Over the past two decades, Joe Thomas has garnered a reputation for being the consummate R&B crooner. Since his debut in 1993, his classic melodies have become well-known for speaking to the complexities of human relationships and exuding a trademark dosage of passionate romance.
With six GRAMMY nominations to his credit, Joe found considerable success at home and abroad. In spite of his international success, however, Joe still comes across as the customary guy next door. Such humility has allowed Joe to venture outside of the R&B genre and collaborate with some of the industry's biggest hip hop stars: Big Pun ("Still Not A Player"), Mystikal ("Stutter"), Shaggy ("Ghetto Child"), Petey Pablo ("Let's Stay Home Tonight" REMIX), G-Unit ("Ride Wit U" and "I Wanna Get to Know Ya"), Tony Yayo ("Curious") and Papoose ("Where You At?"). Even so, Joe has always stayed true to the classic elements of R&B music — from Everything (1993) to Signature (2009).
Upon the release of Signature, Joe Thomas managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Gerald Levert, "Worst Case Scenario," and the current state of R&B.
With fifteen years of experience behind you, there is no doubt that you are one the R&B genre's few living legends – especially of the male variety. What about your music, personality or style has allowed you to survive through all the storms and the different changes in the musical landscape?
For me, it's more so being true to what you're doing and keeping that honest. As long as you're honest about what you present out there, continue to stay on the same course and not do everything that everybody else is doing. It's okay to incorporate other styles or genres of music. That's very much allowed, but when you start appearing to be that this is what you wanted instead of doing this, that's when it becomes a problem. You got to stay the course. That means you stay true to who you are, to what you believe in. It's easy to be that way when it's true. I think that's part of what helped me sustain all the different changes in this industry. My fans have sort of grown up with me, seeing where I could've gone this way, I could've done that, but instead I chose to just follow what I thought was right for me.
Your current album, Signature, stands as your eighth studio album. When you look back on the recording experience for this particular album, what thoughts immediately come to mind?
Old school – just trying to bring back a little of those elements. Not necessarily recreate that but just to show the generations some of what they were missing, some of the music that made me appreciate music for what it is today, those live elements. When I think of Michael Jackson, I think of those live elements that he brought to his music. Even the Jackson 5. It's sort of missing in the generations. It's kind of crazy because I don't know if we'll ever see the workmanship of that generation come across airwaves or the TV ever again. A few artists are bringing back this live feel, like my man, Raphael Saadiq. He went back to the '50s and the '60s. The sound was so authentic it made you feel like it was done back then. I think it's important that we still keep the same elements of what is today which is driving the music industry, but put that raw, live feel back. Let's bring back that live feel. Let's bring back the live music. That's what this album is. All ten songs. I hope that the fans will appreciate the sound of real music again.
For this particular album, you decided to release "Majic" as the first single. Is there something special about that song that made you pick it as the lead representative of Signature?
Well, "Majic" wasn't really my choice. The fans sort of chose that record from the snippets on the last album, my New Man album. A lot of deejays said, "Why don't you put this record out? I need the longer version." It went up to the label and everybody felt the same way. That was early on in the game. I went back into the studio and I started to re-record some of the other records. I wanted more of a live feel at this point because I felt like the music had to change. I feel like there's a rebirth by injecting more of the live elements. "Let's bring the strings and horns, real drums." So that was my thought, but I wasn't really thinking, "Let's draw ‘Majic' as the first single." That just kind of snuck up on us, just riding the whole energy with it.
In addition to "Majic," what track are you really excited about showcasing to the world?
"Worst Case Scenario."
Why does that song mean so much to you?
I think it represents to a lot of people in relationships who sort of have a rocky time, especially from a guy's perspective. You don't want to find out too late that you had the best you're ever going to have. You go into a relationship and it didn't work out because you didn't do right and you move on to the next. "Damn, she's nowhere near the girl I had." You want the girl back but it's too late. You don't want to run into that worst case scenario. You got her now and you're about to lose her. Now she's with someone else. It's kind of like that record, "Treat Her Like A Lady," that we did back in the day. It keeps us on our toes. You got it real good. You got to keep them and hold on to her.
In your own personal life, what have you found to be the most important lesson you learned in the game of love?
You know what? I think the most important lesson I learned in everything all across the board – personal life, being an artist, and the whole creating – it's about patience. You got to be patient and things will come in time. Sometimes you try to force the issue but if you're patient, things will shape up the way they should and supposed to.
You were talking earlier about the classical elements that you want to keep in your music. Is that how you came up with Signature as the album's title?
Yeah, you can look at it that way. My whole thought was that's really my sound. It's just like my first record. My first album was on a whole other label Mercury – that one was called Everything. For this record, I wrote and produced the whole album. It's pretty much the sound that got me noticed in the industry. It's my signature, my style in selections that I wrote and produced, like "All the Things (Your Man Won't Do)" and "I Wanna Know." Those are the signature records that make me who I am today.
In support of your sixth album, Ain't Nothing Like Me, you had a noteworthy 15-date trek spread across three Japanese cities: Fukuoka, Tokyo and Osaka. Are you ever surprised by the reach of your international success?
You know, it still does [surprise me]. I'm actually going to do it for a third time this year. I really like that intimate setting. At some point, you would think that they would get a little tired of you but you just keep moving and you keep going. It seems like it's building. It's not even slowing down; it's getting bigger. The tempo and the momentum is building up. Like the older you get, the more mature you become and the more you respect who you are as a person and as an artist. As long as you treat people the same as you did when you first met them, they'll always remember that.
In Japan "No One Else Comes Close" is really big.
Yeah, in Japan that's a pretty big record. It's surprising to hear a record have an effect like that.
In 1999, the Backstreet Boys did a cover of that on Millennium. What is your take on their version?
I think they did a good job, a really good job. It's a tough record to sing but at the same time, the simplicity was great for them as a boy band. The harmonies and the whole nine – I think it was a great record for them to show their vocal talent.
Is there a song that when you're singing in front of a crowd that you get emotional during the midst of?
It could be "No One Else Comes Close." It could be a record that really captivates the audience, like "Intro." It seemed like a big record to me as opposed to "I Wanna Know" because of the response from the audience. It's different places, different areas. I'm just really fortunate I got the opportunity to travel to different countries all around the world and have the same impact as I have here in the US, if not better.
Both of your parents are preachers. In your upbringing, is there a particular Biblical lesson that you feel has translated to your business life?
I think so. I really think so. When you grow up in church, there's a certain humbleness that you have to have. You have to remain humble and treat your elders with a certain amount of respect. It's a certain level you have to be on, especially with the young kids growing up. Trust me, they drill it in you, the whippings and the yelling and all that. It was definitely necessary because it taught you at times when you forgot what was right and what was wrong. It definitely stayed with me to treat people a certain way. If you ain't got nothing good to say, don't say anything at all. It's those kinds of things. It's being humble, just keeping your whole persona at a certain place. I think sometimes that can be overshadowed by a lot of people just being a little bit more rambunctious about themselves. "Hey, I'm this and I'm that." Either one is cool if that is what you choose.
Back in 1993, Vanessa Bell Armstrong recorded "Don't You Give Up" and "Everlasting Love," both of which were written by you and Vincent Herbert. Have you ever thought about recording a Gospel album?
You know, I thought about it and that question has been asked of me a couple of times. But I always feel like you got to be about it, you got to sing about it and live about it and people respect that thing more. They can appreciate you from the outside. I'm not necessarily from the outside but I am doing secular music, doing R&B which is considered not God's music. At the same time, if you're going to sing about it, you got to be about it and there's more truth to reality. You should be living that life. That way, I wouldn't be a hypocrite.
When you were coming out in the industry, how did your parents respond to you taking the secular route? Did they ever express any comments?
Well, at about 18, I pretty much had my own choice. I made my own decisions and I think at that point, they had no choice but to accept it. I moved from Georgia to New York City/New Jersey. I kind of took my own direction. I'm going to do for me as long I'm not in their roof where the laws and rules apply. When you're living in their roof, you got to abide by their rules. I did my own thing but to answer your question, they weren't too upset because I was at a certain level of being respectful.
Even your provocative material is still not as risqué as…
… as it could be! [laughing]
When I was looking through the liner notes of My Name is Joe, two words immediately stood out: passionate romance. From your perspective, what happened to the passionate romance that was once a staple of R&B music?
You know it's kind of hard to really say. There are a lot of different elements that's responsible for the passion not being the driving force for romance. I think hip hop is a lot to blame for it. I don't want to say hip hop is not affectionate or they don't have that sort of passion towards that, but I feel that the way the presentation for what it is is a little different for what R&B really stood for back in the day. We differed too much on where hip hop was going, which really put a damper on the vibe and the energy and the feel of what R&B really is. It's something that's really genuine and very authentic. Hip hop is genuine and authentic, too. It does have elements. We do have a good time and enjoy ourselves, but there's a certain passion in the music side of the game. We just became too competitive. It became more of a challenge to see who's number one at this, who's better at this, who's better at that, as opposed to just making the best music you can and just go with the vibe.
Throughout the course of your career, you have often given thanks to two individuals within your liner notes. One was Kedar Massenburg, who you're currently signed with, and Tse Williams. I'm curious to know how you first met them, and how they influenced your career?
Tse and Michelle Williams were very influential in the beginning stages of my career. When I started out as a songwriter and a producer, I started with a couple of guys named Keith Miller and Noel Goring and, you know, a couple of guys from New Jersey. One played bass and another played keyboard. I'm a guitar player, as well, and a drummer, so we all kind of clicked; we connected. We also played for a church and whatever gig we could get and get paid some money. In the process, we met this young producer. He was also from New Jersey. He was pretty well-connected. He knew LA Reid. He had been working with Babyface. We started doing remixes with them. That's how the Vanessa Belle Armstrong project came about. We wrote and produced songs for her. So we just kept going. Then it became myself, Keith and Noel doing our own thing. We signed with Zomba through Tse, who was the publisher. She was very interested to sign us. They signed us to a deal there. That's when I met her sister, who became my manager and had a long history with her for about six or seven years. From there, they introduced me to Kedar. Me and Kedar sort of connected on another level. I ended up just rolling with Kedar exclusively. We've been riding together now for about 13 years. We started in this business on a handshake. There was no contract involved. To this day, it's still a handshake. Very rare, very rare.
One thing that has not been rare, in your career at least, is the respect you have received from the Recording Academy. To date, you have received seven GRAMMY nominations. One, in particular, was for "Coming Back Home." What does that particular song mean to you on a personal level?
Well, you know that song "Coming Back Home" is one of my personal favorite records. I got a chance to work with two of my favorite artists, BeBe Winans and Brian McKnight. I'm a big fan of BeBe Winans. He taught me a lot. He taught me a lot about just being simple, about control. He was very smooth. His tone was another thing that I appreciate. Brian McKnight, on the other hand, was just one of the guys that just has raw talent. He could do pretty much anything he wanted at any level. It was unlimited the talent that he had – guitar, drums, piano and being able to vocally sing any range that he wants and control it at that range. So I was a really big fan of both those guys and to be on the same track was a huge honor. BeBe had such great connections, like Oprah Winfrey. We got a chance to do her show and perform our own records at the time. I had "I Wanna Know" and Brian had "Back at One." It was a great opportunity to be on a record with such a great plateau of stars. It's like a whole another level for me, in a sense. That just sort of trickled down to the next. I started meeting other artists, like Mariah Carey. They had interest in working with me as well so it just opened up a lot more doors for me.
One collaboration that I really like is "How Soon," a little-known song on All That I Am with the late Gerald Levert. What lasting memories do you have from working with him and how did that collaboration came about in general?
In general, Gerald was a buddy. He's a real good friend. He's the kind of guy that just made you feel natural. You don't have to be a superstar. He made you let your guard down and have a good time. But he showed you something, sort of like Mike [Jackson]. He gave you 100% on stage. Gerald really pulled it out on the stage, man. He's one of the guys that didn't just leave a big stage empty. It was just him up there doing his thing but he rocked it. For a big guy, that's pretty damn impressive. All that energy to move the way he did and pull the notes on key the way he did. Just working with him on the studio, I was intimidated to put my own vibe on the record. I kind of want to just listen and take notes because here, I'm sitting in front of a legend. A guy who, back in school, I was listening and singing to his records, doing talent shows and falling in love to his records as well, listening to him on the radio. To me, it was overwhelming. It's so sad that he passed at such a young age. There was so much more that he was going after. You could see it in him. He had so much more that he was going after. But he did leave me with that energy and that's never going to be forgotten.
When you look at your own career and all the other people that you interacted with, what do you want to be your lasting impression? What do you want people to say twenty years from now?
You know, I really want to continue to follow the course that I'm on. I think at the end of the day, when I'm 60, I will still be performing at a certain level. I also plan to bring artists together to connect and do some kind of help-your-brother-when-he's-falling kind of thing or some kind of pick-your-sister-up-and-carry-her-to-the-next-stage kind of thing. I want to be remembered as someone who did a good deed. It's not about all the glitz and glamour, being seen with this person or being involved in this relationship. It's just about the music, the legacy, what really got the attention of the world in the first place. All the other stuff is just extra, added entertainment that we're sort of pushing in the spotlight more so than the real thing. That's what was so important about Mike's music – the entertainment.
For more information on Joe Thomas, visit his official website.