Teena Marie: Classic Soul 2006 Interview

Teena Marie performing in 2006
Photo Credit
Amy Graves/WireImage for BWR Public Relations

Teena Marie:  A Soulful Bridge

May 2006 interview

By David Nathan

IT TAKES a certain 'something' to maintain a career with any sort of longevity in the music industry – more now than ever. Long gone are the days – in the '60s, '70s and '80s – when record companies would invest in a newly-signed artist.

Fortunately, Teena Marie – along with Frankie Beverly & Maze and a couple of other black music favorites – began their recording careers during this hallowed time when art was as much a determining factor in a label's decision to invest time, money and energy into a new signing as their potential commercial impact.

The Cali native spent some time at Motown Records before the company actually released her now-classic debut album, Wild & Peaceful – notable not just because it featured her first work with the late Rick James but also because its cover art was bereft any pic of Teena which no doubt helped get initial airplay and sales in the R&B market since her music was being 'judged' on its' soulful content rather than her ethnicity. Thanks for such classics as 'Déjà Vu (I've Been Here Before)', 'I Need Your Lovin'', 'Sucker For Your Love' and 'Portuguese Love', Teena Marie was wholeheartedly embraced by black audiences and when they discovered that she was 'blue-eyed soul sister,' it was as if she earned extra respect and props.

Those Motown years laid the foundation for a career that has now spanned over 25 years. Perhaps the most important factor to consider is that Teena Marie is still making hit records! With rap and hip-hop having all but 'killed off' the opportunity for most traditional R&B artists to create new music – many now left marginalized from a recording standpoint, other than for the chance to work with small independent labels or make records for their own oft-distribution-restricted companies – Teena Marie's current success with her second Cash Money album, Sapphire is all but astonishing! She has managed to maintain her artistic integrity (check cuts like 'Romantica', 'Resilient' and 'You Blow Me Away') while ensuring her music has enough of a contemporary edge to appeal to younger audiences (check 'Ladies Choice', 'Ooo Wee'). Remarkably, her lyricism – the key to her art – is as potent as ever: listen to 'Sleeping With The Enemy', 'A.P.B.', 'Cruise Control', 'Simmer Down' and 'Somebody Just Like You', all classic Teena tunes that echo her early work for Motown and later, Epic.

Quite simply, Teena Marie's music forms the soulful bridge between old school and new school with a nod to rap and hip-hop along the way...

Having the opportunity to speak with Teena is always a treat and I've been fortunate and privileged to conduct a number of interviews with her over the years, updating her bio, writing about her for Billboard and Blues & Soul. Maybe it's because of the obvious, as in, we're two white folks who share a real passion for black music that goes beyond the art form itself into an everyday involvement with the culture, the community and people from which it emanates, a subject ripe for a whole essay which I will write at some point! Maybe it's my acknowledgement of Teena as a true poet and thoughtful lyricist of the first order. Whatever it is, I always feel like I'm talking to someone with whom I feel a common bond so I make no excuses for saying that when write about Teena Marie, I am biased...

Our primary subject: Teena's latest CD, Sapphire which has been receiving glowing reviews – but more importantly, great sales response. For as much as we can wax lyrical about Teena's art, it don't hurt when you find yourself on the airwaves twenty-five years after you started out and selling units too...


DN: It's been just two years since your last album, La Doña and the gap between your albums is usually a little longer...

TM: Rick (James)'s death really sent me into studio. I was in a lot of pain and I was trying to write myself out of it even though a lot of the songs I wrote are not sad. I needed to write and I felt like he was writing some of them with me, songs like 'Make It Hot'. I probably would have taken more time [between albums] but instead I went into the studio. Now, since I'm not doing that, I've been feeling the impact of his death even more. There's nothing there to take up the space. I think I've cried more in the last month than anytime since he passed...

DN: Did you have a concept for this album and where did the title come from?

TM: No, I didn't have any concept for it. "Sapphire" is actually the name of a song that Rick wrote about black women and their contribution to humanity. For some reason, it has never come out and I wish it would since it would let people see the other side of him. I talked to him about that song and he agreed. He would say, "There's so much more to me than 'Super Freak'," and after he wrote the song, he told me, "Teena, you're my Sapphire...that's how I see you." That's where my album's title came from, not from any reference to a birth stone or anything like that...

DN: Honestly, I love this album and I'm not just saying that because we're doing this interview! Can we talk about some of the songs...particularly some of the ones I like! 'Sleeping With The Enemy'?

TM: I was on the Fire & Desire tour with Rick (a few years ago) and some girl came up to my assistant after the show and just said that line after she heard us singing together! But we've all been there, right?

DN: Yes, indeed! I know I've 'slept' with the enemy myself more than a few times...more than I should have!

TM: Well, we all have. If you've been in any kind of love relationship, you know what that song is about!

DN: OK, now! (Laughs) How about 'Love Is A Gangsta'? I guess some folks might be surprised how much I like that one!

TM: Really? When I wrote that, I was thinking about how love can take you everywhere – up, down, inside, can make you feel like all kinds of things. And I was thinking about Rick: there's a reference in there to crack cocaine and how it can have you crawling on the floor and make you forget your blessings...

DN: You also mention 'The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game' in there, the Smokey song he did with The Marvelettes... I love that song!

TM: Me too....

DN: And I've been there too...especially if you're a 'hunter' kinda person and you end up getting 'caught'!

TM: (Laughs) Uh-uh....

DN: And you mention 'Buffalo Boys' in there too. What's a 'Buffalo Boy'?

TM: I was thinking about Rick and the guys from his original Stone City Band – they were all from the city of Buffalo in upstate New York...

DN: OK. And the song 'APB'?

TM: A true story based on a real situation I was in where I was sending out an 'APB' (defined as "a three-letter acronym used in American law enforcement to mean All Points Bulletin") on someone I was dealing with who went 'missing'!

DN: That song also references another Smokey Robinson song, 'Tears Of A Clown' and you worked with Smokey on the track 'Cruise Control'. How did that come about and how was it working with him?

TM: Smokey, man, he's my idol! That's the first time we've ever recorded even though we've been in each other's company from when I was first at Motown. And I've loved his writing for so long: when I was young, I wanted to write like he did and I'd say he contributed the most to my own songwriting ability. Anyway, I was in Detroit for a special Motown event and he was there too. All these women were making these little comments about how he still looks so good! He just captivated everyone and I said, "wow, Smokey has two thousand people out here on cruise control!" so I wrote it down! When I got back to L.A., I called Berry Gordy and he got Smokey on the phone with me. I played it for him one time and he said, "this is definitely Smokey-inspired." He was awesome to watch in the studio. It was a little intimidating for me. I was nervous! How you going to tell your idol what to sing? But he was so quick and he would correct himself when we were recording. It was the fulfillment of a longtime dream and I love how we sound together...

DN: Did you write all the songs for Sapphire when you were in the studio?

TM: Most of them but a couple were in the can. 'You Blow Me Away' is about fourteen, fifteen years old, 'The Way You Love Me' is about six or seven. 'Somebody Just Like You' was something I wrote before I did the album...

DN: You also duet with your daughter, Alia Rose on this album and she was also on La Doña. How was that for you?

TM: That's a joy I can't describe. To watch her and harmonize together where we can't tell which one is which...wow. She was just singing in the car one day, singing along with the song 'Resilient'. I asked her if she'd record it with me and she said, (laughs) "How much am I going to make on it?" Of course, she was quick to add, "I'm really kidding!" She went in and sang the second verse of the song. She was thirteen when she recorded it and her tone, her range...I'm very proud of her. She wants to do a record but in a few years....

DN: When La Doña came out in 2004, it did really really well for you. Were you surprised?

TM: Audiences have always embraced me on the road but after not being out there for a time with a new record, it's very gratifying. We knew it would do well when radio gravitating to the single, 'Still In Love'.

DN: It's been two years since La Doña. How did your record company respond when you told them you had finished another album so soon?

TM: They were very, very pleased when I turned it in. I went to New Orleans where Cash Money Records is based just a few days before the Essence Festival last year to let them hear it and they were blown away. Of course after Hurricane Katrina, everything changed and it would have come out sooner if that had happened. I love New Orleans, I have a lot of extended family there. In fact, we're making 'Resilient' available online so people can download it and we're donating the proceeds to charities that are specifically helping out artists who were affected by the hurricane. We want to help rebuild the music and culture of the city because I realize the importance of the rich culture of New Orleans and the impact it's had on all of us....

DN: That's really great...we'll make sure and put details about that on the website as soon as we get the info...

TM: Thanks!

DN: And the new album is also getting a great response... How do you feel about that?

TM: Well, it's also very gratifying because I'm writing from my heart. I went online and was there were eighteen reviews and they were mostly positive. A couple said I was too 'self-indulgent' as a writer but I've heard people say that about me for a long time. I'm not quite sure what they mean...

DN: Can't help you there! I always think of you as a storyteller, a poet...

TM: Thanks.

DN: I think part of why people are responding your new album so well is because you are still making music that is relevant and contemporary....

TM: Part of it is that I'm very passionate about music itself. I don't cut off who I am as a creative artist and I still have a lot to say. And I still have a lot of young people around me....

DN: Do you ever 'shake your head and wonder' how come you're able to keep going with a career like this?

TM: It's funny – I was in Chicago the day before my birthday doing a show. I was looking out there and there were thirteen-year olds out there and a couple that must have been eighty who were singing along with some of my songs! And I thought, "What a blessing this is." I think the reason is the sincerity and truth in the music. It's not contrived and it's from my heart...

DN: With so much that you've already done, what's next for you?

TM: I'm doing a jazz record. [My good friend] George Duke has already produced one song for it. Then I want to do some inspirational music because we need that right now! I'm going back on the road for the summer. I try not to work other parts of the year because I want to spend time with my daughter while she's in school.

DN: And how about touring outside the U.S.A.?

TM: You know, I DO want to more international work and I tell the agents that all the time but they make so much money off me performing here in the U.S.A.! Now I don't really care about the money – I know going overseas is an investment for the future and I tell them all the time to book me in other countries....I don't care where! Last time I was in Britain was 1991! I was in Japan in 2002. And I went to Egypt but that was a personal trip not to work...

DN: Wow...I went to Egypt in 1984 after my mother passed away. It was a life-altering trip... I have a whole story I can tell you about playing Chaka Khan's 'Egyptian Song' when I was there...

TM: That's my favorite Chaka Khan song! I told her that once and she looked at me like she was really surprised I even knew that song. But I love that whole album, Ask Rufus...

DN: Yeah, yeah! With [the song] 'Hollywood'...

TM: Yes, yes. It's a great album...

DN: Well, Teena, I know you gotta go so let me just ask you if there's anything else you'd like to say for now?

TM: You know, it's such a blessing for me just to be able to do something I enjoy and I'm doing what I love...

DN: Amen to that. And thanks for making such great music! It's so refreshing to hear...

TM: OK...thank you!

TEENA AND I could have probably rapped for a whole lot longer about the state of music, our current and past favorites, about life, love and the whole nine (yards). I'm just thankful that I got the opportunity to chat with Lady Tee yet again because when it comes to making music, I always think of what Nick & Val said, 'Gimme Something Real.' And with Teena Marie, hey, it's always real – and as I am often heard to say, these days, "hallelujah!"

Teena’s 2009 tribute to Smokey Robinson captured on video is a MUST watch!

 

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