[Read Quentin Harrison’s special 30th anniversary tribute to Jody Watley’s eponymous debut album here.]
Jody Watley has been a musical chameleon for four decades, and in her fifth she shows no sign of creative fatigue. Her solo gambit was cast on February 23, 1987 when her debut album Jody Watley was released to the public and impacted hard. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. The long player spun off five hit singles in “Looking For a New Love,” “Still a Thrill,” “Don't You Want Me,” “Some Kind of Lover” and “Most of All,” but held several other tracks that helped the album, as a whole, storm the charts. Watley netted the “Best New Artist” Grammy Award the following year and went on to record more music that pushed the boundaries of what contemporary R&B could accomplish.
Earlier this week, Watley graciously sat down with Albumism’s Quentin Harrison to discuss her eponymous debut album and its enduring impact and appeal. Additionally, the acclaimed singer-songwriter shared her knowledge as a woman of color in the arts and what that means in today's environment which has grown increasingly harsh toward women.
Quentin Harrison: Thirty years removed from Jody Watley, what do you think are the biggest factors of its continued legacy and appeal to listeners, old and new?
Jody Watley: The songs, lyrically, have classic themes. “Looking For a New Love” will always be a great break-up song, a song for empowerment. The timelessness of the grooves, so much of the music was forward-thinking, and those factors play into the longevity of the album.
QH: After Shalamar, you went to England to reset yourself personally and professionally. Part of that reset involved securing a deal with Phonogram Records and working alongside the Art of Noise on two singles. Could you detail the experience behind recording “Where the Boys Are” and “Girls Night Out” and their subsequent impact on the Jody Watley LP?
JW: One of the things I wanted to be very clear about in becoming a solo artist was making a statement. At the time, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (by Yes) was out and really popular and I loved the production. The sound of it was, sonically, so different. I knew that I wanted to do music that had an edge to it, that had some bite.
I met Gary Langan, J. J. Jeczalik, Anne Dudley and Bruce Woolley when signing at Phonogram. They were working with another artist and I don't remember the chain of events, but Bruce and I started writing together. That was very important to me to have a stronger voice as a writer as a new artist. Now that was before they were all known as the Art of Noise. The recording sessions kind of just started from there, but it ended up falling apart. The Phonogram executive Chris Briggs wanted the music to be more of a traditional R&B sound. We actually started clashing from the very beginning because I knew exactly who I wanted to be.
So they released the two promo singles, “Girls Night Out” and Where the Boys Are,” and they were “out there.” I still love both of them, they're fun songs and there was really nothing out there like it with an “independent girl spirit” and I wanted that to come across. I was working on a whole album and never completed it due to ending my relationship with Phonogram. It was just one of those things where the label wants an artist to be one thing and you don't want to be that. Which ended up being fortuitous because it allowed me to fine tune what I was doing and subsequently move back to America to look for a deal.
QH: Talk about Jheryl Busby and your arrival at MCA Records, your recording home for the first half of your solo recording tenure. Did Busby share your vision in regard to what you wanted to accomplish? Were there any other labels that appealed to you before you settled on MCA?
JW: When it came down to it, because I had met with all of the major labels at the time, some were taken aback by my vision and passion for what I wanted to accomplish. But, there were two labels in the end. Warner Bros. with Benny Medina, who was the head of their urban department, and Jheryl with MCA. And Jheryl, he immediately got it visually and musically, because he had been at Casablanca Records and he brought up Donna Summer and her records and their great cover art.
I remember sitting in his office with all of the gold and platinum records displayed and they all looked the same to me [laughs]. I told him, “And by the way, I want my album cover to be black and white. Why is it that all of these albums look the same and have the same standard blue background?” And he looked and saw that they all had the similar blue background and same typography. He was just tickled by me. We did fight about the album cover being black and white though, because he said that black and white album covers don't traditionally sell well. But that's what I wanted, a black and white photo for the cover. So, the tradeoff was that the vinyl copies were black and white and the CD and tape copies had a blue or purple tint. But, that's why I went with MCA, because Jheryl got the label to see my vision with my debut and continue from there.
QH: Talk about the talent you picked to collaborate with you on the album that included André Cymone, David Rivkin, Bernard Edwards, Patrick Leonard and George Michael.
JW: I already knew who I wanted to work with on my album because I wanted to have a hard-hitting, funky sound. I had met Bernard Edwards many years before when he was touring with Chic. We reconnected when I was living in England and he was working with Power Station and I was actually dating John Taylor (of Duran Duran) then. This was after the Phonogram deal had fallen apart and so I asked Bernard, “When I get my deal, when I go back to America, you know, can we work together?” And he said “yeah.” Now, “Love Injection,” that was the one song, I've said this publically before, but everybody at the label loved that song I did with Bernard. We had Tony Thompson on drums and I had the whole Power Station crew on that. It does fit with everything else on the album.
I love the groove, I love the track, but lyrically it was going nowhere for me [laughs]. André and I had met out in Los Angeles, I knew him from being a part of the early Prince years. So, we had started writing demos together and he had tracks, but he didn't write melodies or lyrics. He was part of my pitch to MCA, as well as Patrick Leonard. David Rivkin came on because MCA didn't want me to work with André, because they didn't think he had the experience. Jheryl said, “Well, if you work with him, he'll need to work with David,” who had done work on MCA with The Jets. So, that's how those two ended up co-producing on the songs that André and I wrote together. Then, there was George Michael, he loved my voice and we had met during the Band Aid recording in 1984. He kept his word to work with me when I got my American deal.
QH: Like you, many of your peers such as Cherrelle, Janet Jackson, Karyn White, and others were involved in the songwriting, production and visual execution of their hit records, but male critics were quick to dismiss all of your contributions. In the social and political climate we dwell in now, with the female voice under assault, this remains an issue. Describe how you deal with this hurdle.
JW: It's definitely something that, you know, does grate the nerves a bit. The preconceived notion that if you're a woman, you couldn't possibly be a part of the songwriting or the production. That you have to be the product of “some guy told her to do that.” The songwriting of my debut, and all of my music since, is something that when I'm written about, that's something that's always missed. I think black women, women in general, are always fighting for that respect. Being a black woman and a black artist, you don't really get that instant acceptance and trust when dealing with the labels, you have to go through departments and that is unique to us. It's like men don't want to see it, or believe it, it always has to be that a man has created it or made it happen. From the get go, with my first album to starting my own label and going independent (in 1995), I've been a warrior woman.
QH: Were there any outtakes from the Jody Watley recordings?
JW: Actually, when recording the first album, and all of the albums at MCA, one of my things was, I'm not going to record a bunch of songs for them to re-release on me when I'm not on the label anymore [laughs]. So, you get nine or ten songs and that's it. What we submitted to MCA is what they have. There is one song that we did called “The Politics,” it was really super funky like “Still a Thrill” and it was about the music industry. It's all about me talking about trying to be myself and not being put into an industry box, and it didn't make the album. I don't have it, André might, but I doubt it. But it was fire, the song was hot. I wanted that one instead of “Love Injection” [laughs]!
QH: Your use of European-to-electronic dance music textures within your R&B vibe is part of your sonic core. It played a central role on your aforementioned Phonogram singles and certain sides from your debut (“For the Girls,” “Do It to the Beat”). Of course, it also carried over into your latter day records The Saturday Night Experience (1999), Midnight Lounge (2003) and The Makeover (2006). What is it about this music that appeals to you?
JW: Well, finding ways to pair the two, dance and R&B, together has always been intriguing to me. I continue to want, and try, to do that. I like a good groove, I like experimental things and I like finding ways to make it warm and bring an organic quality to it. Dance music speaks to me.
QH: You've been recording and touring with SRL (Shalamar Reloaded), what can we expect from Jody Watley next, in regards to your next solo long player?
JW: I'm actually trying to artistically decide. I did a symphony show in Japan and jazz show in China recently. I'm really torn about what I want the next album to be. Paradise (2014) was obviously bringing around my disco, soul and funk influences with the electro and marrying that together. I'm just trying to decide what I creatively want it to be. SRL is working on our Bridges album and then I'd like to start working on my album next year.
STREAM Our Essential Jody Watley playlist: