By Kristen Rafferty
Dionne Farris did not fall out of the spotlight. She simply chose to step into a different one.
After her stellar first album, Wild Seed Wild Flower, and the hit single “I Know,” the Grammy-nominated R&B artist has been noticeably M.I.A. from the music scene for a decade. In a recent phone interview with an upstate New York SUNY Plattsburgh journalism class, Farris discussed her life and music as they have changed since that first blowout of stardom.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” Farris laughs as she begins the interview.
Getting her start as the backup vocalist for “Arrested Development,” and working with American Idol super judge Randy Jackson on her first album, Farris quickly learned the most important part about being in the music business.
“If you want something, you have to tell them straight out,” she says. “That initial experience with Arrested Development showed me the possibilities of what I could achieve.”
Her first album, Farris says, was pure bliss. Released in 1995, ten out of 12 songs on it were on Farris’s demo record, a nearly-unheard of achievement these days, when most artists are recognized for one or two of their own songs and then made to record other people’s music. Her hit single “I Know” hit number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for a Grammy.
“I remember that song was so popular,” says amateur rapper David Smith, of NYC. “Believe it or not, the lyrical style in that song as well as a lot of her other songs inspires me with the lyrics I use in my own songs today.”
“All I remember about that song was its popular beat,” agrees Alex Silver, a drummer who currently resides just outside of the New York scene. “The vocals mixed so well with that constant percussion beat, and it was definitely one of those songs that defined the decade.”
After the billowing success, everyone expected the R&B musician with the soulfully soothing voice to become a legend in the music industry. But Farris was not to release her next full album until after the millennium—this time, under her own label, on her own terms.
“When you stop and look at the paperwork,” Farris explains, “you realize that it’s all about money for other people at the record labels. Music used to enlighten people about things in the world. Now you’re just getting what the industry pushes on you, and people are dissatisfied.”
She didn’t want to be a part of it. After taking a stand against the increasingly superficial marketing schemes of record labels, Farris turned to online forums like MySpace and Facebook in order to continue creating music in her own style. She recently launched her own label, Free and Clear, online, dedicated to promoting honesty and creativity in the artist.
“Online forums like MySpace level the playing field,” Farris says. “You need promotion and marketing for record labels, but you also need creativity and something that sets you apart from the crowd.” Farris insists on substance and value in all her music, declaring that that is the best of what she can give people, the best way to touch them with her music.
“I like things like Facebook and Twitter because they create relationships,” she says, “which is so important to me.”
Indeed. In a recent Twitter post, Farris replied to a random tweet from a Maryland college student that said “Thanks, Shazam app, that annoying song I always hear in stores is "I Know" by Dionne Farris. It sucks.”
Taking an interest in her fans—or critics, in this case—Farris responded very personally, tweeting a cheerful reply.
“Sorry to hear you don't like the song! Maybe I'll make something you will like! All my best! Dionne Farris.”
Farris’s MySpace page is similarly personal, headlined by the personal message “Back to the Beginning,” which may reference her newfound confidence as an independent musician.
“Does the title of your new record label have something to do with your past experience with misunderstandings and record labels?” asks a student from the journalism class.
“Ding Ding Ding. You got it,” Farris replies simply. “I want everyone who comes to Free and Clear records to get the benefit of the experience and blessing of their given talent.”
Farris’s struggle to create her own niche in the music industry and her eventual distancing from labels in the name of truth is the drive behind her new album, On Top of the World. An autobiographical collection of self-reflective songs, Farris described the recording process best by sharing her new motto for the album and all future endeavors.
“Your limit is your imagination,” she says. In her excitement, Farris even gave an a cappella preview of the title song to her interviewers via the Skype audio track.
Fast-paced and rhythmic, the thirty-second demo of “On Top of the World” is full of excitement, gratification. It’s a feel-good song for a really great day, a walking-down-the-sidewalk-I-feel-like-dancing song that soulfully begs you to sing along to the smooth-moving beats of Farris’s lyrics. In a pure, piercing voice that registered strong and clear over the literal miles of computer transference, Farris fearlessly proclaimed the chorus tag line, “How good of you to call when I’m on top of the world.”
Her enthusiasm is genuine, her passion overwhelming. “I’m definitely doing what I’m supposed to do,” Farris says. With an upcoming album, her own record label, and success that transcends her initial debut in 1995 to find her an established, independent musician of today, Farris’s smile is almost visible in her words.
“The one thing I can say at the end of the day to do no matter what is try to be consistent. There has always been, and will always be, a beautiful consistency in music for me.”
For another great story about Dionne Farris, click here: “Farris Paved Way for Alternative Black Artists”
Photo: Courtesy of Dionne Farris