Both the bitter and the sweet are familiar tastes for dance-music mainstay Ernest Kohl. Straight out of high school, the burgeoning theater performer heard his voice all over New York nightclubs in the early ’80s via the now-classic “She Has a Way.” But his name was nowhere to be found on the record, and the monies made from it never reached his pockets. Fast forward to the 21st century. After coping with the loss of his life partner, the ever-resilient singer, songwriter, and producer is delving into new (and old) music headfirst on Eternally, his fifth album release. He chats with Justin Kantor about the rivers he’s crossed and the road ahead.
Your new album, Eternally, holds very personal significance for you.
The whole story started very sadly. I lost my husband and manager of 14-1/2 years, Brian Scott Harper, to a massive heart attack — instantly. At the time, I was signed to Sony/BMG. I had the Hits album out, and “Only You” was #1. I had started preparation on my next album. Brian and I heard the song “Eternally” and were amazed. Steve Skinner and Tom Moulton, who co-produced it, loved it. I was so excited that I was finally getting to do a full-on ballad, not just a ballad intro!
One Sunday night, Brian and I and a group of friends were watching Desperate Housewives. He was making his famous stuffed peppers for dinner. He said, “I need you to go to the store right now, we’re out of coffee and filters.” He was adamant. I was not gone 40 minutes. I came back, opened the door, and found him on the floor — gone. It really rocked my world. He had completely quit smoking. He had experienced several smaller heart attacks; but nothing that couldn’t be managed. He was adjusting his diet and making lifestyle changes. He was 41.
It was a horrific experience. I had three live dates to complete, since the tickets had already been sold through Ticketmaster. It just about killed me. People said I gave amazing performances; but I thought they were just trying to make me feel better. I simply based everything on my craft and technique and shut everything in my mind off. I paid attention to every detail, so that I didn’t have to think about Brian. When I got offstage, I broke down in tears. The funeral was very difficult, since his family was not truly embracing of a gay relationship. If I had been a straight woman, it would have been totally different. They kind of faked their support up till then.
One of the songs you remade on Eternally is Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.” Did your experiences with Brian have to do with the selection?
Yes, that was the first song I decided on for this project. I was watching the Country Music Awards, and Brian was lying in bed watching something in the other room. Tim McGraw came on and sang the song, and just the writing of it passionately took me. I looked into the bedroom and saw Brian’s foot there. Something in my mind was saying something to me; but i didn’t get it. But I said to myself, “This would make a great dance record, because it’s so anthemic.” It’s driving; I like the way the chords progress; and it’s got really great lyrics.
It ended up being the first song that I stepped up to the mic to sing after Brian died; so it was the hardest record in my history to do. I was petrified of that session. One of my dearest friends — backing vocalist, arranger, and co-writer, Matt Karris, whom I’ve been working with for years — picked me up at my apartment and took me to the studio. My wonderful co-producer and -writer Steve Skinner, who was the musical director for Rent and has produced Bette Midler and Aretha Franklin, has a state-of-the-art studio in his country house in New Jersey.
How do you approach recording a song that’s so closely associated with its original artist?
I study the original very intensely, but I know I must have my own take on it. In the course of my career, there have only been a couple times where I have been directed to totally copy certain phrasing, to get it to fit a certain beat — since there’s only so many syllables you can get in, and I love to hold notes till the cows come home! I think we made it our own, though.
A lot of times, until we hit that chorus, people don’t even realize it’s that song. I’m surprised at the success. I was out at a Halloween party at a club. I hadn’t gone out in awhile, and my friends were telling me, “You need to start reliving your life again”: this is what Brian would want. In the middle of his set, the DJ, CJ Howard, played my version of “Live Like You Were Dying.” He had no idea I was there!
You also covered ABC’s quintessential ‘80s classic, “Be Near Me,” which you released as a single last summer. How did that come about?
I’ll always remember, in 1985, when my first 12” single release on the Unidisc label was out, I had just finished a soundcheck at the Ice Palace nightclub in Miami. The DJ started the evening with “Be Near Me,” and I was taken with the song instantly. It was the regular mix he played — not the “Munich Mix.” Years later, Brian and I had just seen Cher’s “Believe” concert. He asked me, “If you were going to cover a song to put in your show, what would it be?” I just turned to him and went, “Be Near Me,” and he went, “Oh my God, that’s one of my favorite songs of the ‘80s!” It became one of our special records that played a big part of our lives. I did it because of him, it meant so much. And anytime I mention the song, people have a story about it. Yet, it somehow is kind of hidden. I try to look for songs that aren’t on the radar.
A standout original tune on this album is “I Remember When,” in which you address Brian by name and describe a variety of scenarios you two encountered. The song also has a decidedly ‘80s-underground/electro vibe to it.
Brian liked a lot of those kinds of grooves. I didn’t write the full story; but every single lyric in there has to do with our relationship. He was such an amazing guy. There’s one hysterical part that I only told part of. My mother wasn’t sure if she could come down for Thanksgiving. Brian told me the night before, “You’ve got your work, I’ll do the shopping.” So, he walks in with all these bags, and in one there’s a frozen, 24-pound turkey. At 7:30 at night: “This is all I could find; it’ll thaw out by the morning!”And wouldn’t you know, we had rented Titanic, so we had our iceberg right there! He put the turkey in the sink in warm water, and as was watching the movie, all I could see through the screen was him massaging this 24-pound turkey!
Since the ‘80s has come up a couple of times in our conversation, let’s talk about them specifically! After all, that’s when you got your start in the music business.
Yes. Well, when I first started doing records, I was in high school. I was discovered by a management firm that handled Grace Jones, Stephanie Mills, and Loleatta Holloway. They had seen me in a musical and said, “You’re gonna be a star.” They signed me and got me to producer Bobby “O” Orlando, with a deal on Blue Sky/CBS records. Originally, Jim Burgess was to produce the album; but just as we were going into production, he got sick and passed away, so they took me to Bobby. At that time, he was producing Divine and The Flirts — by the way, none of the girls in that group actually sang; one did one spoken line in “Don’t Put Another Dime in the Jukebox”; but most of it was Holly Oz, who had sung a lot of earlier disco hits on the Vanguard label, also through Bobby O.
I’d go in after school on evenings to record songs; but Bobby would never let me hear the final mixes — just cassettes of incomplete production. I thought, “Hmm…this is a little bit weird”; but he said, “Don’t worry about it.” So, one night, I was out at a club, thinking these songs were going on my album, when I hear this song come on, and I’m dancing with all my friends. I went, “This is me!” They were like, “Are you drunk? We know who you are. I said, “No, this is me singing.” I started singing along with the record: “She knows what you’re lookin’ for, she knows how to make a score, she knows all the things you adore.” They went, “Oh my God, that is you!” I had just finished doing Rocky Horror Picture Show, so you could still hear a little of my affectation from there. The record was “She Has a Way,” which Bobby released under his own name. He would mix me and vocalist Wendell Robinson l together whenever there had to be a really high part that was a little more soulful. He was very clever at what he did.
I never saw Bobby actually sing anything. He is, however, a brilliant musician. I saw him walk into the studio once and from a seven- or eight-minutes-long 12” track without any drum machine, pick up a real cowbell and a drum stick, and play in exact rhythm from the start of the track to the end of the track perfectly. Now that’s talent. But you don’t go and do bad, illegal things by signing artists, putting your name on them, and not paying them. Thank God I had a great management team, including Jeffrey Robbins. Because Bobby was also tough to deal with. He did not like gay people at all, and gay people made him! He wouldn’t even shake my hand, he was so afraid of AIDS. That upset me to work with somebody who to my face discriminated against me.
Back then, being gay was totally prohibited in the music business. I was sat down at a major label and told by my management, the A&R department, and publicist, that if anybody even knew I was gay, if I ever did anything inappropriate in public — even to go out to a gay club and take my shirt off and be seen, then that was it: the record contract was over, torn up, out the door! I didn’t officially “come out” come out until a feature years later in Out magazine. Brian had a lot to do with it. We didn’t want to live in shame and hide that we were in love anymore. I kind of thought that everybody got it; but maybe I was wrong. I’ve always had a very large demographic that likes my music. It started with records like “Sooner or Later.” That was more of a pop record, even though it was a huge club hit. Women still adore me, and I love them. I play straight clubs and gay clubs. My show goes over either way.
So, you weren’t always able to be out and proud like you are now?
The tide has definitely changed. Gay now is cool; that started happening in the last seven or eight years, after getting shows on major television, such as Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Mainstream media has opened up. Yes, there’s still gonna be that hatred. But I don’t see a difference between straight and gay—or the records. And let’s talk about AIDS: I’ve never seen anybody contract it from a record or CD. There’s always going to be haters in both communities. Some gays don’t want to see other gays get ahead. Most of the time, though, they’re wonderful and embracing — so exhuberant and fabulous an audience. My biggest qualm is doing gay pride events that have sponsors like Budweiser & Coca-Cola — all amazing money, then the organizers go and hire only straight talent. We have all this great gay and lesbian talent. Why are they not hiring them and paying them the same amount? It’s not straight pride! Let’s keep the gay dollar in the gay pocket.
In the early stages of your career, you helped to define the “hi-NRG” sound of dance music with classics like “Bad to Be Good,” “Anything to Get Ahead,” and “I Think I Love You.” In recent years, you’ve maintained that core sound with hits such as “Don’t You Want My Love” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” How big of a role does hi-NRG play in what you do these days?
Somebody in the press said that I was a pioneer of the hi-NRG sound, and that was a great honor to me. I love the style—but not in a tacky fashion. I like my NRG well-done, well-written, and orchestrated. It’s great music that can cross over to pop. If you look at my maxi singles, like “Be Near Me,” there are 12 remixes: house, circuit, and electro; but also your disco, NRG, and crossover. I make sure that every DJ is covered.
You have a colorful array of musical influences—from the Partridge Family to DJ Tiesto to Donna Summer and Julie Andrews. What role have they played in your development as an artist and musician?
A lot! Julie Andrews is one of the best vocalists ever. Her voice is pristine. Every single lyric you can understand, She communicated to you with perfectly clear beautiful singing; and you believed it! I like people who can interpret. David Cassidy is a communicator, even when he plays Bobby Darin in Vegas. Maybe it’s due to my early musical theater training that notice that. I really look for quality.
How important of a component is visual image to your work?
Very. Sometimes you have to change your image for a song. With the cover of “Be Near Me,” for example, I decided to take it almost into an old Hollywood look of film noir, romance, and passion. On the other hand, the cover of the Eternally album is almost Avatar-ish. I work directly with my graphic artists and photographers. When I’m on set, I have my own make-up artist to alleviate stress — I don’t have that third eye! Jack Pedota, who’s famous for doing the Michelle Pfeiffer “Catwoman” poster, is a photographer I love to work with. I’ve even worked on a cologne campaign with him. But I’ll come in with ideas, and he’ll do ones that he didn’t even tell me about before. That’s where i get nervous; but when he gets his way, some of most brilliant stuff comes out, so I have to let go and give give my trust over to him.
There are some real stories from the photo shoots I’ve done. On one shoot, I was chained to rock out in the Pacific Ocean. We weren’t expecting the tide to come in so quickly. Everybody was so worried about getting the shot right, the tide came in, and there I was stuck, chained. And he’s like, “I can’t find the key!” Thank God they got me off there, the water was coming and coming. Another time — and we have this on tape, I can’t see what’s behind me, in this shot in the middle of a hot, hot summer, in brownstone five floors up with no A/C. I had a blazing fire behind me; and they kept throwing newspaper into the fire to get it to go up higher, so it would show up over me. I was on this elevated thing, and I literally started on fire — you have to see my face, finally i’m running out of the shot! The make-up artist was screaming, “He’s sweating way too much!” Oh, and then, being on the top of a building in the middle of winter, they decided to wet my hair — and it froze!
Wow, those are some adventures! What’s coming up next for Ernest Kohl?
I’m working on remixes for two more maxi singles from Eternally. Jeffrey Collins at Famous Records/E.M.G. requested that I take the title song and turn it into a dance tune, so that should be interesting! I’m also involved in three films, with the possibility for stage productions of two of them. I own the rights to them, and each one is very different. I’d like to have one done where the audience is involved in the whole environment, in the midst of the play — like The Donkey Show or some of the murder mysteries. People can go in, start having cocktails, and everything starts going on around them.
I’m also in the middle of a major project with my label and a radio station. It’s a series of compilations of disco and hi-NRG artists from the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and beyond. We’re remixing the tracks, keeping in place the original vocals. Some of those took forever to find, and we had to actually bake the tapes from the old 24-track reels that would stick together! You only get one chance with that; thank goodness we have not lost one. Some of the proceeds from this project going are toward AIDS. I’ve lost so many of my best friends. Every single person on this project has lost somebody they’ve worked with or known. I have to do something to give back to the community and universe. A lot of these songs are being lost, or if people hear them, they don’t know who the artists are — they become faceless. This is going to give them a second life, and a chance to be seen again, as we’re also planning a tour.
I feel so honored to have the chance to keep working in this industry. It’s so difficult, and so few people from when I started are still in it. How many people can say they’re living their dream?