As a graduate of Cleveland School of the Arts, it should come as no surprise that Conya Doss has found a way to utilize her craft in nontraditional ways. A full-time teacher by day, and a critically-acclaimed singer by night, she has managed to balance the worlds of academia and entertainment with relative ease. Even so, living life as an independent artist has had it fair share of ups-and-downs.
Since 2002, Conya Doss has slowly and steadily built a dedicated fan base, who patiently await every new release. And with the announcement of Blü Transition, her fifth studio album, the excitement reached record levels. In September 2010, “What We Gone Do” made waves in the online community for breaking Lalah Hathaway’s digital download record on Soultracks, which honored Doss as “Female Vocalist of the Year” in 2008.
In the midst of a promotional campaign for Blü Transition, Conya Doss managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the integration of art in education, the journey to finding her “natural” voice, and the challenges of motherhood.
Several years ago, I was introduced to your music through a devoted fan in Atlanta. How much of a struggle was it in the early years for you to branch out and get your name outside of the Cleveland area?
Well, you know, it’s pretty ironic because especially when the first record came out, I was blessed to have a lot of resources from all over who really believed in the project and were willing to get my name out there. But unfortunately, with that first project, I had all the press that anybody could ever want, and everything was done backwards. So for me that was wonderful, but at the same time I was going through a situation with the company, and I actually had stopped supporting that record a month after it was released. It came out, I believe, in August and in September I was pretty much done. So it was really crazy, because I put a lot of time and passion into that project. But it opened some other doors. So from that aspect, it wasn’t really a struggle. I think I felt the real struggle when I came out with the record after that, when I was trying to do it independently. Not to get too long-winded, but Tony Nicholas, who actually produced the first record, was out there in the mainstream and traveled all over the place. I was able to reap benefits as well from people who are in Cleveland. Now, they’re trying to do it, but sometimes they’re fly-by-night. That’s the sad thing about Cleveland is we don’t have a lot of outlets that showcase certain types of music. Put it that way.
Before launching your singing career, you were – and continue to be – a full-time educator within Cleveland’s public school system. And coincidentally, your second career blossomed and stemmed from your first. At what point did you find yourself saying: “I’m really going to take the initiative to go beyond my nine to five, and share my music with the world”? Very few people are willing to try something new – especially when they already have a secure option in place.
Well, it kind of just happened that way. I don’t know if I unconsciously did it. And I think sometimes over the years, I’ve gotten in my own way with the teaching because I just said, “Oh, I can do both.” I do really enjoy both. Music is my first passion, and I’ve been able to be blessed to be able to do things musically, as far as travel, and get my records out there, as well as teach. However, I don’t know—and I guess I may never know—how much I’ve been in my own way with not just going, full-fledged, out on a limb, saying: “Hey, let me leave this nine to five alone and just strictly go for it.” Everything is a gamble.
As a fellow educator, one of my biggest concerns with contemporary music is that a lot of artists are not cognizant of how their music filters into minds of the younger population. Although it is hard to be completely certain, as far as how they are internalizing it, we know that they are absorbing what they hear and see.
Since you are in the rare position of being an artist and an educator that works with youth, talk about that interplay.
It is really weird because I do incorporate [being an entertainer with teaching], but I use it to pull out their creativity. I always do vocal warm-ups with them. And when it comes to a lot of the literature lessons, with the reluctant readers and writers I try to tap into their creative side. I have one kid that’s amazing. He’s a poet and he just doesn’t know it. Also, I have a great team that I work with at the school. With social studies, for example, they were doing something about the colonies, and each kid had a project. I helped them with the music and came up with little themes and things like that. I could go on and on. It’s just so much. But, yeah, it’s done all the time.
Have you had any experiences in which a child that you have taught came back five, six, seven, or how many years later, in order to tell you they discovered your music on their own terms?
Oh yeah, it’s just really weird. I’ve gotten emails from kids that I taught in fifth grade. When I was teaching in sixth grade, we had like thirteen and fourteen-year- olds, and I wasn’t really that much older than them. I’m like twenty-one coming out of school and they’re like, We’re coming to your show. Sometimes I run into them and it’s like, “Did I go to school with you or did I teach you?” That’s funny. When I started, I was teaching just sixth grade. I now teach Special Education where the kids are only like a few levels below the grade level. It’s funny to run into those kids, and it’s really always a blessing to see that they’re doing well, because there are so many kids that are in that program that give up when they get to high school.
I think it would be interesting to see that growth and development, too! When you look at your own voice, and how you have developed your craft over the years, what have you discovered as you stepped outside of the “neo-soul” box?
Before, I was always trying to be a perfectionist. “Oh, I’ve got to get this riff right. I need to go back because I wasn’t really feeling that.” And now I’m at a point—and even that transcended through the live performances—it’s like this is me. People don’t want to hear perfection all the time. They want to hear imperfections. They want to hear you: raw and stripped-down. And it took a minute for me to get that. That is something that I didn’t know about myself with the first record. I went to a performing school of arts, and I took vocal lessons. It’s really weird that I always thought that I was singing in my natural. People were always saying: “I love your falsetto, but I would love to hear what you do with your natural.” And I would say: “Well, I am singing my natural.” And then I realized: “No, your speaking voice. That’s your natural.” [laughing] So I’ve been venturing out into that every record, because I had to train myself to sing in my natural. I never sang in my natural all those years. So up to Blü Transition, I’m singing more using my natural voice versus my head voice. But that’s what they told me, so I was a little upset. I felt like I was not educated.
As you became more raw in your presentation, your music still has not lost any of its “soul.” Although it is hard to quantify or qualify a singer’s “soulfulness,” how do you define soul, and what do you think makes your music soulful?
I think soulful is basically when you can feel it. I mean, when you hear something and you’re telling a story, and you can sometimes shed some tears, that’s to me coming from the soul. Not even thinking about it. Not like: “Oh, am I going to get this riff right?” You’re just singing, and then you go back to it, and it’s like you were in the zone. You’re outside of yourself, so to speak. To me, that’s what singing from the soul is. Not worrying about if your voice cracks. If it takes you back to where you’re thinking about something that really tests you to where you start crying while you’re in a booth, to me that’s soul. You’re just pouring out your soul.
The second single from your current album, “All In You,” is my favorite song on Blü Transition. In my opinion, that is the most “soulful” song on the album. When you think about that song, does it take you to a certain place?
That’s one of my favorites, too. Actually, when I started the first outline for “All In You,” it was just talking about relationships and not necessarily between males and females, or people in an intimate relationship. My theory is that we sometimes go out of our way to embrace people, or do great things for people that really don’t care about us. And when people that are going to love us unconditionally are right in front of us, then it registers: “Wow, everything I need is right here, is right in front of me.” That was one element. I’m a Gemini, so I’m always pulling them everywhere. And then the other thing is about self-love. I was just envisioning talking about myself. I don’t need to seek validation from other people. But the alternate meaning behind that song and what comes to mind consistently is my infant that I just had a few months back. When I sing that song, he’s the first person that comes to my mind.
Speaking of the baby, how has motherhood affected your decision-making and the future of your dual-career?
Well, I definitely work smarter – not harder! [laughing] I’m forced to do that because with the teaching, I was always taking work home. We’re not talking about just on the weekends. It was every day for hours. And I can’t do it anymore. I’m still committed to my work, but now I’m utilizing the time and what doesn’t get done is just not going to get done with the music. I have to make sure that he’s taken care of first. He comes first at this point. It is what it is. I’ve been forced into it, and I’m definitely embracing it, but it’s all-new for me. I’m so used to just being me doing what I want to do, and it’s not that way any more. So it’s definitely a change, an experience and a wow, is all I can say.
Since you are always around kids, I thought it would be fun to relate your song “Losing Game” to a popular board game.
Oh, God! [laughing] Wow, wow, wow! [laughing continues] Love is like Monopoly! I don’t like Monopoly due to the fact that I can never figure out that game. Seriously. And everybody is like it’s so easy. I can never start that game and finish it. It’s just frustrating. You start something and it’s like it goes around and then you lose money. It’s like you can’t win for losing, so to speak. And sometimes relationships can be like that, in some instances, depending on where you are in your relationship.
Love can definitely take you to the bank! [laughing]
Over the past few years, you have toured extensively with Yahzarah and Sy Smith. What insight can you give on the camaraderie that the three of you have developed as independent artists?
I think we all have something to offer each other. When we did the Sisters of Soul Summer, we were saying: “We’ve got to take it to other places besides New York, D.C. and Maryland.” It was just refreshing to embrace each other’s music, to watch each other perform, and share little pointers and things like that. It’s always just a great vibe. We have great camaraderie and I think it needs to be done more often across the board. We don’t talk everyday, but when we talk, it’s like we don’t miss a beat.
During this past GRAMMY cycle, several independent acts, like Eric Roberson and The Foreign Exchange, received GRAMMY love for the first time. When you look into your crystal ball and look at the future of the contemporary music landscape, what type of guerrilla tactics do you see independent artists using to get their music played in mainstream arenas?
When I see Eric, it’s like we’re trying to make history; even with the GRAMMYs. Those things are great, but you still don’t need any of that for validation. However, I think that it’s necessary for our music to be recognized, and we have to just continue doing what we’re doing. We’re doing things our own way. It is a lot harder. I mean, we all can tell you some stories as far as being independent artists. It’s a lot of work and it is very strenuous. But it’s just we have to go for it.
How do you feel when your music is labeled as “neo-soul”?
I had an issue with the whole neo soul term, because when I first came out with the first record, it was almost cliché, and I think it was a tool that was used by the majors because it was the in thing at that time. But it’s like we took it and made it something totally different. So I don’t get offended when they say it. I still don’t think there’s anything new about soul. It’s just like a rebirth or paying tribute to the music that came before us. I think that we’re just paving the way by doing what we’re doing. We’re slowly getting the recognition, because they’re forced to. There’s a slot for this. People are really gravitating toward the kind of music that we do. There is an audience for it. You know how people like to jump on the bandwagon, and that’s all they do. So I think that there is no other choice. They have to recognize it, and we have to get involved. And Yahzarah is the one hitting me to become a member of the Academy. She was like, “We have these records.” I didn’t know until a few years ago that we could vote for independent artists. We had records out and were receiving notoriety that we could become members.
That is really interesting.
And then we have to support people, because I know a lot of major companies, when they want somebody to win that GRAMMY they’re going to take it away from their other artists that may not be on the marquee, so to speak, and they’re going to give those votes to them. So we have to create camaraderie, and I think that’s what’s happening.
What do you consider to be the best piece of advice that you could share with younger, up-and-coming independent acts?
I always tell any indie artist, even the artists that I’m working with that sing backup for me and are working on their own projects, you have to have a solid foundation in education. Do something. Get a degree or do a trade, because that way you’re not at the mercy of other people. I’ve seen so many artists where they’re so dependent on the companies or the managers to pay their rent. They’re totally clueless about anything. It’s like they don’t have a mouthpiece. It’s like they can’t even say boo without the manager having to speak for them. You have to be more on the business side of it. I encourage anybody to pick up a book and learn the business. I’m still learning, but those are little things, even at the independent level. People just think that being independent means, Oh, let me go in the studio and record. It’s not that easy. You still have to go through almost the same channels as if you were with a major.
When you look back over your career, what lesson did you learn the hard way?
The first record taught me a lot. I was in all these magazines, and my music was on the radio, and people were selling me a lot of pipe dreams. People were trying set me up with CEOs, take a leave of absence from work, and find out how much I made, so that they could compensate me for it. Please, I didn’t get one red cent from that record. I didn’t even get the advance that was contractually obligated to me. They were like: “Oh, you will get your money before the record is released.” That didn’t happen, so I was like: “I am not about to quit my job or take a leave or do anything.” That’s when I knew: if you have something in your hand and it’s tangible, then you can take a chance, but if it’s not, you don’t even count it.
For more information on Conya Doss, visit her official website: http://www.conyadoss.com/