For someone who woke up at 6 a.m. last Friday morning to start a full-day of interviews, Sylenna Johnson looks radiant. Sitting in the offices of Cornerstone, which also houses The Fader, her friendly and joyous demeanor is candid as she concludes one interview about finishing her degree in another passion, nutrition science. Even as a Grammy-nominated recording artist, Johnson is always thinking of a way to grow as a person.
It’s no coincidence that this strong attitude, built after her years of rocky relationships, becoming a mother of two children, a wife, and downshifting from Jive to independent label Aneelys, has yet another test to overcome. With the release of the next chapter in Johnson’s album series, Chapter V: Underrated, she wants to prove that this 35-year-old veteran is still in control of her R&B legacy.
Many of us recognize Johnson by her work with Kanye West on “All Falls Down” or being former labelmates with R.Kelly, but on Chapter V, things are different now. She is determined to set the record straight. No more labels. No more being placed in a box. It’s all about celebrating better times in life through music.
Chapter V is an album that explores many of Johnson’s familiar staples – love, women empowerment, sincerity – while presenting intimate details of a freer artist. Just listen to the fiery opener, “Underrated,” spitting boasts and carrying a cockiness that’s fitting for a bossy songstress. Underrated? Nah, Johnson is here to bring back the heart in R&B. And it’s very much appreciated.
Read the interview, which talks about the album, her influences from soul heavyweight Syl Johnson and their upcoming collaborative effort and more. Chapter V: Underrated is available on iTunes and in stores now.
After the jump, check the full interview!
You decided to give a live concert stream on Stageit on the release day of your album. You gave a 50 minute set, took requests from a chat room, and people got to witness the video of “Angry Girl” being made. How did it go?
It was fantastic. Unfortunately, it was just live, so no one can ever see it again. But we did videotape the whole thing, so what I want to try and do is create a DVD and release it with the album as a deluxe package.
You interact with your fans a lot, how did they feel about the concert?
I think they love that. I don’t feel like I need to be guarded against my fans. You know, we talk all the time, I tell ‘em it’s like I’m text messaging my fans all day. I love it, I think it’s awesome.
I feel like not a lot of artists would release their album and do a live concert.
That’s what I wanted to do with “Angry Girl,” bring back the live aspect because it is acoustic – there’s only two guitars, three background singers and a Conga in the show. I thought it would be real cool for us to get a fresh … you know, we are such a computerized generation now, but you can use the social network to link with live music. I thought that was so awesome. I thought it would be cool to shoot the video of a live performance and make that the video.
From the opener, “Underrated,” it certainly has a lot of boasts: 15 years in the game, getting married and having two children. What does this latest chapter represent for you?
Just growth. In the “Underrated” intro, it’s supposed to be cocky. And to kind of say, a shock factor. I hate being put in a box. I hate being called “old soul” or “soul” this, even though I’m soulful, I hate for that to be the only thing that I do, or being called “neo-soul” because I’m not. It’s just R&B. R&B music, fortunately, is fueled with so many different aspects of music within the genre of R&B. I don’t want to be classified or be put in the box. So, with this album, I just did whatever.
A lot of your fans rave about your intros, especially Chapter Two: The Voice’s intro.
Yeah, Chapter Two! They do rave about that intro! That intro was a good time. Me and Hi-Tek did that intro.
I guess to not put you in a box, but there is a trend of fans checking the latest R&B diva, the one that has the latest hits on the radio or whatever, often overlooking veterans such as yourself. How will Underrated get newer fans to notice the quality you bring?
There are going to know because the quality is there. It goes without saying. I don’t have to say much, it’s all in the music. That was the purpose, to put everything in the music. When they go out and get it, if you see on my [Twitter] timeline: “She’s done it again!” and “She’s not disappointed.” Nobody is saying “This is whack.” Everybody, so far, is saying that this is an amazing album; it’s refreshing R&B. So I’m real proud and so honored to be part of that. I like to be first on stuff or part of a movement. So I’m really excited that people are listening and their liking it and they are not saying, “You shouldn’t be singing that.”
Looking back on your previous works, you relate each title to the Bible. It also feels like a moment in time for you. Can you explain your creative process for this album?
For this album, I wanted to be honest. I wanted it to be positive, strong. I didn’t want any sappy love songs. If you listen to this album, there’s one song that has the you-did-me-wrong twinge to it. But I had to give the Sylenna Johnson fans that love “Another Relationship,” “Guess What” and “I Am Your Woman.” I had to give them something, which is “My Shoes.” That’s the only song that will give you I-am-leaving-you, you-did-me-wrong thing. But with this album, I paid attention to everything I did lyrically because I definitely did not want to do sappy, love, nothing. I am not in that place in my life. I am in a very healthy relationship with my kids and my husband, and I am really blessed right now. And I am happy. I feel strong because I’ve been here for so long and I have longevity.
So you are very free on this album. One of the songs that stood out to me was “Label Me.” You have a line – “That’s that girl with R.Kelly and sang with Kanye.” Are you trying to move away from this association, and do you feel this album will do that?
I don’t mind anybody linking me to those two. What I don’t like is this: “That’s that girl that sang with R.Kelly?” First off all, I didn’t sing with him, we didn’t sing together. Second of all, we were labelmates. He did not discover me and I am not his protégé. We were labelmates and we were both signed by the same guy and became friends through my A&R guy, which was Wayne Williams, and he always loved my talent so I was lucky to be able to work with him. Kanye, same thing, we were in the studio just working. [It was] regular producer and artist situation.
I don’t mind being link to them, but what I do mind is being put in a box. I don’t like to be a label to something. A lot times in the industry as a woman, to have any type of anything, you have to be connected with a man. It’s always going to be this way, I try and break from that.
Again, to not put you in a box, but from all your albums, you have a way of balancing soul and blues with urban hip-hop standards. Let’s talk about your father, the great Syl Johnson. How has he inspired your style?
I can’t get around the fact that me and my father have the same tone. He’s my dad. The biggest influence I got from my father and I think all of us did – me and my sisters – we are kind of musically related because my father used to play the guitar every single day. I used to think that was the best in the world. I used to watch him outside the patio and play the guitar every day. He played records all the time. He recorded his records in the basement. We were influenced by music by default. I think that was the biggest influence he had in my life. Other than that, he kind of kept us away. We were sheltered. We were not really out in the clubs or at the shows. We lived a normal life. I think that living in the house with music, it’s inevitable that you are going to pick that up.
And you guys ended up doing a collaboration album?
Yes, we did a collaboration album. I was 17 years old. I used to sing background for him and wrote songs for him. And we are working on an album right now. Everybody is going to have a good time with this album. It’s true, original R&B. We are remaking all the songs that were R&B in the 60s and we are doing it with live instrumentation. We’re doing that right now, it’s called the Rebirth of Soul or something like that. I’ve done Etta James, Bettye Swann, Betty Everett (“There’ll Come a Time”), Otis Redding (“These Arms of Mine”), Jackie Wilson (“Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher”). That’s going to be so good. People love things that are authentic, and that’s going to bring back that authentic sound like no keyboard linked to the Casio. All live.
How does your father feel about Underrated?
I don’t know how he feels about Underrated, but he’s jealous and bias. He’s not going to embrace Chapter V right now because we are doing our album. He only wants to like his stuff. But if we weren’t doing his stuff, he would of embrace Chapter V. He would of went all through it and said “This is what’s good, this is a hit!”
You mentioned how your father was a hereditary influence, and you are from Chicago, so who are some of the local artists that you gotten some influences from?
Again, we were sheltered. But some Chicago artists like Chaka Khan, Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield from that disco era, that Studio 54 era, that’s Chicago. We can play songs from that day and it would turn the party up.
For Syleena Johnson, an amazing soul singer in your own right, and with this chapter behind you, what will the next bring?
I intend to work this album through as much as I can until the very end. It’s a great album and its got great songs that can be reignited all the time because of so many good songs. The reality show, we are going to start shooting in October, it’s called Diary of A Diva. Its Faith Evans presents: Diary of A Diva. It has Faith Evans, Angie Stone, Nicci Gilbert from Brownstone, Lelee from SWV, Monifah, and Keke Wyatt. It depicts our lives, R&B housewives meets Unsung. We haven’t been on the scene. In the current industry’s mind, we are not current. So it’s going to reintroduce us back into the game.
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