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Interview: Kevon Edmonds – Singer, Songwriter & Producer

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In many ways, humility can be a singer’s greatest asset. While working as a source of quiet strength, it also allows the artist’s music to take center stage—rather than his or her personality. And in the case of Kevon Edmonds, his musical catalog has survived throughout the ages, simply because it was capable of standing upon its own legs, instead of resting upon popular trends or public controversy. With a string of platinum and gold records to attest to this fact, Kevon has enjoyed a fruitful twenty-year career.

Known in varying circles as a solo artist, a founding member of After 7, and the brother of Melvin and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Kevon is comfortable with all of the aforementioned descriptions, because the creation of quality music is more important than the deification of a great singer. Upon the release of Who Knew, his fifth studio project and sophomore solo album, Kevon Edmonds managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on the foundation of R&B music, the heart-wrenching “Til You Do Me Right,” and working with his nephews, the next generation of Edmondses.

To date, you have charted 11 top ten singles between your work as a solo artist and as a member of After 7. How does it feel to be labeled as "a carrier of the R&B torch"?

That is what I grew up on. That is what I knew. That’s real music for me. That’s how it was represented when I grew up. It was music that makes you feel when they deliver it. I think that’s what people mean when they say ‘carrying the torch’ – it’s continuing to make people feel, feel what it is that you sing about, to move them, to touch them, to stir them in some kind of way, to make them reflect on how it has impacted their life in some personal way. If you don’t get a sense of what this person is singing about, it doesn’t come across as real. It’s kind of hard to feel. You may be singing the words, but if there is no feeling attached it goes by you. My thing is to continue to do what R&B has always done – to impact and affect the culture.

When you look at the contemporary musical landscape, where exactly do you see your artistry fitting?

I really want to remind my old fans and introduce to new fans that R&B is still a genre of music. You can shake it up in the club and actually get through doing your thing, but there’s going to be a point in time when you don’t want to let it settle a little bit. Here’s something that speaks to your heart. I think that’s what true R&B does – it speaks to your heart. Where you take it from there is still pretty much on you, but it’s the kind of music that takes you to a place where you get in touch with yourself and those you love in relationships in a good way. It’s okay to talk about love in a positive way. It’s okay to want it or desire it. It’s not uncool to express it in a positive, caring, concerning way with regards to how you feel about somebody. It’s not a bad thing. To me, it’s about letting people know it’s time to connect, it’s time to reconnect, whatever your situation is. We need it. We need each other. We need to love. That is what R&B is about.

A lot of your songs revolve around love and relationships. What is it about these topics that makes you gravitate toward them?

It’s what I’ve always known. It’s about relationships. It’s about people connecting – whether it’s connecting in terms of “We Are the World,” global connection, or just people connecting through love and through song. I think that’s what music does. It has a healing property or element to it. When shared and people get a chance to hear it, I think it does that. I’m fortunate to have love in my lifetime. Some people aren’t. But it’s something that we all need and we all want. The key is learning how to hold on to it when you get it. That’s the challenge. I’ve had my share.

Your forthcoming album is going to be entitled Who Knew. With nearly a decade passing between Who Knew and your solo debut, 24/7, I’m curious to know the life events that have been central to the creation of this album.

Being away for ten years, that’s a period when life just happens. For me, it was time to step away for a minute. I always had a sense that I was going to return. I just knew that in between that time frame, I didn’t think the timing was right. For whatever crazy reason – I don’t know if the stars were in the right place or whatever – I did my first solo in ’99. It just felt like it was a natural thing. In 2009, I sensed that this was the time for my record to come out. Life has been good. In that time frame, I was able to find somebody special in my life. All of these things have been coming together in a very, very good way.

Why did you decide to go with “Oh” as the lead track?

As for selecting the song “Oh,” we chose that particular song because it is a true R&B song. Like the songs back in the day, if I could compare it, it’s almost like a Frankie Beverly song. The first moment you hear it, the first note, the first chord and, it moves you and has an “Oh, it’s my song” effect. There’s something special about the song. That’s what we’ve felt about this song. It’s a chance for them to hear my voice that they haven’t heard in awhile. I need for them to hear it in a way that they’re more prepared to hear. I didn’t want a real hip, cool, useless track.

As you recorded Who Knew, you had the pleasure to work with your nephews, Jason and Dave Edmonds. Having done a considerable amount of work with your older brothers, Kenneth and Melvin, how did it feel to work alongside the next generations of Edmondses?

There’s no doubt family helps you to stay connected. When I look back and think about the many times my brother, [Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds], has come to the table and has always been there, he’s this iconic songwriter and producer that I never had to pay full price for the benefits to have him come onboard, always willing to submit something to help me out. Little did I know that one of my nephews is producing and stuff. I wanted to work with them. I wanted to give them an opportunity. I felt like you have to have something special to bring to the table. Just because we’re family doesn’t mean they’ll get a place. I learned that there’s a creative gene in the family. They just tapped into it. If they decide they want to do it full-time, I think as long as they’re willing to put the work in and have a good, strong work ethic, they can be successful at this game, too. It keeps them connected. Everybody supports one another in a good way. I wouldn’t say, “Oh, you should get into the music industry.” If you’re called to do it, know that it’s not always glorious. There are definitely some low periods that go along with the high periods. If you’re willing to take that ride, that’s what you deal with. I love them. I think they’ll fall in love with this business as well.

Is there a particular piece of advice that your older brothers shared with you that you’re also sharing with your nephews?

You got to love what you’re doing. Any time you’re blessed enough to do a job that you love doing because so many of us have to work but don’t enjoy what it is that we do. Just because you love it doesn’t mean it’s always going to go smoothly. It’s not always going to be grand or whatever. It’s a business, too. Enjoy the creative process because that’s something you enjoy doing, but be mindful of the business side of it, too. You don’t want to have one without the other. You can have one without the other but it won’t be a good ride. So, I just want them to be mindful. I do believe that a lot of the younger, creative talents today are far more savvy about the business than we were and definitely the ones that came before us. They’re better educated, I think, because some of this information is being passed on in a good way and they listen. They are taking charge of their finances well.

As you’ve grown in the ever-changing music industry, is there a particular business skill of which you have become more savvy?

I hate to wear all the hats but you know, sometimes you have to be willing to wear whatever hat is necessary to get the job done the way that you want it done – up until you can find someone that you can trust that will execute in the fashion and represent you in the manner that you want to be represented. A lot of people come onboard and they’re not on top of it as much as you need them or want them to be. It’s a continuing process. You may think at this point you got your team but it just depends. You follow-up, you know.

Multiple biographies note that you shied away from singing in the church choir. What reservations did you have? What childhood experiences, then, do you feel shaped your musical aspirations?

I was just shy. There are probably many stories about my brother Kenny, about how shy he was. I wasn’t nearly as shy as he was. I might have a conversation with somebody, but he was very, very reserved. Going into the church, we didn’t recognize ourselves as talented or thought we were singers. We just didn’t see ourselves like that. I think to try and sing in front of other people like the whole church was like, “Oh . . .”

Looking backwards, what childhood experience, then, do you feel shaped your musical aspirations?

When I began to see that this was something that I could enjoy doing was when I attended Indiana University. There was a course in African-American studies and they had this talk where they try to teach you a little bit of the business – a little bit of the creative, composition of music and things of that nature. They also had an area on performance. That’s really the first time where I was bitten by the bug, what’s it like to sing a song that you enjoy singing and performing. Down in IU is where I understood that this was something. “Wow! If I could do this, this is what I would do.” That was the first time it really hit me that way.

Did you have initial worries about trying to translate your experiences at IU into a career? After 7 is the culmination, but how did the pieces come together?

In answer to your first question on how this builds to a career, you make your plan and you try to work it. That’s all you can do. There are so many variables out there that change daily or from month-to-month or yearly. All you can do is figure out how you stay in the scheme of things. You can try to be as proactive as you possibly can but there are some things you just can’t control. If you’re committed to ride it out, that’s where it’s at. As far as I am concerned, my brother Melvin and my partner Keith, at that point recognized we just had a love for singing. We were doing gong shows from time to time, not American Idol. You have to be from that time period to know what I’m talking about. We enjoyed doing that but it kind of told us that there was something unique about what we were doing. People seemed to appreciate it back in the day. When L.A. [Antonio Reid] and Face [Kenneth Edmonds] were out here pounding the pavement to create a name, they got hot enough that they were able to do a production deal with Virgin Records. That’s when the door opened and I was as ready as I was going to be to go after this. You situate yourself to be ready for something that is brewing. There may be some opportunity around the corner. Sure enough, it wasn’t long after that when the opportunity came for us to sign with LaFace Productions through Virgin Records.

You once mentioned that you were wary of being attached or related to your brother [Kenneth] for fear of it being viewed as nepotism. What other obstacles did you feel like you had to overcome, either personally or professionally, as you were making your way through the business?

I would say first off, I have always been my brother’s biggest fan. Long before we got into this industry, I’ve been his biggest fan – and still am. From a professional standpoint, they brought us in. We came under their wing. For the first record, it was okay. It was a plus to be associated with LA and Babyface. When the second record came around, there were a lot of other things that were shifting. In a matter of three years – that little time frame – a whole lot was shifting. They were having tremendous success and they decided to kick off LaFace records. It was a matter of us having to be assigned to Virgin Records direct. One of the things they were saying to us is, “You need to make sure that people buy the album, that you guys are real, that you aren’t just studio guys in the studio creating this sound of voices that they hear on the radio. You need to get out and prove yourself of what you can do live.” We were encouraged by both L.A. and Face to step off and figure it out ourselves. That’s really what happened. On the second record, we did use some of their production team, but we broke away and worked with Dallas [Austin] and Randy [Ran]. We just tried to go a different direction which was a show of growth for us. It was something that we needed to do. In the end, I think it worked out for us.

Out of the After 7 catalog, my favorite song is “Til You Do Me Right” off of the Reflections (1995) album. You also co-wrote that with Melvin and “Babyface.” Does that song have a special memory attached to it?

It was really the first song that Kenny, myself and Melvin actually wrote together. That was the first song we’ve ever written together. We had a melody and everybody just kind of wrote different lyrics at different phases, but we did believe that one of the things that encouraged us in the writing of the song was The Color Purple. I think it was Celia saying, “Till you do me right.” That was one of the things we had in mind. We talked about that when we were writing. It was a very strong statement, but we didn’t want to color it that dark. I’m going to put one back on you, Clayton. Was there a, “Till you do me right,” kind of theme going on with you?

To some degree [laughing]. I think that attachments of any sort always stem from some kind of past personal experience. With this particular song, however, I feel like anyone, even if they weren’t going through a similar experience, or if they knew someone else that had gone through such an experience, could identify with the song, because the lyrics are so vivid that listener can see it in their own minds and play the storyline out.

Exactly. When it’s a well-written song – and probably there are a lot of R&B songs that do that, and country songs do that as well. They really just tell a story so vivid it does make you connect even though you may not have had that experience. It can touch you that way.

Briefly, in 1997, you joined Milestone, a fictitious group for Soul Food, a film that "Babyface" was co-producing. How difficult is it for a band of incredible singers, and stars in their own right, to share vocals on a single track? What kind of dynamics do you have when you go in the studio? Do you say, “I’ll take this line, you take that line, you take the bridge?”

Everyone just pretty much assumes that I’m going to be the guy at the bridge. If there’s a bridge in the song, I got that. I’m designated the high voice, take it home or set it up. If my brother Melvin’s there, he’s the set up guy. He kind of sets the stage, sets the table a little bit. I’ll come with the dressing. Then we come to the A part, B part and do the hook together. It kind of worked that same way with K-Ci and JoJo when we did the Milestone thing. JoJo started it out and I was right there with it. Then we came with the hook. It was a different formula because, typically for us, it would have been Melvin at the top. Here it was the first tenors playing at the very top then K-Ci and Melvin came in a little later in the second verse. They pushed it. There was an edgy vibe to it. For the bridge, JoJo and I came in. It was an interesting format. I really enjoyed the process. I didn’t know what it was going to be because prior to then, I’ve never met K-Ci and JoJo. I always loved their music in Jodeci and stuff like that. They brought it straight ahead. They brought it raw and they brought the feeling. That’s one thing we appreciated about that. Even thought we may have presented a more polished, sweet kind of way, I think the commonality between K-Ci and JoJo and Melvin and After 7 is that no matter how you slice it, there was feeling. You’re going to feel what it is we’re singing about.

In addition to Soul Food, you have made contributions to several television and movie soundtracks: The Five Heartbeats (“Night Like This”), Fox-TV's Beverly Hills 90210: The College Years ("Not Enough Hours in the Night"), and The Prince of Egypt ("When You Believe"). What insight can you give, on how these tracks were placed, and the emotional value that each song brings to a particular film project?

It is uncanny. I can’t tell you a formula on how you go about doing something. Sometimes in this business, it’s a matter of who you know. Or you’d never know this person who is involved with this soundtrack happens to be a fan of your voice. Sometimes, it’s something more than that. They want you involved in the soundtrack because they’re a fan of me. I’m always going to give you Kevon. That’s what I bring. You’re going to get something heartfelt, sweet. I’m probably going to bring as sweet as I can bring it. I’m going to feel it as best as I can feel it through the process. Hopefully, what I’ve accomplished is that I’ve told a story from a vocal standpoint that stirs something in you, move you to re-evaluate your love relationship, make you want to work hard, maybe try to get right with it. Sometimes it’s a wake-up call. It just depends on how you relate to it. It’s going to be about love. It’s going to be about life.

Having spent two decades in the music industry, what factors do you think have contributed to your longevity in the music industry?

One of the factors I think that endeared us is the kind of music that we were performing. The way that we delivered it kind of kept us in the game. I also attribute it to the fact that I have a recognizable voice. When people hear my voice, they recognize my sound. You just have to put the right product in the right vehicle so that you can make sure it gets to people in the right way. When you get the right song and the right voice, you get a chance to come back around and have a shot at things. It’s nice to be reintroduced back to the music scene again and to be able to perform the kind of music that I’ve had an affinity for.

For more information on Kevon Edmonds, visit his official website.

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