Karyn White is surprised that she’s been out of the music game for 17 years. But her lamenting fans have been very aware of her absence since her last single, “I’d Rather Be Alone,” was collecting spins in 1995. Taking time off to raise her daughter Ashley and exploring a career in interior design, White is returning to her entertainment roots, releasing her latest track–the empowering “Sista Sista”–and a forthcoming album, Carpe Diem. Karyn spoke with Soul Train about respecting female artists from afar, “zigging” instead of “zagging,” and why coming back now feels right.
Soul Train: What brought you back to music after nearly 17 years away?
Karyn White: That’s a great question! You really have to be called. Music to me is such a healing, spiritual dedication ― it kind of takes over my whole life and I’m actually excited because I didn’t say, “Seventeen years later I’m going to get back into the game.” I sent my daughter [Ashley, whose father Terry Lewis–along with Jimmy “Jam” Harris–has worked with White, Janet Jackson, Cherrelle and many more] off to college. She’s studying at Howard. I was like, OK, now what? My last record [Make Him Do Right] was released in 1994 for Warner Bros. I felt like it was time. You know, Terry and I divorcing, me going through this big change, it was just time for me to step back. That was a major pitfall in my life. It just showed me that “Karyn, you’ve got to really step back from everybody and get Karyn spiritually back on track,” and that’s really what happened. I didn’t plan on it being 17 years, though.
Karyn White: Yeah. When you had the kind of success I had and leave on a high ― it wasn’t like I had been putting out records and they were failing ― I was always kind of getting inquiries. But the music industry was changing at that time to and I believe everyone was kind of like, “What’s really happening?” With the Internet, music was free, so it was just boggling to the pros. I love to do things driven by my heart because that’s the only way that it’s going to last, especially something as demanding as music because it’s really spiritual, you’re planting seeds, you can inspire people, and you have the ability to lead in a righteous way or in a negative way. It all happened organically and that’s what I’m excited about because it wasn’t like I said, “Oh, I’m ready to sing again.” (Laughs)
Soul Train: What is the title of your new album and when will it be released?
Karyn White: The album will be titled Carpe Diem ― a Latin phrase meaning “seize the day,” and it’s positioned to come out in March. I believe it is my best everything: best sounding record, I sound incredible and the music is incredible. I can hear it, I’m like, “Wow, I’ve really grown,” and I haven’t been singing. That was a fear of mine, can I still sing, because you lose singing ― it’s like a muscle, especially when you’re doing runs and you have to have control, and holding notes and you have to use that muscle. So I’ve been like an athlete, training vocally and preparing to be on stage and not run out of breath and all that great stuff that comes with being an entertainer. Look at Michael Jackson and the last thing he put out [2009’s This Is It] ― we know what the greats have to do, so it’s nothing to play with. Believe me, I was like, “Oh Lord, I know this has gotta be you,” because for me, when I looked at the work that was in front of me, that was enough for me to be like, “Are you sure you don’t want to just be behind the scenes?” That’s where we are and that’s the beautiful time about the industry right now is that if you put in the work you can reap the harvest.
Soul Train: Will you be working with any producers from your three previous albums? And how would you describe the sound of Carpe Diem?
Karyn White: I’m not working with any of the previous producers for this album, but I’m excited because it really shows to me. I’m a leader and especially now in where I’m at in my life. I’ve been around the best. When you have people like L.A. [Reid], Babyface, Benny Medina, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis ― these are the cream of the cream, as my manager used to say. But Derek Allen is an incredible artist and producer, so I’ll let you guys be the judge and, like I said, it’s even better, and it’s just like it’s his time and it’s my time. We started out in my band–he was my bass player. Since then he’s gone on to have hit songs with Smokie Norful–he won a Stellar Award for “I Need You Now”–and he’s done stuff for Tyrese and Angie Stone. He’s doing the whole project. It’ll be great for him as well as for me. And the sound of the album is retro acoustic. We’re leading off with “Sista Sista,” which is very guitar driven. I’ve always done everything in such a big way. I’ve done tours and had 30 dancers and big bands and spent lots of money in videos, so it’s coming back to me being simple and stripping down all the gloss and really getting back to the art. I love music that’s very soulful and my thing is really making sure that you’re singing something in a convincing way and having your own sound, so that’s what I’m really excited about. We’re calling it “retro acoustic,” sort of what Raphael Saadiq is doing, but mine is more a combination of the 70s/80s type of flair, you know, Michael Jackson and kind of the rock edge.
Soul Train: What would you say is the message of “Sista Sista”?
Karyn White: “Sista Sista” is really for the women and it’s dedicated to looking at the truth of who we are. We’re the mothers the Earth, we give life, and being accountable and looking in the mirror. At the end of the song I say sisters when I see you I see me, so I’m talking to myself and it’s about coming together. I don’t like what’s been ― first of all, music with women in the last 20 years has changed. When I was singing, we had strong women like Queen Latifah that were doing their thing, but there was a message; Salt-N-Pepa, but there was a message. It wasn’t “OK, I’m beautiful,” selling sexuality; now it’s even to the point where women are just degraded. When you think it’s hot to get out of a limo and show your va-jay-jay, whoa! This is what a woman is? It’s really saying come together, but look at yourself and that’s really what you have to do. Not judging, not putting it on the man, it’s not a male-bashing song, because we are allowing things to happen because of something in us that’s not quite right, so let’s get it together.
Soul Train: What artists out now are you a fan of?
Karyn White: I don’t really listen to a lot of female artists, especially if I like them, because I don’t like to be influenced by them, and it’s hard if you listen to people like Beyoncé ― we already have everybody singing like her so I respect her from a distance. But I have to give it to her for being an icon to me, and a great entertainer and vocalist. As far as songs, I would have to say Alicia Keys. I like how she has a message and she’s very musical. She’s today, but she’s also singing real songs. And of course I love Maxwell–he’s incredible! And Usher.
Soul Train: Is Carpe Diem geared toward your old fans or new fans?
Karyn White: My old fans will love it, but it’s broader. I have great uptempos, I mean my uptempos are slammin’! I’ve never had anything the way you’re hearing these uptempos, so it’s got its own groove, it’s today, but the melodies and the lyrics are there, so I would definitely say my old fans will love it and I’m sure I’ll get some new fans just because it’s hot and it’s not dated. It’s today, but it’s also yesterday.
Soul Train: What do you feel are the benefits of releasing your album independently versus on a major label?
Karyn White: You definitely get to express what you’re feeling. I wouldn’t say I don’t have to answer to anyone because I have a great team I have to rely on heavily, but it gives me the freedom to really market myself the way I see it. Before I had to appease people. I look at my career and my first album [1988’s Karyn White]. I came out a certain way and then I think I kind of made a turn with my second album. I hired different management for [1991’s] Ritual of Love [who] saw me more as a black Madonna. So we saw my fan base sort of shift a little, because I had a No. 1 pop record [in 1991 with “Romantic”] ― not that I left my original fan base, but I think I went a little too extreme over the top with the pop, because that’s how the management saw me. I’m excited because I can be what I really am without having to appease all these different sides and people. I’m actually showing a lot of colors. I understand how important it is to separate yourself. The majors are looking for the sound that’s selling, so they want to cut their risks and get people that can kind of sound like, say, Beyoncé, so they won’t look at other artists that bring their own unique thing. The record industry is cloning and that’s what I don’t like and everything is the same, everybody’s singing the same type of songs and has the same type of sound. When I grew up, it was Earth, Wind & Fire, it was the Ohio Players, Gladys Knight, Luther [Vandross], Patti [LaBelle], Prince, Michael [Jackson], Al Green, Marvin Gaye – that’s a rainbow and that’s what I’m missing and I don’t like that. I would say I hate that about the industry. To me, I look at Usher and Beyoncé. I knew they were the superstars of this generation, but I don’t want everybody to be them because we got them, but I understand the record company is running a business, so for me, I’m looking at it from the art side, not the financial. I want to take the risk, I want to do what I think music should be and what I think the people want.
Soul Train: So, sort of “zigging” when everyone else is “zagging”?
Karyn White: I’m going to have to use that! (Laughs) That says it all. All those people I named were zigging when others were zagging. Prince came out in a trench coat and some thongs ― if you don’t call that zigging while they’re zagging … Music is so healing, so I definitely want people to feel good music from the record. Not to say that there isn’t good music out, of course there is, but that’s just what I’m all about, and being an entertainer because that’s what I grew up with. I feel like I’m starting over, but just having this wisdom is just incredible because I’m so much ahead. Before it was on-the-job training: “What do I do?” I didn’t know then, but I understand why I’m doing things and their purpose, not just because the record company said go here and I didn’t even know what I was doing ― just showing up.
[I read an online article that ranked me] as the No. 5 most underrated artists. The list also had Stokely Williams from Mint Condition, Rachelle Ferrell, and Chanté Moore. It’s interesting because I am the underdog, so it’s going to be really fun now because I’m in control of all my images and what I put out. It’s so fun now, but it’s still a lot of work. I have my daughter editing my videos and I’m constantly going to the studio and recording acoustic versions. I just recorded an acoustic version of “Sista Sista” that I’m so excited about. It’s just me and the guitar.
Soul Train: Your daughter edited one of your videos on your YouTube page. How influential was she in you getting back into music?
Karyn White: She’s supportive in whatever I do, she’s an incredible person. She’s actually helped me ― there’s a song called “Unbreakable” that she found for me, so I would kind of say that she A&R’d it. She’s great with social media and she’s taken pictures. She’s like the best assistant in the world because she does everything and she knows how crazy I am. (Laughs) I said if you can work for me, you can work for anyone. I’m kind of like Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada, but I’m cool, I’m just a perfectionist. One perk I love: she’s doing my retouching! (Laughs) I’m like, “Hello, make me look 20 years younger!” But I really do work my butt off to stay in shape.
Soul Train: Johnny Gill and SWV released new material within the last few months. Why do you think so many people from that era of R&B are returning to the scene?
Karyn White: You couldn’t have picked two better vocalists. Johnny Gill is incredible ― that’s my boy! I’ve written songs for him, sang background for lots of his music when he was doing stuff with Flyte Tyme Productions and also with Babyface and L.A. I’m excited about both those artists, because they’re the cream of the cream and great vocalists, and it’s great to see them back. The main thing is it’s so hard being a recording artist. There’s a positive side and a negative side, and I’ve been very fortunate to not have this happen, but you put your worth on your hit, and if you don’t have a hit, you’re just down in the dumps. I’m glad I love myself and I understand my worth and I don’t put it into whether I’m on the charts or not. Every time I see artists I tell them, “You’re part of that 1 percent.” I remind them of their greatness because it was reminded to me, because it’s like, do you know the odds to get signed and then getting a No. 1 record? So I remind them of their greatness. The record industry will sometimes make you feel like it’s only about today and who cares about yesterday, but I care about yesterday because there would be no today if those artists didn’t pave the way.
One thing about that time frame ― and Johnny kind of falls in that same time frame as me ― a lot of the great songs weren’t released. It was a trip because we were getting these pop records, and I believe a lot of the labels we were on, they were going after this whole pop thing and sometimes they put out songs that weren’t really the greatest songs on the album. Johnny’s “Giving My All to You” [from his 1990 self-title album] … but that’s one thing. You can put that music on today and it would sound so timeless, I mean it will fit right in. But that’s the great thing now is that we can go to iTunes and download it.
Soul Train: Is there anything from your catalog that you wish would have been a single?
Karyn White: Heck yeah! I got lots of ‘em. (Laughs) We had one song called “Beside You” [from Ritual of Love]. It’s an incredible, beautiful song, the lyrics are incredible ― whooo! Not in front or behind you, but beside you, so that’s one. Another song I sang for Eddie Murphy at his wedding, called “Tears of Joy” that I did with Michael Powell, that one is my one, and I wrote that one with Terry, and it was a beautiful time, I remember just crying and being so happy. And I have a story: For “Ritual of Love,” I called Prince and I said I have this idea that’s really kind of eclectic, and Prince is the king of eclectic. He said he didn’t know if he was good enough to do it. I said, “You’re Prince, are you crazy?” He had said we were doing a collaboration, so I hope we can in the future. I mean Prince ― “Superwoman,” if you hear it, was inspired by “Purple Rain,” the music part of it. I love to tell that story because it’s Prince. (Laughs)
I’m so much better, but you should be, but some acts get dated, and you’re like, “Ooh, why did she come back?” But just remember your greatness. I feel better than at that young age and I got some wisdom, too? It’s over, it’s going down, I’m not doing that stupid crap I was doing before. (Laughs)
Get more Karyn on Twitter (@karyns_world), Facebook (KarynWhiteOfficial), YouTube (KarynWhiteOfficial) and at www.KarynsWorld.me.
Joel Lyons is a New York City-based aficionado of Dance, Pop and R&B. Experience his appreciation at www.ThatsMyJam.net and on Twitter @onlyONscripting.