Interview: Robert Owens

Posted: January 9th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Features | Tags: , , | No Comments »

You’ve been around for over twenty years and you were one of the first voices of House. Now you release your first artist album since quite a while.

Yes, for quite a while. I’m like an old relic, still there, haha. I’m lucky and feel like I’ve evolved with what’s happening in the music world. House people tend to stay stagnant or stay stately within their zone. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to travel around globally and constantly meet new cultures and stay impressed of what they’re doing. With innovation you have to be aware of what is in order to take it another level and hopefully with this new album I’ve achieved and accomplished that. Taking things into another direction and stating to the world that I’m aware of now and what’s happening. There are still elements of my origins and past, it’s all about a fusion. Being aware of the world opposed to just an area.

You’ve made a lot of collaborations, as a featured vocalist with other producers. Now you worked with other producers again but what made you decide to release under your own name? Did you feel the need to make a step in that direction again?

Definitely, because management and a lot of people were like: “You are just featuring on other people’s album and it’s about them. They are getting the profile and you’re just a feature singer. Why don’t you put out an album?” And I was like, let me turn this around and do it back to front. I’m going to get producers to guest on my album.

And let them be the icing on the cake.

Yeah. And that actually puts me back out there as the artist opposed to me just being featured, because these days the producers are artists. You push the artist further and further back. Let’s turn this around. I hopefully accomplished this task too with this. Some great guys have been featured on there.

How did you pick them? Did you have an idea of how you wanted to sound on the album?

Anytime I put an album together my initial thought is a theme and what I want it to sound like. Then I put together a series of different producers and put the feelers out to all of them and see who comes back with sensible thought and conversation that falls in sync with this vision I have inside my head. Everyone that came back with some kind of nonsense respond, I took them off the situation. So it got down to all the people I felt where in sync with where I was coming from and that vision. So that is the outcome and hopefully people feel that there is some sort of continuity in how I arranged this and put the people together and how they sound.

Well, from what I’ve heard it has that continuity and it sounds homogenous, if that’s what you were aiming for.

Yes, and a little bit of what’s happening now and certain elements of the past to say that I haven’t forgotten my roots and these new elements hopefully take it to the next wave of what’s going on. These days in a lot of countries it’s dominated by Techno or Minimal and it seems like stories and vocals have been lost, especially here in Europe. I’m trying to bring that back also. That’s one of the objectives because I’m very much about telling stories. That’s the title of the album: “Night-Time Stories”.

So you wanted to bring some lyrical and emotional content back?

Yeah, emotions, some soul substance. Your feelings relate to someone else’s feelings in the world. Someone else may be experiencing the same scenario or situation that you’re talking about. You’re just tapping into the psyche of what they were feeling, and it can help to soothe or heal. Music should definitely be about that. Especially in these times there are a lot of negative things going on, if you can relieve people from some of that in their daily lives then you have done something constructive and positive.

On the other hand a lot of the stories you tell in your music seem haunted and full of pain, and not that positive.

Yeah, I’m of one of the moody and sad kind, haha. But I try to put a twist with things. Especially on this album, some stories start out sad but they have an uplifting ending. It’s like mini novels, condensed. Like on “Press On”. You may be down with worries, but press on. Because if you just press on, you’ll escape this, the depression, this melancholy state. I like the idea of fusing these parts together, because everything in life is not happy. Everybody in life is not in love. Everything shouldn’t be lovey-dovey. There is a lot of negativity going on and that twist gives me a chance to write about things alternative to the normal R&B and Hip Hop and Pop stuff that you hear. Everybody is not living those fairy tales. Everybody is not living the Bling Bling-Puff Daddy thing. A lot of people in third world countries, oppressed, famine, hunger. Through travelling constantly throughout the world I see the restraints and somebody somewhere can relate to those stories. That’s what it’s about, really tapping into humanity and what you see and not just your own personal thing. Even though some of the stories may sound personal, they’re stemming from things I’ve seen in different places.

So you are disappointed by the way stories are told in a R&B or Pop context?

I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed with it. Everything has its place. But a lot of those situations they are talking about, normal average people, everyday 9-to-5 working men would never see that. These people live in a fairy tale environment, they have millions, the backing of labels, videos and everything. Even some minor labels and artists on subsidiary labels of the majors never see that reality. But that average man dealing with the other reality can relate to those basic stories. It’s like: “I’m actually living that, I’m struggling, I’m paying bills every day, trying to just survive. I can understand this.” That’s the objective. Dealing with the normal, the poor, the average person. I think of myself as very normal. I go hang out, read the book, trains, I go to clubs. Even after performances I hang out, I listen and talk to people. I’m very much a part of that. People are my lifeline. It’s because of people that I’m doing this, so I have to be aware of what’s going on in a normal everyday life. I’m not living that Bling Bling-lifestyle, I don’t have videos.

Considering that this R&B world is some kind of distraction, might there be a development where the normal people want realism back in the music they listen to?

I hope so. But again, everything has its place, even the Bling-Bling. If it’s something for others to aspire to. Maybe if someone can achieve that, works hard enough, that can be a possibility in his life also. But the reality where someone is beyond that is a topic people should comment on as well. The way people live in their environment, how they treat other people, those are topics somebody might relate to. Understanding and communicating with society and then conveying that back, through your craft, your writing or whatever you feel. Give that back, make a statement to say: “I understand.”

Throughout your career, your records stand out for a great amount of emotional sincerity. It is like in a crate of dance records, if you pull out the ones where you wrote and sung the lyrics they seem to defy this whole hedonistic club culture for another level of meaning.

Which is really beautiful and I feel lucky because it is my objective to make people think. To not just dance but think, be removed from something negative you might be dealing with. If I can help you escape that sense of thinking for just that few minutes you are listening to that track, I feel I have done something positive. I’m really hoping that the lyrical content is making a comeback. If you make people think it may turn around and they might want to do something constructive in their life or change direction away from something negative whereas with a lot of instrumental or minimal stuff you just absorb that sound. It’s not really about change. I’ve never listened to an instrumental record and thought: “I’m going out and do something good tomorrow.”

That’s interesting because when you started out as a recording artist in Chicago a lot of your records where very reduced and basic. But you injected them with your voice and a transfer took place. Isn’t it possible to repeat that with a modern minimal track?

Hm, I’d love to. You would have to get a lot of the guys doing these tracks into that vibe of saying; “This could work.” With a lot of them, they might be set in their heads to: “Only this works.” But music should be about creating and evolving, an introduction into something uniquely different. And a lot of that early material was born out of oppressed-type situations. A lot of those urban kids that were creating that music, they’ve come from broken homes, they’ve come from poor families, unstructured situations. Through the use of those 808s, 707s, Rolands, and such equipment you found a cheap source to be able to put something together and express yourself and put your message out there. I think it is very much possible to fuse some of this modern stuff with that same type of energy. And that is probably where that whole melancholy thing comes from too, because everything wasn’t happy. You were happy when you were in the clubs, some of the uplifting ones. But there was a lot of moodiness and sadness because people actually did come out of unbalanced-type situations. It wasn’t all milk and honey, haha.

I suppose most of the current minimal sounds were not born out of similar situations. So you could combine these sounds with a whole other background.

Yeah. I’m very open to try unique and just new things in general, or work with new people. I’m open and available to work with anyone. You get in touch with me and if you’ve got a good heart we might have something going on there.

You collaborated a lot in your career, so you certainly must like the process of working with other people.

I think the best thing that you can acquire out of this business is when you learn how to communicate with other people. That’s half the battle won.

You have a really recognizable voice that has been a part of club music for over than two decades now. How do you feel about other singers in that context that followed you?

There’s some talented people out there. It’s amazing. Kenny and Su Su Bobien, they really touch me out of the new kids. Michelle Weeks, she’s got an incredible voice. Barbara Tucker has done a lot of really positive things and messages. Byron Stingily, but he’s old school, too. Who else? There are so many people these days, it’s really hard to pinpoint a series of different names. I’m constantly hearing new people who are really really good.

But nearly nobody of these vocalists may have this range of sounds that were combined with their voices, like you have. You did House of all sorts, Drum ‘n’ Bass, Techno, Downtempo stuff…

I’m lucky, haha! I’ve tried to challenge myself constantly. I always tried to be unique and different, which is a constant fight because in many cases people wanted me to sound like someone else and I’ve always fought against that. That is probably why I’ve had a slow growth in my career to a certain extent. That is just from an industry viewpoint. In an underground sense, I’ve been very successful. I have a loyal cult underground following globally and for that I’m really grateful. They’ve kept me alive and pushing forward. Comments I get, even on Myspace, when I go on there and see some of the comments it is overwhelming. And that gives me energy to keep trying things. It’s a little scary, because journalists and society may slate you but you often have to step out on faith. And in many cases I stepped out on faith and in return people have responded to that. Luck.

Were there times in your career that went the other way? Low points?

Many. That’s why you hear some up-and-down, melancholy stories. Even now, it’s not all peaches and cream, haha. It’s definitely some trying trying times I’ve had. Many many trying experiences. I still have trying moments. But I endure them and fight on because when I actually make it to the final destination of playing and performing for a crowd, I’m rejuvenated, I’m uplifted, I’m relieved, I exhale. And I see people happy. For me that’s my greatest happiness in life. That’s my destiny. At a certain age you know your boundaries, you know where you’re at, understanding yourself. At this point in life I’m a 100% in tune with myself, and it is about understanding me and giving that back to humanity. We live and die, and if I have done that comfortably then I have done something constructive and positive.

Did some of those low points made you leave the States?

Usually, if I left anywhere or walked away from any situation, it was because of disheartenment, I was unhappy with the surroundings, somebody probably did something negative to me, which has caused a great sadness. I’m very sensitive and emotional in many different respects. For me, to open up to you and pull you into my heart, I look at a friendship, I meet you as a friend, and I want that to be forever. For you, to disillusion that whole feeling and emotion or thought, that really is like a pain. A lot of people have done that and I just wanted to walk away, to get away from that as far as possible. You move on, you don’t take it to heart. That’s what I’ve done, but in every camp, every situation, if individuals have done the correct thing and they were fair and honest 100%, I would still be there and I’m a very loyal person. And I never failed bridges, that’s why in most situations that I’ve been in, I could always go back because I never did nothing negative. This is what a lot of people, that have dealt with me and did crooked things, will have to face. It’s about really facing your own demons and being honest with yourself, and a lot of people in this industry are not. They rather turn a blind eye than go ahead and deal with the reality of truth.

But when you started out in London you could continue. I remember you worked as A&R for the label Freetown Inc.

That was beautiful. I scouted talent for that label, put a band together, put a choir together, a series of in-house musicians. It was really a project where I had the freedom to develop a company. To have that opportunity is rare. I don’t think a lot of people in the public are aware what really was entailed and what was involved and how much work I put in, endless hours. I did studio sessions sometimes where I was up for sixteen hours. Working with artists, and developing, writing songs for this series of artists, and it could have evolved and went further but it was some disorganisation there. But it was still a good opportunity and something for me to look back on and I thank the actual owner for believing in me and pulling me in to actually do it. That was an incredible time in my life and I just hate it didn’t evolve to what it really should have evolved to.

As you just mentioned putting together a band, is that a part of your idea of performing, apart from doing PAs or singing at your DJ gigs?

We’re actually doing it. I did two dates here in Berlin with a band. I came here and put a live band together with Berlin musicians. We did Café Moskau and Club Maria and somewhere somebody has that footage, that they need to release. If they were doing the correct thing, that would be back in my camp and out there to the public. But again, it’s about coming to terms with what is the correct thing to do. You can’t force people to do the right thing, they have to find that in their heart. But there’s actual footage out there. Since I’ve put a band together in London, they all are different musicians from other bands, so it’s not like a stable situation, but now we’re trying together a few more musicians to go out again and do the same thing, because you see a totally different “me” with a live band, opposed to me just singing over backing tracks. So if we pull together the right group of people, to do a lot of dates performing the new album is definitely part of the plan.

You could maybe feature Larry Heard on drums.

Haha, that would be interesting! People keep approaching me and Larry to play together, and we do dates in Japan soon. Larry has written something recently for me and when I go there in a few weeks he said he’s got to bring the tracks for me to check out, and he wants to see what I would write for them. He also managed to finally locate Ron Wilson and got in touch with him. Who knows, there might even be the possibility of doing Fingers Inc. II. He’s definitely been thinking about working together again and writing new material. He always wanted to do something but it died with him being in America and I’m over here. He always asked me about coming there and I just never found the time to just go there. I needed some kind of work around. I had dates over Europe constantly coming in every other week, and I couldn’t sacrifice those dates to just go there and record, and then come back and deal with the whole structure of living in London, which is one of the most expensive cities in the world. And I’m high maintenance, haha. So I have to stay out there and be really working. But hopefully it’ll come around because I really love a lot of things he’s done, his whole style, him as a person. I think he is an amazing amazing person.

Could imagine that there might a time where you would again consider to move on, back to the States or another city?

Right off I haven’t thought about it, the kind of business people and the kind of system I’m working with right now is alright. It can be better, of course, but it is comfortable. I like the people I’m working with. Even though sometimes we have fights, it is still a sense of a family. And within your family you have fights but then you get over it and you come back together. It’s nothing mentally damaging. Some of these other situations that I left from could have been mentally damaging. That’s why I left. In what I’m at and people I’m around, I just see that growing, evolving and learning from each other and becoming better. Being really supportive to one another. Me moving somewhere else? I think if it’s a natural progression with that to happen, it’ll just happen. Stateside, I couldn’t see myself going back over there. When I went back to America, America and Europe is like worlds apart. It’s just so much more to do throughout Europe, the different cultures you see from city to city. Musically, clubwise. They don’t have that level of clubs in Chicago or New York. Panoramabar. What’s that, over 3000 people? I was shocked when I went in there and played in that place. I don’t know nowhere in the States I could do that. I haven’t been there for a long time but I just don’t know what’s going on there, and with the system really, to be honest.

It seems like an endless ongoing story of people from the States playing elsewhere, travelling around and telling that back home nobody cares.

And then they still try to play these games. Some people have tried to book me to get me to the States and it’s always struggle. You feel like it’s always going to be something that’s going to wear me down, burn me down doing it. When you deal with people in England and Europe it’s straightforward: “We want you to do this. We’re going to supply this. Can you do it?” And we will do it, and they stand by their word, and it just flows. I’ve been dealing with that system now for years. To go backwards to a situation like: “We want to do this…Well, I’m not sure. Do you have somebody you could stay with? Just make your way over onto 44 th and so and so…” It’s like when I’ve been dealing with the situation: pick me up at the airport, to the hotel, interviews, dinner, date, and straight back to airport. Efficiency opposed to stagnant scenarios that they should have outgrown years ago.

So they are less professional in the States?

Well, at least with me. And they’re cheap, haha. And I’m dealing in a pound system. Dollars compared to pounds just don’t work with me. I have to still come back to England, I have to pay pounds. Come back to me with something concrete and sensible, out of respect. It’s not even a matter of greed. It’s out of respect for how I’m surviving in the system. Don’t come with nothing silly. You may be looking for the promoter and at the end of the night he’s gone. You didn’t get paid and you didn’t even get an excuse. Who wants to deal with that when dealing with years of people being efficient and standing by their word? That’s why I’m saying it’s night and day for me. Maybe I just not encountered the right people in the States, that are doing it properly. I can’t say everyone is like that but then I’m not there. But the situations so far that approached me, it’s not always been efficient like that. Nothing like what I deal with in Europe.

One of the reasons why you’re still in such demand is probably that you have always played an important part in the chronology of House and particularly Deep House. It seems to me that current productions in that field draw some inspiration from that early 90’s House sound, to which you have also made some major contributions.

I think the whole system is like a revolving door. Everything comes back around. In the early 80’s we were inspired by the Disco people, the new generation may be fascinated by some of what the 90’s people have done, and even the Disco era stuff comes right back around. They still resample and fuse a lot of those elements of the past into the present. It’s just reintroduced to a new generation, but it’s a revolving door of things educating the new group on what was, to take them forward into the future. I feel lucky that a lot of this material has resurfaced and come back around because people go through this phase where they always say it’s dead and over. Then one tune surfaces and maybe hits the mainstream and then it’s like, oh, maybe it’s still alive, haha. People have been trying to bury House music forever, and then you think: Almost every R&B artists has had some House mix on their tracks. So how can something be dying when the mainstream is constantly trying to absorb some of that vibe?

But unfortunately they also only approach the mainstream of House to do those mixes.

Yeah, which is strange. That you wouldn’t want some of the pioneers or originators of that form of music. Majors especially, that they wouldn’t take an interest in some of these artists and say: “Okay, I’m going to try to develop this artist.” Even if you put them with your company’s in-house producers, just to see what could evolve from that. It’s really strange that no one has taken a chance. They’d rather take a chance on some girl that they want to sleep with, that has no talent, opposed to somebody who is capable of actually blooming into something.

It seems like the labels have legions of R&B and Hip Hop producers but they have don’t have in-house producers who both appeal to a dance crowd and have some musical quality to offer. I have the impression that since the Disco days that doesn’t really mix anymore.

Well, how do you break down boundaries if you just constantly stick to what’s deemed politically correct? It’s up to some of us that know that there is something more out there to keep fighting the system. Even though it might be a struggle and it’s hard you have to keep trying to break down boundaries. My whole career has been about fighting and being a rebel, which is difficult and hard. But if you break down some door, then it’s like: “Okay, I can exhale for a moment.” And you did something constructive. It’s not about being superrich or superpopular, it’s about doing the right thing. And a lot of people don’t want to really. But the strange thing is that these people get thrown into these positions and have all this money to play with, and they don’t know what to do with it. Then they’re kicked out of these companies’ folds because they wasted all this money on unnecessary things. When you could have taken something that could have developed into something prosperous, and you didn’t take a chance on that. “I like that girl there, I’m gonna go with her.” These days you can make anybody sound like they can sing in the studios. The Spice Girls go out there and can’t reduplicate what they recorded. You can put an image there and pump enough money into it, and bam, you have a star. Take Soap opera people and make them a star, haha.

I think you won’t need much studio tweaking to sound right.

Haha, thank you!

Compared to you as a singer how did your career as a DJ develop over the years? From what I know you started out as a DJ in the beginning?

Yeah, even in neighbourhoods, a lot of people used to get me to play for their parties. At home, as a youth, people would always ask me or my family to play records, even when I was just at an aunt’s or uncle’s house. For some strange reason it would be like: “Why don’t you go over there and play the records? You know what we like, now go on!” No mixer, just one turntable. You put a record on, take it off, people talk in between, put the next one on, they start dancing. I even started black club parties in basements and do the same thing. From blocks across blocks all kinds of people packed into these parties. And then it evolved to me doing university parties and student dancehalls, and then to pubs and on to clubs. People have always pushed me towards entertainment. From family to local society, publicly people have seen something in me that I didn’t really understand at first, which then naturally evolved.

So you already had that entertainment approach, not just being the moody DJ selecting the records?

They wanted me to be in this position. It’s not like a chosen path. “No, this is where you should be.” They pushed me towards that area. The more I was pushed, the more I started learning, the more I gained confidence and became aware of people’s feelings. And all of that made me who I am now.

So you never thought about giving that up?

Oh no, I think this is my lifeline. I’m old, haha! What else would I do after so many years of doing music and entertaining people? I think trying to do something else in life, I would be lost. I would actually really really be lost. And sad, too.

When I started going out to House clubs in the late 80s, I couldn’t imagine anyone DJing past 40 years. I didn’t think that would be possible. And now you see so many DJs past that age still doing it.

Which is beautiful, because you can make a lifelong career out of something you believe in. I was also thinking it has a sell-by date but when you see a lot of these pioneers still doing it, that gives you hope and inspiration to keep pushing. Humphries, Mancuso, Francois, a lot of them are old old boys. And still, they are doing it. And they are happy. When you see them, and see them entertaining, they’re still loving it.

And it gives those not being eyewitnesses to their original era the chance to see how they are doing it.

Yeah, capture a vibe of that emotion that happened in those times. It’s like the new generation getting it today from someone who actually lived it.

Do you think you have the responsibility to carry that on?

I think it’s a torch, and it’s lit and passed out. With me, I’m holding up a torch for a lot of people that aren’t here. They didn’t get a chance to fully tell their story properly. But if something about their character and their spirit lives inside of me, it’s going out to humanity now if I’ll keep that torch lit. And there are a lot of people who inspired me and I try to give back some of that inspiration now. Definitely a lot of what I’m about and what I have to say is inspired by a lot of people who aren’t here to still tell their story.

Does that also apply to your singing? Your voice and the way you use it is so distinctive, what is the inspiration behind that?

I’ve come up in a rough urban environment, the whole broken home scenario, all of that. But the thing is that a lot of negative things that happened in my life, I’ve never used as a crutch. You may build up emotions, and it’s about finding a way to release them. The way I formed my style of singing? I found an emotional way to convey that energy back through my singing. Not just the emotional pain, but also the happiness. Life has ups and downs. I tried to channel back any negative things through emotion and the way I present myself vocally and it’s created something people feel is unique. Again, it is nothing that’s been planned. It just naturally happened, I guess.

So you’re kind of blessed, in a way?

Yeah, for me the whole thing is being blessed or guided by some higher force, often when I sing. Or when I dress, I feel like there is somebody else saying: “Put that on. Wear this.” And then I have to look and say: “Oh yeah, you did a good job. I like what you put together there.” I’m always alone speaking to some unseen force that I feel is there. It’s guiding me. I’m asking constantly for guidance: “What should I do? How should I present myself? What should I look like?” I constantly remove me from the situation and I look for guidance from some energy out there.

We spoke a lot about your past and present, but where do you think are you heading for in the future?

Oh, I want to keep doing music definitely. I have so many ambitious things that I want to do but I’m the type of person to take one step at a time. I don’t usually talk about future plans or projects. In this state of mind now, it’s about just doing and seeing it done. In normal life we may talk “Oh, I want to do this, I want to go there”, but half of the time you never actually put the physical effort in to achieve those goals that you are thinking about doing. But if you don’t talk about them, and you see it actually becoming reality, then it’s cool. And so a lot of my future and the direction I’m going and things that I want to do, it’s about actually applying the physical energy to these situations. I got plans, but I want to see them actually come to the surface and then it’s like: “Oh, they happen.” Opposed to constantly saying: “Well, I’m trying to do this, I might do that, I’m working towards that, I’m thinking about this.” Now it’s about doing and not thinking. What should happen? One thing that I can actually mention, that I thought was kind of on the shelf and dead, that still might be alive, is a possible movie role, a lead character in a movie. I really thought it was a joke because they actually wanted me to do the music and one of the film producers saw me and said: “How come you didn’t go to the casting call?” And I thought he was joking. And I went in and they actually picked me for the part, and I thought it to be surreal because I never thought about that. If I did, it was just jokingly, just playing at home. But I actually spoke to the film producer last week and he said he hasn’t forgotten about it. I thought it was off but he was no, no. With these things it’s a whole other world and it takes time to pull the whole thing together when you’re dealing with a motion picture. But it’s still on the cards. “No, no. We haven’t given up and we still want you.” Haha, that may be a possibility.

We should keep in touch about that.

Yeah, it would be beautiful. They don’t want me to talk too much about the plot and who’s in it, but there’s some very well-known characters in there, but I can’t really say too much about it yet. But I hope that it comes to life.

I can just imagine you singing over the end credits, so I wish you the best of luck with that.

Haha, thank you! Is there some wood around here? There, the wall… knock knock knock!

De:Bug 01/08

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