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Interview: Jason Antone – Pop Goes the Dancefloor

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With his current album, Start to Move, singer/songwriter Jason Antone combines his love for pop compositions with funky club productions. He discusses his creative process; being an openly gay artist; and running his own label, Chickie Records. (You can hear the interview in its entirety on BlogTalk Radio.)

Let’s talk about some of your early sonic experiences. You studied music in college, right?

I was a vocal major in college. I also got a degree in Business Management, and I got an MBA too, because I didn’t feel I knew enough.

What did you think about the program you went through at DePaul University?

I liked it. I definitely always wanted to be a vocalist and a singer-songwriter, and because that came so naturally to me, I just felt I needed to feed the business side, just so I knew how to conduct myself. The bottom line is, music is a business. Now I run my own record label, so that stuff was definitely a nice foundation to build on. You either have a business instinct or you don’t. I know what contracts and accounting are. It just gave me confidence. It’s like selling anything. To be a musician, you’re selling your music and your image. You could be selling used cars, but you’re still selling. It’s like that famous widget thing that they would sell in school.

Speaking of that, you’re selling your new single, “Ooh Ooh Ooh,” which is climbing up the Billboard Club Chart. What approach are you taking to getting it out there?

Any one that works! [laughs] It’s the first single that I’m promoting as a dance single. I released “To The Limit” off my album last June with a big push, too. This was my third single on the dance charts, but it’s a little different taking a pop song and making it a little more dance-friendly. It was interesting — with respect to the vocals — commissioning remixes and getting different sounds out of it. It’s the most diverse package I’ve ever had.

There are a lot of mixes of it.

Yes, and they just fit different genres and different clubs. I wanted to do more of a pop artist approach instead of strictly club. Sometimes you’re in and out of the club and you don’t even know who it is. I always put my image first and think of the video and the song, and how this can relate to my fans. There are a lot of thoughts that go through that part, and formatting myself to be club-friendly, as well.

When I first heard the song on Start To Move last year, it was the standout for me, because it has a classic 80’s feel to it — something that you could almost hear making it into Madonna’s catalog. You also mentioned “To The Limit.” That was a different sound for you: one which earned you a lot of attention by way of MTV’s Logo airing the video quite regularly.

It was a little dark and deep. I was going through some shit and it spilled over into my visual display of the song. With “Ooh Ooh Ooh,” I wanted to write a song and make a video that was total escapism and very easy to sing along to. It’s got a good beat and fun lyrics; it can cross over into different cultures and hit some European markets and the United States. Everyone knows “Ooh Ooh Ooh.” You can translate into any language.

The song’s lyrics have the power of suggestion. Listeners know what you’re talking about when you sing, “I wanna reach the top. Feel my heart, gonna pop,” but it’s not putting it out there graphically. It leaves something to the imagination.

It’s open to interpretation. It could mean something to you and something totally different to something else; and that’s how I like it.

You mentioned focusing on the Pop market. You previously had Dance success with the singles “Be Free,” “Love’s Gonna Lead You Back,” and “With You." The first record you ever did — The Real Thing, however, was a straight-ahead pop affair. What made you shift your focus to the Dance market?

I wanted to record music that I enjoyed being around and listening to. The stereotype of Dance music being so disposable is something that I aspire to do away with. There is a lot more Dance music on the radio than there was 10 years ago, and it’s more mainstream. We just listen to music now; we get whatever’s on the radio, and we get Clear Channel and different formats of everything. I think my music is Electronic music, more than just Dance. On Start to Move, there are ballads, midtempo, upbeat — a little bit of everything. I wanted to frame it into the Dance/Electronic vein, but every song that was written on that album was written on the keyboard or piano. A good song can be in a Country format, R&B format — it doesn’t matter, as long as there is a good song structure.

When you started out, you were doing most of the producing yourself, but now you have a pretty steady partner in Willie Ray Lewis. Does that change things for you?

I learned to share a little bit. We all have to do what we do well. I think that, vocally, I know what I’m doing — although I take direction from other people and I’m open to it. Production-wise, though, it’s a whole other craft to be able to produce yourself. Anybody who does that is working with people who are very talented, and that’s their art. I let Willie do what he does well, and we marry it with my songwriting and vocals. He wrote a song on there, too, and assisted with some vocal production.

He wrote "Function," right?

Yeah. It was fun to go through the songs and construct an album and a whole body of work. I love albums that I can listen to from beginning to end. I love to go on a journey of messages and different styles and tempos. Even though it’s all Electronic, we’re doing some different chord structures. The songs are lyrically solid, but just go all over the place — not just the same song over and over again. Sometimes, in dance music, it tends to get a little boring.

You also remade Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule The World" on this album.

That’s a song that Willie and I did together. He was working on a production, and he said, “Why don’t you try this and see how we work together?” So, I took the lyrics into the booth and sang the whole thing from beginning to end, and he opened up the door and said, “Oh my Gosh! Let’s work together.” So, we stumbled upon each other.

How did you guys meet?

I met him at the Winter Music Conference in Miami several years ago. We shared a cab because we were both at the wrong place and we literally ran into each other. He was working with an artist, and I was by myself. I wasn’t looking for a producer. We didn’t know anything about each other’s music.

Although you've spent most of your life in Chicago thus far, you recently made a big move. How is that working out for you?

Yes, I am a New Yorker as of February, and it’s pretty cool! I’ve never lived outside of Chicago, but I’ve traveled here a lot. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment, but it’s been great to be able to work with my publicist and my publisher. I'm a lot closer to the people I’m working with in my career. I’m going to be going down some different avenues and have some new opportunities here that I wouldn’t in Chicago.

What about the day-to-day life? Do you find it offers things than you had in Chicago?

It can be as simple or as crazy as you’d like it to be. There’s definitely something for everyone here. I’m pretty focused, and have some career ambitions that I would like to take care of while I live here, so I’m definitely ready to tackle all of that.

What about the club scene? Do you think it’s a lot different than it is in Chicago?

The clubs are larger and more spacious, and there’s more people; but a lot of the DJ's that rotate through Chicago come through here, as well.

Tell me about your songwriting style. Do you usually start with a goal in mind, or do you go from the gut?

It goes a couple of ways. Sometimes I just go to my journal, pull out some lines, and craft a song around it. Other times, I think of a song title when I’m sleeping or in the shower; or I have my voice recorder with me. I text myself often, so I’ve learned to stop what I’m doing and write it down, and excuse myself from whatever situation I’m in. Sometimes I’ll think, “I want to write a song about this topic,” and I’ll see what comes of it. I’ve written songs that take six months, and I’ve written a song in five minutes. However it comes to me, it comes.

Once you have a song finished, do you leave it as is, or do you tweak it?

I always think in terms of “Is this a really good song, or not?” Once I’m in the studio, I usually like to record the main vocal and see how it works, lyrically. Once I put harmonies on it, maybe some things change. I might think something’s too hokey; and I’ll change it around a bit. For the most part, once I have a title and a message in place, I like to just lock it in and leave it there. You can second-guess yourself all day long in the studio, and go back and re-edit, re-edit, re-edit — and then go back and have something that means nothing. If it was my original inspiration, I try to stay with that and keep it there.

You studied piano, violin and sax growing up. Does that training come into play when you’re writing?

It definitely helps with song structure. I think in terms of instrumentation to songs, or if I hear something that would be good in the background. I try to give my two cents in production, as well.

Would you consider playing those instruments during your live shows?

It’s possible. I focus so much on my voice, and that’s my craft. I could possibly introduce it, although I don’t know if I could whip out a violin. But hey, never say never!

I was thinking of Kristine W. She had a Vegas show in which she would whip out the sax.

Hey, if you’ve got it, use it. There are not a lot of people who can do that, so I appreciate my talents.

Who are some of your vocal inspirations?

Anyone who is good! [Laughs]

Are there any who have stuck with you from an early time period?

Growing up, definitely George Michael. His vocal delivery and production — and the fact that he is a songwriter, too — is so inspirational for me. We have a similar range and tone; and he was the guy who just did it! He was popular, and sometimes not. He evolved as an artist. His albums had a message, and I couldn’t wait to digest the whole thing and not know what he was talking about, — because maybe I was too young and didn’t have life experiences. He definitely helped me grow as a songwriter and artist, as a man. It just happened that he was gay, too; but I didn’t know it at the time.

You made a conscious decision to be openly gay. It's ended up being a much more positive thing for you than the way it initially happened for George.

In my life, hasn’t been an issue. It’s something that I was never raised to be ashamed of. My parents never made me feel that anything was wrong about that. When I was growing up, some of their best friends were gay; and I think I identified with them — I just knew I was that. When I came to the realization and matured, it wasn’t an issue for me in my personal life. Why would I make it an issue in my professional life?

There were many people that didn’t want me to come out when I was looking for a label. No one advised me to be an openly gay artist. "You just won’t sell. The easy route is to be closeted and just sell your music to 13-year-old girls," I was told. Instead of, “I believe in you. Whatever you are, you are. Let your music speak for yourself. If I believe in you, then other people will.” I never got that.

I guess growing up in Chicago was an ideal, tolerant environment.

I have to say from meeting people from all over the place, it’s an inside job. You can grow up in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t have love and support inside, you could be in the middle of New York City. There are people with this problem next door to me. It’s definitely something that you have to love inside.

What made you finally decide to start your own label, Chickie Records?

Well, I just got tired of being told “no”; waiting; and trying to please other people and fit into a cubby hole. I thought, “The music speaks for itself.” Any artist that I like, it’s about the music; everything else is secondary. It doesn’t matter what they look like; it doesn’t matter what their personal life is. That’s a great story, but if they’re not good musicians and they’re not making good music, they’re not going to last, anyway. So, I just focused on the music. I’m pretty much an open book. It should be about the music; but sometimes, it gets to be about other things. Human nature is fascinating like that. I think it’s about people’s hang-ups, mostly. It’s like we want to live vicariously through other people.

Was setting up the label a straight-ahead process?

Things take a lot of time. I like to decide quick. Once my mind is made up, I go for it. Setting the business up and taking care of the legal things really wasn’t that difficult, since I had learned all of that stuff. It can be as easy as you want it to be.

How important would you say that the remixing aspect is to your career?

For Billboard purposes, it’s important, because that’s what DJs play in clubs. It’s all about the remix, or who remixed it — what the sound is like. I get my music digested anyway that people want to chew on it, and if they want it in that format, I enjoy that. I think it’s a great art and a wonderful thing for people to dance and release their week, day or whatever they’re going through in their life. If it has to be to a Tribal beat, so be it!

It can earn you some new fans.

It’s nice to know that the song began here with piano and a little vocal, and it ends up this nightclub sensation. I’m always nervously watching the crowd when I hear my songs.

Do you take current trends in music into account?

I’m aware of them, but I also don’t like to be too much of a follower. I like to write what’s true and what resonates with me — to believe in it and put that inspiration behind it. Any game changer in the music didn’t follow anybody’s trend; they blazed their own trail. I hold on to that first.

What's going to be the next single from the album?

I’m still deciding on it. It may be “Everybody Wants To Rule The World." I’ve never released a cover before, and I want to make sure I’m feeling it.

“Feelin’ You” is another one of my favorites.

I like that song, too. It’s a mid-tempo, but I think it could be kind of cool remixed. I performed it live a little sped-up. It’s definitely a fun song. I’ll decide this summer what’s going to be the next single. I’ve been writing some new music, so you’ll see when it comes out.

Are you doing many live shows at this point?

I have a couple of shows booked for the summer, and I’m hoping to do some local New York stuff. I’m trying to find some venues that support Electronic music; or, get up there with a piano or a guitar. There are options. I’m thinking outside the box.

So you’d like to do a club show, but also something more acoustic?

I’d love to sit down and do a singer/songwriter thing. Sometimes, in dance music, the vocals get lost or they’re so produced, so coated, you don’t even know what the person sounds like until you go see them live — and you’re, like, “Yuck!” Fortunately, I can sing live and my recorded voice is pretty true to my live voice, but I would love to just sit and do a ballad, and blow the roof off.

I have to mention two songs I really love off of your first album: “If You Want It” and “Return To Love.”

Oh, thank you. That was my first crack at songwriting, and trying to find my legs.

Finding a niche?

Yeah, and then I realized that the niche is just good music.

Well, I’m looking forward to hearing more from you soon, and New York sounds like it’s going really well. I hope it works out really well for you.

I hope so, too. Thanks. Facebook me!

Visit Jason Antone's official website to hear music from Start to Move.

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About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via krystolfan@gmail.com.