As Dwele releases his third album, the Grammy winner keeps to his Detroit roots

[27 June 2008]

By Alex P. Kellogg

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

It’s difficult to have your life in balance both as a famous musician and an everyday person: at once close enough to the top of your profession to kiss the sky, and solidly grounded to daily realities.

Still, Dwele may just be in that spot right now.

With the release of his third album, “Sketches of a Man,” today, Dwele is indeed on a rock-solid foundation on both fronts. Though not a household name, he’s well-known enough to bump elbows with industry giants. He sang background vocals on Common’s “The People” and Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” in 2007 and nabbed a Grammy this year for his cover of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World.”

Yet he’s still able to mingle with common folks. He can be spotted fairly regularly on Detroit’s nightlife scene, for example.

With the Grammy in his pocket and his fulfilling new album, he’s well-placed to secure his presence on the neo-soul and hip-hop scenes for years to come.

In the comfort of his spacious, bachelor’s-dream loft near downtown Detroit, it’s not hard to tell he’s riding high. It is hard to tell he’s been so close to the top for about five years.

Born Andwele Gardner, Dwele is soft-spoken and admittedly shy. Still, the soulful crooner comes across as thoughtful, attentive and down-to-earth.

He sipped on Hennessey and Coke with his band, all friends, while prepping for a Friday night rehearsal late last week. It appeared part of a laid-back routine for him and his homeboys.

It was nearly impossible to tell the bustle of a new tour was hours away. Dwele, his manager and his six-piece band took off for Los Angeles for a kickoff show only hours later. Other stops will include Philadelphia, Toronto and Chicago. A performance is tentatively planned for Detroit in July.

Despite the band, Dwele often records bare-bones versions of his songs almost entirely on his own.

“I like to say I can play any instrument enough to make a song out of it,” said the 30-year-old, pointing to one corner of his restored brick loft, where two keyboards, a beat machine, a mixer and a pair of conga drums were among the instruments on display - Dwele’s home also serves as his studio.

He is most adept at the trumpet and flugelhorn, both of which he played as a teen. He also plays a bit of guitar, and frequently doubles up over his own voice when recording.

Instruments aren’t all he includes in his songs.

“A lot of the time I like to fight with engineers because I like to keep breaths in the actual track,” he says. Such breaths are a noticeable touch in songs like “Find A Way,” a single off his first album, and “A Few Reasons.”

“Reasons,” from the new album, is its second single, and is already unofficially on the radio locally.

“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” he says. But for Dwele and many other neo-soul artists, those touches mark the difference between real and fake, alternative and mainstream R&B: “Without the breaths, it don’t sound real,” he says of his songs.

Dwele grew up near notoriously rough Joy Road on Detroit’s west side, not far from Cody High School. He spent his senior year there after stints at St. Mary of Redford and Bishop Borgess. He still remembers those days with fondness.

“That was the best year of my life,” he says.

The Afro-sporting, falsetto singing crooner remains a neighborhood boy and even a momma’s boy at heart, family members say.

His mother remembers when he was too shy to sing in public, though - a habit he didn’t break until after high school.

“I’m so happy for him. He’s done whatever he has determined to do,” says Phyllis Gardner.

His mom and a cousin showed up to send him off last week. A large portion of his latest album was actually recorded in a room off her den - in the same home he grew up in.

“A lot of the time I like to take all my stuff and go to my mother’s house,” he says. “The rest of the time, I’m here.”

He’s a private guy otherwise. He’s asked that this story not disclose where he lives. Last week, a group of women circled his block, screaming his name, for example.

“It’s like that a lot more these days,” he notes.

But life wasn’t always this breezy.

It was from his mom’s home that he watched out the window as a man gunned down his father, 37-year-old Robert Gardner, in 1987. Dwele was only 10 at the time.

A neighborhood get-together was the occasion. He doesn’t remember much but the worst part.

“It was rough,” says Dwele. “I actually saw the guy shooting. I just couldn’t see what he was shooting at.”

Though the neighborhood hasn’t improved much, “our block is not that bad,” he insists.

At 20 tracks, “Sketches of a Man” is a bonanza for fans and newcomers. Longer than any other album, it’s full of lush, sensual soul and textured, resonant beats. Standout tracks include “Workin’ On It” and “I’m Cheatin.’”

Thematically, the disc hits on many of his staples: romance, infidelity, love.

Dwele says he gave his latest album the same time he gave his 2003 debut, “Subject,” a compilation of songs completed over several years. He’s admitted in the past that he didn’t have as much time on his old label, Virgin Records, to work on his second album, “Some Kinda ...”

With limited promotion, his first album moved 268,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while his second moved 154,000.

He’s now switched to Koch Records, a large distributor that traditionally allows its artists more musical independence.

He remains on a local label, RT Music Group, that’s always claimed him and which launched Slum Village as well. The Detroit-based label is appropriate given his hometown roots.

“If the truth is bare naked/ Then the truth it look good on you” he sings in “Reasons,” a line with typical Dwele cachet.

The truth is, things are going good for him, too.

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