Phone interview recorded October 10, 2011
With one of the longest and most successful careers in R&B today, soul crooner Joe Thomas keeps his promise of releasing at least one album every year or two. ‘The Good, The Bad, The Sexy’ is the latest project and in this interview with Akim Bryant, Joe shows no signs of slowing down....
Akim Bryant: Unequivocally, Joe Thomas is one of the most underrated R&B singers in music today, in spite of his last album, SIGNATURE, being voted iTunes Best R&B Album of 2009. Now, as consistent as always, Joe drops his ninth studio album, THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE SEXY on October 18th. So welcome to SoulMusic.com, Joe.
Joe Thomas: Thank you, my friend.
AB: How are you?
JT: I can’t complain, I’m doing very well today. How about you?
AB: I can’t complain either. Good to actually have this moment to speak to you about this new project.
JT: Yes, sir.
AB: So you have THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE SEXY; and of course the first question is, how did you come up with that title?
JT: Well, I can’t take credit for it; my big brother Kedar Massenburg thought of this title. But it really sums up the entire album.
AB: So of course the phrase is “the good, the bad and the ugly”.
AB: So you eliminated the ugly and replaced it with sexy?
JT: Oh, yeah. Nothin’ ugly about it. It’s all sexy.
AB: All right. And the first single was “Losing”?
JT: Yeah, we got a couple singles out. The first one we put out was “Losing”, which is a midtempo record; and we also got out, at the moment, my second single is called “Dear Joe”.
AB: What are those two songs about, just in case the fans haven’t had a chance to check it out yet?
JT: The “Losing” record talks about a relationship gone bad… actually, both the songs talk about a relationship gone bad—that’s sort of the “Bad” part of the album, because “Dear Joe” is like a Dear John letter. She comes home for one last… I guess you could say “one for the road”…and me thinking she’s going to come back and bring her love back, and her letter says she’s out in red lipstick. And a lot of the stories are true; some of the things are fabricated a little bit just to fit my musical energy on certain records, but that’s what I do a lot of times. Some of it is real, some of it is things that could be real.
AB: I agree. Now in my opinion, you’ve been able to solidify your sound more so now as an indie artist than you were back in the day when you were signed to Jive Records. Do you feel the same?
JT: Most certainly, most certainly. The freedom is…I’ve been lit…it’s like a fire’s been lit under me. And at this point I dropped an album… I left Jive in 2008 and I put out three albums as far as studio records and a couple Christmas albums and some live CDs. So my motivation and my energy is through the roof at this point. I plan to release an album either every year, every twelve months or every fifteen to sixteen months.
AB: Wow. Where does that drive come from to just continue to make the music and continue to give the fans exactly what they expect?
JT: Well, for one thing I feel like I’m working for myself and not being pimped. I feel like I’m getting out there and making a hustle, and when you hustle for yourself I guess it brings about a new surge of energy. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. I was making a transition and I’m just glad I got out of there before all that went on.
AB: Before the ship really went down.
JT: That’s right.
AB: So your career… I think this actually surprised a lot of people to know that your career has spanned nearly two full decades in music.
JT: That’s right, yeah.
AB: You were here before the likes of the Maxwells, the Musiq Soulchilds… the Ushers, even. So what can you say to soul music fans that sets you apart from the rest of the competition?
JT: I’m not really sure, I don’t know their struggle and their history and how they come up. I can only say that for me, I traveled with my dad a lot, both my parents—I know a lot of people probably know this who know me, that my parents were ministers—but they probably don’t know that my dad was an evangelist, a street minister. He would go from town to town in small neighbourhoods and try to save souls, and I was his right-hand man for the most part—this little dude who played instruments, backed him up when he was preaching and tuning up. So he was the guy who would set up on the streets. Nothing fancy… nothing fancy about it, but just a real road warrior for God.
AB: So is that where the singing came into play or was it totally separate?
JT: It was always there. It was always there, because my dad [did] sing, he played instruments. My mom as well. And I guess it was just a progression of this is going to go and translate down to the kids, and we all played instruments and we all sang as well, so it was just a given. But I never really set out to be a recording artist. I wanted to be in the music industry, but I didn’t in a way. I just wanted to be a part of it after watching Bobby Brown and Keith Sweat. It was something I could do, I would love that.
AB: Now as everyone knows, coming from a gospel family and especially having two parents who are ministers, and you broke away and started recording secular music. What was that transition like?
JT: For me it was simple. A lot of R&B reminds you of gospel—a lot of the attitudes and reflections and interpretations. We sort of attack a record with the same emotions and feelings. So it was a very smooth, easy transition. I just switched the words up a little bit; get a little bit more edgier, as they say.
AB: But your parents had no issues with you going that route?
JT: No, they didn’t have any issues. And they understood that even for themselves that their steps are ordered by God and quite naturally mine will be as well, and that they did everything they could and they did a great job when I was a kid, instilling good values and things like doing to others as you would have them do unto you. Just simple things. You keep that with you, you go pretty far.
AB: So they focused on what’s important—all the values and things they instilled—as opposed to the music you were thinking about.
JT: Most certainly.
AB: And you also came up during a time when hip-hop was still evolving, beginning to take over the charts, slightly pushing R&B to the background a little bit. How do you feel about that particular time, especially since you were an R&B artist at the time when it was being pushed to the background in favour for hip-hop? What was that like for you?
JT: Oh, it’s no big deal. I look at it like it’s just a new energy that came in for a moment that… I won’t say for a moment, because I feel like hip-hop will always be here, it’s got something to say. And that’s the most important thing, is having something to say. I can’t save R&B on my own and I’m glad that R&B artists are more so appreciated as well—like the younger generation are coming to understand how important lyrics are, keeping them very strong, and how important to structure a record with simplicity but with as much feeling as you can. Those things we’ve missed. Hip-hop has sort of gone in that direction and put feeling and the melodies and singing in, but it’s nothing like when you’ve got an artist that really can emulate—not just emulate; can just be that person: be that guy who sings like that old-school Marvin, Barry White. We just don’t have those guys like that. I feel like I’m one of the last of the Mohicans in this game.
AB: I can agree, definitely. But do you feel like there’s anyone out there currently who hits that sweet spot for you?
JT: Well, I think a lot of them get it. Because they’re so young, they run into the challenges of being successful, and in order to be a success you’ve got to play the game. This pop thing came in, that European sound came in for a minute. Sometimes you need to play that game to get where you need to be and then branch off. So I don’t fault anyone for taking a route that they normally wouldn’t take—it’s really not their style but they’re trying to see where it might go. But their true heart is really in soul music. I don’t fault them for trying, because you never know what type of doors that could open or what type of music they might stumble upon to create a whole other R&B sound. So I applaud the challenges and you just got to continue it.
AB: Now “All The Things Your Man Won’t Do” is, I think, by far your most timeless and classic song to date when it comes to your catalogue of music, and I think it’s also a pretty difficult song to sing. Would you say it’s your most vocally challenging song?
JT: Let’s see... I tell you one thing about recording “All The Things”, the original was a lot lower—the key—I had to raise it up. We had to re-record the record and just raise the key up a notch because of me, I needed more intensity. It just didn’t have that punch to it. So that wasn’t necessarily a challenge, but it was more of a challenge with re-recording the entire song to give it that energy. You’re trying to create something that’s beautiful and it needs something a little bit more. And I understood that. It was like, okay, there’s a certain tone that my voice has when it goes into that register. I’m comfortable with it. And it feels so good on the track when you got that little edginess with that raw kind of thing with it. But performing it live is cool, I have no problems with it. None at all. The more I sing it, the easier it gets.
AB: Better with time, okay. And you actually dropped a live album last year also, right?
JT: That’s right, yeah. SIGNATURE.
AB: Wait, no, the live album… Live from Japan?
JT: Oh yeah; the Japan one, okay. The actual live album.
AB: So why Japan?
JT: Well, because for one, I’ve been going to Japan since ’93—the beginning of my career. And for one, Fuji TV, which is the biggest television station there, and the recording equipment that they had and the opportunity, for one… it was just a grand opportunity to make a recording. Night after night, with a great sound. And that was pretty much it; it was very, very simple. The opportunity arose and I took advantage of it.
AB: Now you’ve been Grammy-nominated before and you’ve received accolades here and there; namely, the iTunes Best R&B Album of 2009. Do you still secretly want that Grammy recognition or no?
JT: Secretly [laughs]. Definitely, definitely secretly I would love to have it. Who wouldn’t want someone to walk into your house and being amazed and excited by it? Just your nieces and nephews, your family, like, “Wow, you did it, Unc. You got a Grammy—oh wow, that’s crazy.” Just for that reason alone. Other than that it can’t do anything other than just be a talking piece. Yeah, of course it says you’ve reached excellence in your field of music; at the same time, it does more for me when little kids see it and are like, “Wow! That’s a Grammy.”
AB: Definitely. You’ve been independent now, sticking with Kedar Entertainment since you left Jive. What kind of influence has Kedar Massenburg had on your career as a whole?
JT: Well just growth…For one, he’s one of the classiest men I’ve ever met… just handles himself with such style. He’s an incredible individual. I really thank God for putting certain people in my life, and just being an influence from their own lives. Just living vicariously sometimes through them and learning so much and bettering yourself. How he handles people, as well—the good and the bad. It’s just so influential and positive to me. So I couldn’t imagine having a better mentor than him, he really is a great mentor.
AB: So out of all the music that you’ve recorded—nine studio albums, officially ten if you want to count the Christmas one that you did last year—what would be your favourite album or song?
JT: I get that question quite a bit and I still can’t find an answer for it because I feel like now I’m really just starting, after leaving Jive and growing up and understanding a lot about the business; even more so now…The timing is great, like I mentioned before—it’s good because I moved on three or four years ago—and to now be in this situation.
AB: I’m sure it’s very rewarding, basically, to take that leap of faith to do it independently and it pays off.
JT: Yes, absolutely. Most certainly. It’s a lot of hard work but it definitely pays off.
AB: Definitely. I’m sure that the paychecks are much better.
JT: Yeah, you’re looking at eighty-something percent, you’re looking pretty good.
AB: Nice. Now you’re a balladeer R&B guy, you create some very lyrically intricate songs. Are they all based on real situations or is it just the creativity come into play?
JT: Well, a lot of it is based on things I go through, but of course I do talk about things that I want to happen and things that I see around me all the time. I have a pretty sizable family, you gotta learn from people around you as well. It’s very important. You know, I let them make some mistakes for me.
AB: And put it in a song.
JT: There you go… there you go. And it helps us all out in the end.
AB: So are you single, currently?
JT: Yes I am.
AB: Do you have kids?
JT: Yeah, I have a daughter, she’s in college and doing very, very well. Beautiful, beautiful girl, very bright.
AB: Is singing possibly in her future?
JT: She loves it, but she don’t love the business. She loves singing but she don’t want to be part of the music business.
AB: And those two kind of go hand in hand a little bit.
JT: Most certainly. And I think the business side is a little bit more important… just a little bit.
AB: So what is the ideal woman type for Joe?
JT: Oh man, I think we all go for the outward appearances and things like that, which is important to some people. But I think that inner thing is more beautiful, just to find somebody who really, truly cares about you. I’ve been with girls of different nationalities, from different walks of life, but I think at the end of the day it’s who really treats you the best; who can complement your lifestyle and be a God-fearing person at the same time as well.
AB: So I’m really curious to know, because since you do so few duets—so few collaborations and things like that—who’s out today that you would like to work with?
JT: Adele’s voice is amazing, I have to say. I think her voice really represents what voices should be at this point: it’s so clean, so powerful, and very crystal clear. It has an old, throwback thing to it.
AB: That old-school sound.
JT: Kelly Rowland’s very slick with it as well. Jazmine Sullivan, she’s really good. I heard she’s not doing music but she certainly needs to…be inspired and her fans will sure appreciate her music as well. There are some great singers. I would love to do a duet album with just women.
AB: Oh, that would be hot.
JT: Pick a bunch of my friends: Mariah and Kim Burrell and so many great singers out there… Ledisi… and just bang one out.
AB: Wow. Yeah, I want to hear that. I would buy a bunch of copies of those for family, friends… everybody.
JT: Yeah, there you go.
AB: Cool. Cool. So you have anything else that you’d like to share with the SoulMusic community?
JT: First and foremost I just want to thank them for listening for so many years and just giving me a chance to deliver music to them… We will definitely do this again, and hopefully they’ll pick up the album on the 18th of October. It would be a blessing.
AB: And what’s the best way they can keep up to date with you and what’s happening?
JT: Well, I’m on Twitter, which is @joethomas563, and also… well, that’s the main one right now that I’m currently on, and I get the tour dates and update people whenever I’m in the city and whatever’s going on. So I’m pretty much on Twitter much more than I used to be.
AB: So you’re not a Facebook type of guy?
JT: No. No, I’m not a Facebook kind of guy. They say I need to be… I know there’s some sites out there where my name’s on it, but it’s not me. But yeah, Twitter’s definitely where you can get at me and I can get at you.
AB: All right. Well, that does it for this interview. SoulMusic.com thanks Joe for taking this time out to speak with us. And good luck with the new project.
JT: Appreciate it. Thank you, my friend.
AB: And keep the great music coming, and I really hope you do that duets album with all females. That would be classic.
JT: You got it. I look forward to doing it.
AB: That would be like the Marvin Gaye of this generation. That would be… oh my God.
JT: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been a pleasure, my friend. All the best to you.
AB: Thank you, thank you very much.
Born and raised in Newark, N.J., Akim Bryant received his B.A. in Communication from William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. Akim is an entertainment/media professional with over 10 years of work experience as a music programmer (radio & video) for Music Choice and as a freelance writer. For further inquiries, he can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcription by Penelope Keith - You can e-mail Penelope here for transcription service info
About the Writer
With nearly a decade of experience in programming content for Music Choice (24/7 music channels, cable-on-demand shows, website and cell), Akim Bryant has just begun to scratch the surface of journalism having already written for GIANT and The Source magazines as well as a number of start-up publications. This self-professed R&B junkie also has a strong knack for the art of interviewing. Be on the lookout for his semi-autobiographical debut novel coming out in 2012.