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Flyin' Alone

After a bout of Arrested Development, Dionne Farris' moment has arrived

Halfway into her debut solo album Wild Seed -- Wild Flower, Dionne Farris follows a bluesy, plucked guitar into a soaringly soulful rendition of the Beatles' "Blackbird" that, in many ways, transforms the chestnut into Farris' personal anthem: "Blackbird singing in the dead of night / take these broken wings and learn to fly / all your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arrive ...."

It's a weird choice of anthems, in that it's one of only two of the album's 15 tracks that Farris had no hand in writing, and made even weirder by the fact that this self-described devourer of popular music claims never to have heard the song before her producer suggested she sing it.

"The words were so appropriate for me," Farris says over the phone from an early tour stop in San Francisco. "I feel like I'm that blackbird and this is what I need to do. All the things that went on prior to this record, about people saying 'you made a mistake, maybe you should do this, maybe you should do that, why don't you compromise your position,' I felt like, yeah, I have to take my broken wings and do what I have to do for me."

Okay, so maybe the "broken wing" metaphor is a bit of a stretch for a woman in Farris' position, which is to say a 25-year-old woman whose first solo effort is being heavily hyped by a mammoth record company (Columbia) and has already spawned an unavoidable hit single in the Beck-meets-En Vogue grooves of "I Know." Farris' perceived spearheading of a so-called new breed of substance-over-style soul singers (Des'ree, Shara Nelson and Carleen Anderson are her most oft-mentioned compatriots) has generated raving press, and her "mistake," as it was understandably viewed by observers near and far, simply lay in bailing out of the multiplatinum hip-hop aggregation Arrested Development at the peak of that band's soaring trajectory to test her solo... um... wings. But extravagant or no, the broken wing thing does hold some real relation to Farris' road to here, which, to hear her tell it, is exactly where she wants to be right now.

Farris grew up in New Jersey listening and singing along to her mother's Gladys Knight records. That early interest led her to all things soul. "Anything that was on the radio was open ground, and then in junior high school I got into the Police and Air Supply and Led Zeppelin and stuff like that," she says, providing one of the broadest categories of "stuff like that" I've ever heard a musician compile.

Her elementary school teachers noticed that she could sing, and Farris began making the rounds of choirs and chorales. "It was easy," she says. "It was natural to me. "

"Natural" isn't the word that best describes the start of Farris' professional career, however. "I had this gig when I was 18," she explains. "These people wanted someone to sing at some sort of office party. But what it was -- they wanted someone to lip-synch and to be Diana Ross. So I had to put this get-up on and this wig and sing "I want muscles," and I was like, 'Oh my God, this is not what I was thinking at all.' But I got paid $150, so that was the official first paid gig, if you will." It was the last time Farris lip-synched, but it was just the first time she'd feel overshadowed by her gig.

After her New Jersey-based band's demos and showcases failed to draw the right kind of attention, Farris says she stalled. At her father's invitation, she moved to Atlanta for the change of scenery in 1991, and after she adjusted to the slower pace of the New South, she began making inroads into the music biz proper. She met insider producer Jermaine Dupree and started writing with him. Soon enough, at the height of the En Vogue "Never Gonna Get It" explosion, Farris was drafted for a copy-cat girl-group project that, she says, "didn't work because the people around us just really didn't listen to what we had to say. It was very, very, very producer-driven."

When Farris signed with the same Atlanta management company handling soon-to-be-huge Arrested Development, she got to hear the rural/spiritual/enlightened/pompous/non-gangsta rappers' tapes around the office and thought they were cool. And when Arrested Development started shopping around for a genuine singer to add some texture to leader Speech's funky monologues, they eventually extended the invitation to Farris. Not wanting to give all her time to someone else's show, she landed an arrangement with the group that didn't limit her non-AD commercial life, which is why she's credited as an "extended family member" on the AD record. She stood out soon enough, taking one of her best vocal turns on AD's "Tennessee," which made its way into billions of ears on its way to winning a Grammy.

She stayed with Arrested Development for two years. Then she quit, which caused more than a few people to think her quite the idiot. "People," she says, "were like, 'You're crazy, don't do it.' People said, 'You got a free ride, just stay there.' And I'm like, you just don't know, it's not worth it to me. I want to do my own thing. It was a scary decision."

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