Syleena has been one of the more consistent voices in R&B music over the last decade. Courtesy of her “chapter-style” album chronicles, she’s built a small but devoted core of fans. In this interview I was able to catch up with the Chicago songstress as she explained her label issues, and juggling her career with the newfound responsibilities of being a mother and wife.
When talented singer Syleena Johnson sang on the hit “All Falls Down” with Kanye West, she expected her label Jive to get behind their breakout star and help push her 2005 album Chapter 3: The Flesh to the next level. Instead she found that her label was content to let her career tread water, and was rebuffed in her attempts to maximize her art’s commercial potential through proper promotion.
Tired of the circular bureaucratic justifications and doublespeak, Syleena Johnson successfully negotiated her release to become a fully independent artist. But after starting her new label Aneelys (her name spelled backwards), the headstrong Chicago vocalist found out that independence comes with a high emotional and mental price.
Now just weeks from the release of her fourth full length LP, Johnson reflects on how the trials of motherhood, being a CEO, and navigating the music business helped birth Chapter 4: Labor Pains, due September 2.
Ismael AbduSalaam: You were on Jive for eight years and released three albums with them. What prompted your decision to part ways with them?
Syleena Johnson: I was talking to the vice president, and basically he told me in so many words that they weren’t going to do anything different with my third project then they did with my first and second (albums). It was time for a second single and I was concerned about why there was such a long turnaround.
So we had a conversation about how they do things and that they weren’t going to change. We had an amicable “well I don’t want to waste your money and my time” agreement, and said let’s end it here.
Ismael: You’ve mentioned on some of your press releases that before you had to let others guide your career. Now that you’re independent, what will be different about your musical arrangements and songwriting?
Syleena: The nature of my material, regarding how I go about it, will remain the same. I’ve always had creative control (on previous albums).
Now the business side will be totally different. Obviously we don’t have the finances to push like Jive does, but we have other resources that are going to be a lot more effective. And we’re going to focus more on marketing that we do on recording. In the past Jive distributed the money heavily on recording and (as a result) there was nothing left for marketing. We’re going to flip it this time.
Still the project is at the exact same level (creatively) as if you paid a million dollars for it. There’s so much technology out there now where you don’t have to spend millions to make an album. You can put together a great album for a very low-cost.
Ismael: Of course there’s a lot of work that goes into starting your label…
Syleena: [interrupts] Yes!
Ismael: Explain what you had to go through from getting together a team to building a business model.
Syleena: Getting a team together is very difficult because being a brand new label you don’t have the financial push of a major. Obviously people can’t benefit financially like they would on a major record label. So it’s more about the passion of the person working for the artist as opposed to how much they’re getting paid. You have to find people who are willing to work and passionate about your project.
Then they have to be reliable because they’re still going to be holding down day jobs. They have to be able to balance their job and yours.
Next you can’t finance a bunch of people, so everyone has to wear a lot of hats. I have to as well, and it’s very difficult because I’m the artist and it’s a conflict of interest at times.
I have to negotiate on my behalf when that’s really not my job. But I’m also the label so I have to politic for myself.
I’ve been in authoritative positions before, but never like this. I have to do paperwork and be hands on with everything. So being that I was a recording artist for the past 16 years and had everyone doing these things for me, it’s a big change. Before all I had to do was look pretty, make albums, tour, and maybe lose weight for a photo shoot.
So on top of being the CEO, first artist on the label, add being a wife and mother. [laughs]
Ismael: With all these responsibilities swirling through your mind, are you still able to push all that away when it’s time to go in the studio and be creative?
Syleena: The cool thing about struggle is that is produces excellent material. When I’m in the studio it doesn’t take long because I already have a story based upon what I’m going through. Because of these struggles it’s made the lyrical content of Chapter 4: Labor Pains really good. In different ways it balances out.
Ismael: Explain the significance behind all your albums being titled chapters.
Syleena: I decided to do chapters when I signed with Jive. I felt like as a writer I’m a storyteller, and the best story I can tell would be my own. I knew it would be more real and passionate.
There’s nothing wrong with singing a song someone else wrote, I’ve done it before on all the chapters. But the majority of what I say must come from my story. One thing I can’t do is sing something I don’t feel or have experienced in some form.
I don’t feel reluctant to share myself because I feel that is my purpose. As a celebrity, people are going to find it out one way or another, and I’d rather them hear it from the horse’s mouth. That way, you can’t get it twisted.
Ismael: You’ve worked extensively with R. Kelly on all your previous albums. How have those collaborations helped you as an artist?
Syleena: Working with Robert has taught me a lot. This is a man who does not sleep. I’ve never seen him sleep in the 10 years I’ve known him. From that I’ve learned how to “pay the price.” No matter what the circumstances are, getting the project done. Regardless of how tired you are, going past when you think you can do.
Being in the studio with him really helped my writing skills. Just recently I took Chapter 4 to him and the next single “Shoo Fly” and he thinks it’s going to be the greatest song ever. But he told me to go in and change the bridge because I have this talking part in it. He was trying to explain to me that when you have a hit it should run consecutively from beginning to end because you don’t want to bore the listener.
That’s the kind of lessons I get from him.
Ismael: It’s been 3 years since you’re last album came out. When you look at the landscape of music, do you think there have been any drastic changes or is it still as you left it?
Syleena: It was on the verge of a big change, but now it’s gotten really big. Hip-Hop has started to take on a life of all different things. It’s even expanded past culture and genre. It’s become about dance, clubs, R&B etc. You got rappers singing their own hooks these days. Hip-Hop has taken over because it has so many lifelines, and in a way it overshadows R&B.
Ismael: You were trying to get Kanye for this album? Were you able to get him?
Syleena: [sadly] No. Kanye is way too busy. It’s hard to get a hold of him.
Ismael: You’re new label Aneelys is being distributed through Universal. Even as an independent, the distributor will sometimes try to offer suggestions about what the final product should be. Are you having any of those issues?
Syleena: Oh no. It’s to the point now where I wish they would [laughs]. The deal is basically you are your own label and you’re responsible for everything. They made it very clear all they do is distribute. But they’re supportive and excited. No problems from them.
Ismael: You did a few plays and recently stated you didn’t care for them. Was that because of the structure involved in doing plays or was it issues behind the scenes?
Syleena: I don’t like being a part of a crew, that’s one thing. I also don’t like my creativity being stifled. They wanted me to stick so close the script like a movie. Now if it was theater I could see that. But these little plays I was doing were entertainment. So I hate when they tried to uphold some kind of integrity like they’re Broadway.
The play “Cheaters” (I did) was great: the people, the professionalism, everything. But overall I just don’t like the organized chaos that goes on backstage. I’m not into it but I can’t control it because it’s not my stuff.
Ismael: A few years back right after your divorce someone asked you about love. You stated plainly that you felt you didn’t even know what love really meant. Now in 2008 with a new child and husband, can Syleena Johnson define what love is?
Syleena: I don’t think any of us will ever know for certain until we’re dead, go to heaven and meet God. Only then will we know what true love is.
However, I think I came really close when I saw my child’s face when he came out of my body. The love I have for him is unlike any love I’ve ever experienced. That’s the closet thing I can pinpoint regarding what true love is. I’d do anything for him.
It took my marriage to another level because together we created this dude [laughs]. That’s big! He going to go into the world and do things just like we are. And my husband shares the same obligation I do to our child.
Before I had a child, I didn’t know what love was. Now, I have an idea.