Toronto-born Glenn Lewis took the soul music world by storm in 2002 with his debut album, World Outside My Window. His effortless vocal style and thought-provoking writing struck a chord with both neo-soul fans and contemporary R&B listeners. After that seemingly overnight success, however, he struggled with industry challenges stemming from preconceived notions of his artistic capabilities. Now, over a decade later, he finally returns to the fold with his official sophomore collection, Moment of Truth—and he’s got a lot of experience to back it up.
Tell me about growing up in Toronto. What was the atmosphere like?
Toronto is very much a melting pot. Growing up here was an amazing experience that lent itself to me having an open view of music. A lot of artists from here had an effect on my creative process. We didn’t have typical black radio out here. I grew up listening to Top 40. What was cool about it was that it encouraged a different approach to my songwriting.
The city has become more Americanized, but still has its own identity. There’s a heavy British influence. It’s kind of like a blend of Chicago, a little bit of New York, and London. When I’m overseas, I find there are more similarities there than there are in U.S. cities.
I’ve read that you were influenced by calypso, soca, and reggae from an early age. Were those influences from your family? Which particular artists, if any, influenced you?
With my mom being Trinidadian and my father being Jamaican, I more or less absorbed that whole thing by osmosis. My father was very much into soul music as well. That was really where a lot of my influence came from. Soul music was being played around the house more than anything else.
Aaron Hall from Guy was really instrumental in my approach to vocal styling. His tone is remarkable. He has a voice that really stayed with me. After listening to him, I remember my dad coming into my room one time when I was listening to Guy. He asked who it was. I told him, “Aaron Hall, he’s the man.” He said, “Man, he’s trying to sound like Charlie Wilson.” That was my introduction to The Gap Band.
It’s been said that you wrote your first song in order to gain the attention of a girl you were courting. Was that because you were aware of your musical talent, or rather, because music seemed like the best way to gain her notice?
I wasn’t sure what kind of music she liked. I thought it would be different and unique to write her a song and sing it to her. It would stand out from what anyone else might try to do to win her over. I never ended up getting the girl, but that experience was definitely the beginning of me falling in love with making music.
Was there a particular point at which you decided to take your enjoyment of music and turn it into a career?
I enjoyed music, but I felt like I had a fair shot of making it into something. I took an interest in finding out more about the inner workings of the business at large. When I was 16, that’s when I started on that journey.
What were your first steps into the industry?
I started singing every chance I got and networking with folks. Eventually, it turned into me going to studios and working with local producers. Friends of mine that performed would have shows at clubs and would pull me on stage to sing one or two songs. I met people and built from there.
How did you make the jump from doing those showcases to recording your first single, “The Thing to Do,” for BMG?
Through performing. The guy that I did the record with, Oren Isaacs, was one of the first producers I’d crossed paths with. He was a bass player who was often out at different spots. We started working closely together, and the song eventually came about through that.
Soon after, you opened some live dates for the Backstreet Boys. What was that experience like?
I didn’t know what to expect. At first, I wondered, “Why in the world?” It ended up being really cool. Me, Brian, AJ, and Kevin became really close. I’d never performed at stadiums, so that was overwhelming. But I became comfortable with it pretty quickly, because I aspired to get to that level of having that broad of an audience. I thought, “I’d better get used to this!”
From what I understand, your second single, “‘Bout Your Love,” caught the interest of producers Dre and Vidal, whom you ended up working with in Philadelphia on your first album, World Outside My Window. How did that transpire?
I did “‘Bout Your Love” with a close producer friend of mine, Too Rude, as part of an independent compilation album.That became the breakout tune. Dre and Vidal’s management heard it and reached out to Too Rude to ask him about me. They flew out here to meet me, and we talked about what they envisioned for me. They brought me to Philly and introduced me to Dre and Vidal; then, we started to work on different records, which they took to Sony. That’s how I got my first album deal.
You’re now working with Dre and Vidal again. What stood out to you about their style?
How effortless it was to them. They played multiple instruments really well. They were really easygoing. It was like the music was secondary, because their personalities were so great. It was easy to get comfortable really fast. There was always laughing, which makes the energy great for coming up with material.
Looking back on the recording and release of World Outside My Window, which provided you with the smash hit, “Don’t You Forget It,” what did you take from the experience?
The challenge of trying to outdo myself, keeping it going, and creating something bigger than myself—those things all sort of went hand in hand and were collectively a part of a goal for me. It’s something that I’ve pursued ever since and has kind of defined itself over time. It’s changed my objectives and my goals as far as how I approach my music. Even if it’s ever so subtle, it’s gradually evolved.
Looking at your career since then and listening to your new album, Moment of Truth, I get the sense that commitment is a big theme for you. You went through some challenges in trying to get your sophomore album, Back for More, released in 2003. Can you tell me about what happened and how you proceeded from that point?
The intention with Back for More was to show diversity. It had that reggae tonation to it and the idea of being able to display certain connections to my roots. I didn’t want to get stuck as a neo-soul guy. I’m a singer-songwriter and overall artist first—not just someone you can clump into any one genre.
But a lot of difficult things were happening behind the scenes. Literally, when I debuted was the beginning of the shift in the music game. Napster was coming to the surface. That started to undermine the business. By the time the record labels figured out what was happening, it was too late. It was already spiraling out of control. People were reactive, as opposed to proactive. A lot of the business people that were instrumental in my first project and supportive of me as an artist had either been let go or had to leave. By the time it came around to do the second project, it was a whole different regime.
When new people come in, they all have their vision of what they think is going to establish them and make them a success. Often, people don’t want to pick up what somebody else was working on, because their name is already attached to it. The artist ends up getting lost in the shuffle. So, Sony and I amicably parted ways. It took awhile for me to come back, because the industry had gone through so many changes. Everybody was so scared, because they remembered me as “the neo-soul guy,” and neo-soul wasn’t happening anymore—regardless of me being a respected artist who was completely capable. They didn’t get a chance to hear the second album. But if somebody had even researched me a bit more, they would see that “‘Bout Your Love” and “The Thing to Do” were R&B songs.
Eventually, things turned around. I feel like I’m having this opportunity to come back, because people want to see how the story’s gonna end. Everywhere I go, the enthusiasm that people share seems like they want to make sure they don’t miss out on something. A lot of people felt cheated because I left. What they don’t know is that it was inadvertent. I always wanted to bring out music; I just didn’t have an outlet.
After another false start with “Storm” in 2007, you began the 2010s with a single called “Good One,” which I believe was issued via Universal in Canada. Was that initially intended as the introduction to your new album, Moment of Truth?
That was actually a single deal just for that song, which ended up being the catalyst that created the deal between myself and Ruffhouse/Capitol. I was working on music in Philly for awhile. I ran into the guys from Ruffhouse when I was there. They didn’t have anything yet. They were just working out a new deal. They came back to the table after they had gotten certain things in place. They saw the video and heard the song. The funny thing is, they were standing right there and saw me in Vidal’s studio, but were kind of reluctant at first. Suddenly, they got excited again. They were able to see that I was still very much capable and still doing it.
I haven’t seen the full credit listing yet for Moment of Truth. Can you tell me how the writing process went for this album?
I wrote a quarter of the album by myself. The rest I collaborated on with other writers. The producers and everyone that worked on the album are Philly-based. It was synergy. I’ve grown to appreciate that. The guys down there are like family outside of making music. We have a certain rapport. That energy trickles over into the creative process. This album is definitely a collaborative effort.
In the opening song, “Time Soon Come,” you sing, “I’ll put in the work/Anything you need, consider it done.” Tell me about the inspiration of the song.
It took awhile to get to [the core of] the song. The music was there. I was trying to relay the conceptual idea to a guy I was working with. He wasn’t quite getting what I was saying, so I tried it with another collaborator. He knew where I was trying to go—where I could have fun and where it was a little more assertive. It gave a different spin to any would-be fan or fans. The thing about it is, through a musical piece it’s hard for everybody to see every side of you. We’re all multidimensional. I just wanted to show that I could have a little bit of lighthearted fun. My listening audience is predominantly women, so I wanted to show a different side to them.
What made you select it as the opening cut for the album?
The song is about that whole newness of a relationship—meeting somebody and building, that whole courting period. I thought it was a cool way of opening it up. The point to where the conversation is stemming from in that song is when you’re trying to show the person your intentions. A lot of this record focuses on the new and early stages of a relationship. So, “Time Soon Come” was almost like I was introducing myself.
Lyrically, one of the standouts for me on Moment of Truth is “Random Thoughts,” which is a very telling commentary on modern-day relationships. You sing, “Hashtag these random thoughts of my heart/I can’t explain everything I’m trying to say, ’cause I’m living in eight characters.” Is it still possible to have an authentic romantic relationship with texting and social networking as the main means of communication?
It gives communication a different dimension, but the more significant aspects of making a connection with a person will never change. You’ve got to put that time in. Sitting in front of a laptop or sitting on your phone is in no way comparable to intimately getting time in with a person, being able to make eye contact with a person—not through a laptop, but actually face-to-face. Being able to touch their face, stroke their hair, hold their hand, or kiss them on the lips. Just being present. The song “Random Thoughts” was more of a playful reference to the times and where we’re at—having fun with it. It in no way replaces the real thing of being present and really getting quality time in.
Another song I’m really diggin’ is “Up and Down.” One of the lines is, “You were there from the days I was hustlin’/Strugglin’ with dreams and ambition/But nothing was coming in.” Is it more difficult in this age to find that type of commitment?
It exists, but it’s become a lot rarer. With population increasing, global resources being stretched thin, and economies becoming imbalanced, people’s survival instincts and intentions of what they look for in a companion and out of life have changed so much. There seems to be so much emphasis on being an individualistic society—every man for himself. I find that more often than not, girls really lean on their girlfriends more than a guy that they meet. It’s almost as if they have the expectation that the guy is going to disappoint them. A lot of men now, also, are like, “Let me get myself together. I’ve already got my boys, which are like my family, my brothers. They’ll look out for me when I actually need that support of somebody to talk to. I can’t really depend on the moral support of a woman.” They feel it’s very 50/50 as to whether she’ll have the vision to see their bottom line, or potentially weaken them. You have that dilemma on both sides where both genders don’t really trust each other much.
It’s a strange time. Everybody desires companionship, but simultaneously, people have these crazy and often unrealistic expectations. Nobody wants to build with each other anymore. Sometimes you have to rough it out and occasionally have a meal at Ruby Tuesday’s. Eventually, you’ll work your way up to Ruth’s Chris and other nice restaurants.
In “Searching for That One,” you sing, “Man wasn’t meant to be alone/I’m looking for someone to make this house a home/We’ll get married and have a couple of kids/I can’t believe I’m even saying this.” Does all the modern day technological connectivity create more isolation in society?
The idea of that song was to express the things that we think and feel—that somebody somewhere we eventually meet is going to bring that vulnerability out of us, because it matters. You start doing the things necessary to make that person happy because that’s become a priority in your life. Not because you’re just trying to get what you want. It actually makes you happy to make that person happy, to see that person smile. Sooner or later, somebody brings that out of us. It can happen more than once in life. But the fact of the matter is, you can connect with people, but it’s rare to find an effortless connection. There’s a difference.
There are people you’ll meet with whom you’ll find general parallels and commonality. But there’s a specific difference between commonality and chemistry. There are people that you can be totally silent, awkward, and completely goofy with, and they’re not judging you. There’s a kind of sync that’s just the norm. Whereas some people, you can vibe together and have common interests; but little things will get on their nerves to the point where it will just aggravate them and make them not want to be around you.
As much as there’s a lot of possibility, people have to be realistic about what it is they’re looking for and what they’re willing to sacrifice to get it. People talk about it all the time, but I don’t know if they really face the facts. I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to find someone who’s a ten out of ten. For all the women out there, you’re not gonna find the dude that loves you and has the perfect balance between bad boy and charming good guy and treats you like a princess—and he’s rich. Seriously, get out of your head and come back to reality and actually participate in it. Even with dudes, she’s not gonna be a size four for the rest of her life. Sooner or later, you’ve gotta come to the realization that when you make a connection, that person has essentially got to be your best friend. No matter what is going on. You might even hurt each other. But as long as you’re always able to come back to the table and talk, that’s what counts. Because of that communication, you can find each other and find ways to make it work.
The first single from Moment of Truth is “Can’t Say Love.” Tell me about working with the Certified production team and what made you choose the song as your re-introduction to the public-at-large.
Well, everybody in Philly knows each other. Certified were referred to me. They’re on the come-up and really talented. When we first got to the studio, we didn’t play music or talk about it. We just sat down and started to talk about life and relationships, and got to know each other. Latif, the writer on that joint, was like, “Glenn, it’s the craziest thing: The exact thing we’re talking about is a record I started on with you in mind. No bull.” I said, “Let me hear it.” They had the first verse and hook. That’s how it came about.
I thought it was a good song, but I didn’t necessarily hear it as the first single. It ended up being a collective choice between the record label and me. I wanted to come with something that would’ve surprised people. But some people I talked to believed that it was poetic and beautiful enough of a song to be impactful in its own way. People have been reacting to it positively.