Artist to Artist: Taja Sevelle

Taja+SevelleSummer time, 1988.  New Orleans, LA.  On those sultry southern mornings, my tweenage quotidien included tumbling out of bed, peeking into my great-grandmother’s room and kissing her good morning if she was awake, then ambling in the general direction of the kitchen, where my grandmother would often be frying up andouille sausage patties while preparing my great-grandmother’s daily oatmeal and coffee.  And in between making beds, washing dishes, playing with my grandparents’ hooligan Peekapoo, Eboni the Original, and waiting for my grandfather to come home for lunch, there was compulsory summer reading, endless mall-ratting, and countless hours of cable television.  Hours upon hours of my youth I spent flipping channels, jumping anxiously  between local stations and Nickelodeon, MTV, and BET.  And it was during one such marathon of incessant channel surfing, camped out on my grandparents’ bed and having commandeered their television, that I stumbled upon…the hair.  I’d landed on BET’s Video Soul and was planning to stay there only briefly, until my eyes caught sight of the most marvelous coif to which they’d ever been privy.  Buoyant, crimped ringlets bathed in red.  I was captivated and immediately wondered if my mom’s friend Dotty, who owned a hair salon in Dallas, could make me a wig like it.  Then Donnie Simpson appeared on the screen, announcing a name I understood to be “Tasha Seville,” but would quickly find out was actually Taja Sevelle once it flashed across the screen.  They were setting up to premier the video of her debut single, “Love Is Contagious,” from her eponymous Paisley Park (What?! She’s associated with Prince and has that awesome hair?!) release.  I sat up and tucked my legs under me, anticipating some big, wild, not-quite-age-appropriate (for me, ahem) visuals and a sound featuring undeniably Prince-y licks and Linn drum.  But instead, soft, lush synths, bass, horns, percussion, and tambourine eased from the television into the room, and Taja’s sweet voice rose through the orchestration.  I was hooked.  I was sold.  And days later, after a trip to Tower Records on Peters Street (which I believe is now Peaches Record Store), I was the proud owner of Taja Sevelle on cassette.

A Minnesota native trained in voice and extensively versed in jazz, gospel, blues, soul, and all genres in between, Taja Sevelle’s bio reads like that of the ultimate DIY artist; not only did she study at some of the most prestigious music schools in the state, she performed in multiple bands simultaneously, funded various recording projects of her own, and had the chops to gain acceptance into the esteemed Berklee College of Music.  And so it would happen that, just as she prepared to embark upon her studies at Berklee, along came Prince with an offer for a record deal.  After several months of back and forth negotiating the terms of her deal, Taja finally signed on the dotted line, walking away with a recording contract and, most importantly, 100% of her publishing rights.  She released two albums on Prince’s Paisley Park label–the aforementioned self-titled debut and 1991’s Fountains Free, all the while continuing the lend backing vocals to various Prince projects and writing for and working with other artists and producers (Ms. Sevelle has amassed quite an impressive collection of songwriting credits, her work appearing on CDs by Jonny Mathis, Badly Drawn Boy, and the soundtrack for the motion picture film Lean On Me, and loads of unreleased material written for and/or recorded by a host of other artists).  For her third studio album, 1997’s Toys of Vanity, Taja inked a deal with Sony 550 and also launched her own label imprint, Matrix Music.  And as if she didn’t have enough irons in the fire with her music alone, this versatile singer/songwriter has also penned two novels–Rain on a River and The Joke, and a soon-to-be-released non-fiction book called The Garden Song, which chronicles her experiences with Urban Farming, the life-altering, ground-breaking community gardens project Taja launched in 2005 in Detroit, MI.

Taja’s journey from songbird to home-grown food pioneer began in the mid-90s, while she was recording Toys of Vanity in Detroit.  Having noticed the extraordinary hardship the Motor City had suffered as a result of the decline of the auto industry and severe job loss, and the vacant lots, boarded up buildings, and economic strife that came along with it, the seeds were planted and would soon take root.  Ms. Sevelle began to lay the foundation for a project to convert the unused and untended land in the city into useful, critical space within neighborhoods that would address issues of food access and economic disparity, and transform what would come to be known frequently as “food deserts” into sustainable, thriving communities growing their own fresh fruits and vegetables.  What started as a local community garden project in Detroit quickly germinated, with gardens popping up across the US and throughout the continents of Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

SoulTrain.com is honored to present this latest Artist to Artist interview with the one and only, Taja Sevelle.

SoulTrain.com: Tell our SoulTrain.com audience about Urban Farming.  How did you transition from recording artist to champion of community gardens?

Taja Sevelle: Well you know, once a recording artist, always a recording artist!  I definitely transitioned my life in terms of adding on this mission of Urban Farming, which has really opened my life up in many, many ways.  But I continue to record and write throughout the time with Urban Farming.  Originally I was planning to put my music on the back-burner for a brief amount of time.  I didn’t know how hard it was to actually start a charity from scratch and build it up to the point of where it is now; it’s really taken off!  So it’s been a trip!  I work 17-hour days, working on this mission.  We started with three gardens in Detroit, Michigan, and we have over 60,600 gardens that are part of the Urban Farming global food chain worldwide.

SoulTrain.com: There has been quite a bit of conversation and advocacy surrounding the politics of food–from the failed Prop 37 California ballot initiative, which would have mandated labeling of all genetically modified food, to First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, to the highly controversial Monsanto company.  With so much conflicting information out there, how does Urban Farming address these and other hot-button issues?

TS: When we started Urban Farming, we really started a global movement.  Lots of people have jumped on board ever since we started to get international press on what we were doing.  Not to say people all around the world, locally, had not already been doing similar things; community gardening has been around for years.  But…when we started planting big plots of land–especially in Detroit–and all the food was free for the community, it really started a trend.  Particularly in Detroit, where there are all these vast amounts of unused land, people really saw the vision.  Once they saw a whole block full of food and collard greens, and tomatoes, and beets, and lettuce for free…I’ve had people come up to me crying, thanking us because they can get the food for free, 24/7.  The intension was to start a worldwide trend, so now it’s happening.  That was stage one for us, and we always knew that some of these other issues would come up.  The way we deal with them is we just keep reminding people that it’s everybody’s right to grow their own food.  It’s a simple thing to do, and what we’re doing right now in phase 2 of our mission is encouraging people to start planting their own food, in their own homes.  If you have a lawn, grow a garden!  It cuts down on your monthly food bills, it engages your children and they can start learning about healthy eating.  It’s a contributing factor for the health of your family.  If you’re in an apartment in New York you can plant on your window sill or on your stoop.  Basically we just wanted to get the word out that you can plant anywhere.

We did this wonderful project with Kraft and the Triscuit cracker.  We chose the Triscuit cracker because three out of four consumers are demanding fewer additives in their food, and the Triscuit cracker only has three ingredients: Wheat, oil, and salt.  We planted 65 community gardens in 21 cities across the United States in 2010 and 2011.  Now we have the Urban Farming One Hundred Million Families and Friends Global Campaign to encourage people to start growing their own food.

SoulTrain.com: One of the issues that always seems to arise when talking about the availability of nutritious foods, particularly in urban areas, is cost.  It some areas, fresh produce and higher quality meats are more expensive than fast food meals, especially when feeding a family.  You mentioned that people can come to the Urban Farming gardens and get food for free.  How does that work?

TS: You can show up with a bag at midnight, and start picking!  There’s no paperwork, nobody watching you, nobody keeping track.  It’s a trusting environment.  A lot of people said to me in the beginning, “Oh man, you’re in Detroit!  You’re gonna have to put fences up or people are gonna steal the food!”  First of all, there’s nothing to steal, because the food is free.  Number two, we don’t need anymore fences and bars up in food deserts.  What we need is a peaceful, happy environment where people can come and get some food, without having to go through anything that compromises their dignity.  We just wanted it to be relaxed and cool.

SoulTrain.com: Urban Farming has gardens all across the globe–literally.  Can you tell us about some of the changes you’ve observed in the communities where Urban Farming has planted gardens?

TS: We have a global map on our website, and people register their gardens.  Over 20 countries now have registered.  By the time this interview comes out, people will have the ability to upload pictures of their gardens on the website.  In terms of conditions in the various countries, we think globally, so we do our very best to stay up to date with various conditions around the world relating to food and relating to health and wellness.

We have an interactive section on the Urban Farming website, where people can leave gardening tips and healthy eating tips.  We have topics of healthy thinking, healthy eating, healthy fitness, healthy finances, and healthy families.  We also have a section for people who are interested in green collar jobs and job training opportunities around the world, and this year we’re launching a healthy communication program that will be a part of our health and wellness program.  Healthy communication is being mindful of how we talk to each other; I think it’s critical for our world moving forward.

We always thought in terms of hundreds of millions of people around the world growing their own food, and that radically changes the way the world looks.  We intend to effect a paradigm shift in the consciousness of the human race, so that our kids will come up to us and say, “What was that like when you guys had hunger?  All I see is an abundance of food.”  That’s our goal.

SoulTrain.com: Let’s talk music.  In reading your bio on your website, I was thrilled to learn that you retained 100% of your publishing when you signed with Prince back in the late 1980s.  Would it have been a deal-breaker for you, had you not been able to keep your publishing?

TS: That’s a good question.  I don’t know, but I can tell you this: I was standing my ground, because I was negotiating the deal for a year.  Normally a deal is done in three months!  So I was sticking to what I wanted.  Prince has been extremely generous with me as an artist.  It’s been a blessing to have him in my life and have the opportunity to get started with him.  He’s also been a supporter of Urban Farming and continues to be.

It was really heartbreaking, but I had to sell some of my publishing to keep Urban Farming going.  It was really tough for me to get it off the ground.  That’s a whole other story…I’ve written a book, The Garden Song.  It’s the story about my life in the music business and the philosophy behind Urban Farming, and a lot of the accounts of Urban Farming and getting the charity off the ground.

SoulTrain.com:  There are a couple songs available for download on your website, and the proceeds go to Urban Farming.  Is there a new album coming soon?

TS: I’m recording new music, and I’m thrilled about the stuff I’ve just started recording!  I have lots of music that has not been released, so I’m starting to release some of it and at the same time, I’m recording new music.  Everything that I do–whether it’s books, music, my invention eventually–part of the proceeds will go to Urban Farming.   With the music, I’m working with Shawn Carrington, who played guitar for Jay-Z and Beyoncé for many years–he’s one of the top guitarists out there right now.  But he’s also an amazing producer.  He was in my band when I was with Sony 550.  The stuff that we’re creating is really exciting and I can’t wait to get it out!

SoulTrain.com: You were originally signed with and delivered two albums on Warner Bros., and then your third on Sony 550.  What was your experience working with these labels, from your personal imaging to the songs ultimately selected for your albums?

TS:  When Prince first offered me a deal, he knew that I was an artist, and he knew that I would want to write my own music, and he honored that.  He said, “I’ll let you write a few songs on your first CD.”  Well, that ended up being more than just a few songs!  He actually gave me quite a bit of leeway, and he told me in retrospect I was the only artist he gave that kind of freedom to.  Not only did he recognize me as an artist, he also came to know me as somewhat of a headstrong little thing [laughs].  I came in with my own ideas of how I wanted to look and what I wanted to do, and what I didn’t want to do.  [The labels] looked to me for guidance about what to do with me, which was a blessing.  They said, “You’re not just R&B, you’re also pop.  And you’re not just pop, you’re also R&B and you’ve got a little jazz flavor, and we’re not quite sure where to put you.”  I had two heads of A&R working on my CD; I had the pop head of A&R, Michael Ostin–who is the son of Mo Ostin (who was the head of Warner Bros. at the time), and Benny Medina, the head of R&B A&R at the time.  And we all know Benny Medina because The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was loosely written off his life.  I had both of them working with me side by side.

SoulTrain.com: I remember toward the late 80s, early 90s, when Mariah Carey first hit the scene, looking at her and thinking, ‘Who is this woman trying to be like Taja Sevelle?’  I mean, from her sound to her look to the high notes!

TS: [laughs] I’ve heard a lot of people say that!  I think for any artist, we all study each other and  then develop our own style.  I like to hear the unique voices that are out there.  In the 60s, 70, and 80s–particularly the 60s and 70s–artists really treasured their uniqueness.  You knew when it was Chaka, you knew when it was the Emotions, you knew when it was Aretha, you knew when it was Barbra Streisand.  I think that’s a really important part of art; I think we’ve gotten away from it a little bit, but hopefully we’ll get back to it where people can embrace their own uniqueness.  Mariah has her own unique style; she has grown as an artist and has her own style.  People go through things in life and pick up different feelings, things hit them in the soul a little deeper sometimes than when we were younger.  It’s interesting to see how the artists progress.

SoulTrain.com: If you were just starting out in the music business now, would you pursue a deal with a major label, or would you release your work as an independent artist?

TS:  After my Sony deal–you have to read my book to hear more about that!–I decided at that point that I wanted to be independent.  So I really pushed hard with the label that I’d started, Matrix Music, and I came to realize over the course of time that it’s a blessing to also have a major label deal, especially the types of deals that I’ve had.  No matter what, business is business, so if you’re starting something from scratch you have to have some money to get the word out.  It sounds enticing, it sounds wonderful to say, “I’m an independent artist.”  But it’s a lot of work, getting a business off the ground.  The consumer awareness that’s necessary to have the kind of success you can achieve with a major label requires massive amounts of money.  That’s why these artists can be who they are.  How else do you have somebody greeting you at the airport in the Philippines or in Japan or London?  That major label pays for the infrastructure, and that’s how they’re getting your name out all over the world.

There are pros and cons.  If a deal were offered to me, I would take a look at it depending on the deal.  But it would have to be a good deal, because at this point in my life I can do it myself.  I don’t want to discard the distribution arm of a major label; that would be a huge advantage to have and I would certainly look into that.

SoulTrain.com: You’ve written songs for numerous artists over the years.  Who are some of the artists you’ve written for and/or who’ve recorded songs you penned?

TS:  I’ve worked with some really fabulous songwriters–Burt Bacharach, Tom Bell, Nile Rodgers.  I even worked with Sy Coleman from the Rodgers and Hammerstein days.  They taught me a lot about songwriting, and those are radically different types of songwriters.  With Burt Bacharach, I placed a song with Jonny Mathis.  Badly Drawn Boy used “Love Is Contagious” in one of their songs; there are some overseas artists in China and different areas who’ve picked up songs that I’ve written.  The variety is really exciting to me.  I just launched my music store on my website, and every month I’m going to put more music out.  And as it grows, you’ll see the genres growing as well.  There may be alternative, country rock, R&B is my staple and my first love, and jazz…I’m excited about being able to do that kind of variety!

The songwriting and singing are my first love.  I’m very excited that Urban Farming has grown to where I can take my hands off the wheels, so to speak, and start working on my music again.  I always said I put my music on the back-burner to get [Urban Farming] this going, but it’s very much on auto-pilot and I’m always going to be involved with it.  But it was always my intension to focus on my music career, and getting the books out.

Visit UrbanFarming.org for more information about the global community gardens initiative and to get involved!  For all things Taja Sevelle, go to tajasevelle.com and check her out on Facebook.  You can also follow Taja on Twitter @Taja_Sevelle!

–Rhonda Nicole

Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA, currently performing with San Francisco-based soul band Midtown Social.  Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, check her out on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @wildhoneyrock.

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