An Interview with Raphael Saadiq – HuffPost 8.17.09

To catch everyone up, Raphael Saadiq was the former lead singer for Tony! Toni! Tone!, earned a #2 R&B smash with “Ask Of You” from the Higher Learning soundtrack, produced huge hits for D’Angelo and Joss Stone, and contributed as a songwriter to or collaborated with Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, The Roots, Lionel Richie, John Legend, Macy Gray, Erykah Badu, Babyface, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Bee Gees, Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, Ludacris, and many others. He even played Anthony Hayes in the Shia LeBeouf breakout flickDisturbia, those acting chops again on display in his retro music clip “Let’s Take A Walk.” Though his latest album The Way I See It was released back in September 2008, Saadiq still is touring and promoting the project pretty much non-stop. He took a quick break from his schedule for the following interview.

Mike Ragogna: Your album The Way I See It sounds like it was inspired by Motown and great R&B recordings. And your latest video seems to pay tribute to sixties and seventies soul singers such as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and The Four Tops. Were you inspired by those old recordings and performances as you made the record?

Raphael Saadiq: I was more inspired by traveling and seeing what people were listing to, and that music never went away through all these generations. It’s definitely something I wanted to be a part of, it’s something I’ve been listening to my whole life. I figure if I’m going to spend my life doing something, it should always be something I really enjoy.

MR: So is this the style you’re sticking with for future recordings?

RS: When I did it, I didn’t give it that much thought. But now that I’m working on the next album, I think so. It’s something that I want to expand on, I want to do a better job on it, and it’s something I want to take further.

MR: You have some interesting collaborations on this record, like Stevie Wonder and CJ Hilton on “Never Give You Up” and Joss Stone on “Just One Kiss.” What’s behind the team-ups?

RS: Joss Stone came because I worked on her record Introducing Joss Stone. She was around when I cut my record, and we always talked about doing a record together just as friends. We found a perfect song for her with “Just One Kiss,” and it just kind of worked out that way. The Rebirth Band was on a song about Katrina, and so I titled the song “Big Easy” because I had friends who lived there and my family’s from Louisiana. I love Second Line bands and marching bands, so a friend hooked me up with Young Spodie and we became good friends. I thought we should do something with this record, so we ended up putting Rebirth on it (“Big Easy”), and that’s how that came up. And CJ did “Never Give You Up.” After we finished our version, we heard this space and we said, “Man, you know what would be nice on this record? A Stevie Wonder harmonica solo!” Then we also have people like Jack Ashford from the Funk Brothers who plays percussion, tambourine, vibes…and we have Paul Riser who did a lot of string (arrangements) for Motown. He came and did all my string arrangements and really made the record complete. So it’s like I was building a team for the future, you know?

MR: The album is a nice blend of classic meets modern, and it’s especially reverent and knowledgeable of the music that you’re obviously loving.

RS: That’s what I try to explain to people. It wasn’t like I jumped on some fad that people were doing right now, it just happened to be that people were making these (kinds of) records, like Amy Winehouse and Duffy on the European side. I just think that sound is always in the air ’cause it’s a great sound, it’s never really left.

MR: But The Way I See It really isn’t a tribute album as much an application of classic soul elements to your music, right?

RS: I think every artist pays homage to something since we’re all inspired by something, and I was inspired by great music, not just Motown, but all the Isleys records, all the Stax records. And I’m definitely inspired by a lot of reggae music…you name it, from Jimmy Cliff to Bob (Marley). All of them have some type of reference that you can hear from the Baptist church or gospel to blues and Albert King. So I’m just inspired by a lot of stuff. Like after I was in twelfth grade, I was inspired by so much funk and by playing with so many different bands.

MR: Are you surprised you made this type of album at this point in your life?

RS: There are so many things in your head you want to get out. It comes at a weird time, and this is the time it came out. One of my best friends, Brian Grant, he played for the NBA for about fourteen years, and it wasn’t ’til I started hanging out with him that I really sat down and listened to Dark Side Of The Moon. I knew about it and heard about it, but he said, “No, you gotta sit down and listen to it like this.” So different things come at different times in your life.

MR: The visuals in your “Let’s Take A Walk” promo clip firmly connect with the sound of your album.

RS: I just wanted people to know that’s me. You know, it just takes some time to find out what you really do. When I was a kid, I wore suits and ties all day long, probably from when I was three years old, so I finally got back to it. When you’re loving and having a respect for the music and your audience, then people know that you’re serious about what your doing. That’s also what I want to convey, it’s something that’s missing from the industry that used to be there. When a band showed up in town, you felt their presence.

MR: You’ve worked on many D’Angelo recordings, I imagine you guys also are close friends?

RS: Oh yeah, for sure, definitely. When I went on tour, he was in my studio for a couple of months recording. We didn’t get to have much hang time. Yeah, he’s the kind of guy who loves music, he’s a very talented person and I believe in him. He’ll come out and do something great, he’s just that good.

MR: There’s so much feel in his records. The guy became a superstar, but he kind of disappeared from the music scene right after his big hits.

RS: That’s what happens when you become a superstar that fast and you don’t have a lot of people around you. For me, I always had people around, like my brother and cousins when I was with the Tonies. But when you come out and there’s nobody but you, it’s hard to grab a hold to what just happened that fast.

MR: As a producer, you’ve worked with a lot of acts beyond D’Angelo. Will you be working with any of them again, like Joss Stone?

RS: We’re definitely always going to work together. We haven’t started doing anything, but we’ve been talking about writing together.

MR: As far as touring, you’ve been all over Europe, but are you going to swing back around to the States any time soon?

RS: Yeah, we’re talking about a Fall tour. The Way I See It‘s been out since September of last year and we’re coming up on September now, but it’s one of those records that people are just now catching on to. I’ve been working every day since this album came out, and since the day it dropped, I’ve been on the road. It’s the most I’ve ever toured since my early Tonies days. So we’re going to take it where it needs to go. Right now in Europe, it’s crazy. I opened up a show for Seal over there, and I’ve done big shows with Duffy and Joss. I just have to convince everybody and I sort of knew going into this record that it wasn’t going to be easy. But you know, anything easy is not good. If you want to make a splash, it’s got to be a big splash, you’ve got to do something different and go against what’s (already) out. Maybe I’m crazy, but I always like to do something that’s “me” and take that risk, and I think it’s going to pay off.

Love it? Share it?