[SLEPT ON SOUL]Madame X – Madame X by Michael Gonzales

Recording the majority of the project out of Studio Masters, an LA spot where many Solar artists worked, she and Gerry began their process. “Madame X was a labor of love for both of us,” Brown says. “Bern is funky as hell, and the way she dealt with the musicians, they knew they had to bring it. Bern knows what she’s doing and she doesn’t sacrifice her soul. At all times, she is her own person.” With Bernadette having blossomed as a producer, there was an aural adventurism to the music of Madame X that pushed beyond the formula of the usual ‘80s R&B fare.

“Alisa was from New Orleans and she sang beautifully,” Iris says of her group-mate who died from breast cancer in 2005. “She was so pretty, but also still country, but when she opened her mouth to sing, she was the bomb. We all loved on another.” Working on the project for months, they developed a bond in the studio. In the beginning, the women switched-up on leads, with Alicia taking control on the sultrily beautiful “I’m Weak for You” and the fiercely dramatic “Cherries in Snow,” two of the stand-outs on this excellent disc.

“Bern has unique techniques in the studio, from the way the mic is positioned to how the voice is recorded,” Valerie continues. “She and Gerry had their own formula and style of putting down the voices and the music. Bern conveys what she wants, but she also gets out of the way and lets the magic happen. And Gerry captured it all.”

Picking-up the album in Sounds on St. Marks Place in 1987, I was intrigued by the crimson colored Madame X name against the black background, slashed across the cover like spilled blood or a flash fire. On the back of the album jacket, their intriguing photo reminded me of the arty Black women I used to see at clubs like Danceteria. Madame X was fine, fashion forward femmes who took pride in their cultural complexity.

They were, I imagined, as equally hot on the dance floor as they were in the bedroom, but they also read books, liked foreign films, loved sushi and knew how to order wine in a restaurant. Wearing all black in the day time, each one silently sipped on a Kir Royale as they flipped through catalogs. Wardrobe wise, they wore the sort of clothes one might see in the windows of chic boutique or in the pages of Vogue magazine.

“I loved Vanity 6 and the Mary Jane Girls, but there was only so much lingerie I could run around in,” Iris says.
Although they were all strangers to one another in the beginning, a sisterhood was initially formed between Madame X, Bernadette Cooper, their manager Cassandra Mills and their A&R person Sylvia Rhone. Years before becoming the music industry powerhouse behind Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes and others, Madame X was one of the first artists, along with Levert and the System, Rhone signed to Atlantic.

For Madame X, working with Bernadette Cooper also brought the benefit of her homegirl Teena Marie stopping by the studio on a regular. “She was so cool,” Valerie says. “She would come in and sing backgrounds, and she was always so generous. There was nothing fake or phony about her.” Meanwhile, Iris recalls, “She would help us with our harmonies, and her voice was just amazing. It was an honor for us.”

In the studio next door, Babyface was working with then-unknown singer Pebbles, who was also slaving away on her debut album. “Babyface had told Bernadette that he had a song about a car, but she told him we had a car song already,” Iris recalls. “That song turned out to be ‘Mercedes Boy.’”

Although Cooper cites Quincy Jones and Prince as inspirations, one can also hear the pop classicism of George Martin in the operatic heartbreak and sorrowful strings of “Cherries in the Snow”, a noirish soundtrack jazz style on the title track (“Madame X”), the raunchy rock in a funky place of “Flirt,” a track overflowing with electric guitars and Afrika Islam turntablism, and the wonderful weirdness and eastern instrumentation drifting through the synth-heavy first single “Just That Type of Girl.

Valerie campaigned to sing lead on “Just That Type of Girl,” the track that became Madame X’s first single. “I took the track home and lived with it for a while. I worked hard trying to decide how I would sing it. Then I came into the studio, and Bern and Gerry got it down. Bern put together songs like a puzzle and every piece has these little nuances. People expected different kind of stuff from Black girls, but Bernadette wanted to express something else in her music. I just loved that song, because it had a cool David Bowie/Annie Lennox vibe to it that I thought was so flippin’ cool. We were surprised when it was chosen as the first single.”

Co-written with bassist Cornelius Mims, who has worked with Michael Jackson and Mary J. Blige, the song was strangely textured and oddly hypnotic. “The coolest part of that song,” Valerie says, “was the backgrounds. The backgrounds made that record come alive.” Released at the height of the music video revolution, when artists like Duran Duran and Madonna ruled, and a new artist was judged by their MTV rotations, Madame X made a clip that was surreal and mysterious, which only added to their mystique.

“We met with the director and he asked about our concepts,” Iris says. “We showed them pictures and storyboards, and we had this massive brainstorm. We wanted it to be dark and mysterious.” Later, they shot parts of the video in the Mojave Desert. Says Valerie, “It was hot, but we were determined to be fashionable.” The end result was a dazzling Daliesque visual experience that was daring as it was arty.

In yet another dream come true moment, Madame X was booked on Soul Train, where they performed “Just That Type of Girl” and “I’m Weak for You.” Laughing, Iris says, “It wasn’t real for us, I felt like I’d just walked into my television set. There was the Asian girl with the long hair and the guy with the toothbrush. I forgot my shoes at the house, so somebody had to go get them; it was crazy.” To make matters worse, though Don Cornelius didn’t want them to change clothes, they insisted and almost missed performing their second song.

While the silky sweaty sexy “I Want Your Body” was the second single, there wasn’t a video shot for it. Instead, it was around this time that it seemed that Atlantic Records began losing interest in their Black new wave experiment and suddenly wanted Madame X to transform themselves into a more traditional trio. As they began recording their sophomore project, Alisa Randolph was being pushed towards the foreground with Isis and Valerie supplying the backgrounds.

“That really splintered the group and Isis was done,” Valerie recalls. “After she left, Sylvia Rhone suggested me and Alisa become a duo, but I felt like the other guy in WHAM. One day, when Alisa and I left the studio, I walked her to her car and told her I was leaving. Iris nor I ever sent in any resignation papers, we didn’t show up. They wanted to change our direction; they wanted us to be more R&B than we were. Alisa’s solo album (self-titled, 1990) was supposed to be Madame X’s second. But, we knew it wasn’t personal and we all still stayed friends.”

While Alisa’s album was also produced by Bernadette Cooper, there was no comparison the eccentric beauty and sonic inventiveness of Madame X, and I’m sure that’s the way the record company wanted it. “I always felt we were doing something special,” Valerie says, “but sometimes when you’re a forward thinker, people don’t always get you.”


Michael_Gonzales-dreamMichael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.

 

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