The music of Oleta Adams defies categorization. Even her four GRAMMY nominations cut across multiple genres—showcasing her artistic versatility and inherent individuality.
Although "Get Here" is her biggest popular hit in the United States, she has developed a substantial following in Europe, where eleven of her songs charted on the UK Singles Chart. And over the past two decades, Oleta Adams has amassed an international following, whose dedication draws strength and fixation from her warm vocals and passionate spirit.
Whether singing jazz, Gospel or R&B, Oleta Adams has the power to connect with her fans through the raw emotion underlying her personal—yet universal—lyrics. Her latest album, Let's Stay Here stands as the eighth of her long, illustrious career.
Upon the release of Let's Stay Here, Oleta Adams managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on her European success, marketing challenges, and "Picture You the Way that I Do."
Over the course of your career, your musical catalog has spanned multiple genres. What similarities do you find in a song, whether it's Gospel, pop or R&B?
Coming from being raised singing Gospel music in my dad's church, all the way to being trained classically as a lyric soprano, and then spending so many years in clubs and singing whatever the latest hits are as well as some Broadway shows stuff and whatever it is – it just makes you very versatile. You learn from practice how to get the most out of each one of those different genres of music. But the thing that ties it all together for me are the lyrics. The lyrics are the most important part of expressing yourself in song as far as I'm concerned. Some people look for an opportunity to show off their musical prowess by singing the highest note or the most notes. For me, it is how to get the most out of the words and to make it an expression that every person and hopefully as many people as possible can relate to what I'm saying.
As an artist with fans of every stripe, what kind of struggle has it been for you in terms of marketing yourself?
It's not a struggle for me now, but it was before I got the break. Fortunately, I was found by a group called Tears for Fears and I made my entry onto the scene in the States by way of Great Britain. When I got signed to Polygram Fontana, the A&R person, Dave Bates, was introduced to my music by Roland Orzabal of Tears for Fears. When Roland spoke about my performance in "Seeds of Love," he said: "You know, she's going to get a lot of recording offers once this record comes out. You'd be smart to be the person to sign her." And Dave was interested but his initial response was: "If I sign her, how do we market her?" Roland said, "Just let her sing." That's been my motto all along and that's pretty much what had happened. I kind of defied the labels because I've been on so many different charts. I've been on the adult contemporary chart, the pop chart, the Gospel chart, the jazz chart – you name it. I have four GRAMMY nominations but they're all on different categories. My work has been with so many different kinds of genres of music. That makes it fun for me because it's kind of like eating food. You have favorite foods. Mine – I love pancakes. I love pancakes but I wouldn't want to eat it every day. That's kind of the way I look at this. Fortunately, because I got on the scene the way I did, the public who listens to me, they're like, "Okay, here's Oleta Adams. That is the genre." It's Oleta Adams. You can feed just about any kind of song to your public when you're performing live and when you're recording if you serve it to them in the right way. I don't really worry too much about the marketing thing. I let somebody else worry about that. At this point in my life, I don't worry about it. I just sing.
As an American artist, were you surprised to gain entry into the U.S. market via the U.K. market?
Well, the great thing about music in other parts of the world other than America is that it is not as polarized as it is in America. In America, in one station, you will only hear R&B or you will only hear hip hop or you will only hear rap or you will only hear country or you will only hear rock or you will only hear jazz. In Europe, they would play all those different genres in the same station because they also have fewer radio stations than what we have in America. That makes them a lot more musically aware. You know that you are what you hear, what you listen to. It makes them much more open to world music, so they create some pretty interesting music. It gives more opportunities for Americans to go over there who can appreciate a different sound, especially since I had a more unique sound than a lot of the people.
What life events led you to E1 Music? And what experiences led you to record Let's Stay Here?
A great deal of time has passed since the All the Love CD that I put out in 2001. Records companies are not the way they used to be. They don't have as many artists. They don't have as many companies. Making a record still costs a lot of money, particularly if you're somebody like me who had some hit records and is fairly well-known all over the world. When it's time for you to put out your own project, you can't necessarily get everybody to do it for free so you rely on record companies or, if you're going to do your own project, you have to make sure you're prepared to be able to fund your own project. It's not like you can just put out a record any day of the week. I wanted to make sure that I was with a company who would really support what I do, who really liked what I do. I was approached by Koch some years ago. In fact, they used to call my manager every other week with interest in putting a record out, so I was very happy to work with Dave Wilkes and Chuck Mitchell who like what I do. It's always wonderful to work with them. They're not pushy and they're very positive so that's always a welcoming situation. Then another thing is I think it's important to wait until you have something to say. That's probably one of the most important parts of it. In all those times, I haven't just been sitting at home. I travel a lot doing live performances. The travel is not just in America but also abroad. Then you really have to take time out to have those creative juices start flowing again – you know, in between packing and unpacking and coming home and doing the laundry and still cleaning up the house and doing all the things that you need to do in dealing with your family and so forth – and also giving your voice time to rest and your mind time to clear to be creative enough to know and live your life fully to be able to have some things worth saying. That's the truth in why it takes so long to do a record.
When you look back to this particular recording experience, is there a particular thought that comes to mind?
I had fun writing the lyrics. I wrote eight out of the ten songs. For me, I write the lyrics first before I write the music. Most of the songs – if you added them all up – basically are saying the same thing. We're all still trying to have really good relationships with one another, or dealing on a daily basis with ourselves, you know, just figuring out who we are, how to get from today to tomorrow which then becomes today. I did not want to write the same song over again just with different words in a slightly different beat. I wanted it to sound differently. I think we've done that. I wanted it to be honest. I also didn't want to pull all of the inspiration just from myself. I also used others that were close around me – my colleagues, the people that I deal with weekly or daily – to pull from their experiences and say some things that perhaps they were trying to say in their own relationships, or from current events that happened. I wrote "Another Day Has Come And Gone" after the Virginia Tech shooting. It was an expression. I was trying to express what happened was a symptom of a greater problem that we all need to address. It's like, how do we help each other survive each day in a world that tries to force you to be something that you feel is difficult to be? Or to reach a particular plateau that you struggle to reach when you have everybody else going for the same position, you know? How do we deal with people who come from other countries? How do we make them feel inclusive? America tends to be very arrogant on a lot of levels, yet that's how America was formed – by a whole conglomeration of people from other countries, all different kinds of societies and cultures and so forth.
Why did you choose to name this particular album Let's Stay Here?
I don't know. Titles of albums…I don't know if they necessarily reflect the whole album. "Let's Stay Here" is one of my favorite songs. It was the most positive title from the tracks that were available. The title can mean several different things but I love the idea of being very present in the moment right now, that's important to me. Finding a place where you feel comfortable. That's what the song is about – a place where you feel like you can peace and solace with somebody that you really, really love and you find comfort with them. You feel like you're home with them and that's the place where you really want to remain, even through all the ups and downs that happen in relationships, that happens around us and our communities, as long as find that peace within and that you're loved, that's the place you're going to stay.
My favorite song off of Let's Stay Here is "Picture You the Way that I Do." What insight can you give me on that particular track?
Have you ever complained about not having something that you wanted? And have you ever talked to your folks about feeling inept in some sort of way? Like you were upset that you didn't have something that somebody else had? Or maybe you're tall and you wanted to be not quite so tall. Or maybe you're short and you wanted to be taller. This or that and the other. Today, the pressure to conform is a pre-conceived idea of what the perfect human being is, They talk about, "Oh wow, so-and-so is gaining weight now. She's getting too big." We never thought of that when I was coming up, you know? My mama was big and I loved it. To me, it meant she could cook. I couldn't even conceive of having a skinny mama. Skinny mama? You got to be kidding! Do you ever think a skinny mama is somebody who can really make a pound cake? [laughing] We just never really thought in terms of size. People are just beautiful and that's what you want to put across to folks. It's that you don't have to be like anybody else. You are already gorgeous the way you are and I'm sorry if you can't see that when you look in the mirror. How many times did your folks tell you, "You know what? You're precious." I've taken about five trips to South Africa. When I step off of that plane, something goes through me. When I look out at all the people, it's just a rainbow of folks. It's so much fun. When I come back to America, I love it, because in America we have so many different cultures and we've all mixed it up together here. I see how beautiful we really are. It's perception and that's what I needed to put across. So that song is also written from God's perception.
While I was listening to your album, that song really spoke to me. I immediately put the song on repeat and listened to it over and over again.
I'm so glad. That makes me feel good, because it's meant to let you know that you don't have to measure yourself by anybody else's measuring stick. People try to pressure you into doing that. Have you ever felt whatever line of business you're in, whatever it is you're saying you want to do, a certain portion of your peers will say, "Yeah, well if you're going to be successful, you got to be just like so-and-so." They tell you you can't do it. The truth is you can. I've been told I can't for so many years because I had a low voice when everybody else had a high voice. I sing serious, slow songs when everybody else is jamming and dancing. I like to dance, too. I play the piano when everybody else was standing up and shaking their thing. They tell you what you can't do. But when you're persistent and understand that what you offer is unique, it's up to you to take the chance and say, "I believe in me. I believe that I have something to contribute and I'm staying right here. I'm going to be true to my dream." Stay right here instead of jumping around from one thing to the other. I think about my husband and I. We've never had other jobs except music. I've never been a store clerk or a waitress or a shoe salesman or anything like that. All I've ever done in my life is play music. To this day, I still have people say, "No. What do you really do?" That's my life. I'm very happy that I stayed on the course and remained faithful to it because I have belief in myself. In life, you just have to appreciate where you are. Enjoy the present right now and be very present in this present moment.
When you first came out, you were doing a style of music that was different from the norm, so your first two albums were self-financed. What particular obstacles did you have to overcome? One source noted that you spent nearly $5,000 on your demo!
Yes, $5,000. I borrowed $5,000 from the bank. Understand that I had been a professional musician performing in clubs and so forth for 17 years before I got discovered by Tears for Fears. So this isn't one of those things where you say, "Okay I'm going to be a singer," and you sing a couple of songs and then somebody says, "Oh my God! What a voice you have!" and they whisk you off to Hollywood. That did not happen. I'm a preacher's kid. In those days, it was not cool as a preacher's kid to be singing anything other than Gospel. That was the first thing. There were so many things to get over – like the jealousies of your peers when you receive a lot of attention. I remember being belittled by the community churches because I was singing somewhere other than in the church after having been the director of four choirs in my father's church. In those days, it was not cool for church people to go to clubs or listen to anything other than Gospel music. It's different now. I sit back now and go, "What was all the fuss about? Why did I get all the arrows?" Now, it's cool. It was not then. Then I was trying to get a start after school down in Los Angeles. It was a whole thing of, "Well you know, she sounds too Gospel." It's interesting, isn't it? The problem I went through is that I was trained classically as a lyric soprano singing classical music, but also being raised in my dad's church where I sing Gospel. So you got two completely different styles of singing and I was coached. My mentor was my high school music director so I could sing Broadway musical stuff, classical stuff or Gospel. I sang it all appropriately the way it was supposed to be. When I started singing jazz in certain places, one agent came up to me and said, "Well you know, when they put your picture in the paper and people decide to check you out live, they expect you to sound a certain way." All of my black friends would say I sounded too white. Then there were people who were not black that said that I sounded too Gospel-y. I lived with that for most of my life. That was probably the toughest battle of all. The people who passed on me in those days because they said, "Well, it just sounds like church music," because I had such a big voice. Who knew that it would become this thing for people of all races, creeds, and colors, even from the Philippines or Japan wherever for everybody. They were singing like they go to Gospel churches or non-denominational churches, singing Gospel music in the pop style. I mean, who knew? But you know what? It made me real strong. My influences were a lot of different kinds of people, but mostly Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand – I love the purity of her sound, the way she used words. That's what I love about Roberta – the way she infused jazz and classical into R&B and blues and she used the words. It all paid off in the end.
Out of the 10 tracks on Let's Stay Here, only two song aren't original cuts: "Feeling Good" and "Don't Explain." What is it about those two particular songs that made you gravitated towards them? How did the lyrics resonate with your soul?
Well, "Feeling Good" I did a little late, but I sang the song for a national commercial that Buick made for the Enclave a couple of years ago. I was asked if I was going to put that song on my album. And at that time, I didn't want a swing-sounding thing on my record and had told them I wasn't going to record it. Then later on – much later on – after I had nothing to do with them anymore, I started thinking about it. I have a girlfriend who sings that song it in sort of a reggae style. So I got an idea from her and Paul Peterson, one of my bass players, to produce the record. He came up with this wonderful style that worked out pretty cool and went all the way there with it. That was fun. As far as the Billie Holiday song, I was just listening to a collection that I have of Billie Holiday songs one day as I was preparing songs for a jazz concert that I did in Holland. That song just hit me, "Wow, how much fun would that be to really sink my teeth into that!" I did a version but then Paul Peterson's brother did a fantastic arrangement of that tune. I guess he's been influenced by Clare Fisher and his accordion stuff. He's great. I can't play but he does. Wow, it was fun singing to it. I like doing unique versions of songs.
Let's Stay Here offers a rich listening experience and will be a definite treat for your fans, both new and old alike. Although I was introduced to your music some time ago, with your take of "Get Here (If You Can)," what words would offer as a selling point to new discoverers of your music?
Well, I think enjoy it for what it is worth today. Listen to the sound and hopefully the music will grab your heart, the way "Picture You" grabbed yours. It's the same person, the same kind of maturity, really the same styling. Enjoy what it has to offer. Hopefully, it will sound fresh every time you hear it. The fact that it is not a stamped version of everything else that you hear today, the fun thing about music is exploring, exploring types of music that you probably wouldn't listen to everyday. Hopefully, we can somehow be able to pull that into our culture the way the rest of the world does, the way Europe does, the way South America does. To listen to music of all forms at its purest without somebody else having to tell you whether or not you should like it. Accept it at face value.
For more information on Oleta Adams, visit her official website.