Interview with Syleena Johnson

by Felicia Pride


In a perfect world, the work week would be 20 hours instead of 40, car insurance wouldn’t be prepaid and Syleena Johnson would be a household name. But reality is, talent doesn’t drive the musical powers that be, nor does it drive listening audiences. These days without perpetual (endless) rotation on the radio or the opinions of video show hosts (What exactly is a veejay?), audiences won’t know and don’t care that your voice could blow away 80% of the bubblegum R&B singers of today. As a popular music mogul (who shall remain nameless) recently admitted on his MTV reality show, “Talent is just icing on the cake, baby.”

Such discouraging ignorance hasn’t stopped Syleena Johnson from doing what she was destined to do. Her second major release, Chapter 2: The Voice, reminds us what a love ballad really is. It reminds us what it sounds like when you sing from the heart. And it reminds us that some artists do it for the love of music.

In a recent interview about her second coming, Syleena vies, “I just wanted to create something that was inspirational and something I could be proud of.” It is that simple.

Syleena hails from a musical bloodline. When she was 17, she released an independent album, produced by her father, blues singer Syl Johnson. But because of his knowledge of the treacherous business, he was hesitant for Syleena to get involved. “He didn’t want that in the beginning because I was young and he didn’t think I was prepared or mentally equipped, which was true. But he discouraged me by saying that. I lost a lot of self-esteem because of that. But now it is different because I am an adult.”

Since 1997 when she connected with Jive A&R rep, Wayne Williams, until now, Syleena has grown tremendously as an artist and as a person. “I am in a different place right now, mentally, emotionally and maturity wise. This album is not exactly a different Syleena. I am still crying out but just in a different kind of way-with a little more awareness of who I am. With this album I was at a turning point. I was coming into my spirituality and much more in touch with myself.”

There is no denying that the mood is different on Chapter 2. Chapter 1, aptly subtitled, Love, Pain & Forgiveness was the musical product of the sequenced combination. Chapter 2is the result of the passionate force behind moving on with life. But Syleena still shines with a voice that makes you feel like a little kid in your grandmother’s kitchen—it is that comforting and emotionally familiar. It is her voice that is the distinguishing factor. “My sound is not a manufactured sound, it is a God-given sound like the old-school. Aretha Franklin, Chaka, you can’t teach them how to sing like that. Whitney, Mariah, Dionne Warwick, they are classic. These people sound unique, unduplicated. Tina Turner, there’s no one yet that sounds like Tina. I want that type of rapport.”

On Chapter 2, Syleena pulled out some big guns to help achieve her evolving sound. Carvin Haggins and Ivan Barias (Jill Scott and Musiq), most associated with the “neo-soul” sound, didn’t try to alter Syleena’s artistry. “Carvin and Ivan are geniuses. I love them so much because they are smart. They are not just musicians. They really do research and try to understand the artist and I think that’s dope. They don’t make Musiq songs for Syleena or Jill Scott songs for Musiq.”

The first single, “Tonight I’m Gonna Let Go”, a radio-friendly submission, features Busta Rhymes and the Flipmode Squad over the track popularized by Busta’s “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See”. On working with Mr. Energy and his clan, Syleena laughs, “It was fun. They are a great bunch of gentlemen, good guys. I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. But just being myself was good enough. They liked me a lot and I liked them a lot.”

Even with all the craziness surrounding the R, he was able to bless Syleena by writing and producing a couple of tracks again. “It’s always a joy working with R.Kelly. I think he’s fascinating. I saw him yesterday, I still just go sit and watch him work because he is such a genius. I am really not just saying that. He creates songs, like in minutes. And not just lyrics, the whole thing.” Still, though no duet (which I personally would love) has yet to surface.

It must be noted that Syleena herself is a wonderful songwriter, penning the majority of the album. As she declares, “All of it is autobiographical and it will always be.” Her writing process is one that is bent on emotion, not trends. “My lyrics are not motivated by what I should be talking about or what everyone else is talking about. When I write I have to be emotionally motivated. Something has to happen to me that strikes an emotion. It could be sad or happy. Either way it goes, it’s going to put out a song.” And thankfully she clarifies, “I don’t just sit down and right all day, or the songs would be weird or stupid. They would be about different stupid thoughts that I go through.” Wow, sounds a lot like the content of most songs in heavy radio rotation.

But as of right now, Syleena isn’t lending her songwriting talent to others. “I am really just trying to get my own foot in the door. People come up to me with demos all the time, and I am like ‘look man, I’m not trying to knock your hustle, but I am really not in a place where I can even help you’.”

The reality of industry disillusionment, from lack of promotion to plain old grimy business tactics, has seeped into her everyday life. “Oh my God, everyday is a constant struggle and battle. Especially with an artist like me, when what I am doing is not the in thing, it is harder to break someone like me. And I’m a woman too, it’s ridiculous.”

But her eyes remain on the prize which continues to be, “units, consistent selling of units. It ain’t the Grammy, it ain’t none of that. It’s the units cause that means people like you. Can’t deny units.” And with that goal in mind, she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. “I am trying to create a book. At least 10, 15 chapters.”

Chapter 2: The Voice is not a tribute to Syleena’s unmistakably range, the voice she clarifies, “represents the struggle and strength at the same time. It is the voice of God. The voice of mediation.”

It was the voice that told her, “cry out if you want to be heard.” And for Syleena, it was that simple.

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