Interview: Deborah Cox – Singer and Songwriter

Posted: January 2, 2009 in interview, music
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Deborah Cox

Date of Interview: 01/02/2009

© 2009 Clayton Perry

Between 1998 and 2006, Deborah Cox held the record for the longest-running #1 single on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart: “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here.”  Over the course of 14 weeks, audiences across the globe were captivated by her magnificent vocals, which cemented the Canadian singer into R&B history.  The strength of Cox’s R&B catalog resonated with dance audiences as well, and her repertoire of hits would eventually be catapulted to the top of Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart.  To date, she has garnered nine #1 singles and firmly established herself as a key pioneer in contemporary dance music.

In 2008, Deborah Cox and her husband, Lascelles Stephens created the Deco Recording Group, an independent label that is distributed through Image Entertainment.  The venture’s first release was The Promise, Cox’s fifth studio album, which was released on November 11, 2008. Upon review of The Promise, Deborah Cox managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Clive Davis, The Promise and her definition of love.

Clayton Perry: Although many sources give Clive Davis credit for “discovering” you, we both know that “overnight successes” rarely happen overnight. During your childhood, what life events prepared you for becoming an international star?

Deborah Cox: I’m really thankful for my parents because they made sure I took part in dance classes, music classes and extra stuff outside of school. So that really sparked my interest and allowed me to see that there was another way out as far as thinking about what to do as a career. I always felt I had a gift. I knew at an early age that I wanted to sing but I wasn’t really sure how to navigate, how to go about it, like attending different competitions, talent shows – that kind of thing. One thing led to another and it allowed me to start performing commercials, do commercial jingles, perform with live bands and then it just kind of snowballed from there.

Clayton Perry: Do you recall any emotions or memories when the stars aligned and you and Clive finally met?

Deborah Cox: Yeah, I remember he had a ton of deck tapes on his desk. He had tons of CDs. I just remember a lot of music around him because he was constantly listening for the next new artist or the new hot voice and that kind of thing. For me to be in this intimate meeting with him was a once in a lifetime opportunity because you just don’t stumble upon meeting with such a legend like himself. There was a song on my demo tape called “Where Do We Go from Here” and he loved it. Clive told me that he loved the way the song portrayed my voice and he loved everything about the song and he felt like that was one of the strongest to be on the album.

Clayton Perry: Is there a particular piece of advice that Clive Davis gave you that has really stuck with you over the course of your career?

Deborah Cox: I think because he was such a song person, into the structure of a hit song, over the years of listening and dissecting songs, I developed this knack for hearing good songs by at least the second listening. I know what I like, but his early teaching on how to find the right elements in a song, what are the right elements listening to lyrics, paying attention to not so much production – because he was always the kind of person that was like if you got a great song, the person who wrote the song doesn’t necessarily have to produce it – that opened me up, too. He’s really old school in that sense. Now, you find the people who produce the songs are also the writers. With Clive, it didn’t have to be that way. It could very well have been, “Hey, I found this great song and I want to get such-and-such to produce it.” So those are some of the things that I learned and kept with me throughout my career.

Clayton Perry: After the success of “Things Just Ain’t the Same,” many of your songs found a lot of success in the club circuit. Looking back, how do you feel being regarded as the queen of dance, like Donna Summer, instead of being considered an R&B songstress?

Deborah Cox: I find it flattering to be known as the queen of something, you know? [laughing] I think the dance remixes have definitely been the one thing that has set me apart from the other R&B songstresses. I really pride myself in being known within multiple genres. I think the one thing about the great artists of our time is the diversity they had. When I think of Michael Jackson, when I think of Tina Turner, when I think of Ray Charles, they sang all different styles, all different types of music and it really set them apart from everybody else.

Clayton Perry: I still remember when Akeelah and the Bee first came out. Normally, people walk out during the credits, but “Definition of Love” came on and really grabbed the audience. I’m curious to know how you became connected to that project.

Deborah Cox: I had known Jam and Lewis for the longest time and right around the time of Akeelah and the Bee, we were in the studio writing songs together: myself, Big Jim, Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam. Basically, the director came to them and said, “We’d love an end credit song. Could you come up with something?” So those guys came up with the song and asked me if I would sing it. I jumped at the opportunity once I heard it. It didn’t take much. Anything that those guys write, I’m usually pretty open to it. They played me the song and I fell in love with it. I’m like, “Wow, this is a great, great song.”

Clayton Perry: Yes, it is. Every time I watch the film, your performance always brings tears to my eyes. It’s powerful, so powerful.

Deborah Cox: It really is. It’s beautifully written. The message really spoke to what the movie is about and what the movie meant. So I just went and recorded it. That was our second soundtrack. The first one we did was Hotel Rwanda.

Clayton Perry: “Nobody Cares?”

Deborah Cox: Right.

Clayton Perry: So, how has your definition of love been challenged over the years, or has it at all?

Deborah Cox: I’ve grown to understand what love is. It’s really an action. People often mistake love for being this sort of feeling. It’s not just a feeling, it’s a verb. When you say that you love somebody or you love something, it’s important to express not just your love for them but to actually act on your loving for them. I look for the best in people. I come from a much more positive perspective. I give people the benefit of the doubt until they prove me wrong and do something bad and change my idea of them. Generally, I’m a pretty loving person and I like to show acts of love.

Clayton Perry: After doing a bit of research, I found out your husband, Lascelles Stephens, has writing credits on a few of your songs. How did the two of you begin your professional partnership?

Deborah Cox: Lascelles and I met in the last year of high school and the two of us started writing songs together. That sort of propelled everything because I’d been writing songs before but I didn’t think those little songs really were resonating for some reason. As soon as the two of us started to write our songs together, it was like everything started to really come together. So we continued writing.

Clayton Perry: Out of all the songs that you recorded together, which have special significance?

Deborah Cox: On the first album we did “It Could Have Been You,” which we had a vision for. He was like “You know, I think we should get Dallas Austin or somebody else to produce it because I really want the sound to be consistent.” At that point, we were so open. We were just very, very eager to get our songs heard and get it on the record. As long as it was on the record, it didn’t matter to us who produced it. “I Won’t Give Up” was one of those songs that was written at a time when it was difficult creatively for me because I felt like after coming off of the second album, a lot of people were simply being material and I wasn’t quite getting the shot to come up with my own songs. I had to compromise a bit which kind of worked in my favor. Songs like “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” “We Can’t Be Friends” – those were songs that I had chosen that were presented to me. I felt like, “Okay, I can compromise. I won’t have the opportunity to write as much but at least I know I’ve got these hits.” That was one song that was self-produced on the One Wish album that I think the record company comfortably got the vision for – like a jazzy vibe – and they’re like, “Oh, okay. We get this.”

Clayton Perry: Last year you and Lascelles created Deco Recording Group. As an independent artist, what are the pros and cons of releasing an album on your own terms?

Deborah Cox: You have a lot more control over how many singles, what singles, what videos, how many videos to do. You can control the creative aspect of it much more closely. I think that a con is that it’s constant. It’s a 24/7 kind of a thing, you know? You can’t leave any stone unturned. You got to be out there hustling. You got to micro-manage every aspect of the business. I’m so used to working with many different departments when it comes to putting together a record – packaging, photo shoots, scheduling, itineraries, radio gigs – there are different departments for those kinds of things. When you’re dealing with a much smaller staff, it’s a lot more work.

Clayton Perry: What is it like to work with your husband on a professional level?

Deborah Cox: When we put our minds together, when we’re in sync, a lot of things flow more easily than when we’re separate. When I say separate, I mean when somebody else has their hand in the direction of the steering of the business. For some reason, it doesn’t quite flow as nicely as when two of us come together and come together with our teams to figure out how we’re going to execute whatever the mission is. We’ve worked like this for years now starting off as songwriting partners and doing it to a much more of a business level. He’s managing me as well. Now he’s totally focused on running the label. We have our ups and downs but I think that the most important thing is that we always work it out. Usually our personal relationship is mostly intact. It’s the professional business where we may disagree about certain things. We never really argue unless it’s on a professional level.

Clayton Perry: How did the two of you come up with the company name, Deco Recording Group?

Deborah Cox: I usually come up with the names. It’s just my name.

Clayton Perry: Ah, I see! [laughing] Shortened.

Deborah Cox: Yeah. [laughing]

Clayton Perry: That’s cute! [laughing] The first project from Deco was The Promise, which was released in the midst of your third pregnancy. In fact, you were visibly pregnant in the music video for “Beautiful U R.” From a marketing perspective, how has the promotion differed from the albums of the past, and in what ways did you have to be more creative in promoting awareness of your album?

Deborah Cox: Right now, it’s a really serious transitional time for the record business. We had to try and find ways of staying visible while the whole thing is transitioning and figuring itself out. Once I found out I was pregnant, we put all the photo sessions on the fast track. The video, on the other hand, we couldn’t get done earlier because the scheduling didn’t work out. When it did work out, I didn’t think it would be right to try and hide the pregnancy or anything like that, so we incorporated it. I’m due in February, so I’ve stopped promotion and everything now for the next couple of months. I’ll pick up again once I have the baby and I’m ready to get back out again. The plan right now is to release a new single. “Saying Goodbye” is the next single and then we’ll have the video ready for that, probably March. Then we’ll forge forward with the next single. We will also be bringing “Beautiful U R” stateside, as well. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a straight answer, but we’re really navigating our way through it as we speak, you know.

Clayton Perry: Were your fans surprised to find out that you were pregnant?

Deborah Cox: Yeah, a lot of people were shocked. They were like, “Wow!” It’s funny because you think when you put stuff out there, people would know. But yeah, they’re still surprised. Unless they’ve seen the video, they have no idea.

Clayton Perry: How has motherhood impacted your career?

Deborah Cox: I think motherhood has definitely given me a much deeper perspective on life. Through that, I try to make decisions that I know will not regret. I’ve always been very conscious of the decisions I’ve made with respect to my life and business. Really, the choices I make for the business are going to be predicated upon whether or not I’m going to be able to still have that family time with my kids because that’s important to me. So if I’m doing a film, I got to make sure I can find a way to swing it where I could still see my kids. Same with touring – trying to find a way where I can still be very present in their lives and not leave it to somebody else. I take motherhood very, very seriously.

Clayton Perry: John Legend co-wrote the title track for The Promise. Since you chose to title the album after that track, what special meaning does it have for you on a personal level?

Deborah Cox: When I first heard that song, I think it reflected every single thing that I stand for. When I heard the lyrics – life is so unpredictable, people come, people go – that night when we were recording it, Bernie Mac just passed. There was just a lot going on in the industry at the time. Isaac Hayes had passed. So it had a very big meaning for me as I was recording it. Basically, what it’s saying is nothing in this life is for sure but if you and me can have that one person you can hold on to, that you can cling to, that will be there in your time of need, that’s better than anything else. That’s better than money. I just felt like I’m in that exact same position so I was able to sing it from a very truthful place.

For more information on Deborah Cox, visit her official website: http://www.deborahcox.com/

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