When you released your first record, Rux Revue in 1999, the music industry was a completely different place. What was it like for you at that point?
I was really green regarding the record industry when I recorded my first record. Like most artists in their twenties, I didnt understand anything about the business of it. I had spent my time with musicians and dancers and theater people, hanging out in cafes and bars and was simply engaged in the process of making art.
When singer-songwriter Nona Hendryx discovered me singing at CBGB on the Lower East Side and approached me about putting a band together and recording, I was really surprised someone of her stature was interested in the kind of homespun avant-garde soul music I was doing at the time. When Sony signed me, there was talk that I was somewhat like the the black Beck (Beck was really hot at the time). Honestly, I had no idea what that meant.
Immediately the wheels of the machine began to spin and I was shipped off to Los Angeles to work with the same people who had produced hits for Beck (the Dust Brothers, Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf) as well as a few stellar session musicians who had worked with legends like Bill Withers and helped create the neo-soul sound of artists like DAngelo.
I was like a deer in the headlights, going along for the ride and trying to stay true to myself. There was a lot of money spent a lot! and a huge corporate machine promoting me to the world and many meetings with many executives sitting around long tables deciding how to market me to the masses. When the record came out, the critics were more than kind, but I quickly learned there were politics involved. Id have to compete with other Sony artists and their managers before I could get the green light for the next step.
I remember being at the Grammy Awards, sitting at a table between Wyclef Jean and Bob Dylan with a lot of cameras flashing in my face and suddenly realizing that I was young, quirky, opinionated, outspoken and unaware of what the pitfalls were all about in such a huge industry and maybe that inner voice that kept telling me to stay true to myself is exactly the reason I resisted the makeover and recorded songs that made the critics listen to the music closely and say, This is different, this is fresh, this is great.
But honestly, until youre sitting in the passenger seat without a safety belt, you have no idea how fast and sometimes reckless the ride can be. You can either get thrown to the side of the road or you can jump ship. Either way, to touch ground again and walk down the road on your own two feet is a great feeling.
Now that things have changed, youre going directly to your fans through Pledge, and you mention on your Pledge page that youre choosing to see the new industry in a positive light. Talk a little about the benefit you see in this new model.
Ive always loved the idea of connecting directly to my fanbase, for lack of better word, and the people who appreciate my art. I think thats who Im talking to when I make music. No one is deciding for us how the conversation should go. Were in an intimate relationship with each other, and I love the idea that I can connect my project to a charity of my choice, exposing people to worthy causes that Im passionate about and encouraging them to get on board. Ultimately, at the end of the day, all an artist has is his or her relationship to the people, not the corporations and executives that stand in between.
Youre working on your fourth studio album, Homeostasis, and youve got some great collaborators planned for this one. Can you tell me a little about whos joining you this time around?
Ive returned to master musicians whove been with me all along, like the great Nona Hendryx (formerly of Labelle) a groundbreaker and shape shifter for more than 50 years and still going, and Vernon Reid, who collaborated with me on my second record and various other projects through the years. Ive invited exciting artists into my process, like Dave Smoota Smith and Ben Tyree, both of whom have played with TV On The Radio, Burnt Sugar and other great bands. Im also working with new artists like Hamilton Kirby, who is enormously talented and new to the experience of making records.
Talk a little about the title. Homeostasis is the ability of a system or group to maintain internal stability. What about this project led you to this title?
I was inspired to title this record Homeostasis after viewing an incredible series of paintings by the late artist Emilio Cruz, an important pioneer of American modernism. Cruz was connected with other artists who were applying abstract expressionism concepts to figurative art such as Lester Johnson, Bob Thompson and Jan Müller.
He combined human and animal figures with imagery from archaeology and natural history to create disturbing, dreamlike paintings. Cruz, like me, was also a multidisciplinarian. He wrote a play called Homeostasis: Once More the Scorpion and The Absence Held Fast to Its Presence, first performed at the Open Eye Theater in New York and included in the World Theater Festival in Paris, France, and in Italy.
That word leapt out at me the idea of internal stability; of a system that regulates its internal environment and tends to maintain a stable, relatively constant condition of properties. Thats exactly what I want from the world, what I work toward within myself, and the kind of relationship I want between my art and my audience. And in order to get there, it requires that we allow ourselves to be honest with each other and to be daring. Theres nothing cookie-cutter about internal stability. In fact, its more dreamlike than we know.