Second Time Around:
The Jody Watley Interview
by Tony Phillips
There’s any number of first times for her typical fan. For the lifers, it might have been catching her dance on Soul Train or busting synchronized dance moves with the R&B concoction Shalamar. For the newbies, it could be as recent as spinning out on the dance floor to her collaborations with super-DJs Masters At Work and King Britt. But by 1987, with three top ten hits rocketing off her debut album and Little Richard handing her a Grammy for Best New Artist, it’s safe to say Jody Watley was a household name.
The second act saw an entire season’s worth of Behind The Music drama packed into not one, but two implosions with major record labels. A closer look saw an entrepreneurial, black woman radically reconfiguring both her home and business life. After a soul-searching quest that almost bounced her out of the biz, this working mom resurfaced with her own record label, a self-produced new album that grooves with underground dance rhythms and slick funk and a whole new love for doing what she does best.
Your latest album Midnight Lounge sounds new, yet takes me back at the same time. How did you manage that?
I’m into new music with a new sound. The things that inspire me right now are coming out of the international, underground dance music scene. Ambient music that’s laid back, but still with a nice energy. The only song that is reminiscent of something past for me is “Photographs” and I was listening to Chic and wanted a song that reminded me of that. But at the same time, I had this record by Daft Punk that was in that same classic disco dance vibe, so it’s kind of a combination of being inspired by Daft Punk and Chic.
How does Jody Watley come across ambient and Daft Punk?
Music that doesn’t get played on commercial radio inspires me most. It’s what made me want to continue making music. I’ve had such a long career from a teenager to being in a group to pop stardom and then having records that no one knew about. I’ve never really felt the pressure to repeat myself or to live up to something other than what I want to do at that time. I don’t think to do this, I have to do this and so on.
When you say it made you want to continue making music, do you mean there was a time you thought about walking away from the business?
I did. I made a record for Atlantic and released two singles from it. The first single did well on the R&B charts and was the number one dance record. They released the second single, which was also number one and got great critical reviews. Then they decided not to release the CD and that was just inexplicable to me. It was the first time I made a record where the record company was involved in the making of it. In the end, I was just so disappointed because it was about corporations and money.
So what happened?
The road has been very long. I was just exhausted and thought who needs it? That was just how I felt. And then I was in contractual limbo for two years after that — also inexplicable — so I couldn’t really do anything. They didn’t release the CD and didn’t want to release me from my contract. So I thought, I’ve always wanted to be involved in fashion. I’m going to do something else now. I always bought music, whether it was Brazilian or jazz or whatever, so I started going back to stores that sell 12 inch vinyl and a lot of imports. And I was just really living my life and trying to be stress free and happy.
But you were a hugely successful recording artist.
A long time ago a friend told me I would be successful, but never mega. He said I’m too cool to be mega [laughs]. In a weird way, that brought me back to my essence. Even with “Looking for a New Love” and some of my huge hits, I still had to deal with my record company. “Why are you so different? Why are you wearing these clothes? Why would you want to do videos like this? Why are your pictures so fashion?” It was just why, why, why? The essence of who I am as an artist is tied to who I am as a person. I try to be really honest about what I’m doing when I’m writing. I think in terms of what I like as opposed to how much it’s going to sell. That’s definitely at odds with the climate that exists for artists in commercial music today.
But you already had your own label by then, right?
Yes, I started Avitone when I left MCA. When you’re an entrepreneur and you put out your records independently, in a lot of ways, even though it’s more difficult, it could be more beneficial to you on the business end. After having been with MCA, I didn’t want to be with a major company anymore because executives were coming and going and people were less creative and more about sales figures, promo budgets, money and radio station politics. So I started Avitone. The funny thing about Atlantic was I wasn’t looking to be on a major label. They courted me. I wanted to do a dance record and work with all these interesting people and once I signed everything that had been discussed was out the window [laughs]. You just go with your instincts. So after that I thought let me put my records out independently thorough Avitone and license them which means that they belong to me. This new record was licensed to Shanachie, but it belongs to me. I’m really proud of that. It takes a lot of wherewithal to be in any artistic business. These are shark-infested waters.
But now with music being traded online, those sharks are starting to eat themselves.
It’s funny. On the one hand, I think it’s fantastic. The Internet will force labels to price differently. People love music, but have a certain amount of discretionary income so this pricing can’t continue. But then someone will say to me, “I just downloaded your song” and I’ll say, “You’re taking money out of my pocket when you do that, you know.” But the hardcore fans might download first, but they buy it too. I hope, in the end, artists become more entrepreneurial. Not every artist needs to have a 100 million-dollar marketing budget to get the point across. Everybody doesn’t need to be a superstar. I’d like to see that mentality change and for there to be less thinking that if you’re on an independent, there must be something wrong. There’s a difference between an independent film and a blockbuster, obviously, but the independents are always kind of cool.
Were you the first artist to take it to the runway in a video?
Absolutely. I told “Real Love” director David Fincher that I always wanted to be on the runway. So the video was all about fashion. When I signed to MCA I told them I wanted to use fashion photographers. I really made it a point to throw that in and people either got it or thought I was too avant-garde.
Honey, those legwarmers from the Shalamar days, now they were avant-garde.[Laughs] In the new Elle, there’s a model and she’s got a lot of stuff on from the 80s — the belts with the hardware and everything — I was tickled because everything obviously goes around again. There are some things, though, having already sported it, I won’t go near again.
The title track of your new CD has this catchy chorus “All I wanna to do is just dance” and I’m thinking, Jody Watley, working mom, yeah sure. Is there ever time for that?
Definitely. In fact, though Los Angels isn’t the club capital of the world, there is a place I love to go in Hollywood from time to time. Its called Deep and Marcus White is the DJ. He starts early on Sundays so it works really well for me to go. Obviously, I can’t hang out as much as I used to, but I definitely still go out. I love dance music. The places that I like to go to are about jeans, really casual. It’s not about being seen and trying to be cute. You go and you dance. You can dance by yourself with nobody’s bothering you. I like those kinds of places.
You also have a knack for collaboration, going all the way back to Erik B and Rakim. Who’s on your list these days?
I still want to do something with Maxwell. I like him a lot. I like Common, but he’s done a lot recently in the duet area. I also want to collaborate with people like Groove Armada. And probably someone in world music somehow. Something really sort of international and unexpected.
Speaking of unexpected, Little Richard calls out your name, best new artist, then what happens?
It was amazing, actually it was the best and worst night of my life. It was a dream come true for me. In fact, I was working on a montage not too long ago and I pulled up that clip. I was barely able to speak. I really didn’t think that I would win because Terrence Trent D’Arby was the critics’ choice. They asked him to perform on the show. I was convinced the politics of that means you’re probably going to win. So when Little Richard called my name--and it took him about ten minutes to get to me, he had to do his own stuff first--it was so special, but I was totally floored. I think MCA was as surprised as I was. In fact, when I flew out to New York, they didn’t want to fly me first class. They flew me coach.
Well, there’s nothing like that Grammy upgrade on the way back.
That’s what I’m saying, it sorted itself out regardless of the powers that be. Whatever you do, you’re always a Grammy winner. They can’t take that away. Even though people said how could she be best new artist when she’s been in a successful group already? They said she’s not really new, but I was new. And I still think I’m new.