Interview recorded on 20 February 2012
Hi, this is Justin Kantor of SoulMusic.com. Today I have the privilege of speaking with singer/songwriter/producer Joyce Sims. She broke ground during the mid-'80s with her unique fusion of R&B melodies, dance floor rhythms, and electrified arrangements. Giving us her “All and All,” the Rochester, New York native urged listeners to “Come Into My Life” for a healthy dose of “Lifetime Love." Well, she’s back with a string of live appearances in the UK, and here to talk to us about her music, then and now.
Justin Kantor: I understand you’re getting ready to perform some live dates in the UK, and you’ll be performing both your classics and some new material.
Joyce Sims: That’s right.
JK: So, let’s talk a little bit about how you got your start to get where you are now. Most people’s introduction to you was in 1986 when you hit in a big way on the club scene with “All and All" here in the States, and in the UK, and all over Europe, as well. That was a song you wrote yourself, produced and mixed by Mantronik and Robbie Watson. How did that song come to fruition in the first place?
JS: “All In All." Wow, it was years ago.
JK: A little while ago.
JS: Yeah, you’re not kidding. It’s a love song; I was in love at the time and I just wrote a song around the way I was feeling. At the time it just clicked.
JK: When you wrote the song were you already actively performing and recording? What was the context of when you wrote it, as far as your own career?
JS: Well, when I wrote it I was still living at home—Rochester, New York is my hometown. I used to perform in the local bands. I wasn’t professional, but I was playing as lead singer and keyboard player in some of the local bands.
JK: When you finished the song, was it something where you said, “I have a hit on my hands, I need to go shopping for a record deal”? Or how did it go from being a song you wrote to being a song that was released on Sleeping Bag Records?
JS: Having a hit was the furthest thing from my mind.
JK: You were just trying to make it, huh?
JS: At that time I loved writing; I started out writing poetry, so you’re just writing love songs and expressing your feelings. I had no idea that “All and All” would have become the classic that it became. But Robbie Watson heard the song and chose that song. He gave me some studio time—he was an engineer in New York City. He's responsible for bringing “All and All” to what it is today.
JK: Was he in your band, or how did you know him, exactly?
JS: No, I was in college. I met some really good friends in college. One lived in Brooklyn with her family. We were going to school in East Rochester, and I would go home with her sometimes for the holidays. I had another friend that lived in Brooklyn, and … well, actually, this is really weird. My mother knew her mother—the young lady that I stayed with.
JK: That you were going home with?
JS: Right. Her name was Tracey. And my mom, she knew how I needed to be in New York City—I always wanted to live in New York City—so she had a place in Brooklyn and she just invited me over to come and stay, make the connection, do what I needed to do with music. She worked in the music industry, and she knew Robbie Watson. She introduced me to him, and that’s how I met Robbie.
JK: Oh, that’s awesome. That worked out really well--just what you needed.
JS: That was a blessing. And that’s what I did: I got a little job in Manhattan and I worked, and my mom was still sending me money on the weekend, because trying to live in Manhattan ... ends were not meeting. So, it was crazy.
JK: So Robbie--he had some connection with Sleeping Bag Records, I guess? Like through studio work?
JS: Exactly. He knew Will Socolov, who was the owner of Sleeping Bag at the time.
JK: Once you got that foot in the door with them, was it automatic? Did they just say, “Okay, go ahead, record this with Mantronik; we’re going to make it a single,” or do you remember how the recording actually went--that whole process?
JS: Well, Robbie and I went in first. Robbie wanted to produce the track, so we went in the studio and we laid down some tracks. We took it to Will, and Kurtis Mantronik was already signed to Sleeping Bag Records at the time. I think Will and Kurtis had their own vision of how they heard the song—and so Will assigned Mantronik to produce the track.
JK: So he added to what you guys had already done with it?
JK: When the record actually came out, do you remember: was it something where it just took off all at once, or was it a gradual thing? How did it actually go with promoting the record, and with it starting to get played in the clubs and overseas?
JS: Well I was here in the States, and I could see what was happening. It took off instantly. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even understand what was happening.
JK: A bit overwhelming?
JS: Very, very much.
JK: So, with the whole success of that, afterwards you had your follow-up single, “Lifetime Love,” which was actually my introduction to you when I was growing up. That was the first one that really hit in a big way on the national R&B charts, especially because the video you did for it was played very frequently on BET. I remember seeing it on "Video Vibrations," and all those good shows. At what point was it decided that you would actually be able to do your whole album? How did that pan out?
JS: The songs were already written—I had already written the songs for he whole COME INTO MY LIFE album. But I think, after Will saw the reaction the tracks were getting … because I was signed originally as a singles artist … then I went back in and we had to redo my contract for albums.
JK: I know that Sleeping Bag had been around for a little while, and they were mostly known for hip-hop artists. They did have a couple of female vocalists, but none of them had actually released an album. So that was actually a good accomplishment on your part, to be the first vocal artist they were doing a full album on. After “Lifetime Love” came “Come into My Life,” which is what really established you, as far as an artist that wasn’t just known as a dance artist, but someone who was known as a very soulful R&B artist. I've always thought that the song was very distinctive, because I almost think of it as a club ballad, if you will. It has the groove and it was played in the clubs; but it also has that very soulful melody, which brings to mind some of the classic slow jams. Was there anything in particular you were going for when you wrote that song?
JS: Actually, I love Patti LaBelle, and she was in the group LaBelle at the time. I heard the title “Come Into My Life” from the CHAMELEON album. I loved that song, and I took the title and I wrote around it.
JK: Oh, nice. So she was one of your early inspirations, then?
JS: Oh, yes, yes.
JK: When you think about those first few singles that you had and the fact that they were all very successful, was there any of them that had especially personal significance to you, as far as their success and the meaning behind them? Was there any one that stood out for you?
JS: I think it would have to be “All and All," because it opened so many doors for me, and it was my first professional record that I heard on the radio.
JK: That would be exciting.
JS: Oh yeah, that was very exciting.
JK: Did you ever hear Randy Crawford’s remake of “Come Into My Life”? What did you think of that?
JS: Yes, awesome. I was so honored that she even knew me. Randy Crawford--I love her.
JK: Yeah, me too. She always picks really good songs; she does things that you wouldn’t expect, and I was really surprised when I heard it on her album. I was like, “That’s good for Joyce,” because it’s a great song. It's good that she recognized your talent. You also produced on your first album, for instance, the song “Walk Away,” which was also a successful song for you in the UK. What was the process of producing like for you, and was that something that you sought to do? How did it work out for you on the first album?
JS: I always wanted to produce. I guess because I’m so close to the songs, where I write the lyrics and the music and everything, it’s just natural that I would want to produce them, as well. I hear so many sounds in my head, and trying to explain it to a player … everyone interprets it differently. So I figured, “I can play, so let me try and do it myself.” And I’m just fascinated with the technology and the knobs.
JK: At that time, when you were producing—because I’m sure it’s different now--the process--but when you were doing the first album, what did that involve? Was it just that you sat down with some sort of sequencer and did it, or did you go in and play different instruments? What was actually involved in producing a record like “Walk Away”?
JS: I would play each part out. I would use a synthesizer, a keyboard, and the bassline would be laid, the drum tracks would be laid, and then just layer the keyboards and the different string parts and percussion.
JK: You also did a remake of a soul classic on there, “Love Makes a Woman," originally by Barbara Acklin. Was that a personal favorite of yours? What made you decide to record that song?
JS: My manager at the time was Voza Rivers, and he suggested that I cover that track.
JK: Then you went on to do the ALL ABOUT LOVE album, which you could say explored further your R&B side.
JK: That was a cool album, on which you worked with a lot of other interesting people, as well. On your remake of “Natural Woman," you had Sandra St. Victor and Karen Anderson backing you up, and you also had some guys that went on to become really respected DJ’s and mixers, like Eric Kupper and Mac Quayle, as well as Alec Shantzis on keys. So does anything stand out to you about that album? I think that you were more involved in terms of actually producing it?
JS: “I Surrender” is one of my favorite tracks on that CD. That whole CD was very close to me, because, like you said, I explored more of the R&B side of me and I worked with a lot of different musicians on that album. So it allowed me to grow more as a producer, as well.
JK: There’s three songs that are my favorites from there—I always really liked “I Love You More," “Here We Go Again,” and “Take Caution With My Heart."
JS: Thank you.
JK: After you did that album, for all intents and purposes, Sleeping Bag folded. It seemed like we didn’t really hear from you for a long time, with the exception of a couple singles in the '90s. Did you just decide to take a break from the industry? What was going on with you for that ten-years’ period that we didn’t really hear from you that much?
JS: I did take a break from the industry. I was really burnt out with what was going on with the label, and everything was just happening so fast--I just took a break.
JK: Was the label ... I never really was clear on it. Did they just start dropping all the artists, or what went on exactly? Because you obviously had a lot of success, so it was surprising when you just kind of disappeared.
JS: Well, I really couldn’t tell you what happened behind the scenes. There were so many different stories told, so I just don’t speak on it.
JK: Okay. But you did have a song a few years down the line, which I remember really liking, “Who’s Crying Now," which was on Warlock Records. I guess that they took over.
JK: Fast-forwarding to now, when you’re getting ready to do these new live dates in London, and some other parts of the UK: how did this come about? Tell me about what audiences can expect for these performances you’re doing.
JS: Well, first what happened was Simon Precilla contacted me and inquired about doing some dates—to see if I was interested or available to do some dates overseas. And I was interested, of course—I love the band; I love performing with the band. And the shows: I have a new EP out now, Running Back to You/Back In Love, and I’ll be doing some tracks from that EP, as well as all the classics and a few surprises. So I’m really excited about it; I’m looking forward to it.
JK: Who does your band consist of?
JS: They’re all new players, so I’m excited about meeting the guys. I hear they’re really, really good. Mickey Sims, I did a track with him as well—no relation, same last name.
JK: Okay, that’s funny!
JS: He lives in London, and we got in contact through Facebook. We started working on some music together, and I’ll be doing that track, as well, with the band. But he got the band together for me; he’s a drummer, as well, and he knows a lot of really good players in London and the UK area.
JK: Oh, cool. You mentioned the “Running Back to You” EP. The song “Running Back to You" has a little bit of the old-school vibe of some of the '80s tunes that made you famous, mixed with a little bit of a hip-hop feel, I guess you could say. So what is it like now when you create a song like that? How does the process work of putting it together?
JS: Well, now with technology, first you have to decide on what sound you want to use, What are you going for? Or, you’ll be sitting all day experimenting with different sounds and everything. I still always work at my keyboard. I work with Pro-Tools, and I’ll start out with a loop and a bassline. But I always start out with a song first—a good song—and I build from there around the lyrics.
JK: So you do the lyrics and the melody first, always?
JS: Right, yes.
JK: The other song on this EP, “Back In Love," has almost a lounge-type feel to it, a little underground vibe, and it stands out from “Running Back to You” in that you’re singing in a higher vocal range on this one. When you did these songs, did you aim to recapture the vibe of some of your earlier material? What were you going for specifically when you wrote these?
JS: Well, it wasn’t that I was going for the old material. It was just that I’m always trying to do something different, so I would say that was my main focus. Then I would listen to the music … on “Back In Love,” I worked with a production team from the UK called the Soul Garden. They produced that track. I was listening to their music and just vibing back and forth with them, and that’s what came from that, the way the vocals were done and everything. Just exploring ... because I’m always trying to do something different, something more.
JK: I was going to mention, you had a song on your YouTube channel a couple years ago called “Wishing You Were Here” that was very different from these: much more of an uptempo club record. And I don’t think you ended up officially releasing that.
JK: It used to be that a lot of times artists would record albums, or there would be a succession of singles and then they would end up on an album, but obviously it can be a lot different now with the digital age. So take, for instance, a song like “Wishing You Were Here,” and then these two new songs. Are you hoping to do a new full album, and if so, will all these different songs be on there? Or is it like you experiment and wait to see if you’re going to do an album or not?
JS: No, I definitely want to do—I’m working on it right now—a full studio album. I have so many people coming at me with different things, “You should do this, you should do that.” But I’m a songwriter, I’m an artist, and I still believe in putting out an album. I know that today the market is different, there are certain things you have to do to stay out there, and sales and this and that, but I still believe in releasing CDs.
JK: Well that’s good to hear, because I still like to buy them. With this new EP, is that going to be available at all as a CD for people to buy, or what’s the extent of that?
JS: Yes, it will be available in March, as a matter of fact.
JK: All right. Are you going to independently release that?
JS: Well, it’s on my label, August Rose Records, but I’m still working out a distribution deal.
JK: I know you did one other project before—I think it was your label and maybe was distributed through another—which is the A NEW BEGINNING CD you did a few years ago.
JS: Right, yes.
JK: So was that something that turned out to be a good experience that you’re taking something from, or is this a different way you’re doing it now?
JS: No, A NEW BEGINNING was my first venture out, as far as independently, really by myself, putting out music. I shouldn’t say by myself; I have a team of people working with me.
JK: Right. But under your direction.
JS: Right, but not having a major behind me. So I learned a lot from that, and the people I was working with. And that was a different time too, because that was when Tower Records and all the stores were shutting down. I got caught up in that, but I learned a lot.
JK: Are there any artists out there now whose work you enjoy listening to? Because you mentioned that you hear a lot of different things and get ideas for different sounds. Is there anyone in particular who you enjoy listening to these days?
JS: Oh, there’s so many. I love Adele, I like Estelle, Mary J. Blige, I love all her music … there’s so many. Alicia Keys …
JK: Good taste.
JK: He’s great. Do you know the specific dates and locations that you’re going to be doing your shows in?
JS: Yes, I start on Wednesday at Railway Telegraph—I think that’s in London, I’m not sure. And then I’m in Birmingham at the Hare and Hound with the band. Then I’m in the Cheshire Lounge. Let me try to find my list. Yeah, Friday I’m at Cheshire Lounge, Thursday I’m at Hare and Hound; that’s in Birmingham, and Sunday night I’m in London at the Jazz Café.
JK: And if fans want to check up on your itinerary at different times, is that something that’s available on your website, or is there anywhere in particular they can go to to find out that information?
JS: Yeah, it’s on my website; it’s on my Facebook, as well. Oh, and I’m going to do the Epsilon, as well, on Saturday in Leicester.
JK: Okay, great. And the website, is it joycesimsonline.com?
JK: All right, cool. Well, I hope you have a good time; sounds like it’ll be really fun. Thank you so much.
JS: Thank you so much.
JK: Okay, have a good trip.
JS: Thank you. Take care.
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.