Season of the Wild Flower: An Interview with Dionne Farris
"Whatever happened to Dionne Farris?" Just ask Dionne Farris herself. After more than a decade out of the spotlight, the seeds Dionne Farris planted on her 1994 debut are finally in bloom on her long-awaited follow-up, Signs of Life.
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Three years later, a movie called Love Jones gave Farris a first-class luxury ride on that R&B train. Though Columbia resisted working any song off Wild Seed-Wild Flower for R&B-formatted radio stations, their focus shifted 180-degrees when Farris recorded "Hopeless" for the film's soundtrack. Written by Van Hunt, five years before he debuted with his self-titled album, the song became an instant classic for Farris. "When I first heard it", Farris remembers, "it made me cry because I knew what he was talking about – 'penny with a hole in it'. I knew what we had just discussed, how I was feeling about all this stuff. It was like, 'Dude you captured that thing perfectly.'"
With "Hopeless" a staple on R&B radio stations, Columbia now pigeonholed Farris as a strictly R&B-centered artist, a point of contention when Farris began recording her full-length follow-up to Wild Seed-Wild Flower. "When I first came to the company, I was told that I wasn't a black artist. They had listened to 'I Know' and they were like, 'That's definitely not an R&B song'. When 'Hopeless' came, they were like 'Oooh! Go there Keep doing that!' I'm going, 'Okay, we're going do that but we're also going to do this'. They just didn't like it." The direction the label had in mind – a whole album of "Hopeless"-sounding tracks – was not what Farris recorded. Columbia disliked the second album so much that they refused to release it as submitted. Dionne Farris refused to change the record. Reaching an impasse with her label over the style of the album, Farris requested a release from her contract. The conversation between Dionne Farris, Columbia, and her lawyer went something like this:
Dionne Farris to Columbia: "This is not going to work. Just let me go. We're going to be standing here a long time. I'm not going to budge and neither are you."
Lawyer to Dionne Farris: "They're not going to drop you. You are an artist that has made money for them."
Dionne Farris to Lawyer: "It's already out there in the universe. I don't want to be here anymore. I don't want to know this process anymore because this is now becoming a chore and a task. It's becoming tedious and I don't think it's necessary."
Farris quickly realized that there was very little artistic or financial stability in being signed to a major label. The publicists and handlers who had an office, stationary, insurance, and expense accounts actually had more security at the label than the artists. "They have it better than we do", Farris exclaims. "These guys who are your representatives, they're taking you out but it's on your dime." The schmoozing, the fame, and the notoriety foisted on Farris did little to assure her of the label's long-term investment in her career. To the amusement of the executives at Columbia, Farris suggested earning the same benefits as those who worked for the company. "That's how I felt about it at that time: 'I don't have any stock in the company. Let me get that. Let me do it that way and I'll feel a lot better about what's going on because, essentially, I'm an employee too.'" In a token gesture from the label, Farris eventually got some stationary with her name on it.
To the astonishment of her attorney, Dionne Farris was also released from her contract.
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Birthing a New Beginning
"For U" Video Shoot, circa 2007: Dionne Farris opens the front door to her two-story house in Atlanta. A videographer follows her around the house as she mimes the lyrics to "For U", a song from her new Signs of Life album. Farris gives a tour of her home. Sitting at the piano is a young girl with straight, shoulder-length hair. At one point during the video, the music stops and Farris addresses the girl, "Tate, you know the piano is old, so if you don't want to play that one, just go play the organ in the back." Tate is 12 years old. She sings, dances, acts, plays piano and guitar, loves to read, and is very proficient with math and science. She's also the daughter of Dionne Farris.
When Farris left Columbia, she didn't shop around for another label deal, she closed the door on the industry altogether. Instead, Farris focused on raising her daughter, who was born just before "Hopeless" was released. Farris welcomed the change. "It was like this – here's music and here's a whole new life. It allowed me to open up to myself and figure out the things I didn't know and then get a grasp of those things as quickly as possible because now I'm raising somebody else who's looking at me like, 'Mommy what do we do now?' You may not have all the answers but you have to be one step ahead so you can figure them out."
To the initial bewilderment of her family, Farris decided to home school her daughter, something she hadn't planned to do but decided to do since she wasn't impressed with the school system in Georgia. "My thing was, I need to be able to give her some sort of foundation so that when she goes in there and she is socialized, she still has a set of values. She's going into seventh grade now. She is top of her class. My mother, being an educator of 36 years, is the best cheerleader. She said, 'You did an excellent job giving her a great foundation.'"
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Though Farris has spent the majority of the past 12 years raising Tate, she also went through a dark period, a phase that is succinctly acknowledged in her dedication to God in the credits for Signs of Life: "Thank you for my life back. I'll never again think it's not worth living." She shudders at the memory of what she felt during that emotionally turbulent interval:
"Life came upon me in a way I didn't understand. It stands to paralyze you if you are not ready to keep moving. There was a big period in my life when I did not sing at all. It physically hurt in a lot of different ways, not just my voice. For that gigantic gap of time for me not to sing, I was like, 'I might as well just be gone'. I did a lot of detrimental things to myself, trying to harm myself. I didn't cut my wrists or anything like that but I had those bad thoughts."
Church was the one place Farris felt compelled to sing, though it took some encouragement over a period of three years from the church's praise leader, Nina Walters, for Farris to feel comfortable in front of the congregation. "She kept saying, 'You need to let God use your voice'. I’m like, 'Huh?' I didn't know what that meant." Respecting the sanctity of church, Farris was initially hesitant to sing, fearing that her involvement in the choir would be viewed as a performance. "I didn't want the velvet rope at the church", she says.
What Farris didn't expect was the congregation's reaction when she finally decided to sing. "When I got up there the first few times", she recalls, "people wept. I mean they broke down like, 'You're anointed' -- I had never heard that in the secular world ever -- 'Your voice breaks yokes and it opens up chambers'. That was the catalyst to birthing something deeper for me about what I've been given. I've been given a gift and a gifting for more than just singing songs that I like."
During her years at Columbia, the frenetic pace of touring and stardom distracted Farris from realizing how deeply her gift affected listeners on a spiritual and physical level. Witnessing, up close, the visceral reaction people had towards her singing propelled her towards reigniting her career. The process of renouncing a career in music then rediscovering her voice is symbolized by a post card Farris hands out at her concerts. The photograph depicts a pregnant Farris with the words "Birthing a New Beginning" written across the photo. "I'm nothing but pleased at this point in my life", she says. "I have a 1993 Toyota Corola. I have no qualms about what is in my midst right now. I'm grateful and thankful that I have the opportunity to be here, to begin again."