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Interview: Ruben Studdard – Singer and Songwriter

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In an Auto-Tune world, they don't make singers like Ruben Studdard anymore. And that, dear reader, is a shame. Thankfully, the "Velvet Teddy Bear" has endured to fill in the void left behind by the untimely death of Luther Vandross, his musical icon.

Although Ruben Studdard is best-known for winning the second season of American Idol, in many ways, he has also become the standard-bearer for classic R&B. And as one would expect, Studdard's post-Idol life has been filled with additional personal successes: a budding acting career, a GRAMMY nomination (for "Best Male R&B Vocal Performance"), and a fairytale marriage to the love of his life, Surata Zuri McCants. Coincidentally, Surata would serve as inspiration for Ruben's fourth studio album, Love Is.

Upon the release of Love Is, Ruben Studdard managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on American Idol, "Just Because," and his recording experience with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

In the six years following your American Idol win, you have released four studio albums. Your latest project is entitled Love Is. When you look back on the recording experience for this particular album, what thoughts immediately come to mind?

Excellence. I've always wanted the opportunity to work with some legendary producers. Not that I didn't work with respected producers before but I wanted to work with people that I knew could really help me make the album the people would appreciate for years to come. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis gave me the opportunity to do that, man. I'm just really, really blessed, man, to get the opportunity to work with them, learn from them, sit around and listen to them talk about their experiences, the things that they went through and know that my experiences in the industry aren't completely my own, that everybody has had to pay dues and have gone through similar situations that I've been through. It was very comforting. It was just a very good place to be in this recording process.

How did Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis become attached to this project?

I don't know if you recall Season 7 of American Idol, but I did the farewell song for the person that got voted off the show. The record company that I'm with, 19 Recordings, asked them to do the song and they agreed to do it. After that, we had such a great rapport with each other that they asked them if they'd be willing to produce my album. The rest is basically history, man.

Oh, wow! Having worked with such legendary producers, what do you consider to be the biggest professional lesson that you learned from them?

The one really big lesson is just to always be myself. I think that's something that's a lot easier said than done when you're in the music industry. A lot of times you have to do things that you may otherwise not be so comfortable with musically if you had everything your way. But one thing that working with them has taught me is that it's always your way. At the end of the day, the only person I have to answer for a failed attempt or a successful release is me. So they were absolutely correct.

In comparison to some of your previous work, you took a bigger role on the songwriting side. 

A bigger role on the songwriting side, a bigger role in picking the overall tone of the album…I was involved from beginning to end, every step in making the album from the packaging to the photo, everything. If this album succeeds, it will be because the team that we put together has worked hard. I have worked hard as well, you know what I mean? I believe that people have actually noticed the difference in me personally and in my work.

Well, a great deal has transpired in your personal life, including your marriage to Surata Zuri McCants. Since Love Is has been dedicated to your wife, what have you found love to really be?

In the beginning, I wanted to name the album Love and Inspiration but the record company felt that the title made it seem like it was a Gospel record. Since I had released a Gospel record two albums prior, I understood their reservations with that because every song on this album other than "I Can't Help It" – that was just a fun work – I felt a spiritual connection with the song. I felt like – especially with me just getting married last June – this was an album that married people or anybody that's truly in love would listen to these songs and feel that when I'm singing, I'm singing because I'm truly in love with somebody. You know, the Bible talks about love in 1 John 4:7-8, it says "Love one another because love is of God." Everything that God is is love. The title is inspired by love and that's especially why I chose that title.

On the path to marriage, what did you learn about yourself? And what has been the greatest lesson that you have learned in the game of love?

Patience is power. [laughing] It truly is. You know, in a real relationship I don't think money matters more than people think it does. Your status doesn't really matter much with your ability to be patient with the person through the things that you think are flaws and for them to do the same thing with you. I think it is the most important aspect of relationships and to make sure that you're responsible enough for somebody's feelings, you know, to try and do the right thing for them. 

Two of my favorite tracks on Love Is are "We Got Love (That's Enough)" and "My Love Is A Rock." Do you have any special memories attached to either of those two songs?

I wrote those in Nashville with some pretty terrific songwriters. "My Love Is A Rock" was such an easy song. Going to Nashville was such a great experience because everybody was so spiritual. It was a lot different than I expected in most writing sessions. I kind of felt like I was writing Gospel songs every time I went to a session, which was cool for me because I love Gospel music. I grew up in the church and I'm still very active in my church and things like that. Once we were writing "My Love Is A Rock," I asked them, "Why don't we write a song like we're talking to God but based on that, God was talking to His children? I think it would come off as a really good love song." You know what I mean? Me and Bob were thinking of how we can explain what God would say to us if He was telling us about what His love for us was and how would a guy tell his wife and express his love without being ultra-soft. So the first thing that came to my mind was ‘my love is a rock.' After I said ‘my love is a rock,' he said ‘you can build a life on.' Tom started playing the music and we sung it and it worked perfectly. So within the first ten minutes of the session, we basically had the first words of the hook written. The song probably took us an hour to write.

When you look back on your early years in the church, how did that experience shape and develop you as a singer?

Church is where I learned to perform. I learned how to move crowds. That's where I learned to make a connection with people on the microphone. My first performing experience was in church. Everything about what I do has been directly affected by my life in my church.

Over the years, as you moved and transitioned from record to record, you have become one of a select few artists that has been able to record R&B and Gospel with a great deal of credibility. What have you learned about yourself as a singer, as you criss-crossed multiple genres?

I've learned that people will accept what you do that they recognize as real. You know what I mean? I've been fortunate that people have always been able to know and see the real me. That's what I think. I'm really, really blessed to have the opportunity to do what I would normally do if I was at home. Before American Idol, I was an R&B fan that worked at the church. So I'm not putting on any airs about who I am. I'll never be ashamed of being a follower of Jesus Christ and I think people are okay with that. 

I'm quite certain that your American Idol experience has placed certain pressures upon your career. Did you ever feel like you had to play a delicate balancing game–recording songs in a style that your American Idol fans expect, while experimenting as an artist with your own ideas and concepts? 

I think it's been more of a struggle not doing the things the fans want you to do, especially during the recording process. It can be difficult to do what the fans want you to do and please the record company at the same time.

Whenever I think of you, I am always reminded of some of R&B's greatest male artists, like Luther Vandross, Gerald Levert and Donny Hathaway. When you look at the musical landscape right now, there are hardly any male vocalists that do what you do or do it as well as you do. What kind of burden do you feel to continue their legacy? Because in a way, you're in a league of your own.

I think the burden shouldn't just be on my shoulders but on everybody that represents music. We have a lot to live up to. They worked really, really hard to make it so that we can just have it a little bit easier. Especially with this album, I just want to do my best, to make music that people that are fans of me proud. I think if I continue to do that then it will honor the legacy of those people that went before me. 

Although your album features several new cuts, you pay homage to several singers and songwriters on five covers: "Just Because" (Larry Addison), "More Than Words" (Extreme), "I Can't Help It" (Michael Jackson), "The Long and Winding Road" (The Beatles) and "For the Good Times" (Kris Kristofferson). How do you go about selecting those tracks?

Well, I knew I wanted to do remakes of songs before we even started the album. Terry and I just sat down and rolled out a ton of records that we loved. Every day, we just whittled them down, and we'd come to the studio and just cut some. "I can live without this. I can live without that." At the end of the day, we ended up with like 12 or 13 covers that we did. Of course, five of them made the record. 

Is there one that holds a special place in your heart?

"Just Because" is probably my favorite cover on the record just because I'm from the country, man. Blues music is just a part of our life here. 

Outside of the music world, you have made several television appearances, in addition to your recent acting role in the revival tour of Ain't Misbehavin'. What kind of interesting facts did you learn about your character, Fats Waller, the Cotton Club or the Harlem Renaissance in general? 

I learned a lot about Fats more so than the Harlem Renaissance, even though Fats was one of its best representatives. Working on the musical really gave me the opportunity to see and learn about the people that preceded us as African-American entertainers, what they had to go through with such a high level of talent. I don't think we perform half as hard as dancers like the Nicholas Brothers or, you know, as people like Fats or any of those people. We get so much more credit for our talent than they did. Whether that's fair or not, they had to go through that so we can be in the position that we're in. I don't think we as young artists truly understand the gravity of the things. I don't think any of us can even imagine being asked to perform at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and them telling you after you're done, "You can't stay here." You know what I mean? Or even the Cotton Club where a lot of them performed and black people weren't allowed to patronize the Cotton Club. The owner of the Cotton Club asked them one night, "Why don't you n***gers write us a song?" and Fats came back, you know, his answer to that request was "Black and Blue."

Unfortunately, when people speak about artists, they rarely address what they're doing behind the scenes in the community. So I wanted to learn about your affiliation with the Sickle Cell Disease Association. What led you to support that cause?

My mom – again, who is probably one of my greatest influences – for as long as I can remember she's always worked with the Sickle Cell Disease Foundation in Birmingham. Even when I was a young kid, I can remember her doing events in our church, giving testing and stuff like that at our church. When the Be Sickle Smart campaign called and asked me if I would be a part to help them gain awareness for sickle cell anemia for the patients, I jumped right on it. I did it last year, and this year, I got a chance to be a little bit more involved because I wrote a song that they're going to give to the people that come to the events to inspire the young kids affected with sickle cell anemia – to be strong and move on. It is not a very easy condition, and I've talked to a lot of the young people who are really going through difficult times. I just wanted to get involved because it's primarily a condition that affects African-Americans and we don't ever get people talking about it. Just got to do what I can to help my folks, man.

 

For more information on Ruben Studdard, visit his official website.

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About Clayton Perry

  • carmel

    Truly wonderful article. Thank you.

  • Fan of Ruben

    Thank you for such a great article.

  • Mary

    I am so glad you are back with a new cd. I love to hear you sing. I work until the early hours of the morning and every morning, I play Shout to the Lord..Ruben, you are truly an ambassador from Birmingham. You brought the town together during season 2. What I love about your voice is that you are smooth and have such a loving quality when you sing…You are a blessing.