“How do I look, how do I look?” jokes Joe, strolling into the room at Kedar Entertainment’s New York offices, suited in an eye-catching bright red dinner jacket and swirling a glass of ‘adult apple juice’. We’re here to talk about his most recent release, Signature; the R&B singer’s second independent album following his prior six studio albums released on Jive Records.
I last interviewed Joe a couple of years ago, when he was still signed to Jive, but even back then he made no secret of his gripes with sitting around whilst the label seemingly focused on other artists. Then last year following a successful lawsuit resulting in his split from the label, his public criticisms grew more specific: in interviews he accused former label-mate and And Then… collaborator R. Kelly of pulling strings behind the scenes to stifle Joe’s success on the radio.
Perhaps his fought-for independence signals a revived ‘hands on’ approach to his music – with the majority of songs on the new record having been written and produced by Joe with collaborators, Signature is stamped with Joe’s personal touch from start to finish, as the title might suggest.
In this interview, we hold Joe’s Signature to the magnifying glass as he discusses a desire to “get back to where we get goosebumps again”; to bring the class and elegance of ‘back in the day’ music to modern R&B. “It was dressy, it was smooth; it was right on point,” he compares, “We too hard now. We too much of a thug, we got too much swag for it.”
Let’s talk about the new album; what direction have you taken with Signature?
Old School – meaning let’s go back into the studio and bring out all the real elements of what made music, music, back in the day, and let’s bring it to the forefront, to the generation now. ‘Cause no one is really tapping into that market of real music… Being a part of Hip Hop, I figure that my fans that understood what I did in hip hop, and supported me and Pun and G Unit and everybody who I worked with, needs to hear this style of music as well. And also giving that type of music back to my fans as well cause I know they’ve been missing that style.
You’ve worked with Trey Songz and Mario on the new album [on the Bryan-Michael Cox produced “We Need To Roll (Remix)”]. How are you feeling about the modern generation of R&B singers?
It’s good, it’s positive, it’s hopeful. We’ve got a lot of great things happening as far as songwriters – like Ne-Yo [and] Jazmine Sullivan – and I think we’ve got a few people who can take it to the next level, which means they can also inspire the next generation who come to do music that’s elegant and classy. It doesn’t always have to be elegant – it can be fun, Biz Markie had some fun records, Snoop had some fun records from that Doggystyle album…!
How do you keep strike a fine line between paying homage to the music fell in love with in the past without seeming dated yourself or seeming as though you’re jumping on the retro-bandwagon?
I think you have to do it gradually, touch on it a little bit. You can’t go hard body on a new style, you can’t completely switch up and do something different than what you were doing before; it has to be a gradual change, a gradual build. For Signature even though it’s all live music, it’s elements of something I’ve been doing already – but it’s just embellished a little bit more – and I think that’s what’s gonna happen from the next record that I do, to the next record, to the next record… The Christmas album is gonna be jazz, but it’s still a Joe R&B Jazz Christmas record.
What’s your favourite song on the new album?
That’s always a fun question, you know I’m gonna say ‘everything’. I love “Miss My Baby” because it sort of takes me back to my relationship when I first got my heart broke – that’s as pure as it could get, for me. I almost came to tears on that record just thinking about it, when I was writing about it. There’s certain songs that sort of capture you, that just grab you and say ‘alright, that’s my joint right here’ even though the rest are, just as good, there’s just the one that just gets you and says everything you wanted to say in how you felt. I would say it’s the most personal one. I try to write songs that are very true and very honest but at the same time I like to be a man on the record, I don’t wanna shed too many tears! [laughs]
What was it like working with Trey Songz and Mario?
I had a chance to meet Trey and Mario before doing the BET Awards last year and I knew all their people, from being in the industry before… so to do a record with those two guys, they sort of speak for the generation right now. They remind me of myself a lot – just these young cats just starting up in this industry, experiencing it for their first time and giving you their first hand experiences – and having fun doing it. So I just wanted to be a part of and I just wanted them to be a part of what I do as well, musically. And if it’s legendary status that we are going to go to, let’s all do it together.
When we last spoke, you talked about doing demos and not particularly trying to push yourself in the industry as a singer. Which part of your career, or which album or which song was a turning point for you feeling more confident and, I guess, validated in your position as a singer?
“Stutter”. “Stutter” bridged a gap. I had great success with ballads and then I get a big record with ‘Stutter on my own with no features – well apart from Mystikal who of course came on and did a feature for the remix. Just to have a record like that… My first number one record that I ever had was “Stutter”. So to do a slow song, make a hit with that, then do a make a fast song and make a hit with that… It’s kinda hard to explain because there’s no formula to it.
After this many years of putting out albums, have you found a formula for your audience?
Yeah, and sometimes you stick to the formula too much, you know and you tend to write about songs that are sort of similar to something you’ve already been through. We go through a lot of the same things but we gotta colour if differently. And I think even more so, as I mature in my life, that I experience something that’s a little bit more pure in a relationship – because I’ve been a single guy just living a little bit. I think on the purer side, when I was wanting all of that in the All That I Am days and My Name Is Joe, those songs were just as pure. So let’s find that purity again, and I think eventually it will come. At this point I’m just in single mode and my songs are coming out as a… single dude.
What issues are most important to you at the moment?
The war is very important and what’s going on in our relationship with the rest of the country. That’s the most important issue. At any moment anything could happen so we have to make sure we haven’t stepped on anyone’s toes or disrespected anyone in any kind of way to lead to something that’s gonna affect millions of people and our families’ lives. I think that’s the most important thing. The job situation is very important, living life, health care is very important. If you watch the news you’ll definitely know all the things Obama has to face but number one to me is self preservation – living, being alive and taking care of yourself.
Is that something being in the industry distracts you from?
Yeah, because it’s all glamorous. We don’t see that raw edge that often… We have built a life and any time you step in front of the camera you become a whole other individual – not to say you’ve changed, but the perception of who you are is completely different.
How do you deal with real person emotions when you’re not meant to be a real person?
Oh, man… Timing is everything. That’s bad timing if you get caught in the middle of an ugly situation… It’s unfortunate, you know celebrities get caught in that, it’s happens, that’s about being human. You can’t kick yourself and make yourself feel worse, like ‘Wow I can’t believe I got caught out there like that’. You’re not perfect. You’re gonna slip, you’re gonna fall, something’s gonna happen. But the best part about it is this is a hell of an experience for you to go through. You learn from it. The experience is what it’s all about, it teaches you how to go to the next stage. We need to have that trial and that test, to say ‘you can do it’… I love experiences, I love challenges.
What’s been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced in the industry?
I haven’t really faced a lot of challenges, I’m pretty fortunate to have been a part of team effort. My first manager unfortunately ended up… you know… I used to date her, it went sour, it was crazy but it was an experience. The loyalty was something. You’re young, but some of those experiences being young and understanding that you need to have someone that’s on your team that understands how you feel. Which is very important. Sometimes you cannot express yourself or you don’t feel like you can express yourself – or you don’t feel like you should express yourself… because it may come out wrong because you’ve been harboring things for a while. And that’s the worst thing to do, to harbor anything. If you feel it, speak on it and get it out because the longer you hold it in you’re just gonna explode at some point.
But dealing with the industry, sometimes it can be a little crazy – sometimes an artist disappoints you because they wasn’t what you were expecting or they wasn’t as nice as you thought they would be, sometimes an executive don’t believe in you and they don’t treat you the way you should be treated. I’m a multi-mega type of artist, not this 10-20 CD selling guy – show me a little more respect that you do with the bigger artist that you consider big. Who knows what might happen if you do that.
Signature is out now on Kedar Entertainment.
Marsha Gosho Oakes