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Interview: Kimberley Locke – Singer and Songwriter

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Seven years after Kimberley Locke’s third place win on American Idol, her superstar status continues to shine bright. With Randy Jackson’s blessing, Kimberley signed an exclusive, singles-only contract to his new label, Dream Merchant 21, with the hope of transforming the industry’s delicate relationship between artists and their respective labels. Her first single, “Strobelight,” stands as the first product of their unique partnership – eventually peaking at the top of Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Chart. To date, Locke has eight #1 singles on Billboard’s various charts.

In the midst of a promotional campaign for “Strobelight,” Kimberley Locke managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on her relationship with Randy Jackson, Freda Payne’s response to her cover of “Band of Gold,” and her charity, One Heartland.
Congratulations on your new single, “Strobelight,” as well as your recent signing to Randy Jackson’s dance music label, Dream Merchant 21. How does it feel to be the artist approached to christen this label?

I guess there is a lot hinging on the success of my record, considering I'm the first artist on Randy's new label, but I also believe that if Randy didn't think I was capable of doing it, that he would not have selected me to fill the space. One of the things that I love about Randy is that he is a businessperson, and he has been in every aspect of this business, so he knows it very well. I feel very safe working with him. I feel like I'm working with somebody who has my best interests at hand, and at the end of the day, this is a partnership between Randy and I. My success and his label success, in the beginning, kind of depends upon the success of the music. And the music is the common denominator between the two of us. We want to put out great music, because that's what's going to make us both successful. So I think that the fact that Randy chose me says a lot, because Randy Jackson doesn't have to work with anybody that he doesn't believe in.

Although you are well-known for your participation on the third season of American Idol, how has your relationship with Randy Jackson grown over the past seven years?

At first, we didn’t really have a strong relationship. It's funny, though. After Idol, any time that I ran into Randy, he always knew what I was up to. So I feel like he was keeping tabs on my career, because that's his industry. But he always knew. Like my first single, "8th World Wonder" came out, he was like, "Yo. Heard the single. Congratulations. It's No. 1." Then I'd see him again, and he was like, "Yo. I heard about "Band of Gold." It always made me feel good when I ran into him, because it was like: “Randy Jackson knows about my career?” I signed with a new manager, Jay Schwartz, and we were talking about the next project. And Randy has been working on a project with Gladys Knight, who my manager also works with. And he said, "Well, why don't we sit and talk to Randy? I have a relationship with Randy through Gladys, and of course, you have a relationship with Randy. Let's just talk to him and get advice." And I was like, "Cool." So what initially started out as a meeting just to kind of pick Randy's brain and get his thoughts and his ideas, ended up to me basically looking at Randy and saying, "Do you want to do this project with me?" Because it was just kind of like one day I was sitting there, we were talking. And, you know, Randy's like the perfect mentor. And I'm sitting there, and I'm looking at him, and I'm soaking up everything that he's saying. I looked at him and I said: "Well, Randy, what do you think about us doing this project together?" And he just kind of looked at me, and said: "Yeah, let me think about it." So I pressed him. "Don't be blowing smoke up my a**!" [laughing] I just wanted him to be real with me. But what I know about Randy now is that Randy's a real person. If he's interested, he's interested. If he's not, he's not.

With your new contract, you are taking a unique approach to the business-side of the industry. How did you determine the “singles only” clause, and what changes does this approach have in the way your write and record music?

We have a deal, and in our deal, it's a singles deal. And it's a new single every six to eight months. So, from the release of "Strobelight," which went to iTunes in April, and impacted radio in June, every six to eight months out, we will start working on a new project and have a new single ready to go. I think that for the artist, and for producers or independent labels, I think this is really good because my first contract with Curb Records was a contract for six albums.

Oh, wow! That many?

Yes! [laughing] And those six albums can turn into twenty years if the label chooses to just kind of sit on you. I got lucky, and my label didn't respond to any of my correspondence to move onto the next project, so my contract became null and void.

Well, count your blessings! [laughing] That was a blessing in disguise! [laughing continues]

Oh, yes! It was a blessing in disguise, because there's a grace period! [laughing] Listen, I had great success on Curb Records, but when it's time to move on, it's time to move on. But I know a lot of artists who are stuck in those same contracts because the label won't let them go. And I think that's unfortunate to the artist, because if the artist isn't making music, and the record label isn't helping them to put that out, then they're wasting their time. Randy and I, I feel like, is a true partnership. It's a partnership in that if we put out good music together, and it works for both of us, then we continue our relationship. If it doesn't work, if for some reason Randy wakes up one day and he's like, "I don't want to work with her any more," it's done. Nobody is stifling anybody's career, which I feel like some labels have done over the past by just keeping artists locked down into these contracts and not moving on them. I love Randy, because Randy is like this. "Listen," he's like. "Why do a whole album? You do like five tracks that are singles, and then the rest are fillers. Why not just give the people what they want every time, out of the gate. And they know that when you put out a product, they're going to love it. You're going to give them the single that they want. And then eventually, you know, if the singles are going well, then yeah, we'll consider doing an album. Why not? But for now, people go to iTunes, type in the title of the song that they want, and they download it."

Several years from now, I see music historians looking back on this moment as defining mark for artists and their relationship with labels. What’s your take?

I think that the industry is changing so much right now. And nobody really knows what direction we're going in. We used to have the model. And now there's not even a model. Even now, I'm watching CNN, and there’s a kid on YouTube that's playing piano that’s all the rage. We don't even know who this kid! [laughing] He doesn't even have a deal, but they're saying he's the next Justin Bieber. And he hasn't even gotten off of YouTube yet! [laughing continues] So the times are changing and I think that for the artist, I think it's good in the sense that you're more discoverable. There are more avenues and more venues for you to be discovered, like American Idol. But I think that from the dollars and cents of it all, that's changing, too, and I think it's a slow change because we don't really know how to make sure the artist gets their due in all of this. I think we all know the artist is the last person paid, so I think when you start with redoing and reworking the contracts, then that's a good start for the artist.

As I was looking at the credits for "Strobelight," I noticed that you have a co-writer credit on the track. And as I looked at your musical evolution, I saw that you only had one co-writing credit on One Love, but then on Based on a True Story you had eight. At what point did you develop tremendous confidence in your songwriting skills?

You know what? When you're sitting in a room with people who write for a living and they look at you and they say, "Oh, you're really good at this," you kind of go: "Really? Am I really good at this?" I think that if you can get a songwriting credit, then you should go for it. My whole thing was this, from the first album to the second album to where I am now: “If I'm writing and these songs are not good, they're not going on my album" – that’s what I said to my A&R guy. I'm all about the quality of the song. Just because my name isn't on it, a hit song is a hit song. So that's kind of been my whole approach to it. What happened on Based on a True Story is that I got teamed up with some really, really great people. I remember writing with Matthew Girard one day, and we wrote like three songs in a day and demoed them. And when we finished, he said to me, "I've never done this before. I've never written so many songs from start to finish and demoed them in the same day." And Matthew Girard is a career writer. That's what he does. He is good at it. He is amazing at it. Every time you pair up with a different team, it's different. So sometimes you pair up with people and you just don't gel. It just doesn't flow. It is the epitome of what a relationship should be like. If it's too hard, stop, because writing is draining. When I wrote for Based on a True Story, I wrote three days a week for about probably six months. That was kind of my schedule. And writing is draining. I would come home and I'd be like so exhausted. I would think: “What did I do today besides basically lay on the couch in the studio and just write?” But it's draining because when you write, you pull from such a deep place. The best songs come from your own personal experiences because that's what you know the most about. I love writing when it comes to my personal projects. I do want to have some say in it, but it's not the end all, be all. If I write something and then there's something better, it's kind of like, you know what? I really want that song, the other song. And I think that you have to do that. Sometimes you just have to say "this song is better."

As you have mentioned, you have worked with several tremendous songwriters over the years. What key lessons have you learned about the process? And since you have had several #1 hits, what elements do you think make the perfect dance song?

I think that the formula for a great song is the hook. The melody and the hook. What I love, one of my best friends back home, I always send her a copy of my songs, whatever the single's going to be, because she has an eight-year-old. And if her eight-year-old calls me back, and if she can sing it, then I know it's a good song. Because people love to sing along. People love those catchy hooks. Look at Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” You hear more women running around saying, "If you like it, then you should have put a ring on it." They don't even sing it, they just say it, because that line in that song is catchy. They don't need to sing it. All you've got to do is say it, and people are like, "Oh, you've been listening to that Beyoncé song." [laughing] For my first album, One Love, my friend's little girl Dana called me and, at the time, Dana was probably five. I have a track on the first album called "Wrong," and she was singing it at the top of her lungs. It was crazy. And it was funny that she picked up on that particular song, because that song is about empowering women. And so when I write something, I think about what Randy said at the Miami Winter Conference. He told the audience: “Nursery rhymes are a good model for songs because they're sing-songy. Little kids can sing them. You want it to be simple. You want it to be easy, and then the rest of it is in the making of the actual music.” It's got to be catchy all the way around, I think. But the hook and the melody are, I think, the things that make a great song.

One particular dance song, "Band of Gold," ended up being one of three #1 singles from your dance music catalog. Have you ever had the chance to talk with Freda Payne directly, or receive any feedback from her?

Yes, actually. She actually said that my version of "Band of Gold" was her favorite. Right after we released that song, I was doing a charity event in San Francisco, and I ran into her, and I was a nervous wreck. She's absolutely gorgeous. She is a beautiful person, inside and out. We were singing on the same show. And before I even got in there, everybody was like, "Freda Payne is in there. She's waiting for you. She's waiting for you." And I was like, "Omigosh." Because here's the thing. My whole thing about remaking old songs is that those songs are great the way they are. They're not broken. So if you're not going to do it a little bit better, than don't do it, because I think you mess up the integrity of the song. That's why it's hard to cover certain people, because when it's already perfect, you know, there's not a whole lot you can do with it.

One thing that you have also done, which may be the first in the history of music, is have three consecutive #1 Christmas songs. “Up on the Housetop” reached the top of the AC chart in 2005, followed by “Jingle Bells” in 2006 and “Frosty the Snowman” in 2007. “We Need a Little Christmas” even charted in 2008. Why do you think your Christmas album generated so much success on radio? The only other Christmas album that I have witnessed experience success year-after-year is Mariah Carey’s. But even she didn’t have three consecutive #1s!

Well, Curb Records played this album very smart. I just put out singles the first two years. The third year, the album came out. I think that was very smart, because when you put the Christmas single out there, they get a new dose of life every single year. And we wanted to make just a fun Christmas album. I worked with a guy named Michael Lloyd, and he brought in all the best musicians and session players. And he brought in some great singers. I also get a lot of love from AC radio, and I'm very thankful for that. I think that once you establish that kind of relationship with radio, it doesn’t really fade away. I think I did that on-season and off-season. And they knew that when Kimberley Locke puts out a new record, it would be something that they could play. So when the Christmas stuff came along, they were like: "Oh, we love Kimberley Locke, and we love this Christmas song." So I kind of paid it forward, a little bit, on that.

As you speak about relationships, I read that you were in a quartet named Shadz of U, during your early years, which included three childhood friends: Chandra Boone, Selina Robb, and NaCole Rice. They even sang back-up on “Everyday Angels” [from Based on a True Story]. As you rose to success, you literally went back into your history and brought your other friends forward. Talk about that relationship that you had with them and the roles they had in assisting you along the way.

When I was a teenager, I hooked up with the girls that were in the group. We were all best friends in high school. We sang every day, all day, if we could. We practiced three or four times a week. When Sunday came, we would sing in four or five different churches every Sunday. That's what we did. It was our life. That's where I learned to sing, by singing with those three girls. We tried to make it as a group in the business, but the business was changing so fast that by the time we got to a place where we got to the crossroads in our lives, there weren't very many groups out there any more. Like when we were growing up, there was Silk, Boyz II Men, Brownstone, SWV, En Vogue. All these groups were out there, and so that's what we wanted to do. And then, as you know, it's all cyclical, so that just kind of went away, the days of groups and girl groups, boy bands, that all kind of went away. My mindset has always been, at the end of the day I'm responsible for my own success, so I started to do some things on my own, and I encouraged them to do the same, because we were all talented in our own ways. The group had kind of dissipated a little bit, but we always got together and did stuff here and there. But we went to college, and people moved away, and this, that and the other. It was after I graduated from college, from undergrad, that I auditioned for American Idol. And by then, we had a couple of girls that had moved away and a couple of us were still in town. We were all kind of in a state of flux. The role that they played in my life was huge. I mean, they were my best friends, and we all tried to make it together. And we all shared a common dream at one point in our lives. One of the girls in the group is still my best friend in the whole, wide world. She actually sings background in my band for me. And she's working on her own project. And so, life causes you to go in different directions.

That's a really powerful story!

Yes. You got the full scoop! [laughing]

Thank you! [laughing] Before we wrap up this interview, I have two closing questions that I thought would be quite fun, since they play off the titles of two songs from your debut, One Love.


The first track – “Coulda Been.” Had you not pursued a career in music, what career could you have undertaken?

I would have been a lawyer. I was headed to law school when I auditioned for American Idol.

And the second song is "Wrong." As you know, everything happens for a reason. Is there a particular moment in your life, where you learned a valuable life lesson, by accidentally taking a wrong turn?

Accidentally. Not really. I'm a pretty calculating person. I mean, of course, I've made mistakes along the way, or things that I wish I hadn't have done, or things I wish I'd done differently. But I don't have very many regrets in my life. I'll be honest with you. I was just talking to my mom about this the other day. I don't have very many regrets. I think when I was singing that song "Wrong," one of the things that I thought about, that I do think about, based on the lyric of that song is that I had so many people tell me that I could not do it. That I didn't have what it took. And that I'd never make it. Or I was this. I was that. And they're wrong, because I do have what it takes, and I still have what it takes, and I'm still doing it.

Outside of the world of music, what other ventures are you working on?

I'm working with my charity, One Heartland, which is a pediatric AIDS foundation. I've been involved with them since I came off of Idol. When we come off of Idol, we have all these charities that want to work with us. And then we often make a decision about whether or not we want to start our own charities. And so I worked with several different charities in the field of AIDS. Eventually, I got connected with Camp Heartland. I was a part of a penny wars drive that they were having among schools, and whoever raised the most money got a concert from me. Boston University won the concert, and they donated the concert back to Camp, and that's how I ended up going to Camp. And from that day, it changed my life, because I realized that whatever I'm going through, it's not bigger than what's going on at Camp Heartland. They just recently nominated me to the Board of Directors.

Oh, congratulations!

Thank you! So it's my way of giving back.

As an artist, you are involuntarily thrown into the job and title of “role model.” Why do you think that it is important for artists to give back to the community, and have their fans see them contribute their time, energy and money?

I think that if everybody helped one person everyday, this world would be different. I think with all the negative things that happen in our world, people get jaded and people become guarded. They close themselves off, and they live in their own world. We all have so much to learn from one another, whether we're the lowest or the highest on the totem pole, we all have something to learn from one another. I think that when you start to shut people out because you think that you're too big or that they're too small, then you miss out on a lot of blessings, as I would say. Because I look at the kids at Camp. I got the privilege to talk to some of the girls last year at Camp, right before they were going to bed. And they kind of have a little reflection before they go to bed. And you know, sitting there, these girls are fifteen. So of course, they're talking about boys. They're talking about fighting with their moms. And then, you know, they get to the serious stuff, and they're talking about living with AIDS and HIV. At fifteen. Through no fault of their own. And I think the girls seeing me there, it lets them know that somebody cares. But what they don't know is that they motivate me to be a better person, and they make me always look and self-reflect upon myself to make sure that I'm doing the right thing. Because I think that when we shut people out, because their circumstances are different than ours, we miss out on a whole other world and a world of opportunities that we could be having.

Well, you’re definitely an inspiration to others, and me as well.

Thank you, Clayton.

For more information on Kimberley Locke, visit her official website.

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About Clayton Perry

  • Scott

    Thanks for a great, in depth interview. I enjoyed reading it. I love Kimberley and her music.