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Music

Season of the Wild Flower: An Interview with Dionne Farris

Christian Wikane
Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Free, Clear, and Back Onstage Friday, August 1, 2008, 9:30 p.m.: After performing a powerhouse 70-minute set for a standing room-only crowd at Joe's Pub in New York City, Dionne Farris is holding court backstage in the famed venue's rehearsal room. She is remarkably energized for having just signed a stack of CD's and posed with a crowd of fans for photographs. She treats those who stayed behind to an impromptu, spellbinding performance of Nina Simone's "See-Line Woman." Minutes after the applause, Farris sits at a table reviewing the payment terms for the night's performance. These days, Farris is more than a performer, she's a label executive, publicist, and CD manufacturer. A reinvigorated outlook and perspective infuses Farris' creative re-birth. It's an attitude that inspired the name of her label, Free & Clear. Though Farris fielded many offers to sign with record companies after she left Columbia, and even signed with Matthew Knowles' Music World Entertainment for a "hot second", she is clearly not mourning the divorce from major labels. "I don't want any parts of the traditional experience of the music industry", she emphasizes. "What I would like to do with Free and Clear records is help promote other artists who have talent but also put them up on game and make sure they know their business and know what the business is ... and be fair about it." Dionne Farris' first signing for Free & Clear is herself. Released online in early 2008, Signs of Life traces the journey Farris traveled after Wild Seed—Wild Flower. It also collect her various collaborations with Van Hunt, Jamey Jaz, Count Bass D, and Tomi Martin (of Three5Human). Farris sells physical copies of the CD at her shows and autographs every one of them for audience members. After giving Farris several standing ovations, the majority of the audience is usually more than eager to buy Signs of Life. Thriving on the reciprocal nature of live performance, Farris shares the advice a former label-mate at Columbia gave her about how an album is but one component of a career and not the sum total. Nancy Wilson, who's recorded more than 40 records in her career, told Farris, "The record is for you to stand on. That's your platform. Keep making the records and you service the people. You go and tour and that's where you make your money." In establishing her record label, Farris has heeded the advice. She explains, "Signs of Life is making sure that number one, people can hear the music so they'll be inspired to come out, but it's also facilitating us to go around. I'm ready to go. I'm extremely ready. I'm so ready to keep being onstage. There's just a repertoire now that I'm grateful for. We do almost a two-hour show."

Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

In those two hours, Farris covers every corner of her career, the past and present, the rare and renowned. "I Know" and "Hopeless", of course, receive the expected roar of approval but so does the new and less familiar material. She begins the set with the reggae-sway of "Baggage" (a non-album single available on her MySpace page). Her voice soars to heavenly heights during "Remember My Name", a song that she characterizes as a conversation with herself and with God. The music turns sublimely serene on "Hidden Charm", a song that Van Hunt wrote, among three others on Signs of Life. "Van and I made some really great music", Farris says. "Sometimes he would give me tracks, sometimes he'd give me whole songs, and sometimes he would listen to what I was saying. He has such a great ability to interpret stuff that you said. That's what, to me, 'Hidden Charm' was. We were talking about all those things that were going on and he came back with the song." "Open", which was written with Tomi Martin of the Atlanta-based group Three5Human, fires up the rock quotient of the concert. Martin had originally written the song for Madonna but once Farris heard it, she asked Martin if she, instead, could write lyrics for it. "Dionne has a gift for writing songs that come out perfectly", Martin enthuses. "I told her, 'That song is yours.'" Underscoring the song's themes of losing and longing, Farris interpolates a couple of lines from "Missing You" by Diana Ross, which she shapes into a call and response with the audience. The most emotionally wrenching moment of a Dionne Farris show is actually a song that she has not yet recorded, "Fair." It tells the story about two friends of Farris' who were in relationships that ended because of unrequited love. Towards the middle of the song, Farris cries out, "Don't play with people's lives/Don't play with people's time/Don't play with people's minds." The naked intimacy of Farris' performance brings tears to people's eyes. Though Farris embodies the pain and can relate to it, she clarifies that the song is not personal. Instead she summons the pain that one of her friends felt as the relationship dissolved. "I remember them saying, 'It's just not fair'. Right from that word, the song came screaming out loud. When you have friends and you feel their pain you can still kind of live their pain for them and that's what comes up." Conveying the pain of her friend, Farris falls to her knees onstage, eyes closed, her voice raw with emotion. It's an astounding moment. The audience shouts in recognition of "Hopeless" from its first two chords. How does it feel to perform "Hopeless" ten years later? "To sing that song for people and for them to respond the way that they do, it really feels good", Farris shares. "Sometimes we, as musicians, feel like, (she groans) 'I have to sing this song 90,000 times' but I don't feel that way anymore. I don't want to deprive them and it feels good for me because they're like, 'Ah yeah! That's my song!'" Dionne Farris must clarify one thing, though, lest anyone think otherwise, "I still am not 'hopeless'", she asserts, "and I never have been."

Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

A Wild Flower in Bloom A recording studio in Los Angeles, sometime in the not-too-distant past: It's the third day of a songwriting session between Dionne Farris and Jamey Jaz. The two writers have settled on the track, now Farris must write the lyrics. She's returning to Atlanta tomorrow morning so she needs to write something. What exactly does she want to say to listeners? Turning to her leather-bound journal for inspiration, she notices two lines she'd written previously: "Matter not how many trees that you see/Matter how beautiful the ones you see be." Pondering the meaning behind those words, Farris instantly conjures up another set of lyrics: "When you overstand help someone understand/ Then and only then you'll begin to process the plan/Thinking what you would like for life it to be/This is that what was given to me." Those last set of words open "For U", track three on Signs of Life. Akin to "Remember My Name", the lyrics are like an internal conversation Farris is having with herself. The song touches on the idea that Farris had given up a lot when she left Columbia but came through the experience with a greater understanding of herself. Indeed, the lessons she has learned about life could easily fill a book or two. (In fact, she is writing a book). One lesson in particular is dedicated to a man who figured prominently early in Farris' career and is now one of the industry's most recognizable impresarios -- Randy Jackson. In the liner notes that accompany Signs of Life, she writes to him, "You are not my friend. You are not my enemy. You are my teacher." When asked about the sentiment behind that dedication, Farris says, "Randy was the one that gave me that line. I'm kind of serving that back out to him", she says cryptically. "The time that we spent together was very fruitful. Randy taught me a lot of stuff and at the same time he didn't teach me a lot of stuff. He allowed the process to teach me because a lot of things he wouldn't say. I had to learn them for myself." In that learning process, Farris often grappled with her decision to leave the industry. "A lot of times I kicked myself", she says. "I heard from a lot of different people in the music industry tell me, 'What are you doing? You opened up the doors and let everybody in and now you're not showing up’. I was like, you know, 'If it's for me and I'm supposed to be doing it, when it's time, it's going to come back around and it's going to be better than ever.'" Patience and perseverance guided Dionne Farris from Wild Seed-Wild Flower to Signs of Life. She is now in full command of her talent and wholly committed to her art. "I never gave anybody a sour taste in their mouth with music that I presented to them", she says, "so to come back full force, singing even better – this is what other people are telling me – I feel good. I feel like I sound good and I'm loving that. I'm loving the whole process of singing again." Free and clear, the wild flower spirit of Dionne Farris is gloriously in bloom.

Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

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