We hear the voices of some artists more frequently than others, but for the others we wait patiently because we expect they will only give us their best–knowing it is worth the wait. Syleena Johnson is one voice in particular that continues not to be silenced, as this diva has planted her footsteps straight out of Chi-town; she has hit impressive milestones over the past few years working with some of the best in the music game such as R. Kelly and Kanye West (“All Falls Down”). Leading up to the release of her fifth studio album Chapter V: Underrated on September 27th, this Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter has done it all and is here to give us more. Syleena was kind enough to speak with Soul Train in the midst of preparing for the release of her latest album to talk about what we can expect to hear in her newest chapter, plans for the future, the music industry, and her influences that have contributed to her music career.
Soul Train: So the big topic of discussion is Chapter V: Underrated. Tell us which artists and producers you worked with on this album and the story behind it–there definitely has to be a new story in this chapter, right?
Syleena: Well, Chapter V: Underrated was produced by Toxic Productions, and I have AK of Do or Die on the intro. Na’Tee is an artist from Louisiana and she’s on one of the songs; [so are] my artist Malone and Tweet. Chapter V is called “Underrated” because it is supposed to showcase all of the different elements of my voice and what I can do musically, kind of show why it’s underrated so to speak. That’s the theme I was trying to go for, but the album title was picked by the fans. So it was their idea, I just rounded it out.
Soul Train: How do you feel you’ve evolved as an artist since Chapter 4?
Syleena: I’m a lot more focused, I understand the business a lot better, tried to forward the project that I did on my own so it was a really good learning experience. I learned a lot more about the music industry from a label standpoint. I think I’m more mature and more confident in what I want to sound like, and what I want to do without any influence on the outside.
Soul Train: Noticing the constant growth of new artists coming out every day, how easy or hard is it to stay true to your own sound and style?
Syleena: By not listening to the radio. Seriously, and I don’t mean that in like a mean way but there are a lot of songs that are out now that I like. Everybody’s always trying to talk bad about the industry, and it is in a different place. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s in a bad place because you have some good music out there like Adele, Monica’s new song which I really like, you have Lil Mo coming out with an album. You just have to search for stuff too, we can’t just be so surfaced all the time, just because stuff is on the radio then that’s it. Go find what else is out. There are new artists coming out all of the time. We can’t just say Jay- Z, Beyoncé, and Kanye came out great so that’s the end of the year, you know, we have to go find new artists, we have to go find and search for new music. Beyoncé came out with an album, she had new music. I didn’t really like her music this time but I’m a die-hard Beyoncé fan so it doesn’t matter to me if I don’t really like a particular album, I’ll still support it. And I feel like as an artist I know where artists come from, and I’m sure she wasn’t in the studio like, ‘I’m going to make real terrible music’; she was calmly in the studio like ‘I’m going to do something different, this is how I feel, I want to sing like this’, and she has every right to do that. Just because it’s not one of my favorites of her albums doesn’t mean it’s bad at all, it’s still the same Beyoncé. I love that Lil’ Wayne song “How to Love”! That’s my jam and I know that he’s not a singer and I don’t care, I just feel he’s artistic, he’s doing music, he’s doing what he feels. Why can’t he do that? I also think there’s some mess out there, too, but there has always been some mess, even at the time when I was coming up, there was mess at that time. If you listen to it in the process of making your album–and this has happened to me before–you’ll start to pick up on some of this things and you’ll start to sound like some of the things subconsciously, so when I’m recording I do not listen to the radio at all. The only thing I listen to is my music.
Soul Train: Coming from a musical background, you grew up during the Soul Train era. How would you say this has contributed to your direction you’ve taken as a musician?
Syleena: Great. A huge influence. I’m lucky enough to have been exposed to all kinds of music. My main music was classical music actually. That was my baby. I wasn’t really that into R&B in the beginning. I was classically trained since my freshman year in high school and I went on to college and trained in classical music, but I started recording mainstream type music, the R&B type music when I was fifteen with my dad. When I got to college, I really started getting into R&B. I just love R&B now, I’ve always listened to it and danced to it but it was not something that I wanted to do, I just really loved to sing. My first love was classical, I wanted to go all of the way but it’s just real hard being a classical vocalist, it’s just total and complete isolation from the world, you can’t be anywhere, you can’t be at clubs, you can’t holler, you can’t talk loud, seriously total isolation. It’s just really difficult. And I developed nodules in my vocal chords so that hindered me as well. But I think having that background has really contributed to my writing, to my melody, being able to sing in classical choirs, taking piano, taking instruments in grammar school and just being full of music all of my life. Always being surrounded by music, choirs, and gospel has enhanced me and has made me a well-rounded musician.
Soul Train: With the release of Chapter V: Underrated, what else is next on your list? A lot of artists are doing Broadway or reality television–do we see any reality TV shows in your future?
Syleena: Reality TV. I’m actually in negotiations with a reality television show right now called “Diary of a Diva” and that is actually going to happen, it’s actually going to air in January. That’s going to be me, Faith Evans, Nikki Gilbert of Brownstone, Monifah, Angie Stone, Keke Wyatt, and LeLee of SWV. It’s about the struggle of R&B in the Black woman category because it’s really lacking. We’re definitely lacking female R&B music in the industry. Some of us have disappeared. We’re going to talk about being mothers and wives. Every last one of us is a mother. And most of us are wives and to live as a celebrity but be in a normal person status is very difficult. You live your life like a normal person but you’re a celebrity, so it’s contradicting. All of the hustle and bustle of trying to be a career woman and have kids and husbands and trying to deal with each other and unify ourselves as Black women in the industry, that’s a dilemma. How we deal with men in the industry, that’s a dilemma, and I’m sure everybody wants to see that. Where have we been, what has happened? So that’s going to be one of the most awesome shows on television. We have a spot that comes on right after “The Braxtons” on WeTV. The reality show is like the new record deal right now.
Soul Train: Should we expect any drama like “Basketball Wives” on the show?
Syleena: Well, all I can tell you is that anytime you but Black women in a room together, it’s definitely not going to run smoothly. The good news is that you’re dealing with a group of women who have careers and lives and focus, where we don’t really have time to sit around and argue. So it there’s drama, which I’m sure there will be, there’s definitely going to be resolutions, you’re going to be able to see resolutions as well. It’s not going to be all we do is “hate her the whole episode”; we’re not going to be doing that because we’re grown and have kids and that’s whack. That’s disrespectful, that’s a certain line you don’t cross. No disrespect to any other shows–I actually watch reality shows and like “Basketball Wives” so no disrespect. I understand an angry Black woman. I just wrote a song about it, it’s called “Angry Girl”, so clearly I understand. That’s just not what our show is going to be. I’m very excited about this show.
Soul Train: Are there any artists that you haven’t worked with, that you would like to work with in the future?
Syleena: Yes, I’d like to work with Puffy, I love Puffy. I think he’s a phenomenal businessman. Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, Timbaland and Missy. That whole set up, I like all of them. Oh and Brandy, I would love to do a song with her one day, she’s my absolute favorite.
Soul Train: So can we expect a Chapter 6 in the future?
Syleena: Definitely. There definitely will be a Chapter 6. My goal is to go all the way to 10.
Soul Train: You already spoke about there being a lack of women in R&B. Why do you think that is, compared to the amount of attention given to hip hop and pop right now?
Syleena: Well, that’s why: Because there is so much attention on hip hop and pop. The female R&B diva used to be the bomb that was the staple. The Whitney and Mariah area, Mary, they set the standards and they were the focus, and everything else was on the backburner. That was before me. When I was coming up in music just as a music lover, if you were doing hip hop it was important that you got a singer on your song and now it’s the other way around. You need to get a rapper on your song. It’s taken a shift because hip hop has a much stronger influence in R&B now, so I think that’s why it’s on the backburner. But I think it’s reemerging. Jill just released an album, [as did] Kelly Rowland. I think it’s going to do alright and it’s going to come back.
Soul Train: While the music industry is always changing, do you favor going the independent artist route over being signed to a major label?
Syleena: Definitely. It has its pros and cons. But the pros outweigh the cons in my opinion. The pros are personal attention, small units, so you have access to everyone. I love the element that they work harder because they’re independent, even though indie is the new major. Because what I’ve found is that the people who work there, because they work at that label they think they are stars, so they don’t put in the workload, they don’t even have to believe in the artist. So in their eyes, the artist is lucky to even be on their label, compared to a smaller label– they’re honored to have that artist on their label, honored to be working with that artist. And that’s the place where I want to be. I don’t want to be with somebody who thinks they are the stars when they don’t do anything but sit in an office. I don’t have time for that. I have kids to feed, I’m working hard out here. I was born with this gift, it’s not something I was taught to do, so I feel like we’re in a partnership. You should be honored to have me on your label and I should be honored to be there. I have to do my part and you have to do yours. That’s the problem with major labels–they don’t get into their artists like they should as opposed to a smaller label.
Soul Train: What do you remember about Soul Train on television, growing up with Soul Train, favorite Soul Train memories?
Syleena: Growing up with Soul Train, I clearly remember my father (blues artist Syl Johnson) being on there and then being on there myself. That was a huge moment. I remember Shemar Moore was the host and I use to think he was so fine. I was so excited! It was just so monumental because I was on Soul Train and I had grown up watching Soul Train. Remember the Chinese girl with the long hair? She was there! And Don Cornelius comes up to me after the show and tells me, “Your father and I are such good friends”, and just talking to me and I was like ‘Am I really talking to Don Cornelius?’. It was me and I remember Silk was backstage and they were getting ready to do their taping. And I also presented the Lady of Soul award. Those were my proudest moments.
Be sure to grab your copy of Syleena Johnson’s upcoming album Chapter V: Underrated on September 27th, as well as your ticket for her live online album release performance at Stageit.com/SyleenaJohnson. Follow her on Twitter @Syleena_Johnson.
Danielle Turner is a writer based out of Los Angeles, CA. A certified music junkie, she has always combined her love of writing and music to create a formula for doing what she loves and loving what she does. Follow her at Twitter.com/thisisdanielle.