It’s New York City at its finest: summertime, cloudless, crisp. Even City Hall has an almost peaceful aura tonight. But the crowd in the park is anxious—they want Donell Jones. As the sound production team scrambles to set the stage for his performance, Donell makes his entrance backstage. The spotless white Adidas jacket he’s sporting seems to make his trademark dimples jump off his face. He’s smiling radiantly and shaking every hand with an easy familiarity. He’s ready.
Jones’s publicist taps his shoulder to let him know that he should squeeze my interview in now, pre-performance. He steps toward me with a windy city swagger, hand outstretched like the quintessential southern gentleman. In a word, he’s charming.
We exchange pleasantries and quickly discover our gulf coast connection. Despite the constant distractions around us, Jones is completely focused on this interview. His gaze is deliberate, unflinching. There is unmistakable passion and determination in his eyes.
That passion and determination led to his discovery over 10 years ago. Donell and his singing group attended a BRE (Black Radio Exclusive) conference to perform in 1993. When nobody showed up for the showcase, Jones and his group took it to the streets, literally. They went downstairs to the lobby and sang to all passersby, one of whom happened to be Edward “Eddie F” Ferrell, CEO and President of Untouchables Entertainment Group. Ferrell offered Jones’s group a recording deal with LaFace Records, but the contract never materialized and Jones was retained as a solo artist. He went to work immediately lending both his writing, arrangement, and vocal talents to such popular artists as Usher (penning “Think of You”, Usher’s first hit), Madonna (Bedtime Stories), Brownstone, and 702.
After years of paying dues in the background, Donell finally made his debut in the spotlight in 1996 with the release of his first solo effort, My Heart. With a masterful blend of old soul and modern R&B, My Heart would introduce Jones’s signature style as a singer and producer. It was his second album, Where I Wanna Be, however, that would solidify Jones as a triple-threat in the music industry. Jones’s soulful delivery of heartfelt lyrics beckoned listeners to experience the gamut of highs and lows of living, loving, and letting go. Where I Wanna Be, released in 1999, would go on to achieve platinum sales status and earn Jones the American Music Award for Favorite New Soul/R&B Artist.
It would be 2002, a cool three years later, before Jones’ third effort, Life Goes On would be released. The album peaked at number three on the Billboard charts, driven by the title track and the hit single “You Know That I Love You”.
Plagued by a series of professional and personal situations, Jones would remain off the music radar four more years. His latest project, Journey of a Gemini was released on June 20, 2006, and the long awaited Journey’s debut scored Donell the highly-coveted Billboard #1 R&B/Hip-Hop Album slot, the first time ever for Donell.
What can Donell Jones fans expect from this new CD?
My fans can expect to get the same Donell that they’ve been getting only better. I’ve gotten better as a songwriter. I’ve gotten better as a vocalist. I’ve gotten better as a producer and I’ve also incorporated some new producers into this project. Producers like Tim and Bob, Mike City, the Underdogs, Fish and Chips, Sean Garrett. I mean I really worked with some great producers on this project.
With all of the drama surrounding the release date being consistently pushed back, was there ever a time that you began to feel like this project just wasn’t going to get off the ground?
I mean, you know what, it has truly been a journey. That’s why I named the album Journey of a Gemini. I mean, there have been so many ups and downs. There was a point I didn’t even know what label I was going to end up on. So I’m happy. I’m in a good space right now. I feel confident that this album is going to do well. I have a great fan base that continues to stick with me, you know. I’m just ready.
If life is a journey and not a destination, what are some of the things along your journey that you feel have shaped you or made the biggest impact on you?
Definitely some of the relationships that I’ve been in. Meeting Eddie F. When I came into this business I was young. I was 19 years old. I’m 33 now. So I mean he put me around a lot of great producers and pretty much taught me everything I know about the business.
Yes, I know the story of how you met Eddie F. and the untraditional approach that you took to be discovered.
I mean, it wasn’t working the other way. So, sometimes you have to just eat your pride and do what you have to do to make it happen.
What would you say are some of the most rewarding things about being in this industry?
This right here [motions toward the overcrowded park]. Seeing my fans out there with so much love and respect for me. Getting on stage and feeling that love from them. Being recognized for my work. Winning the American Music Award was a really a high for me.
On the flip side of the last question, what would you say is the most frustrating thing?
Well, I’m really bad about being patient. You know, I was ready to put out an album a long time ago, but it just took so long. We had artists on the label like Usher and TLC and it seemed like my project was just always getting pushed back. To be honest with you, I feel like I’m the most underrated R&B singer in the business. I don’t know why that is but I feel like I never really got the push with marketing and promotion that I’ve needed. But I really feel like my music is good and that it helps people deal with situations that they go through.
Tell me about your bout with alcoholism.
Man ... while I was going through this label change and everything, I started abusing alcohol. I found myself ... just waking up in the morning and having a drink. I just knew it was beginning to be a problem. One night I had drank a whole bottle of vodka and I woke up really messed up. My mom and everybody else around me knew I had a problem, but nobody wanted to come tell me. Well this day, I woke up and went in my closet, got on my knees and prayed to God to help me out of this situation. Ever since that day, I’ve been good.
So, it’s not something that you struggle with now?
I mean I can’t say that I won’t ever drink again but I would know how to handle myself. I used to be a social drinker, but, you know, it got out of hand.
One of the things that I really appreciate about your music is your ability to tell a personal story so passionately in a song. Has there ever been a time that you’ve written a song that was too personal or too emotional for you to share with the public?
Actually, I had a song on this album called “Sergeant Louise”. It didn’t make the album, but that was really about my alcoholism. What happened was I was driving one day, drunk, and got stopped by the police. I hate to even admit this, but my children were in the car with me. I got four DUI’s and went to jail. That’s when it really clicked to me ... I have a problem. I wrote a song about that experience and the sergeant at the jail that I bonded with.
What question do you avoid answering in an interview?
I really don’t avoid any. You know, I feel like I share a lot of my life in my music, so why not share it in an interview.
What do you wish people knew about you that is seldom asked in an interview?
That I’m really a laid-back person. There’s no “big me, little you”. I really appreciate the fact that I have a loyal fan base. I’m happy that I’m back and I hope that people go out and really support this album. It’s a really good piece of work.