Tuesday , April 23 2024
From the burbs of Pennsylvania to the streets of Manhattan, the out artist transitions from dance floor diva to acoustic balladeer.

Interview: Jason Walker – Finding the Song in His Heart

Jason Walker’s remarkable vocal ability surpasses the range of most male vocalists steeped in clubland. Combined with to-the-point, ear-catching compositions, it’s helped him to score a succession of dancefloor chart-toppers like “Foolish Mind Games,” “My Life,” “No More,” and “I Can’t Get You Off My Mind.” Not keen on limiting the fire to BPMs, the small-town- Karaoke-singer-turned-big-city-belter explores his acoustic leanings on his fourth album, Leave It All Behind. He talks with Justin Kantor about raves and blues, being an “out” artist, and the importance of Kristine W.

You’re from a town called Canonsburg in Pennsylvania. Where exactly is that?

It’s twenty minutes south of Pittsburgh.

Jason Walker

What was the atmosphere like there?

It’s kind of small-town USA. There’s not really a lot to say about it. Pittsburgh’s considered to be the “big city,” and it’s twenty-one miles south of Pittsburgh.

Was there much culture or music around?

Well, Pittsburgh always seems to get things a little bit later. But there was always music around me; I managed to find it somewhere.

When did you get into music?

I started singing when I was four.

Did you go to a lot of shows growing up?

Not a lot; but I’ve always been enamored with singers and songwriters. There was always music in the house: Motown; and, my mother has an insane record collection. There was never a shortage.

Were there certain pieces from her collection that you would pull out, as a kid, that you were particularly enthralled with?

Disco [laughs].

Any particular disco artists?

I liked all the old soul singers: Donna Summer, Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan. Those are the ones that I gravitated towards.

Donna Summer was the first singer that I took to, as well. My mother must have listened to her a lot when she was pregnant with me, because I practically came out singing Donna Summer tunes [laughs].

I can appreciate that.

Jason Walker

You have a versatile slate of influences. A few that I’ve read about are Rachelle Ferrell, Steve Perry, Barbara Tucker, and Kristine W. I think Rachelle Ferrell’s amazing, I’ve seen her live, a few times — nothing like her.

Oh, I think that she is, hands-down, the most amazing technical singer there is. There are some opera singers that are just disgustingly insane, but that’s a whole other style, and… Rachelle Ferrell’s just… oh, don’t get me started on her! It’s insane. You sit there,and you’re kind of in awe of the whole experience.

Exactly. Now what about Steve Perry? What was it about him that struck a chord with you?

I’ve always identified with male singers who have higher voices. And I wish that Steve Perry would put a new record out. I mean, not that he needs to [laughs]. I would just love to be able to go and see him, somewhere. They don’t get much better than him.

Kristine W. is someone you’ve mentioned in the liner notes for each of your CDs. What drew you to her music?

Well, Kristine W changed my life with her first album, Land of the Living. I was really, really young, but the effect that it had on me was just insane.

Was it the messages she was putting out, or the music itself?

It was all of it: her voice, her songs. You know how, when you think back, and you think of a really imprinting moment? That’s what I think of. Like where I was. I was on the verge of coming out, and my entire life was like someone just took pieces of a puzzle and threw them up in the air. And then along came Land of the Living, and it totally changed me. Whenever I would perform in Pittsburgh, that’s what I would sing. I would do those songs.

Did you hear it first when you were out at a club, or was it played on the radio?

A friend of mine had told me about it, and then I heard “One More Try.” I was like, “Oh, fuck, where do I get this?” It was an RCA Records release and was in record stores. So I went to the clubs that I could get into, and would hear it. Honestly, I played the CD so much that it stopped playing.

You mentioned that, when you started performing, you would do some of her songs. Where was your first performance??

Well, the first shows that I ever did were talent shows when I was in 4th Grade. Later, I started singing at karaoke bar competitions.

Was that a training ground for you, or was it just a hobby?

Before I went to New York, I was limited in what I could do in a small town outside Pittsburgh, so I took what I could get.

What were the events that led you to recording your very first, self-titled CD on Ridge Avenue Records?

Jason Walker

One of my close friends I met, ironically, in a recording studio in Pittsburgh — we worked together for a few years, just writing and then recording.

He managed me at one time — and then it became a musical partnership. We wrestled with record companies, and went in and out of the United States, performing. And shortly after I moved to New York, we were having a conversation, and he said, “You know what? I know that you don’t live here anymore, but we should put this out, just to do it.” So, that’s what happened.

There wasn’t a huge plan. It was just a conversation that we had. And I said, “Great! Let’s do it.” But there wasn’t a lot of muscle behind it, so I don’t really think that a lot of people even know that that particular record is even there. And it’s such… like, if I listen to some of those songs now, I feel like there are some good songs on there — but it’s… in my opinion, it’s from so long ago.

I noticed when I was listening to it and looking at the credits that you had written a lot of songs on there, and there’s a lot of acoustic and understated ballads, like “Let Me Go” and “Alone.” It was a very different side from what most of us have heard on your albums This Is My Life and Flexible.

Well, with the new album, I think people are going to be a little surprised, because it’s all acoustic pop and soul. There are a couple of danceable songs; but it’s not a dance album. And I think that, just based on the two albums that I did with Junior Vasquez, people have come to expect that that’s what I’m going to do, but I have many sides.

Dance music has always been relevant to me. With that very first record, there was some dance on it; but there were also other styles. And I’m excited to go back there again.

Is that how you perceived yourself as an artist, when you were starting out — doing a variety of styles?

Oh, yeah, when I was in Pittsburgh, I would play with a blues band one weekend, and then I would play a rave the next weekend.

Two extremes!

I hated people who’d tell me that I couldn’t do this, or I couldn’t do that. I’ve never been that kind of person — I want to do it all, so I did. So I feel like, to a degree, that’s what I’m doing now.

When you recorded the albums with Junior Vasquez Music, did you have — no pun intended — flexibility in what you were recording? How did you feel about the experience?

Jason Walker This Is My Life

Oh, definitely. I feel like with my first album with him, there was a clear vision, and I’m very, very proud of that record and everyone involved with it. We wanted to do a dance album; so that’s what we did. I had moved to New York a year and a half before, and I was really heavy into club music at that time. I still am, but — just leaving Pittsburgh and moving to New York, and getting a chance to work with Junior, I was like, it’s got to be a full-on, one hundred percent dance album. I loved that.

When it came time to do the next one, I guess there was flexibility, but there was so much happening at the label, and the whole experience really wasn’t pleasing to me. The only thing I was really comfortable with was the video that we shot. I was really happy with that.

There was just so much happening in people’s lives that were directly involved in the making of the record. I’m happy with the record; but I’m not thrilled. I feel like there was so much positive energy and thought put into the first one. Looking back, and thinking of the chain of events that led up to the dissolving of the label — hindsight is 20/20, but I didn’t feel as much care was taken with the second one. But it’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the way it happened.

This Is My Life was quite an accomplishment in that you scored five Top 10 club singles from the album, which doesn’t happen a lot in the world of dance music.

It was crazy. It really was.

Was there pressure from that? Did that contribute to the feeling you had of Flexible not being so cool?

To a degree there was pressure; but it just wasn’t fun. This Is My Life was my first major release, and there was a lot of hype around it. And even before the album came out, there were three songs that had already topped the chart. It was the first artist album that Junior Vasquez Music had ever done. Even though it took a minute for it to come out, it was well thought-out. With Flexible, there wasn’t that—there wasn’t a lot of nurturing that was happening. I wasn’t upset at anybody, but it wasn’t the same.

Did you choose the remakes, like “101,” the Sheena Easton song; and “Can’t Stop”, the After 7 classic?

“101” was originally going to be on This Is My Life. But it ended up not being. So we decided to put it on Flexible. And “Can’t Stop” was originally done for Quentin Harris’s No Politics album. Strictly Rhythm released it as a single. He wanted to do a cover song, and we had worked together—he had remixed for me previously. And this was around the time that Quentin was just starting to explode. We sat down together, and we had a list of about four songs, and we talked about each one. That’s the one that we settled on.

Jason Walker Quentin Harris

It seems like that was a good collaboration that came about— even though now you’re independent, you still worked with Quentin on the new single, “Leave It All Behind.”

Yeah, we work on a lot of stuff together. We click. He’s an insane musician. He’s not just a DJ; and he doesn’t just turn knobs. He plays instruments and he’s extremely musical. He has great sensibilities when it comes to arranging, producing, and writing. He’s like a self-contained little genius. And he’s a good friend of mine, which makes it even better.

That’s hard to find in the industry.

Yeah, tell me about it!

Vocally, two distinctive aspects of your style are your high range and, on top of that, your ability to belt in that high range. Sometimes comparisons are made to “divas”—is that something that you strive for or appreciate?

Oh, I definitely appreciate it. I’m a product of my upbringing. That’s what I listened to, growing up—it’s still what I listen to now. So any comparison that’s made with me in the same sentence as some diva always puts a smile on my face.

Since you moved to New York, have you found that it’s changed how you approached music, or your personality and how you go about getting your music out there?

I don’t think that New York has changed me in that way. I feel like the industry, as a whole, has. Because it’s a digital world now. When I moved here, a little over eight years ago, you still had record stores. Wal-Mart and Target were not the biggest sellers of music in the country at that time. You still had Virgin, Tower, Sam Goody, FYE—they’re all gone now. With the creation of MySpace and Facebook, you don’t need a record label behind you to put out a record. You can, for all intents and purposes, do it yourself. I mean, it’s always nice to have someone behind you, but it’s not something that’s needed anymore. Which is strange to say, but it is the truth.

How do you think those changes have affected the live performance opportunities for artists?

That’s a good question. If you’re an indie artist, there are ways for you to get your music out there. I feel like that’s one thing that will never change. People want to see an act. You don’t have to be a major label act for someone to want to see you, with the outlets that there are, nowadays.

You don’t think that people are less inclined—if they could, say, watch a simulcast on YouTube or something— to go out and…

To a degree, yes, I think that the digital age is having somewhat of a negative effect on live performances. Because you can go to almost any site and see someone live. It used to be that, okay, if I’m going to go see Alexis Jordan, then I’m going to go see Alexis Jordan, because I can’t see her anywhere else. But I can watch her on YouTube now. I think that people have to put their thinking caps on about new and innovative ways to capture and hold an audience.

At the end of the day, your computer screen isn’t going to take the place of an actual live show. I want to be there, ’cause there’s nothing like being there. Watching live stuff is a quick fix; but it’s not the same.

You’ve performed live in several different countries over the last few years: What have been some of the highlights for you?

I loved Greece. Greece was great. They know how to have a good time. I played at Villa Mercedes in Athens, with Quentin. It’s a very posh, beautiful nightclub. And Ministry of Sound in England was a dream come true.

On to your new album, Leave It All Behind. You’ve described it as John Mayer and Jon B. meets Celine Dion and Patti LaBelle. Can you shed some light on the songs and their significance to you?

Well, this whole record is extremely personal. I wrote a lot of the songs either by myself or with someone else. I worked with a lot of musicians on it—every track is all done with live instrumentation. There’s some programming on a couple of the songs, but it’s more live than anything: live strings, live everything. I worked with a good friend of mine, Rami Ramirez —and we’ve played a lot of shows around the city over the past year. The song “Leave It All Behind” I wrote about my life; but also about my sister and one of my best friends from home. It’s like all of us were going through shit. And thinking about them and their experiences, and what’s happening — like, my best friend was going through a divorce, and she was leaving Colorado and moving back to Pittsburgh. And I just kind of sat down, and it just came out.

So it was more of a sort of personal statement than a career statement? ’Cause obviously you’re making changes in your career, too.

Well, it’s definitely a career statement, too. But it’s not like I’m leaving everything that happened to me behind. After I did the song, I thought, “Oh, fuck! People are going to get the totally wrong idea about this!” It’s not about discounting or closing a door on anything that’s happened in my past. It’s just about recognizing things that have happened to you and using them for positive things in your life, and moving forward. You can’t stay the same forever. Experiences make you grow — and they change you, to a degree. So that’s what it’s about: embracing the future, not being afraid of it.

How important is being out, in terms of your career and your music?

Honestly? I’ve always hated being defined as a gay artist. It bothers me because that’s not what it’s all about. I’m just a singer who’s gay. That’s it. More importantly, it’s about music. It’s about the fact that I love to sing and tell stories. I feel like the fact that I’m gay is secondary.

What about in terms of being a role model? It’s more acceptable for an out female artist to have mainstream popularity. But, young gay guys out here — we look up to certain male artists, as well.

I know exactly what you mean. And definitely, if I’m a role model for some gay kid living in Nebraska who has no idea of what end is up, then I think that’s amazing. I would never, ever deny the fact that I was gay. That’s just not who I am. But in my mind, the music is more important. I mean, the music’s not gay. It’s music. It’s just a personal statement from me. But I would never try to play it straight.

I guess the issue coming up is inevitable at times — when you talk about song lyrics. With a lot of artists, there’s some ambiguity; and listeners are curious. Not to say that music is “gay” or “straight” — because it is from inside a person no matter what their orientation is. It’s ironic in a supposedly liberal industry like entertainment, though, that it’s still taboo for gay males to be out!

Yeah, you know what? If you can’t handle gay artists, then you need to move to another country. I mean, I don’t have any patience for that shit. I mean, get the fuck over yourself. I’m sure that I’ll say things about that that people won’t like—I don’t care. Because it’s just such a non-issue for me, and always has been. And I remember dealing with record companies a few years ago, and they were like, “Oh, we know that you’re gay, and we can’t have that.” It’s like, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you.” I’ve had people say to me that I would be a huge star right now if I would have toned it down a little bit. And that pisses me off, too.

Rightly so.

Because it’s like, “Don’t fuckin’ tell me what to do.”

Did they want you to tone down your vocal style, how you performed, or image?

That’s the funny thing. It doesn’t have anything to do with the music. I guess people just sometimes feel like I’m too gay. And I just have to say a big “Fuck you” to those people [laughs].

Jason Walker

Right. Just tell it like it is.

Yeah. Whatever. But I mean, there are songs on the record—there’s a song on the new album that’s called “I Love You.” I wrote this song about my parents. And it’s sung as though my father were singing it to my mother. It kind of chronicles their life together, from marriage and having two kids. It’s very Journey. When I wrote this song, it was like I had Steve Perry in mind. I think some people might listen to that and go, what is he singing about? When I let a few friends of mine hear the album right as it was finished, I didn’t give any explanations about anything. There was one person that was confused. He said, “I’m confused because you’re a gay guy, but you’re singing about marriage and kids.” And I said, “Well, I think that you have to hear the back story. That song’s about my parents.”

There’s also a song on there called “I Am Changing.” I wrote it about my life being turned upside down, and finally coming to grips with how life changes and how you change as a person. And it’s very gospel-esque.

What level would you like to take your career to, as an artist? Do you see yourself as an international pop superstar, or do you see yourself as an independent artist, doing it on a smaller scale?

I want to take it all the way. I feel like I’m enough of a well-rounded artist that I could take my music anywhere. It’s not just specifically for one group of people, or it’s not just one type of sound. I want everyone to feel it. And I feel like it can be that. It’s for everybody. My mother’s a sixty-one-year-old woman, and when she listens to it, it’s for her, too. It’s for the young gay kid in Nebraska; it’s for a housewife in Minnesota. Know what I mean?

What is your plan as far as getting this album out there? How are you distributing it, and what’s your game plan for that?

I decided to do everything myself. The record came out on the 24th of August. It’s on every digital outlet known to man and in selected record stores.

The ones that are left…

Yeah, the ones that are left. And I’m playing live shows again, ’cause I want people to be able to buy it when they hear it. I want it to be available. So if they have an iPhone, while they’re at the show they can go directly to the iTunes music store and download it right there.

About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via [email protected].

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