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."
Ah, the heartaches and headaches of life in Arrested Development... Well, okay, there was the nagging fact that, as an "extended family member," Farris had no real creative input with the band. And then there was that aborted engagement to AD member Rasa Don, which she says didn't contribute to her departure, but surely must not have been an attracting force. And then finally there's the little matter of the ego inflation that can result from instant superstardom. "I actually saw people change. I saw it happen in my own house. I thought we knew each other -- those types of situations, people who, their egos took over and they went crazy." She's not naming names, but since the description sounds most likely to apply to the much-backlashed-against Speech, she's willing to offer that no, it's not him.
But still and all, she says the AD stint "was a good experience overall, because it introduced me to what takes place in the business, the dealings that you'll have as an artist and who you'll be dealing with."
The standout role on "Tennessee" was good for her, too, and when she jumped off the AD bandwagon, AD label Chrysalis was waiting with a solo deal that Farris ended up turning down. "I learned that they weren't really interested in me, they were more interested in me being the voice of 'Tennessee' and banking off that," she says. "They were like, 'We're gonna put your record out in January when AD is gonna get their Grammys,' and, 'We have people who are gonna write for you.'"
The folks at Columbia soon showed an interest apparently more generous to Farris' individualism, signed her, paired her with producer and former Journey bassist Randy Jackson and musical collaborator David Harris and put out Wild Seed -- Wild Flower, which arrived in stores carrying a sticker reminding that You first heard her voice on Arrested Development's Grammy-winning single "Tennessee."
Sometimes you can't win for losing.
No matter. The finished product is just the way Farris wants it, and she can, at long last, no longer claim lack of responsibility for her product. And it's not a bad product.
Whether you know it by name or not, you've already heard "I Know" enough times to be tired of it, so there's no point debating that song's infectious merits. But the rest of the album ain't so easily dismissed, either. The aforementioned Beatles cover was a big risk, but more tribute than insult in the end. "Old Ladies" is a solid Sweet Honey in the Rock-style a capella workout, and "Don't Ever Touch Me (Again)" tackles the brow-beaten pop-song-about-sexual-abuse form with a sinister edge that makes it better than bearable. "Stop to Think" is funky-as-shit with weird metal-varnished guitar squeals and a bass line two floors down. There's lots of guitar, in fact, from digitized scale-running to acoustic slide.
There are also a few duds -- "Reality" sounds kinda generic, for instance -- and there's an unwelcome common tint of FM Soul Lite around some of the edges of an otherwise obviously focused artistic statement at the core. In a field where most R&B crooner sound-alikes use mirrors to create the illusion of credibility skirting their shallow selves, it's a minor revelation to see the ratios reversed.
It's a revelation that's led a lot of critics to cut-and-paste the "D" word out of last week's article and apply it to Farris, which she doesn't particularly dig. "I don't feel I've earned the right to be called a diva. I've done something special, but it's nothing great in the sense of what people I admire have done in the past. They've paid dues. They've earned the right to be called that, and I've done one album. And one album does not a diva make."
There are precious few artists in the business, with obvious reason, who'll argue with the national press' bestowal of glowing admiration, but Farris has seen what acceptance can look like, and it kinda grossed her out.
"It just seems like they throw those words around these days. You're instantly a diva, it's kind of a microwavable situation. I've made a record. Let me make 20 more and then give me all the acclaim in the world.
"This album is as close to what I could have possibly imagined making as it could be, and that's the beauty. That's the 'win' right there for me. It's done and it's good and I like it and I'm happy, and if I don't ever get to make another one, if I'm a bum on the streets, I can say, 'Yeah, I made a record and you're listening to it now 20 years later.'"
Dionne Farris plays at 8 p.m., Tuesday, February 14 at Rockefeller's. Tickets cost $7. Call 869-8427 for info.
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