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Jive Talkin’ with Donell Jones

Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes

“Send a letter to the chairman of Sony-BMG about how they are killing my career – somebody has to do something,” says the deadly serious voice on the other end of my phone. “I got kids to feed! They don’t think about that part, you know? They go home and smile to their wives; they don’t know all the lives that they’re affecting by not doing their jobs!”

The life of this Gemini is a frustrating one, I assess, as Donell Jones emphatically expresses his utter disappointment at being stuck in major record label inertia. Four albums deep with Jive records, and he’s hoping they won’t develop an unsettling habit of releasing no more than one single per album (as they did with his last)… Such is the undernourished state of today’s soul artists. You can see it in their eyes mid-interview as the inevitable “so, your label – what have they done for you lately?” crops up, in their million-word sighs as they respond that things are “cool, but could be better….”, in their genuinely ecstatic responses to the audible love of audiences consisting of true music lovers who sing back their lyrics in stark contrast to the sceptical neglect courtesy of the suited men that talk numerically. Soulful songster Donell Jones is more forthcoming than many with his criticisms, and it’s a welcome insight. His latest album Journey Of A Gemini was released this year, in case you missed it. Donell launches animatedly into a breakdown of his unsatisfying situation with Jive records (whom he didn’t sign with in the first place), and on looking forward to breaking away from major neglect to independent satisfaction…

“They’re not marketing this album, they’re not promoting this album; virtually they’re doing nothing for this album. All the sales I’ve gotten so far have been basically because of my hardcore fans that have known of me in the past. As far as Jive doing anything for this particular project, they’ve done nothing – I’ve had no commercials, no radio support, no video…” he explains. It isn’t a new situation either; with his previous album, ‘Life Goes On’, there was a similar occurrence – Jive released only one single from it, which was the gorgeously-vocalled ‘You Know That I Love You’. And that was it, despite the success of his second album Where I Wanna Be and the four top-20 singles release from it, and despite Life Goes On reaching number three in the US. Donell continues, “That single did absolutely well, I ended up selling almost 700,000 records with one single. So just imagine if they’d have put out another single… but that, they didn’t do. So the album wasn’t fully promoted.”

Majors don’t want to put money into soul music anymore. As far as they’re concerned, soul has had its heyday, and its second coming when D’Angelo and Erykah Badu brought their earthy, hip-hop influenced soul branded “neo” to the world. Six-month hiatuses whilst their fan-bases pine and soul slips from the forefront, have cemented this perception. It’s far safer and assuredly lucrative to pump out generic Pop-n-B for squandering teens, seems to be the mindset of majors. It is a mindset Donell didn’t sign up to, and has been trapped with under contract; he began on LaFace records and was shifted to Arista records when they acquired LaFace, then when Arista shut down, all the LaFace artists were moved to Jive. Without need for probing, Donell bluntly explains: “I’m not happy with my label situation. I didn’t move to Jive, I was given to Jive. It wasn’t like we had a choice, if I had a choice I probably wouldn’t have gone to Jive. If I had the option to do it on my own, I would absolutely do my own record company. I know nobody can promote me better than I can promote myself. Once this particular album is over, I’m definitely gonna pursue getting my own label. Why play games with a label that don’t really care about me?”

Speaking of the generic music he competes with for attention, he complains “Music now is about what kinda car you driving – that’s nothing to me, where’s the substance behind it? Everybody can have a car, or nice jewels, there’s no substance in the music today”. However it has been said that his latest album accommodates these commercial elements more than he usually does, having opted for the club-RnB production of Tim and Bob (producers of Bobby Valentino’s signature sound) on several tracks. The first single is an upbeat track featuring Jermaine Dupri, called ‘Better Start Talking’. Is this a deliberate swing in direction from the soulful ballads he is praised for? Donell disagrees, justifying the upbeat slant of his new album with the success of his biggest commercial hit to date, ‘You Know What’s Up’: “I would never go and do something different for record sales. I have a core group of fans who love me for who I am. If I go and change my style, I lose them, the people that stuck with me through it all. So I wouldn’t do that. I’m known as a balladeer. I’ve done that, I know how to do that, and that part comes really easily to me. A lot of people don’t know that my biggest hit to date was an up-tempo, which was you know what’s up. So it’s natural for me to go back and try to make up-tempo records. I just want to focus on making an album that’s varied – I have 7 ballads and 7 up-tempos. Usually I would probably have 5 and then 9. I just want to focus on making some great up-tempos that people can dance to, and that’s what I did.”

With these kind of adversities and low support from Jive, one thing is certain: Donell is in this for the love of music, he can’t be in it for the money. If Donell’s theory is correct, that “record companies are letting a lot of stuff fail because they don’t know what they’re doing. A lot of people that don’t have talent are holding jobs: they have the jobs because they knew somebody…” – perhaps we’d ‘better start talking’ to the chairman.

Journey of a Gemini is out now on Jive records.