On stage, Deborah Cox is a soulful R&B star with Broadway credentials. In person, she is more chilled-out-mother-of three than soul diva, so it’s almost possible to forget the platinum selling album, worldwide tours and tutelage under the legendary Clive Davis. Almost. The Canadian songstress blessed us vocally in 1995 with her self-titled debut album, going on to release One Wish (1998), The Morning After (2002) and Destination Moon (2007). On the final leg of her Timeless Promise tour with fellow singer Kenny Lattimore, Deborah took time out to speak with SoulCulture about her new album The Promise, stepping outside of her comfort zone and defining her own success.
Can you tell me about your new album?
The Promise is a collection of songs that I’ve worked on with some great friends of mine who happen to be great producers [Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Shep Crawford]. It’s really about getting back to my roots; back to soulful music.
You’ve released the album on Deco Recording Group. Why did you decide to create your own label?
The business has changed so much. We don’t have as many retailers as before and I wanted to make sure that the album was going to get a shot. The people I’d let listen to the album at major labels were really into it but were made redundant. It was a very finicky time for the industry and the fans had been sweating me about a new album.
Why did you decide to release two singles at the same time – “Did You Ever Love Me” in the States and “Beautiful U R” internationally?
They are different markets. “Beautiful U R” was sort of a statement and it’s a different style of song as well. “Did You Ever Love Me” is more soulful; it’s classic R&B. I wanted to be able to reach both audiences at the same time and not have any restrictions. I wouldn’t have been able to do that in the past.
“Beautiful U R” is a standout track because it talks about the relationship women have with themselves. What inspired you to write about this?
I’d never had any sort of message like that before. I’ve sung a lot of songs about relationships and I just wanted something else to sing about.
“Beautiful U R” was also released in French. Are you fluent?
I’m not fluent but I do speak a little bit because of growing up in Canada, it was a challenge but I’ve always wanted to record in French. I’m a huge fan of Miriam Makeba who sang in many different languages. It’s one of the things you can do with your own label; you can go out on a limb and do something different.
What do you want people to come away with after listening to The Promise?
To leave with a conviction; like when you go to church you feel moved and inspired to do something positive. I want people to feel the same way whenever they see me perform or listen to my music. For women, I want them to look at themselves differently and for men to know they are appreciated and that they can do more.
When you first arrived on the music scene you were often compared to Whitney Houston. How did you manage to override the comparisons and maintain longevity?
It was about getting in front of the people, performing and releasing music. The only way you can separate yourself from any other artist is to continuously put out records and that’s why I feel so fortunate at this point in my career, six albums in. I feel very proud that I’m still here, still doing it because a lot of the artists that I started out with in the early ‘90s, they’re not around anymore. Obviously once Whitney and I had sung “Same Script, Different Cast” together that just put all the comparisons to rest, because we were finally on one song together battling it out. It was a great opportunity to get together and show the world that there’s camaraderie here.
Did it ever bother you that a lot of people assumed you were from the US and not Canada?
Not at all, the notion is that once you’ve made it in the US, you’ve made it. Now we’re in the age where you can get all kinds of information from the internet, people know where I’m from and where my roots are. I consider myself a world native anyway, because I was born in Canada, my parents are of Guyanese descent, but I live here in the US and have strong ties to the UK as well.
Have you had the opportunity to visit Guyana?
Yes. It was very enlightening and eye opening and I’m sorry that it took me so long to go back. There are a lot of really great people there and the spirit of that country is just so amazing.
You released a Dinah Washington tribute album in 2007. What is it about her and her music that stands out for you?
For me it was her diversity. I think I paralleled the two of us because we both have this strong R&B connection but at the same time we can do jazz and big band music. In her time she was very diverse, coming out of the church but singing pop ballads and doing blues, so she had a wide vocal range that I love. Her duets with Brooke Benton were some of my favourites growing up; I have so many childhood memories so it was kind of a self-indulgent project and I just wanted to feed that part of me that hadn’t been fed for so long.
Through your Destination Moon album we saw a different side to you musically, is that something you aim to do more of?
I would like to incorporate it in a show. I’m very schizophrenic like that – I tend to move in one direction and then I end up missing the other platforms. You can’t do it all and you can’t do it all at the same time, so I try to keep it interesting for myself.
You’ve been in several films and had a successful run on Broadway in the musical Aida a few years ago. How was that experience and how did it prepare you for the next stage in your career?
I tend to step outside of my comfort zone. Broadway was something that I had a love for, growing up doing school plays and musicals, so I’ve always had this desire to express myself in musical theatre. Doing Aida was a great way to develop stamina, doing six shows a week. It was like a workshop; a very grueling schedule and I believe if you can do that every single night you can pretty much do anything.
How did you pace yourself?
I had to learn that. I had to learn to have a little bit of voice on reserve. Learning how to be disciplined came with warming up every single night before the show and being careful about what I ate, making sure I got sleep, generally taking care of myself. It was a tough schedule.
Can we expect to see you on Broadway or in films in the near future?
Yes, Broadway in 2010.
Are you able to provide a few more details?
Not at the moment, but definitely next year.
In a recent interview with Pride Magazine, actress Nia Long expressed some thoughts on singers going into the film industry. As you’re both a singer and an actress what do you think about the comments made?
I think art is art. There is a term ‘Triple Threat,’ which is being able to sing, act and dance; that’s what you had to do coming up and I still think there is something to that. The problem is Hollywood only looks at one type of artist and thinks that’s the only artist they should put out there instead of opening up the doors and opening up the platform. There’s room for a Deborah Cox as an actress and there’s room for a Nia Long as well.
There is a difference between recording in a studio and performing live, what do you get from each?
I don’t like singing in the studio because it’s so isolating, that part is very difficult for me. My passion is live performance because I love the exchange between myself and the audience, you know. I love to extend the energy and the love for the music that I’m feeling and see the reaction of the people when they hear a song they love or one they haven’t heard before.
You express yourself through music, but what has music taught you about yourself?
That I’m really not as shy as I think I am. For some reason I’m very shy in certain settings but not when I’m on stage. It has also taught me that it’s such a great outlet to be able to emote through song and it’s very powerful. I really cherish the position that I have as a singer, as a celebrity and that I can help to influence things and I take that position very seriously.
You used to sing backing for Celine Dion and worked with Clive Davis, what advice or lessons did you learn from them?
Discipline. Celine is extremely disciplined, she doesn’t speak at all before a performance and I’d find that so hard to do. She’s very blessed to have that kind of discipline, because it is hard. Clive was all about the music, he taught me that a hit record is all about the song and I feel so fortunate that I had those learning years with him at the beginning of my career. Through his mentoring he offered priceless advice about the business and finding those right songs to sing. He’s given me the opportunity to have longevity because I didn’t record trendy music.
How has motherhood impacted you both personally and professionally and would you ever encourage your children to follow you into the music industry?
I let them be themselves, but I can already see music in them. My son [5 year old Isaiah] has had a great sense of rhythm since he was six months old. He plays things on the piano and makes up his own little songs and my daughter [3 year old Sumayah] will hear songs and start making up her own melodies. It’s in its infant stages but I can see that they will probably gravitate to something in the arts – but I want them to make that decision.
You gave birth to your third child earlier this year, congratulations. How do you balance family life, recording, touring and managing your own label?
Thank you. It’s such a juggling act. I have to shut off Deborah Cox, dim that light and turn on the mummy light because it’s really important that my kids are not being raised by somebody else. I want to make sure that I’m really involved in their life, so I take the time out to do that. Usually during the day is when I’m mummy and then at night I’m gearing up for a performance, or a recording session. But I have a great husband who helps to manage, he runs the company and the label and my family are a great support system as well.
You’re one of the few soul and R&B artists who also have a solid fan base in dance music. How important is it to show your diversity?
Right now I look at all the different things that I’ve done and I’m content. I think all the projects that I do are really for self-indulgence. I don’t really trip on what people think about me doing a dance record, then a jazz record and then an R&B record because I’ve always felt that is true artistry. It would be difficult to just come out with the same style of record every time and I think people have embraced it.
There’s a subtle reggae flavour on the track “You Know Where My Heart Is.” Is this a style you would like to explore further on future projects?
Oh yeah. I listen to a lot of reggae especially growing up with a Caribbean background, I would love to do that old school reggae vibe because that’s another part of me, but a lot of people don’t know that and I think they’d be shocked. Bob Marley is my favourite, because there were messages in his music but it was still very melodic. Beres Hammond has a great style too.
Do you ever worry about achieving the same level of success each time you perform or release an album?
I used to think I have to top this and have to top that. Now I leave that to God and I don’t take on that burden anymore because it makes you crazy. To try and recreate a “Sentimental” or “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here” in 2009 would be crazy. It’s a different time and I’m a slightly different person than I was then, so I don’t put that pressure on myself.
So far what has been a career high for you?
There have been many highs. Now that Michael Jackson has passed I think back to the BET 30th anniversary special and being a part of that was so huge. Seeing him perform in the flesh and meeting him that was major. Having the record breaking song [“Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here”] at number one for 14 weeks [a record held for eight years], I remember just constantly getting the Billboard magazine and saying, “Oh my gosh, it’s still at No. 1, it’s still at No. 1.” Also, going to South Africa and performing in front of 100,000 people was a major highlight.
And a career low?
When family members have passed on and I never had the opportunity to spend time with them because of business, or because of touring. Regardless of how busy I am now I always try to make time for family, because that’s important too.
You’re very successful, but like other artists you also have your critics. What do you say to those who tend to be less than favourable?
Everybody has their own opinion, but the fans don’t lie. The critics I find are disgruntled musicians or disgruntled actors who have tried to make their mark in the industry, but I’ve found a way to maintain without letting the criticism break me. I feel like everybody’s entitled to their opinion and so am I and I think what I’m doing is fine.
Is there anyone in the music industry today that you’re listening to or inspires you?
Jazmine Sullivan. I love her voice and I think she is such an amazing vocalist; she has all this power and style. It’s refreshing to hear a record of hers on the radio.
After the Timeless Promise tour what is next on the Deborah Cox agenda?
I’ll be writing and looking for new songs for the new project. I’m also getting ready to do another project with two other female vocalists and there will be a time when we make our official announcement and go to press with that and then Broadway.
The Promise is out now on Deco Recording Group.