After reaching the heights of mainstream success, neo-soul vocalist Amel Larrieux had to start over when it came to crafting her own vision. Three albums into a sometimes turbulent solo career, she's finally found her independence, and is preparing a musical explosion of creative output.
Circa 1995, the Billboard Hot 100 singles boasted a top-four of pop royalty, all of whom would later face career blockades of wardrobe malfunctions, TRL breakdowns, and alleged crack addictions: Janet and Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. In the fifth slot, behind the seats of these temporarily dormant pop volcanoes, sat a song called "Tell Me" by Groove Theory, a fresh R&B duo that consisted of smooth chanteuse Amel Larrieux and producer Bryce Wilson. Unfortunately, with the burning newfound success of "Tell Me", Groove Theory began to suffer from the traditionally overwhelming quandary that comes with stardom. Each member of the duo wanted to take the group in different musical directions, and they split, despite managing to send a lasting tremble through the R&B world.
"A couple months ago, I went to a movie premiere, and I ran into will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas, and we talked for a while, and he said 'I just want you to know that the Groove Theory album changed the way I looked at music completely, and it really influenced the way I did things.' I have absolutely no sense of these things if somebody doesn't just stand there and tell me something like that," says Larrieux.
With the recent release of her third solo album, Morning, Larrieux has taken her six years in solo-land to both sharpen her sound and independently command her artistic vision. Morning, a departure from 2000's silk-warbled Infinite Possibilities and 2004's dusky Bravebird, features Larrieux resting on a stripped backbone of sparseness that refrains from the musical aerobics that tend to cloud top-40 R&B hits. "The thing that we were really playing with on purpose was allowing ourselves to do stuff that's more stripped down. It's really nice to let the song breathe, and the lyrics breathe, and the voice breathe, and [to know] that sometimes it's really fine with just two instruments," she says.
The bareness of Morning shines through differently on each of the album's tracks. "Earn My Affections", on which Larrieux squarely scats against the simplicity of a drum-snare combo, builds musical tension (and remains charged with relativistic beauty) without the glossification of a mastering board or the banal trills of a glib keyboard. "Trouble", the album's opener, is built on a different brand of bareness, featuring the major 7th wicka-wah's of an electric guitar coalescing with the repetitious taps of a light shaker and wooden pipe.
Larrieux's departure from a more flourishing sound coincides with her willingness to tamper with vocal harmonies and experiment with chord progressions that many R&B singers are too musically insipid to attempt. On "Just Once", Larrieux takes advantage of the keyboard's basic one-note melody to harmonically experiment, blurring the line that separates a major from a minor key and crafting a track that shifts between pop, jazz, and R&B. The album flows in the same vein, resulting in a hodgepodge of musicality. "I'm so the wrong person to ask about a certain category of music, because they all kind of blur to me, and because I'm always listening to all kinds of stuff, I'm just kind of always thinking I'm just being blind," she states.
On the album's first single, "Weary", a piano track festooned with traditional rim shots, Larrieux shines in her vocal wails that emphasize the song's intent to represent the struggle that women have in finding emotional solace. "Part of the reason it ended up as kind of an ode to women is that there is still a lot of inequality, and we are still judged in a way that men aren't," she says. "I think that's probably why it rings true for so many women."
As on "Weary", Larrieux's subject matter on Morning draws from personal experiences, ranging from "procrastination" to "self-doubt" to "self-esteem issues." The title track draws from Larrieux's childhood bout with insomnia and the loneliness that comes with it. "I've been given meditation tapes, where you have to visualize yourself as an empty shell being filled with iron liquid, all this stuff, pictures of the ocean, and given valerian drops so I could go to sleep. I remember that feeling of being the only one awake and how lonely that was, and how I'd wish for the morning to come."
Although Larrieux is now able to deliver music without having to conform to a certain sound or subject, she achieved this musical freedom only after contending with Epic Records to release her from her contract. After the dissipation of Groove Theory, Larrieux's contract carried over on Epic, who eventually allotted her a hefty advance to record her debut album. But with the success of "Tell Me" in mind, record executives initially wanted her to recreate the formula on which the single was based. "When I left Groove Theory, they picked up my option and I was hoping that they would let me go, but they didn't. I had to try to get them to go ahead and give me money to record my own album and they wouldn't for a while, and I had to go ahead and do my stuff."
The result was Infinite Possibilities, a record that successfully melded nu-jazz and neo-soul R&B. The album spawned the successful hits "Get Up" and "Sweet Misery", and ended with the gorgeous piano-and-voice ballad "Make Me Whole", a tribute to her husband and producer Laru Larrieux. Fans enjoyed the song so much that some even made it their wedding song. "I think I'm such a romantic, and idealist. I want so much to say things in a way that no one else has said it, or at least attempt to. Maybe that's why that song works for people, because it's a refreshing way and a really intimate and personal way of saying 'Thank you for changing my life.'"
Despite the following that Larrieux acquired, she still remained dissatisfied with the promotional efforts on Epic's behalf. As the label went through several managerial regime changes, Larrieux seized any opportunity to wriggle out of her contract.
"We had been begging and calling the Vice President and the President, saying 'Please, let me off.' Finally, somehow, there was a way, because they were like 'Either do it our way, and get us to back you, or do it your way and we won't.' I think they realized that I was really serious that there wasn't going to be a way to sway me, and everything was falling apart there again. Everyone was leaving, there was nobody really working things, and so I was able to get out."
Larrieux was soon picked up by independent label Blisslife, who released both Bravebird and Morning. With the newfound freedom of having a label that backed her musical choices, Larrieux began to cultivate her own style without facing pressures to capture a mainstream sound. She began to musically experiment in the studio with her husband and created Bravebird, a record that was remarkably darker and edgier than her debut. "I do believe it was grittier, and I do believe it was more confident, and those things come from the seasoning that being on the road gives you, live," she says. "I think that we had always wanted to capture the feeling that people said they got from my live shows in the studio without necessarily having to do a lot of live recording, because that's a sound unto itself."
With the release of Morning, Larrieux plans on touring as she has done with previous albums. In addition to a tour in the works, Larrieux has already started work on three albums, each of which she hopes to release over the next three years. "Ideally, I'd like to put an album out every year and then, during this year, our plan is to do two more albums: a lullaby album with my oldest daughter, and then an album of covers. Then, maybe a live album," she says. "But hopefully, I'll keep myself busy enough where I don't ponder on that stuff too much."