records—they just do. Yeah, I think it’s all in the way you look at it.
DMJ: In the introduction, I said LETTERS FROM BIRMINGHAM, your new album, may be your most personal album to date. Is it?
RS: I think it is. I really poured my heart into this project and I tried my best to be as transparent as I could. There are some very, very personal songs on the album. But we wanted the album not to be heavy at all; we just wanted it to be great songs that could resonate with everybody. So what we did was we made it into a relationship progression: it flows just like a movie. So it starts with the introduction, and it goes into the courtship and the romantic love and into, I guess you would say, the beginning of the dissolution of the relationship, and into the end. It’s really great. And I know a lot of people come on and they’ll probably talk about their projects and say every song is great, and I’m not going to be any different, but I really believe that.
DMJ: Well, listening to the album is like watching a love story unfold. It’s a true concept album, and people don’t really make those anymore. Can you talk to me a little bit about how the concept came about?
RS: Actually, I was in Atlanta airport, and I can’t remember where I was going, but they have a display of Martin Luther King’s effects from a museum in Atlanta airport. And one of the things that was in the display was the famous letter from a Birmingham jail, and while I was reading that—I’ve read it several times, but of course when you’re in an airport you want to waste some time—so I was reading that and I thought to myself, “It would be cool if I told my fans about my relationship, basically saying that I’m sending it from my hometown.” You know what I mean? And we actually stopped writing some songs we were writing and started tailoring the songs around that theme.
DMJ: And the rest is history. It’s no news to anybody, because it’s already out there, at this point, that you’re separated from your wife after being married for a short time. And you talk about this openly on your new single and your video, “June 28th (I’m Single).” First, tell me about the significance of that title and then tell me why you essentially decided to put your own personal business out there in that way.
RS: June 28th was the day that my wife—my ex-wife now—and I married one another. And the reason why I decided to do the song is that I just wanted to get in front of the story. I think a lot of times when situations like this happen, a lot of people try to speculate as if they know exactly what goes on in people’s relationships without really knowing the truth.
And not only that, I’ve never really been transparent with people in my music. Other than the fact that my last album, I wrote a song to my wife called “A Song for Her,” I’ve never really had the opportunity to just open myself up and be that; and I think that’s important, and people really want to hear that, because they want to feel like you’re a real person.
Everybody goes through things. Nobody lives in the universe without having some kind of struggle. I’m not perfect in my relationship; I did have bumps and bruises, but I think the thing for me that is the blessing is that I get the opportunity to express myself artistically, talking about the things that I’ve been through.
DMJ: I think a lot of people are going to be surprised when they listen to your new album. I’m hearing you do some things I’m not sure I’ve heard you do before. You’ve already talked a little bit about who was working on the production end. What about the songwriting part of it? Were you doing a lot of the cowriting on the songs?
RS: Yeah, Harold and I wrote a lot of the songs together.
DMJ: The album features a couple of known Michelles, if you will: Chrisette Michele and K. Michelle. Can you tell me a little bit about the songs they’re on?
RS: The song that Chrisette Michele is on is a song called “Do It Right,” and the premise of the song is basically trying not to move too fast in a relationship—basically, trying not to have … you’re on your first date and you’re really attracted to the person, but you want to make sure you don’t move too fast into the physical portion of the relationship so that it doesn’t ruin what could possibly be. I’m sure that’s something that a lot of people have thought about before, and we just decided to put it in a song. And it sounds great and Chrisette Michelle was perfect for that.
DMJ: So maybe that’s my problem, because I’m always rushing to get to the physical [laughs]. Tell me about K. Michelle, the track that she’s on.
RS: Ah, K. Michelle … that’s my homie, man. We all love her—she’s just a great person to be around. What I wanted to do was do a cover that I could remake, and really make it mine. And what we did, we spent maybe three or four days just listening to Luther Vandross songs and studying what he did. And what he used to do was take songs that were popular when he was growing up and put his own flavour to them. So instead of covering a Luther Vandross song, which I think a lot of people would expect me to do, we tried to take that flavour and put it to a song that I can relate to, because I grew up with Bobby Brown. Anybody that’s living that likes R&B was a New Edition fan—I know I was. They were one of my first concerts ever going to, and I remember vividly getting that album that “Rock Wit’cha” was on, as a Christmas present … I still remember that to this day. And I thought it would be just great. And she came in and did the backgrounds with me and did her adlibs and stuff, and it just sounded right, man, so we kept it.
DMJ: That’s a real nice version of that. But I was wondering: out of all the Bobby Brown songs, why that particular one?
RS: Well, first of all, if you know anything about songwriting, one of the greatest songwriters ever wrote that record: Babyface. And it’s just a great record, man … it’s sexy; you know what I mean? And I think everybody’s going to like it when they hear it.
DMJ: Now, another interesting cover that you do on the album is “Pure Imagination,” which was made famous by Gene Wilder in the movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." So I gotta ask you, man--it just seemed kind of unusual for you to do that. How did you and that song come together?
RS: I’m a music geek … I was in the band and choir. And "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" has always been one of my favourite movies, specifically because of the musical arrangements in that movie. And that song was always one of my favourites, and I thought to myself, “Yo, this would be a great song if you just changed a couple of the words—make it personable towards a woman.” You know what I mean? And it worked. And people don’t write songs like that anymore—they just don’t. And I don’t know what it is about the quality of that songwriting ... I listen to a lot of music and a lot of old standards. I listen to them all day long, and I notice we’re not as clever with our wordplay as they were back then.
DMJ: Maybe, perhaps because it seems like these days, a lot of songs are beat-focused as opposed to really focusing on the lyrics and telling some sort of story; a lot of it seems to be, “Is that beat hot? Is that hook hot?” as opposed to the whole, entire song.
RS: I think it has a lot to do, too, with the quality of music that really starts in our schools. So when you think about the standards of stuff that was written in the '20s, those people, all they had was reading. They didn’t have television or all these other distractions that we have now—their form of entertainment was either music or reading. And they wrote all the time. If you think about how we talk on the telephone? People wrote letters.
DMJ: I was going to say, today who writes letters anymore?
RS: Right. So people were a lot better at expressing themselves then, because now, everything is "LOL" and "OMG," and … you know what I mean? And we’re really affected by it, whether we think we are or not: we’re mentally affected by the way that we communicate with each other. And I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of those autobiographies like … I was actually reading John Adams, a book about him. I was reading some of those letters that he was writing to his wife, and I was like, “Wow!” It’s crazy how well he articulates his love through a letter, and a lot of times we can barely say how we feel about people, and we’re on the phone with them.
DMJ: Getting back to the album for a second, I want to mention a few more tracks. It seems like we see a bit of your funky side on “Turn U Out.”
RS: You know what? “Turn U Out” was really just supposed to be an interlude, and every time somebody came to the studio we would play that for them, and it was like, “Man, that’s the joint! It’s the joint. That’s jammin'.” But we were honestly just playing around. I wrote that song just being silly one day, because I was out of character, saying “When I give it you, you're gonna want to shout.” That’s just not something I would say, but it worked. People really loved that song, man.
DMJ: And it works within the concept of the album because if you’re talking about the full duration of a relationship from beginning to end, at that beginning you are saying stuff like that. You know what I mean?
RS: Yeah, when you first meet somebody you're spittin' game at them; you know what I mean?
DMJ: Exactly, exactly.
RS: And that’s really what it is.
DMJ: Talk to me a little bit about the song “Her For You,” and what that one is about.
RS: “Her For You” is just … I think a lot of times people have those situations where they find themselves wondering if they can choose--when they are either married or in a relationship, and they’ve met somebody that they feel is somewhat special to them outside of their regular relationship. When Harold and I sat down to write this song we were treading lightly because we didn’t want people to be upset, but we wanted to honour people that had ever felt those feelings before; you know what I mean? I feel like that song is going to be the one song that everybody’s going to be like, “Damn, I feel it.”
DMJ: And again, I think it fits in, too, with the concept, because as you just said, sometimes you’re in a situation: you feel conflicted, you already know whatever you’re in is slipping—is failing a little bit—and somebody else may catch your attention. And you’re kind of conflicted.
DMJ: Tell me, besides the tunes we’ve already mentioned, what are some of your other favourites on there?
RS: My absolute favourite song now is “Hallelujah.” I love that song; I think it’s well-written. I think the music on it is amazing. I hadn’t heard a good wedding song in a long time. The last time I remember hearing a great wedding song was probably “For You” or “Here and Now.”
DMJ: Yeah, I was just thinking “For You” when you were about to say that.
RS: So I wanted to do something that I thought people would be able to sing at their weddings for years to come, and I think we accomplished that.
DMJ: And I gotta tell you, I spent a lot of time last night listening to the album, and each time that I listened to it, every time that it got to that track it was just like … again, it’s like watching a movie, and you finally get to the part where they’re getting together, they’re taking it to another level and beautiful background music is playing … that’s kind of what it felt like. It felt really like: okay, this is a beautiful moment right here; this is a great song. So, yeah, I was feeling that one also.
We talked about some of your collaborations, and I want to ask you, is there anybody out there that you would still like to work with that you haven’t had a chance to work with yet?
RS: I would love to do a song with my sister Fantasia; hopefully, I can make that happen on my next album. Gretchen Parlato—huge fan. Christian Scott. Lizz Wright—I would love to do a song with Lizz Wright. I think my next album, man, is gonna be real sultry and sexy, and I think I’m going to go all the way in on it. So this album is just the start of something … I’m about to really change the game, I feel like.
DMJ: So that’s something for us to look forward to. Earlier in our chat we talked about how you were always trying to get into the business, even before Idol; and now that you’ve been in the business for a minute, has the music industry turned out to be what you thought it would be?
RS: Oh, man, it’s been more—more than I expected it to be. I have been all around the world, and I’ve done things that I never, in a million years, expected to do; worked with people I never expected to work with. It’s just been a blessing, man. The whole, entire process has been nothing but amazing.
DMJ: And I can’t let you go without asking you … I know you were a part of David Foster’s tour, recently. What was that whole experience like, working with him?
RS: David is just a cool, down-to-earth person who loves music. He really, really is one of our great composers and writers, and to be on the road with him and to see how his songs have touched and affected people … he’s been writing hits since the '70s, and he’s been discovering great talent. I only hope that when I am in my fifties, I can be remembered like he is. David is just an amazing person, and I tell him all the time how much I appreciate him giving me the opportunity to go on tour with him, and sing with Natalie Cole and Philip Bailey—those are things that I will never forget, and I’m just happy that I know him.
DMJ: That’s awesome. Let’s just get some information out there before we forget. The album is coming out when?
RS: March the 13th—Tuesday, March 13th.
DMJ: And are you going to be doing any touring in support of it?
RS: We’ll probably be out on the road maybe in the mid-summer or so—be on the lookout for that, please.
DMJ: You got any cities or anything lined up at this point, or it’s just in the early stages?
RS: Not right now, not right now.
DMJ: And I heard that you already have another single lined up, is that right?
RS: Yeah, we got a single in the works that we’re looking to release.
DMJ: But it’s not definite yet?
RS: No. I think the next one’s probably going to be “Twisted Love.”
DMJ: Okay. And let everybody know where they can keep up with what you’re doing, your online activities. You got a website set up?
RS: I got a website, rubenstuddard.com; my Twitter is @Ruben Studdard, Ruben Studdard Fan Page on Facebook. So mess with me, y’all.
DMJ: All right, man. Is there anything you would like to say that we haven’t mentioned? I know we covered a lot already, but anything you want to say?
RS: No, man. Just thank you for having me on your show, man. I really appreciate you, brother.
DMJ: All right, man. I do appreciate your time. And any time that you have anything going on, our doors at SoulMusic.com are open for you, so feel free to let us know what you’re up to.
RS: All right, my friend.
DMJ: All right, brother. Be blessed.
RS: You too, man. Thanks.
About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report (www.TheMeyersMusicReport.Tumblr.com). Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for SoulMusic.com. When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on JazzOn2.org and iTunes.