Jody Watley at Gay Games VII's Opening Ceremony at Soldier Field. Photo by
Steve Becker, www.beckermedia.com
It may seem hard to believe, but the ever-youthful singer Jody Watley has been in the music business for more than a quarter of a century, starting with her days in the R&B trio Shalamar. Since then, she has definitely made her mark as an individual artist, with Looking for a New Love, Still a Thrill and Everything among her numerous hits.
Now, Watley is back with a sound that's even stronger than before. Her ninth solo album, The Makeover—a collection of covers that includes Madonna's Borderline remade as a ballad—was released Aug. 8 on her own Avitone label. During a phone conversation, she talked with Windy City Times/Identity about the record, performing at the Opening Ceremony of the Gay Games, and that controversy involving Chicago radio station V-103.
Windy City Times: Tell me about this new album—the concept behind it, your collaborators, etc.
Jody Watley: Musically, it reflects where I am now. It's danceable, but with soul and passion. It's also romantic in a new way, so there are ambient cuts and material that reflects where I am as a writer.
In the packaging for The Makeover, there's a 12-page [ booklet ] . There's music and there's glam, but there are also descriptions about why I did each song.
Throughout the years, I've always tried to stay outside of the boxes that people have sometimes have tried to put me in. That journey is not always an easy one, but it's a rewarding one. The people who get what I do really appreciate that I'm an artist who tries to put out quality work and not anything that's ... un-Jody. [ Laughs. ] It's Jody Watley 2006—and better than ever.
WCT: Now, I have to admit that when I heard that you were doing a makeover of Borderline, I was a little skittish—because you and I both know that there are some artists who don't do makeovers so well.
JW: [ Laughs. ] Right, and perhaps I was naive—but I think that 90 percent of Madonna's fans who have heard Borderline love it. They love the creative input and that I didn't try to do a carbon copy of it. It's a whole different take and it's done with love and emotion, and you can't be mad at that.
The dance-pop version will always stand on its own, and this is just another interpretation of it. I'm a fan of Madonna, so I'd never do anything where she'd say, 'Oh my God— [ I know ] Miss Jody didn't do that.' I would think that she would appreciate it. If you take away the preconceived notion away from it, it's beautiful. It's a love song and it really takes you closer to the lyrics and the melody. Reggie Lucas, who wrote songs for Phyllis Hyman and others, certainly deserves credit for writing this.
I know some feathers were [ initially ] ruffled and I'm like, 'Love, everybody!!!' [ Both laugh. ]
WCT: When I heard it though, honestly, I thought it was a stroke of genius [ because ] I thought it was going to be a carbon copy. Now, I'm hearing the song everywhere. I saw the second-season premiere of [ the LOGO show ] Noah's Arc and it's played during a pivotal scene ...
JW: Thank you.
I'm so happy about [ the song being in the premiere ] . [ Noah's Arc Executive Producer ] Patrik-Ian Polk contacted me about it. I know the show and thought the idea was fantastic. It's a new exposure for the song. I think it's awesome.
WCT: And also, it's about bridging generations [ between the original and new versions of the song ] . I was telling someone the other day about [ pop duo ] Hall & Oates, and he said, 'Who?'
JW: [ Laughs. ] One thing about music is that great songs and melodies will be timeless. The hip-hop genre is that it's kept abreast by classic grooves and putting a new spin on them. Often, that makes people want to go hear the original.
WCT: So, do you feel that any song can be remade or that some songs should be left alone?
JW: Some songs should be left alone. For example, in working on The Makeover, there are a couple of my own songs that I gave makeovers to. However, there is nothing else I can do with Real Love, and it's been covered by a couple of dance artists in Europe. Their interpretations were pretty much carbon-copy. Also, there are some Stevie Wonder songs that no one can ever sing but him. And speaking of Madonna, there's Like a Virgin...I don't know.
I heard Jessica Simpson's new song [ A Public Affair ] ; it's like Madonna's Holiday. It made me think of artists with signature sounds; fans always want you to do that over and over again. I see some artists who don't really change it up too much; it's like a safe [ harbor ] for them because they don't want to throw people off too much. But I've been throwing people off—with consistency—and I love it. [ Both laugh. ]
WCT: But they keep getting back on. [ Both laugh. ] But let's switch gears and talk about performing at the Opening Ceremony of the Gay Games ...
JW: It was fantastic. It was one of the highlights of my career singing that song and being from Chicago. When I recorded that song, It All Begins With You, it reminded me of my father, a minister who passed away many years ago. There was a spiritual feel to it.
When I was asked to perform at the Gay Games, I submitted several songs for them to choose from, depending on the theme of the ceremony. When they picked that song, it was really ironic to me. Just being there [ stirred up ] so many emotions.
WCT: When did you realize you had a large gay fan base?
JW: I knew from the beginning, with the shows, promotional tours and fan letters. I live in Los Angeles and I'm always in West Hollywood, which is heavily gay— [ plus ] I have friends who are gay. It's just always been—I appreciate it and I've never shied away from acknowledging my gay fan base. It's very important; just ask Barbra Streisand. [ Laughs. ] The gay audience is a very loyal one.
WCT: And we do like our glam, strong women.
JW: [ Laughs. ] Yes. Yaaaaaay!!! [ Both laugh. ]
WCT: Now, I want to talk about this whole V-103 incident. The way I understand it, they contend that they asked you to not speak about the Gay Games because you only had a small window of time, but you responded that you've been in the game long enough to know how to compress a lot of information into a small amount of time.
JW: Absolutely. If you tell me, 'Miss Watley, we're glad to have you but we're only going to give you 30 seconds,' this is what I would say: 'I'm in Chicago [ and ] I'm so happy to be here. I'll be at Soldier Field performing at the Gay Games tonight. Tomorrow, I'll be at the Virgin Megastore signing copies of my forthcoming release, The Makeover, which will be out Aug. 8. I love you all. Thank you.' I can say everything I need to say in 20 seconds. I stand by what I [ said happened ] .
They mention time constraints but it was very specific. It wasn't just 'We're short on time, so let's make this quick.' It was, 'Just so you know, you can't discuss the Gay Games.'
What I hope comes out of it is what we're doing now. People need to talk about it, and it doesn't have to end up being a negative thing. I would hope that any station would embrace all of its listeners. If I'm an advocate for anything, it's for human rights and acceptance. Otherwise, you just have a cycle of ignorance, hate and violence.
Chicago was so fantastic with the Gay Games; [ the event ] was on the front page of everything, it was on the news and at all the bus stops. It certainly wasn't a secret, and that's why [ the V-103 situation ] was a surprise. Perhaps with the next artist who comes to that station, it won't be such a taboo thing. And with Black people, it's such a cultural thing, too. There's a lot of homophobia.
WCT: And as a Black person myself...
JW: So you know what I'm saying. I just hope that they learn something. It's under a corporate umbrella, and I visited a sister station [ and mentioned the Games ] . I can draw my own conclusions, because it was OK for one station but not OK for another, which has primarily Black listeners. What is that about? My blood pressure's going up just talking about it... [ Laughs. ] It's about love, people. It's 2006.
WCT: Gay people, at least in this country, have come a long way—but still have a long way to go.
JW: Yes, that's true. I happened to see [ gossip columnist ] Perez Hilton's Web site and he talked about the outing of Lance Bass, saying that's 2006 and that it won't hurt his career. First of all, that's not for you to say. Number two, just experiencing what I did, [ Hilton ] is very naive, because some people will look for any reason to silence your voice. Not everyone is ready [ to come out ] .
WCT: You're currently featured on the Bravo show Workout.
JW: Yes. I got involved because my trainer worked with [ host ] Jackie Warner. The show follows some of her clients as well as the other trainers. I've been working out with Doug off and on for the past 10 years. I watch Bravo and I feel that a good portion of my fan base watches the network.
It's nothing over-the-top. When they're filming me, I'm getting ready for The Makeover. I do a special performance on the last show.
WCT: What's the biggest change that you've witnessed in the music industry over the years?
JW: [ One change ] that I don't like was when record companies starting merging in the '90s ( and they're still merging ) . It makes it harder to get things done. Also, there are radio stations de-regulating ownership. Now, if one corporation owns 2,000 stations and one station [ doesn't like a song ] , it sucks for you because you can't get on any of them.
However, the good thing is that the Internet and digital media are changing the game and I love that, being an entrepreneur. I started Avitone in 1996; I was inspired by Prince when he left Warner Brothers and started his NPG stuff.
If you really love music, you're not going to be dictated to by what you hear on the radio anyway. Everybody gets sick of the same 10 songs all the time, so it forces people to seek out [ other ] music.
WCT: What is the essence of good music?
JW: Oh, gosh. The essence of good music would have to be the passion behind it. It's like when I wrote Looking for a New Love; I was feeling that way.
Honesty may be [ a better word ] . If you're coming from an honest point of view instead of being contrived, it's lasting. Whatever that's like, it's like doing it for real. Some singers can sing their ass off, but you still don't feel it. It's gotta be honest.
The Makeover is available on the Internet at iTunes.com and Amazon.com as well as places such as Virgin Megastore.