Interview: Tony Rich – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

Posted: October 30, 2008 in interview, music
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Tony Rich

Date of Interview: 10/30/2008

© 2008 Clayton Perry

It is rare to find a talent that can write, produce and perform every note on their albums.  And for this very reason, Tony Rich has developed a cult-like following of fans over the past decade, who respect and appreciate his masterful blending of soul, jazz and funk.

Although many know Tony Rich for his GRAMMY-winning debut, Words (1995), his later works (Birdseye, Resurrected and Pictures) were greeted with less commercial fanfare.  And while such a setback would derail the career of most artists, Rich stayed true to his craft—eventually finding a home at Hidden Beach Records, a refuge for artists with unique talents.  On September 23, 2008, he released his fifth album, Exist.

Ultimately, for Rich, a musician’s artistic integrity is something that should never be compromised.  And through thick and thin, Tony Rich’s rugged determinism and incessant persistence have blazed a trail that few other artists are willing to travel.  In the end, time will tell if his contemporaries can match his longevity in the ever-changing musical landscape.

Upon review of Exist, Tony Rich managed to find time in his busy schedule to settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Prince, religion and the current state of R&B.

Clayton Perry: As you began your career, what personal experiences shaped your musical style?

Tony Rich: When I was young, I had the music gene in me. The person who sparked my interest to want to play instruments and want to write and produce songs was actually Prince. Me and my brother were like, “This guy can play more than one instrument.” He sounds different than everybody else. He’s creatively courageous – that inspired me. I didn’t want to dress like him. I didn’t want to look like him.  I didn’t want to sound like him. What I did want to be was that free to be able to just be – if it’s a country song, I’m writing it. If it’s a rock song, I’m writing it. If it’s R&B, I’m writing it. Whatever I wanted to do as an artist, I just wanted to come out and do it. I wanted to learn how to play instruments and I didn’t have money to pay someone to teach me. That’s why I decided to play around with instruments. I’m excited that Prince taught himself and he can go in the studio and get a record done alone. It’s easy. That’s exactly how he does it. I wanted to do that. Then you had other artists that were inspiring like Madonna because she just did whatever she wanted to do. Bruce Springsteen is another artist. James Taylor. Stevie Wonder – he can’t see but he can play instruments. Those are artists that I’m attracted to. One artist that always put me on point was Gerald Levert. When I first met Gerald, he said, “Tony, do you. Always be yourself. Don’t ever let anybody put you in a box.” Every time I ran into him, he always said those words. He let me know that I was unique in what I did. I appreciate that because he didn’t have to tell me that, but he did.

Clayton Perry: With age and experience comes wisdom.  Unfortunately, few “old school” crooners have survived in the contemporary music landscape and, unfortunately, the integrity of the R&B genre has been compromised.  Many new artists feel that they have to stray from the more classic elements of R&B, so they can incorporate hip-hop elements.  I’m glad to hear that Levert told you, “Do you.” It’s much-needed, and I wish more artists did the same.  When I heard “Part the Waves,” it was a breath of fresh air.

Tony Rich: The courage and creativity is just gone. When I started doing interviews for this record, one of the first questions from the radio people was, “How many features do you have in your record?” I said, “I don’t have features on there. I don’t do features.” They said, “Why not?” I had to educate them. I said there are two different things: collaboration and features. A feature is when a song is created for an artist and they say, “Who can we put on this record so we can get more radio airplay, so we can be more hip?” That’s a feature. A collaboration is two artists saying, “Hey, let’s get together, man, and do something.” Some artists today, they do a compilation record but you just give your name and your image and when you open it up, it’s all features. That’s a compilation; that’s all it’s been called through the years. So how can one say it’s their album if they have a different artist on every record? My work is not made up with that because my records are inspired from real-life experience. If you can’t make it hot all by yourself, then what are you doing it for? Collaboration, I think you should do it from time to time and it should be based on the fact that you have mutual respect for each other when you make a record together. But just to have a feature, I’m not into that. That’s not me.

Clayton Perry: What’s your opinion of the current R&B landscape?

Tony Rich: I think there are artists that make contributions that basically inspire the evolution of music. Then there are others that are current. They write for today. The artists that write for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow are artists that contribute to the evolution of music.

Clayton Perry: Looking back, what do you consider to be your greatest contribution to R&B? Is there a particular contribution that you think will stand the test of time?

Tony Rich: I’m just being true to who I am. I’ve stayed true to myself and I have always put out material that express what I’m feeling, how I’m feeling it, in my own unique way without following anybody else’s lead or trend. Music is influential. It doesn’t matter how much you write your own stuff. If you sit around listening to the radio, you’re going to be influenced by what’s on the radio. When I’m making a record, I isolate myself, just for the respect of being focused. I can then continue to contribute to the evolution of music. That’s how “Part the Waves” came out. I knew it didn’t sound like anything on the radio. So now, it’s playing on the radio. Now, it does sound like something that would be on the radio. I didn’t think “Part the Waves” would be one of the radio singles because it’s not my job to think that way. I always say I’m just going to make a record. There are other people that are experts in saying “Hey, let’s go with this one.” That’s my contribution and I think every artist can ensure their contribution by being who you are. Be you. It’s not set up that everybody in the world will like your music. Our job is to be who we are so we can be a part of the variety.

Clayton Perry: As you promoted your fifth album, Exist, you noted that you have finally gotten to a point in your life where you learned to “exist.” What was the defining moment where you said, “Forget what I thought I knew. This is the path for me to take?”

Tony Rich: What’s pivotal for me is that I started to notice that I wasn’t focused on the music when I first started out. I was so happy. I was just doing what I want to do. This is my thing, my purpose. All of a sudden, it wasn’t about the focus of the music anymore. The focus was the mortgage, car note, the household, dealing with people that love you, were needy of you or trying to take advantage of you. It was all this madness. My aunt said to me, “Tony, I just don’t know how you do it. There is so much stuff that you have to deal with. You need to simplify your life.” It resonated with me because I’ve always liked the idea of living simple. I’ve never been excessive with anything. I never had three or four cars or walking around with a $50,000 watch – none of that stuff. It didn’t appeal to me like that. It got to a point where it was so much. I was giving out so much. At one point, I wasn’t even thinking of myself. It definitely got crazy. I heard my aunt in my ears, “Simplify your life. Simplify your life.” So I did put my life on that path: just simplified things and cut away the things that were not necessary so I could then be in a position to focus on simple things. The simple things were always the things that brought me peace. That was a couple of years ago. I was able to focus on the music and make a great record.

Clayton Perry: In one of the press releases for Exist, you noted that people have to have a test before they can have a testimony. What do you consider to be the ultimate test in your life or career? And what particular testimony do you wish to share with the world?

Tony Rich: When I was 17 years old, I went through a few years of depression because my father died. I had a hard time grasping the fact that I could not get him on the phone anymore. The darkest days aside from that would be during the days when people were not hearing from me, knowing I had this music that I wanted to share and I couldn’t get it out. That was a dark time. When you look at the side of me being a GRAMMY winner, having a fan base, having sold records, toured all over the world, having a point where my name is mentioned to other artists with respect – you have all of that and at the same time, you’re like humanly invisible. When people don’t see you, they tend to think you’re not there really. It’s that “out of sight, out of mind” thing. Those were all elements that definitely bothered me, but in that time when you really, really want to share your expression and you don’t have the proper way of doing it, it leads to a lot of things. That’s how the title of this record, Exist, came about. I heard all kinds of rumors. I heard rumors that I was dead. When people don’t see you, they think of crazy stuff. Once I came upon making the record, I got to reflect on all these things that I had learned in this period of time. I reflected on when I first got in the business. I was 21. I had a lot of potential in regards to what I could do musically, creatively. I was only responsible for feeding myself. Over a period of time, you have more responsibility. I had a wife at the time and my children, my father, my brother. I went from not being able to take care of myself to taking care of a few houses. I went from not having a car to having one or two cars for myself. Also buying a car for my mother, contributing to her life or whoever else that was there that needed help. I think the time when you sell your soul is when you find yourself having to do these things that you love to do and you’re doing it to pay the mortgage or pay the car loan. At first you did it because you loved to do it; it was for the expression. I didn’t do it for myself. I make records to share with people. As long as you keep that in perspective, you’ll be okay. When you get to a point where you’re on the stage performing because you have to make the mortgage – it’s not supposed to be that way. It only truly gets that way when you start acquiring things. The next thing you know, your lifestyle’s complicated. I started to feel like it got to point where it wasn’t fun anymore because I was trying to figure out the right business situation. You got to weed out the snakes to see who’s really trying to trick you. You have to understand the music business, knowing that when you look at it, it was never designed for the artist to benefit fully. It was really designed for a record label to benefit. But when you look at all the infinite possibilities of change that can occur within the structure of business, that’s when I said, “Okay, I can make this work for me.”

Clayton Perry: I see. So how did you find your way to Hidden Beach?

Tony Rich: Well, I’ve known Steve McKeever for several years. I did my research on Hidden Beach – what kind of artists they have, how they’re set up, how they’re structured. What they’re striving to provide for us as artists and, ultimately, providing for the public is they are really big on allowing artists to be who they are. Like, “Come as you are,” literally. They’re job is to direct every resource that will help you get your music to where it can be. I remember when I got to the second album on LaFace, their attention and resources were not being focused. Then I had a few situations with independents. One was run properly but they didn’t apply their funding and marketing ideas because they had a misconception of what they thought they needed to do. Then I had this last one before this record who had money but was afraid to really apply resources. So that’s how I made my way to Hidden Beach. When I talked to Steve, I knew what kind of music and artist he was looking for – real artists, real music. This time it’s going to be a perfect fit with Hidden Beach because of the way I was, what I wanted to do, what I wanted to achieve. All independents have the flexibility to be more creative in their marketing ideas and their promotional ideas. When it comes to signing, they sign who they want and not be pressured by, “Oh, we need to sign this guy because we need to have this type of artist because the other label doesn’t have that.” Don’t go to a label that’s not going to get it. Go to someone who specializes in eclectic things, things that are different. I’m excited about my relationship with Hidden Beach. It’s going to be a true partnership. It’s not a thing where I’m just a signed artist.

Clayton Perry: When you were on LaFace, were there any kind of marketing issues that came up with Babyface’s solo releases, since you have a similar vibe?

Tony Rich: It’s funny. I’ve had to deal with this issue plenty of times [laughing]. Kenny and I don’t have a similar vibe. We have a similar tone of voice. Our approach to music is totally different. Kenny always had an authentic, classic R&B approach. He’s really one of the great songwriters. There were different combinations of things. People said “Nobody Knows” was written by me and Babyface recorded it. Some said Babyface wrote the song and produced it on me. Here’s what happened. “Nobody Knows” was written in 1992. “When Can I See You” came out in 1993. What it was is that “Nobody Knows” and “When Can I See You” sound alike. What happened was that record came out and this record came out and I was on LaFace. I never met Kenny at that point. I spoke to him on the phone once. People assumed that I was on the label so Kenny must be the producer…no, no, no. “Nobody Knows” was written in 1992, written by my brother Joe Rich and one of his songwriter/partners, Don DuBose. The first time I heard the demo of the song with Don doing the demo was in 1993. I told my brother Joe, “When I get to do my record, I’m going to do the song,” because I thought it’d be a great song. I had one song on the Boyz II Men record. They went 13 times platinum. I made money. So I figured “Man, you play on my record. We sell a million records and you make some money by the song being on the record. That’ll be cool.” That’s how it was. I didn’t know it was going to be a single. I produced the song. My brother played keys on it. I played keys on it. I had my guy come in play acoustic guitar. L.A. Reid comes in to hear the song “This is a smash.” Six months before that he didn’t think it was a smash because of the difference in production. So I filled all the background. It says Tony Rich, written by Joe Rich/Don DuBose, instruments Tony Rich/Joe Rich, all background vocals, lead vocals. Where can you gather in your mind that Babyface had anything to do with that record? I did understand this: okay I’m on LaFace, same second tenor vocal range, both of those songs had acoustic guitar in it – that’s where it came from. And it’s okay. I was signed at LaFace which was co-owned by L.A. Reid and Babyface but I’ve never had the pleasure of working with Kenny. Kenny and I talked about it one time but we never got a chance to. We didn’t get that opportunity. There’s always been a mutual respect but we didn’t do it. When I came to LaFace it was right when Kenny and L.A. became official songwriters and producers. They started working together in that respect. I came in right in the middle of that flip. It’s crazy but at the same time, when L.A. and I started working together, that’s when Kenny started developing Jon B. It’s funny. Each one of them had their new young protégés they’re working on.

Clayton Perry: Well, it goes without saying that you’re one of R&B’s few living legends. What personal traits do you think allowed you to effectively navigate the ever-changing musical landscape?

Tony Rich: I think the key to my longevity was simple: I just kept making records. I’ve had a couple of business deals that were not good and did not provide the proper funding and system/structure to get the record through to the mainstream audience. But when I figured out what that was, I kept making music. I still have fans out there. I may not be reaching the numbers like my first record, but it’s still out there. I had what you call promotional success on my first record with an even blend of critical acclaim. When my next record came out, it wasn’t a commercial success like my first record but it had the critical acclaim. Then my third record had some serious critical acclaim. So, the one thing that I had was my integrity about my music. It gave me longevity. When I found the right business structure, the right label to really, really push and put serious effort behind putting a record, I always knew that I never made crap music. As long as I keep making quality products, the business structure will bring it all about. It happened with Stevie Wonder years ago. Songs In The Key Of Life – people thought that was a weird record, and now it’s considered a classic. My job being an artist is to make great art that expresses who I am. Be true to that, not following trends, not pressured to do this because this is what’s going on. I’ve always felt confident that when I listen to my records, I wouldn’t expect to hear this on the radio. It is my job as an artist to make quality products.

Clayton Perry: In 2006, you collaborated on a gospel recording entitled A New Understanding of Peace, which was released by your aunt, Sheila Evans.  The intention, as mentioned in the introduction, was to bring peace to listeners through the Word of God.  What life events led you to work on the project?

Tony Rich: It’s a really interesting project. One of our older aunts was in the hospital and Aunt Sheila went to visit her in her last days. In the room, they had the TV on and it was set to a soap opera. After that, she said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if hospital patients had a feed that they can listen to that’s peaceful and tranquil and allows them to relax at the same time? I can speak some good words to hear in your final hours.” She asked me to do the score. I said, “Sure, you’re my aunt. Yes, I’ll do the score.” So I did the score for her.

Clayton Perry: How has your understanding of peace change over the years? Is there a particular Biblical or religious or philosophical message that guides your life?

Tony Rich: My concept of peace has evolved. It’s interesting because the people around me always say “You know, you’re one cool joker. You don’t seem to be stressed about nothing.” I just keep it calm. I don’t fret. I don’t believe in stressing my body and stressing my mind to the point where I’m feeling crazy. After experiencing certain things and removing expectations on people – I don’t have expectations because if you have, you will be disappointed. I came to accept the fact that I should only have great expectations on any level of myself. That’s it. I realized everything circles back to me. My whole concept of peace is I’m always in position to take the peaceful path, so every opportunity that I get, that’s the path that I’m going to choose. Simple as that.

Clayton Perry: On Exist, you use the water element quite a bit. What does the element of water mean to you?

Tony Rich: I tend to ask people questions like, “If you were an element, what would you be?” Of course, this question was posed back to me. This was before I became aware that Scorpio was the water symbol. I would always say, “You know what, I’d be water.” The reason is you can’t hold water back. You can contain it for a period of time but it’s going to make its way through. When you look at tunnels that run underwater, there’s a constant maintenance that’s going on where they’re constantly pumping water out. Humans can’t keep water out, locks, none of that. Anywhere you look at mountains, boulders, rocks or whatever, they’re all shaped by water. Water cleans, water purifies. It’s used in almost everything to make everything. If you look at the earth being made mostly of water. If you look at the human body, mostly we’re made of water. It’s amazing. When I encapsulate it all, water is fluid. It moves freely, wherever it wants to, period.

Clayton Perry: At the time of your birth, your name was Antonio Jeffries. At what point did you become Tony Rich? What served as inspiration for the name?

Tony Rich: Yeah, the name story is a really good one. My mother’s maiden name is Richards. She and my father married; his last name is Jeffries but my mother never changed her name. So me and my brothers, we all grew up with Richards. I grew up as Antonio Richards. My friends used to always cut up my name like Tony Richards. I was called that for awhile. Then a friend who chopped it down and started calling me Tony Rich. That’s how the name came about. When I got married the first time, I actually decided to change my last name to Jeffries because my father died by that time – well, years before that. On my father’s side, I had one aunt who still had the last name Jeffries. I have one cousin who’s married so now she has the last name of her husband. So as far as I knew, there was only one Jeffries left. I changed my last name to Jeffries before I got married. Then it became three Jeffries – the woman I was married to at the time, my aunt and myself. Once I had my children, there was a whole bunch of Jeffries [laughing]. That’s why I changed my name.

Clayton Perry: Oh, wow! [laughing] Now that you’ve said that, I recall the letter you wrote to your father inside the album booklet for Words. It alluded to the fact that he will live through you, with you being his presence on earth.

Tony Rich: Some people, when they would look at me and my brother Joe, we look like our father. This is amazing because we are the only proof that he existed on this planet. My kids don’t know my father. They never met him. I show them a picture, they don’t know who that is. Me and my two brothers, we are the ones that are living proof that my father existed because we are a part of him. That’s a very, very important thing. My father was a musician/singer, too. He just never did anything that got to a significant level where people noticed it. I don’t think that was his desire to be that. He was also a painter. I do, too. It’s my job as his son to be ten times better. I got to tell my own son, “Listen, you are going to be better than me. I’m great, but you’re going to be greater than me. The reason why you’re going to be greater than me is because I’m going to help you.” That’s our purpose; that’s what we’re supposed to do. I told my son, I told my daughter, “When you’re older I’m still going to be helping you. That’s my job. I’m supposed to get out there and do what I need to do to create more for you, not so you can stick around and take care of me.”

Clayton Perry: As a father, with two daughters and a son, how has fatherhood impacted you, your music and the way you go about handling your career?

Tony Rich: Fatherhood is interesting. My kids, they see me and I’m an interesting character for them. It’s an interesting role, because I don’t work a regular job. I play an instrument. When I had my first child, my daughter, I was inspired. Right at that moment, I said, “Wow. I’m responsible for this kid, contributing to the life of another human being.” It was different than when I got married. It’s interesting to see traces of yourself in someone else. That’s an amazing thing. It is inspiring. The first song that I wrote was inspired by my daughter. I love it. I think it’s a cool thing.

Clayton Perry: Speaking of inspiration, what is the inspiration behind the T-shaped figure that you have?  It reminds me of Prince’s symbol, but it’s firmly linked to your identity. Whenever you see it, you definitely think Tony Rich. What’s the meaning of the symbol?

Tony Rich: It’s funny, the story about that symbol. I remember when I did the symbol. I had mine made with diamonds in a necklace as a symbol. Prince had a symbol but he never had diamonds in his. We were in the elevator in Memphis, Tennessee, hanging out with him there. When he saw my T, he said, “Wow, you got a symbol, too. You got diamonds in yours.” The next time I saw Prince, he had diamonds in his. It was cool. When he saw my symbol, he had a true appreciation for it. My symbol’s evolved because being an artist, I always saw it as an extension. When you look at it, it’s a straight line and the top of it was this figure. What I did over a couple of years was mess with it, move it around, shape it. Then I created another symbol. I have like three or four that I’ve created. It became fun because it was a part of my expression. In all of my paintings, instead of signing my name, I have my symbol incorporated in it. Not just scratched on there like a signature but in the actual painting. I started incorporating it in my second album, Birdseye, and its energy helps me stay connected. I believe firmly that everybody should have some type of symbol. When you create your own symbol, it’s something that came out of your mind.

For more information on Tony Rich, visit his official website: http://www.whereistonyrich.com/

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