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Interview: Avant – Singer and Songwriter

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In the world of R&B, Avant has turned out to be one of the genre's leading "new school" balladeers. The key to his success: consistency.
Staying true to the traditional elements of R&B, Avant has underpinned his repertoire with songs that speak to the universal human experience. It is no wonder, then, how he racked up a long string of timeless hits that stretch back to My Thoughts, his 2000 debut.

Upon the release of Avant's fifth eponymous album, the singer managed to find time in his busy schedule to settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry, where together they reflected on Christopher Cross, "When it Hurts," and his move to Capitol Records.

In this day and age, few male R&B artists have managed to have longevity in the business, and your current album, Avant, marks your fifth studio album in eight years. What personal or professional characteristics do you feel contributed to your success?

I can honestly say that I love R&B, you know what I'm saying? On my records, I try to stay true to the format, because the truth of the matter is some musicians tend to get carried away. You can have a wonderful, banging hip hop album – I'm a hip hop fan myself, don't get me wrong – but how many recurrent hits do you hear in hip hop, you know what I'm saying?

So I think being true to the game and saying, "Yo, this is the only format for my music." Sometimes, you just need to understand where you are in your life and know what works best for you.

As you move from album to album, how do you balance staying true to what you want to do and pushing the envelope at the same time?

I know what my fans want from me, so it's easy for me, because I can give them the slow jams and the making good love songs. And sometimes, I give them a little flavor, because everybody knows as the world spins, there's change. You always want to be in the now. You want to be what's going on. You want to make sure you continue to know what's happening in this world so you can keep up with everybody. I guess the problem with most artists is they get too deep into trying to do something that's brand new.

People want to see consistency first and then accept whatever else that you bring brand new. So I always try to stay consistent first.

Even though you put out a consistent product, how have you changed internally as an artist?

Well, for starters, I've gotten older. As you get up in age there's a little more to talk about. I wrote "Separated" when I was 17 years old – it came out in 2000, but that song was written when I was 17. From that point to where I'm at now, there's been a lot going on through those years. I got more to talk about. At the end of the day, you have to keep it fresh, especially in the R&B game. You got to find a way to keep people interested in what you're saying. I just try my best to do that all the time to keep it fresh and new.

As you grew older, was there a defining moment or piece of advice that shaped the course of your career?

My uncle – he passed away from cancer a couple of years ago – told me to live one day at a time. He told me I had what it takes to take what they got. I was just listening to him. I've been influenced by him and everything that he did. I just try to be consistent in doing what he asked me to do. When I was five years old, he'd perform all the time. I just want to be him. He was performing all the while in the hood and he never made it big. But when you got that person that influenced you, you just want the have their characteristics, do everything that they do. It's not one moment – it's the way he carried his life, period. 

At what point in your childhood did you become fully aware of your talents and start contemplating, "Okay, this might be for me"?

When I was in eleventh grade, my teacher scared me and said, "You ain't got no application for college or nothing like that. You're not going to be anything." That's when my heart fell for the music thing. In high school, you dream to be a basketball player or a football player, doctor, whatever. I took up drama instead of music. I felt like I had the voice to sing but I wanted to be real onstage. I wanted to feel real so it worked out for me. I tell all the kids nowadays to not waste time. Make sure when you're in school that you get every bit you can out of it.

Over the course of your career, you have talked about love in all of its different stages. What do you consider to be the biggest lesson you learned in the game of love?

Love yourself, honestly. Love is an animal, too. If you let it take control of you, you definitely won't have control. I say to everybody out there – find time for yourself. Even if you're in a relationship and it's beautiful and everything is going well, still find time for yourself. You got to make sure you don't give that person so much of you that you lose contact with yourself. Always love yourself.

I see. Well, you definitely took a different approach in selecting your album title, by flipping convention upside-down. Most artists typically self-title their work when they are releasing their debut album, but you flipped it and let your fifth bear your namesake. What special significance does this album have for you?

I didn't want any gimmicks. I could have made the album "When It Hurts" because that's the first single, but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to give the fans a sense of who I was in 2008. That is the whole nature of it all. That way, I don't have to try to gear everything around one song. I could just give everyone a fresh splash of me. 

In the months leading up to the album's release, you toured in Iraq and performed for the troops. What led you abroad? How was the experience and the overall response?

Going over to Iraq was something I wanted to do. I got tired of looking at CNN and hearing "Yeah, we're over there fighting. Iraq is just crazy." I wanted to go over there and find out what was really going on. Going over there was a big experience for me because I found out that the troops are over there and they're doing the best that they can and trying to be peacemakers between wars that have been going on for 700 years. It's kind of hard to be a peacemaker when that's all they know.

They understand their role. Just being over there and doing a song like "Sailing" and performing and seeing their emotions come out on what they feel about life in general, they'd tell me, "I'm so happy you came over here because you gave us a sense that you guys really care." That was my goal – to just go over there and show them the love because they're doing a tremendous job over there for us.

You're an accomplished songwriter in your own right. What made you decide to cover "Sailing?"

I love that whole sense of writing a ballad that didn't speak of any particular gender. He didn't say nothing about a man or a woman; he was just talking about feeling free. He made everybody understand that sometimes you need space within yourself to know exactly what's going on in your life. 

One of my favorite tracks off of Avant is "Material Things." What was the inspiration or background of that song's concept?

The truth of the matter is "Material Things" is about how women think that we are materialistic. We are to a certain extent. But the truth of the matter is that the materials don't mean nothing if the lady don't see them, you know what I mean?

So the reason for me writing that song is to say, "Yeah, we love Dolce & Gabbana. We love all this ice. You know, everything." But without the woman, it's nothing. If they weren't on earth, I wouldn't care to have it, period. Basically, we did the song for them. That was my point. That woman, she's the biggest piece of material that he needs.

That's what starts everything, what we get our haircut for. If they weren't here, we'd be cool but we wouldn't be without a woman on earth. So I'm just saying materials don't mean that much to me.

Is there a particular song on your album that you feel hits home on a personal level?

"When It Hurts." I wrote that song with my mom and my sisters in mind, because everybody comes back to me with their problems. You know, "Why don't you guys do this? Why don't you guys do that?" I guess that's a record for everybody that's going through some stuff in life – to know that sometimes you got to deal with the pain. You shouldn't be hurting for years. Sometimes it's okay to hurt, but don't hurt for too long. Understand that it just builds you as a person to have you deal with life in general.

I was looking back at your album sales and, after doing a little bit of digging, I found something that really caught me off guard. You have a really big fan base outside the US. Were you ever surprised by the fact that your European sales have exceeded your sales in America?

Yes, it surprised me as well. When I was with Geffen, they weren't really pushing the product up like that. This time I'm going to make that work for us. I think I could have been bigger here and over there. So, right now, I'm changing the regime, so I can get my face out there.

In your travels abroad, was there ever a moment where you were just surprised that they actually knew your stuff?

I went to Amsterdam just to see the people at, like, 3 am. The club was packed. That was a surprise – definitely was. That let me know that people want to hear my voice everywhere. My fans overseas support me and I try my best to get over there and give them exactly what I got.

For more information on Avant, visit his official website.

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About Clayton Perry