I’m always excited right before I meet an artist for an interview. Tonight, January 21st at Blues Ally in Georgetown, DC is no different. It’s 7:45 pm and unbeknownst to the audience downstairs, Syleena is beginning a performance of her own, warm-ups. Mainstream music listeners remember Syleena from her hit feature on Kanye West’s song “All Falls Down.” Her fans know she’s still active in music, has a new album and is currently on tour. About 10 mins before she hits the stage we sit down for our interview.
All of your albums are chapters. What do the chapters mean and represent?
They represent the different stages of my life.
Your current album is Ch. 5: Underrated – Can you elaborate on why that was chosen as the title?
Just because I think that that’s the stage of my life I am right now.
And you have three singles out for the album right now?
Yes, three. A Boss, Angry Girl, and Like Thorns leaked so that’s kind of unofficial.
Syl Johnson - What did your father think about you getting into singing? Did he finally accept your passion for music?
He was unsupportive when I was younger. At 15 he started to take interest in me and my father’s actually been the biggest motivation of my career, just because he’s so strong and he’s stayed in it so long – he’s 80 – and he’s still doing it.
Who are your soul music inspirations? Who do you strive to be like, have a career like?
I love Mary J. Blige. I would love to mimic her career. I think she has an awesome, solid career. Uncompromising. She’s herself, she get’s to be herself and I think it’s awesome. Whether she’s thin, not thin, she’s always Mary and I love and admire her for that.
At the end of "All Falls Down," the song you did with Kanye West he says, “Syleena, your just like a safe belt, you save my life!" What did he mean?
It was 6 o’clock in the morning and he needed clearance for the Lauryn Hill sample and she wouldn’t give it to him. And so, I came in to sing that hook for him and I ended up saving his deadline because he was going to have to push his album if he hadn’t gotten it done.
Can you talk about your split with Jive Music?
We fell out of love. It was like a relationship and we broke up. We just both understood that the relationship wasn’t productive. They weren’t gonna do what they were suppose to do and I didn’t want to be there if they weren’t gonna do what they were suppose to do. So it was kinda like well, if you’re not gonna d what you’re suppose to do, then let me go.
This was right after Ch. 3 at your highest peak coming off all your features and you think they should have used that hype to promote that album?
Um, they definitely should have and they drop the ball on that, in my opinion. And you know it’s just, not knowing what to do with soul artist. And I’m not the only artist on that label that they did that to. Joe was on the label and they did the same thing to him. Raheem DeVaghn, the list goes on. Raheem’s success is because of him. I think that he was strong within his own hustle, in his own creativity, that’s how he did well for himself. It had nothing to do with Jive Records, in my opinion. I don’t think that for any of their black artists they understand that it takes a while. But I think it was the President at that time that had kind of a radio mindset where if you didn’t have a radio hit you weren’t going to do well because he worked in radio before he became the President. So I think they meant well and they tried to the best of their ability. I don’t think they were maliciously behind the scenes, like ‘we gonna sabotage’ because that would be stupid, why would they want to loose money. I just think they did not know how to get us to where we needed to be.
What's does the future have in store for Syleena?
Working Ch 5. And some more interesting cool things that I’m not at liberty to talk about, but there going to be cool – I can tell you that!
If I could do anything or be anything in the world I would be...a Billionaire
If I only had one song in my iPod it would be...We Must Pray by J. Moss
Music is...my life
My latest and greatest inspiration is...my children
I had to stick around for the performance to see a different side of Syleena. I think she held back a lot during our interview and I wanted to see her in her own element; on stage, where most artists feel at home.
Her voice hit’s you hard! It’s piercing, soulful, and inspiring. Her singing told me more about her than any question I could have asked during our interview. She seems to really enjoy the stage. Maybe it's something she can control or because she does it every night. Whatever the reason, you can’t sing or write like that unless you’ve been through a lot of tuff situations in your life. I would have liked to explore that during our interview but I’m happy I at least get to sit back and explore it now, through her music. Another thing I noticed during her performance is her connection to the audience. She’s a great storyteller, warm, approachable and cool - so much fun to look at on stage.
She performed her current singles, A Boss and Little Things. But for me,the impersonation segment of the show, where she so cleverly let her background singers shine, was the best moment of the concert. They did impersonations of Dave Hollister, Jazmine Sullivan, and John Legend with Syleena wrapping up the segment with her own spot-on impersonations of Tina Turner, Lauryn Hill, and the legendary Etta James.
All in all it was a great live concert, but by the end I was left with unanswered questions. What’s happening to soul music? Why aren’t these artists more mainstream? Why isn’t Syleena more mainstream? Why have we traded in real talent for auto-tune? These are all questions I can’t answer today but as I walked away from Blues Ally at 10:05 pm I know one thing, Syleena Johnson is truly…Underrated.
Want to know more about Syleena Johnson? Check out these links below:
Twitter - @syleena_johnson
Facebook – Syleena Johnson Official
Purchase Ch.5: Underrated on iTunes and in stores at Best Buy, FYE and Walmart