Wednesday, July 23, 2008, 7:45 p.m.: The threat of rain looms over Manhattan. A car pulls up to The Cutting Room on West 24th Street, minutes before the clouds open. The driver slides the car into a parking spot outside the venue and whisks through the entrance, trailing a suitcase on wheels behind her. She is set to perform at 8:00 p.m. A crowd of about 50 people waits in the lounge outside the main performance space. A 20-something year old man wonders aloud if “the performer” has arrived yet. Does he know that “the performer” is standing but seven feet away from him, well within earshot? People might not recognize “the performer” since she’s been out of the public eye for ten years, but they most certainly remember her name: Dionne Farris.
For the better part of a decade, listeners have wondered, “Whatever happened to Dionne Farris?” It’s a valid enough question, especially for those who kept Farris’ Wild Seed—Wild Flower (1994) album in heavy rotation. Until now, three songs have served as something of an epitaph to the creatively fertile but tumultuous phase of Dionne Farris’ ascent to world renown: “Tennessee”, her Grammy Award-winning hit with Arrested Development; “I Know”, her Top Five solo pop hit that played by the hour on Top 40 radio for a good 13 months between 1994 and 1995; and “Hopeless”, a track of equal career-defining importance off the Love Jones (1997) soundtrack that found Farris a home on the R&B stations that chose not to play “I Know.” Free of the short-sighted vision of a major record label – the kind that once told Farris she wasn’t a “black” artist – the singer/songwriter/mother/road manager/label executive has returned to recording and performing, this time on her own terms. Re-energized with a new album, Signs of Life, and her own record label, Free and Clear, Dionne Farris is ready to sing again ... and talk.
Signs of Life
(Free & Clear; US: 2008)
Wild Seed -- Wild Flower
(Columbia; US: 1995)
Planting the Seeds
Atlanta, circa 1993: Dionne Farris sits forward in a rocking chair on her porch. Farris has decided to leave Arrested Development, the group that rose to international prominence with “Tennessee”, a #1 R&B hit, and a Top 10 album, 3 Years, 5 Months, and 2 Days In the Life Of ... (1992). Farris joined Arrested Development with drummer Rasadon after the two moved to Atlanta from New Jersey, where Farris grew up. An irreparable chasm has grown between the two. Their engagement is off. Farris wants out of the relationship and out of Arrested Development.
Photographer Sandra Hendricks was there to capture the pensive mood that consumed Dionne Farris on that afternoon so many years ago. Nearly 15 years later, Farris recalls exactly what she was thinking in that chair while Hendricks took photographs. “I remember looking out going, ‘Wow. This is all starting yet a part of my life is falling apart. He’s not lining up’. We were starting to come apart. Fame started to process him and he was feeling special. I left Arrested Development because I was like, ‘This is what you guys do. Do your thing. I’m ready to go solo anyway. So have at it, enjoy, I’ll see you later.’” A photo from that session became the cover image for her debut, Wild Seed-Wild Flower while the unworkable situation with Arrested Development figured into the album’s title. “I kept saying, I’m in the garden and you’re trying to pull me out because you think I’m a weed but I’m a wild flower.” [Octavia Butler’s science fiction novel Wild Seed (1980) inspired the first part of the album’s title.]
Under the reign of Don Ienner, Columbia Records released Wild Seed-Wild Flower in early 1994. From the hybrid of musical styles to Farris’ close-cropped hair, the label tested the artist’s resolve and convictions on a number of issues. When executives saw that Farris selected the image of herself on the rocking chair for the cover of the CD booklet, the following conversation between the label and artist ensued:
Columbia Records: “You look like a little boy. You’re such a pretty girl, why do you want to look like that?”
Dionne Farris: “I want people to get passed what I look like. I really want them to hear the music.”
Columbia Records: “Well they can still hear the music if you look a little pretty.”
Dionne Farris: “I got some pretty pictures inside.”
Columbia Records: “Okay, if you want to look like a boy ... “
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
The label’s obvious displeasure with the photo no doubt contributed, in part, to an unfortunate graphical error on the first 100,000 pressings of the disc. Because of the way the photo had been cut out from the original image, Farris’ eye looked swollen or, as Farris suggests, it was if she’d boxed a round with Mike Tyson. (Her eye was later corrected on subsequent pressings.)
The one place where Columbia interfered the least was the song selection and the overall sound of the album. Co-produced by Dionne Farris with Randy Jackson, (who headed A&R at Columbia), and Michael Simanga (Farris’ manager at the time), Wild Seed-Wild Flower was a compelling mixture of rock and R&B. Except for “I Know” and a cover of The Beatles’ “Blackbird”, Farris wrote or co-wrote every track on the album. Her guiding maxim was to invoke thought in the minds of listeners. Her philosophical musings shaped “Reality” while the lyrics to “Stop to Think” explored crack cocaine and addiction—from the drug’s point of view. She documented her departure from Arrested Development on “11th Hour” and merged the sensual with the soulful on the exceptional rocker “Passion.” Track for track, Farris’ vocal talent was a gripping force and Wild Seed-Wild Flower became one of the most highly acclaimed releases of 1994. Writing for Rolling Stone, Cheo H. Coker noted that Farris had crafted “a soul-stirring tapestry of gospel, juke-joint blues, Take 6-style a cappellas, hip-hop scratching, and blissful funkadelic metal” (26 JAN ‘94). Though Wild Seed-Wild Flower impressed critics, Farris’ audience was as diverse as her music and promoting the album became a challenge for the label. “I was an anomaly”, Farris states, a situation the label was evidently unequipped to capitalize on. She recalls:
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
“At the beginning, they were like, ‘We don’t know what to do’ and they really didn’t know what to do. I did a lot of touring and I did a lot of college tours. I was on tour with Dave Matthews. When I went to the black colleges, they were like, ‘Well we can’t play ‘I Know’ because it’s not our format but we love the ‘11th Hour’. Can we play that?’ I had no jurisdiction to say ‘yes’. ‘I Know’ was the first single and I was like, ‘That’s cool, but you guys (the label) got to remember that I came from Arrested Development. That’s a very diverse crowd’. ‘I Know’ is a very pop-oriented song and what I suggested was why don’t we take the ‘11th Hour’, which is about my whole departure from Arrested Development, and service that crowd with that song? They’re like, ‘That’s not how it works’. I had no say-so in the matter. What I said to them was, ‘Well maybe we can get everybody in the same room. We might not get them through the same door: we got ‘I Know’ over here, let’s go and do the ‘11th Hour’ at the back door side entrance. Don’t do a video, service it to black college radio ... whatever it’s got to be so it’s not taking away frombut adding to.”
Columbia didn’t respond favorably to Farris’ creative marketing and replied with a flimsy “We-don’t-do-two-singles” excuse. Farris further explains her frustration in working with the label, “You start feeling like, ‘Why me? Am I difficult?’ No, record companies are difficult, especially if (the music) is not able to fit into the guidelines that they’re playing in. You’re in a bad place unless you’re going to get on the R&B train.”