Mervin Malone
This is a place — a BLOG, if you will — about music, film, culture, the arts and whatever else co-exists and generates popular culture. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007
The Byron Stingily Interview

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Aria is honored to welcome house music pioneer and innovator, Byron Stingily!

Well, let's start with the sound you helped usher into the public consciousness…

House music – the genre – the very feeling it inspires – embodies some 25+ years of dancefloor euphoria, cross-cultural/pansexual unity and sonic innovation. Your highly prolific career parallels the genre's longevity and adaptability. Looking back….

Are you surprised at how resilient house music has shown itself to be?

Yes and no. I mean – it's dance music; people are always gonna want to dance to uptempo music, so I figure it's always going to be around in some way, shape or form – always.

While we're on the subject, your former band – Ten City – occupies a unique place in musical history; Byron Burke, Herb Lawson and yourself gave house music its first authentic band. 'City recorded and released outstanding singles as well as brilliantly conceived and textured albums.

When the three of you – and Marshall Jefferson – formed the band so many years ago…

Were you all aware then that you were at the forefront of something so innovative?

We knew that it was a real good underground scene at the time – Chicago. I know I definitely wanted to be one fo the first people to expand it [house music] outside of Chicago. It was a consciousness we felt – we wanted to give everyone a chance to love it as much as we did.

Are you still in touch with your former bandmates, Burke and Lawson?

Not really. I see Byron online from time to time. Marshall is living in Europe and doing quite well as a DJ. I talk to each one of them, maybe once a year.

You hail from Chicago. I've long admired the Windy City's affinity for birthing soulful visionaries. Donny Hathaway; Curtis Mayfield; Minnie Riperton – they all came from Chicago. By the way – your cover of Minnie's "Stick Together" is superb!

Thank you.

Which singers most influenced you in your musically formative years?

All of the people you just named. Curtis – Earth, Wind & Fire (with Philip Bailey); on top of that – Eddie Kendricks, the Temptations, Minnie and Sylvester. The top three would probably be Michael Jackson, Prince and Sylvester. 

Your voice – its range and depth – is revered by dance, soul and R&B aficionados alike. Indeed, you're often compared to another great dance music icon – the late, but legendary Sylvester. I feel you're about the only male vocalist alive today that has ever done any of his songs justice – your 1998 cover of "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" was just breathtaking! I know Sylvester received much of his musical training in the church.

Are you formally trained or self-taught as a singer?

Self-taught.

Have you always known you wanted to be a singer?

I had a talk with someone about this the other day. Actually, I always aspired to be – moreso – a Berry Gordy-type. I always wanted  to have my own label. I started out quite introverted. Being an artist – out front – was something I didn't want to do in the beginning.

You're also a highly prolific songwriter; you composed many of Ten City's best tracks, wrote a majority of the music on both of your albums, "The Purist" and " Club Stories" and have written hits for other artists (Kim English's "Nite Life" comes to mind).

Where do you most often draw inspiration when composing songs?

Just from different people and different things. I listen to people talk – friends of mine – they tell me stories and talk about things they're going through in their lives. Life and such...

Now, I'd like to switch gears and talk about your solo album work.

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Your 1998 debut, The Purist, is one of the most soulfully innovative dance releases in recent memory. You worked with many of dance music's finest producers: Frankie Knuckles – Kenny and Louie – Mousse T. – Maurice Joshua – Basement Boys….

What led you to each producer?

Respect for all of their work. Being in a group all those years – we pretty much kept everything self-contained – all writing etc. When I started my solo career, I finally decided that I was going to take the time to work with all of the people I'd wanted to work with for years.

Your 2000 follow-up – the aforementioned Club Stories – had a decidedly nostalgic feel (if not intentionally). There was the fore stated Minnie Riperton cover, "Stick Together", as well as some slight allusions to disco ("Stand Right Up"). Your re-recording of the Ten City classic, "That's The Way Love Is" was an excellent standout! I asked Joi Cardwell this same question because you both come from a similarly soulful direction …

Have you ever pondered doing a neo-classical soul album?

That's something that I've always wanted to do – record a neo-soul album and have it remixed to club music. I'd release the soul versions on an initial album, then an album of remixes within a couple of years.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingFor Club Stories, you enlisted the production talents of D'Influence, Danny Tenaglia and Andrew "Doc" Livingstone. You also worked with Towa Tei on his 2005 album, Flash.

Who would you like to work with next?

Well, I plan to do some more uptempo things. I like the higher energy things going on in Europe. I've been listening to things from the Credence label. I want to try some different things to reach a newer audience.

Your recent tracks – "Hate Won't Change Me", "Something Better", and "Walk Away" – are excellent!

Are these from a new forthcoming full-length?

Well, I recently recovered my [singing] voice; I had some nodules growing on my vocal chords, but it seems to be healing itself. The vocalist on "Something Better" is Reggie Hall, and EL sings on "Walk Away". 

What are you listening to these days?

I'm listening to a lot of dance music – everything I can. Masters at Work, Terry Hunter on King Street – inspirations. With me starting this label [Stingily Music] –  I want to see what things I can incoroporate – what I can do.

What's next for Byron Stingily?

I'd really like to get my label established and off the ground. And maybe another Byron Stingily album... 

You can visit Byron Stingily on the web at www.byronstingily.com, and on Myspace at www.myspace.com/byronstingily. Also, look for music by Byron on iTunes, and  – more recently – traxsource.com, where you can experience his writer/producer side on tracks like "Something Better" and "Walk Away". 

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Posted at 09:21 am by Mervin Malone
Thought (1)  

Sunday, February 18, 2007
American Idol: Aria's Perspective...

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWell, another season of that star-making reality series, American Idol, is off to a full start. Yes, American Idol – that oft-contrved ad-space marketer disquised as "the greatest talent show in the history of television" – has returned for its sixth season. A great many things have happened since 'Idol's Stateside inception in 2002 (the show is a spin-off of Britain's Pop Idol): the show's first season winner – Kelly Clarkson – has since shed the show's cookie-cutter, safe-pop image to carve out a critically (and commercially) successful career for herself complete with two Grammys;  season 2 and 3 winners – Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino respectively – have both had successful albums; season 4's winner – Carrie Underwood – has garnered a recent Grammy win and is second only to Clarkson in sales. More, runner-up contestants like Season 2's Clay Aiken and Season 5's Chris Daughtry have since went on to surpass their respective season's winners in sales and popularity.

If ratings are any indication, American Idol has only has only grown in popularity since its beginning. Indeed, rival networks often plan their programming around the AI juggernaut so as not to compete with it; rumor has it that CBS recently cancelled "Armed and Famous" – another so-called "reality show" that placed D-list celebrities in the roles of cops-in-training  – due to the show's inability (and the network's unwillingness) to compete with American Idol.

And what keeps bringing the viewing public back to American Idol season-after-season?

Well, the answer would seem to be multi-fold and involve more the television aspect than the actual talent show component. An overwhelming amount of the American Idol viewing public tunes in to hear Simon Cowell's (often) brutally honest criticisms of 'Idol hopefuls and/or finalists. This is given credence by the fact that fellow judge Paula Abdul's (mostly) positive critiques are often positioned to be counter to Cowell's denunciatory remarks – a sort of tug-of-war for the masses, if you will; judge Randy Jackson would seem to be a balancing point between the two of them. As far as the talent aspect goes, much of the viewing audience more often seems captivated by personality than outright musical aptitude; Taylor Hicks' win last season is proof of this, as many have argued that Hicks was the most popular from his season – not necessarily the most talented. Hicks' current slow music sales could be seen as an affirmation of this. [This is strangely analogous to the John Stevens phenomenon of a few seasons ago, wherein the then-teenage crooner outlasted a far better singer – Jennifer Hudson – and went on to secure a major recording deal with Maverick Recordings; his "popularity" didn't translate into sales, however, and he was eventually dropped.]  

This year, 'Idol's sixth season has been somewhat overshadowed by the successes of one of its more underappreciated alumni –  season 3's Jennifer Hudson. Hudson is currently the proverbial American sweetheart, with a successful musical big screen debut – Dreamgirls – and a record deal with none other than Clive Davis to boot. More, her beautiful visage is soon to grace the covers of Vogue and Life magazines. Jennifer Hudson originated from the same season as winner, Fantasia Barrino – a moderately talented singer (at best) with a commanding stage presence. Jennifer Hudson's time on the American Idol program was wrought with controversy. In the early stages of the competition, Hudson –   despite her obvious talents – was often relegated to the bottom 3 by the American voting public (?). More, she [Hudson] was a constant victim of judge Simon Cowell's vitriolic remarks, whom – oddly enough – seemed to favor raspy-voiced Fantasia Barrino's stage image to Jennifer's potent four-octave abilities. Also, Jennifer Hudson was one of the three "divas" relegated to bottom 3 status on the infamous April 21, 2004 results' show broadcast (the others being Barrino and Latoya London, another multi-octave singer who rivalled Hudson vocally). The April 21 episode ended with Hudson's ouster (London would follow on an equally controversial May 21, 2004 results show, which saw her receive fewer votes than the considerably less-talented Jasmine Trias).

There have been many theories put forth concerning Simon Cowell's downplaying of Jennifer Hudson's abilities during 'Idol's third season – all of which have – with the advent of Hudson's meteoric rise to multi-media star – again come to the forefront. Many have speculated that Simon Cowell found Jennifer Hudson's somewhat fuller figure less-than marketable. Cowell's all-too common assertion season-after-season that certain 'Idol contestants look "commercial" would seem to support this. Indeed, this is further substantiated by the successes of the negligibly talented Carrie Underwood from Season 5, whom the judges – especially Simon – complimented even in her most unspectacular performances (not to mention Cowell's selection of the very talentless Carmen Rasmussen as a so-called "Wild Card" in Season 2). I suspect something more sinister to have been in Cowell's dismissal of Jennifer Hudson, however; I believe he [Simon Cowell] already had his mind (and marketing machine) geared towards Fantasia Barrino and wanted no deviation from his goals of making her the American Idol. Jennifer Hudson – with her powerful 4-octave range – presented a threat to Cowell's plans, so he proceeded to sway public opinion of her [Jennifer] as often as he could by verbally undermining her performances.

In fairness, much the blame for missing the "It" factor inherent in 'Idol contestants like Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry must be placed squarely on the voting public. Many of the problems in garnering support faced by Jennifer Hudson were also experienced by Kimberley Locke the season before; people often make the 'Idol voting process a popularity contest, giving little or no consideration to talent.

In its defense, American Idol – despite its obvious flaws – can serve as something of a generalized character study of the American viewing public. It has confirmed – time and again – that people do see things in terms of race, sex and attractiveness. I remember visiting the official AI message boards during Seasons 2 and 3; I was awestruck by some of the comments  posted on them by the show's fans about their favorites (and non-favorites). For instance, many of thes show's self-professed white viewers ascribed a "diva-like" personality to Jennifer Hudson (?) and categorized her vocal style (as well as those of Fantasia Barrino and Latoya London) as "too black."

"She [Hudson] screams too much," they would say (?) – the same criticisms dogged Kimberley Locke the year before. Of course, I was put off by such remarks – especially when I reflected on the probability that many of these selfsame white fans loved Clay Aiken, who sings in a rather non-subtle (loud) dramatic tenor, but isn't criticized as "screaming" (or "yelling").

When all is said and done, American Idol has its place. You aren't likely to have a singer/musician with a real edge emerge from the 'Idol series – winners like Kelly Clarkson, and finalists like Jennifer Hudson have since achieved their greatest successes divorced from the 'Idol machine – what 'Idol can (and does) provide is entertainment (not necessarily art).

Here's hoping for a less formulaic "search for a superstar" this season!

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Posted at 02:27 am by Mervin Malone
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