Do you remember when R&B artists had soul and substance? Back before the devil Guetta and his minions poisoned the airwaves with their toxic tripe. OK, we can’t wholly blame the fall of R&B as a genre on Guetta, as tempting as it is. And there’s no one figure wholly responsible for its devolution into Euro-pap-fused ringtone fodder. However, we can apportion a fat chunk of the blame at the majors who seem insistent on serving up economical dish after dish of the same urban (whatever the Teddy P that means??!!??) dross to the detriment of a once buoyant genre that is, sadly, fast becoming solely the preserve of the cognoscenti.
But it’s not all bad news, as thanks to the growing strength of the independent movement, music fans with the wherewithal to seek out substantive artists continue to find themselves in possession of an embarrassment of riches. 2011 saw fantastic releases from a whole host of genuine artists concerned with releasing music deeper than the latest hit. Just trawl through this site, and then hop on over to proper sites like BamaLovesSoul, SoulTracks, SoulBounce and soulandjazz.com and you’ll get to read about and hear some of the best music of our lives.
All this chatter about the successes of the independent movement and the virtual death of R&B brings me to rising R&B/Soul artist, Winston Warrior. Winston’s debut album, Lifeology 101 was released in 2011 and created a little buzz which has subsequently become sonorous, resulting in a number of Soul Tracks awards nominations and January’s Album of the Month over at their lovely website. I was initially passed the album to review for another site (the fabulous soulinterviews.com), but passed on it. Over the following months, however, I found myself being drawn back to the album’s opener, Keep Movin’ (the new single), an addictive mid-tempo R&B soul groover, and before I knew it, I began to the love the whole album; it’s grooves, themes and substance unravelling themselves over time, just like albums did back in the day. So when the chance came to catch up with Winston for an interview, I jumped at it.
Winston had originally attempted to realize his long-held dream of a music career back in the 90s with R&B group, Lo’ Profile. Despite opening for hugely popular artists such as Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, Dru Hill, Soul 4 Real, and Bone Thugs N Harmony, the group became a victim of the sometimes nefarious music industry, shattering Winston’s dream in the process. I asked Winston how and why he had now decided to give a recording career another shot.
I was a marketing executive in business for a Fortune 500 in the States and there was a tragic incident that happened to a friend of mine. She was the tennis manager of the facility that I play tennis at. She was a healthy woman in her early forties, healthy one day and then two days later she was gone. It really affected me. I just couldn’t believe it. And then a lot of people heard that I could sing and wanted me to sing at the memorial service but then all those negative thoughts and insecurities popped up and I was like, I don’t want to ruin it. But then one of my really good friends pulled me aside and said, “Winston, if not now, then when? When are you going to use this talent, this gift?” And so I went and did it and it felt very much like she was the one that was pushing me through it and four years later, here I am. You know, I’ve always sung since I was a young boy, and then at the University of Miami and with the group. Singing has always been a part of me but after the failed attempt at the recording career, which was devastating, I just didn’t sing that much any more. So, I’m so grateful for this second chance.
I think most of us can relate to the experience of having a dream unfulfilled. Many of us carry the burden of living a life we didn’t imagine for ourselves, with external pressures pushing us to narrow our outlook. I asked Winston if, following Lo’ Profile’s demise, he was under pressure to get a proper job and put the pipe dream’s to one side.
Being the valedictorian and drum major from high school and doing so well at the University of Miami, it was expected that I would be one of those people that would succeed, and when the rumours got back to Atlanta that I was doing music and that I was in a group, I felt the pressure, particularly when that attempt at a recording career was unsuccessful. There was a huge pressure for me to be something. And then to get so close to your dream and have it snatched away so quickly when I was in the group, that pushed me to be serious about life and focus in on a career and be the person that I was supposed to be. I tried the music and it didn’t work and so I buried it as pipe dream, you know I did all those things you do to talk yourself out of your dreams. And then that’s why I was so frightened to get back in to the music and let that floodgate open again, because it’s my passion, but you juxtapose that with trying to make money, be a success and reach a certain status in life.
I was intrigued to hear more about Winston’s experience when the group fell apart. Not because I wanted to dwell on the negative aspects of his story (I’m anything but a journalist!), but to try and understand how the landscape has shifted for artists between then and now, particularly given the growth of the indie scene.
I don’t really like to talk about what happened with the group too much, as it was so painful. The business part of it was not together. It fell through. A regular story in the industry. It was devastating, moving from a private showcase in New York for a major record company to not owning the name, masters or anything. But now, I’m so grateful to have this second chance. So many people have been through the same experiences in this music thing, and are very talented, but for one reason or another they’re unable to make it to the second chance. And here I am being interviewed in the UK, having success in the States, it’s surreal, so everyday I’m like, am I dreaming?
I’m really fortunate that the indie scene has grown the way it has. You know, the universe has a way of making things happen when they’re supposed to happen. If this opportunity (to sing) had happened a few years ago, it would not have been successful, because the industry was much more controlled by the major labels and people didn’t have the ability to find talented independent artists as much. I would have been too old, I’m not 13 any more. In their business model, I wouldn’t have been the right fit. The independent movement definitely has helped it happen for me.
While the changes in the music industry have provided greater opportunities for a larger number of talented artists to release music on their own terms, the successful independent artist can’t just rely on his artistic talents. While distance from major record companies allows creative freedom, artists need to be business savvy enough to surround themselves with the right people and fully engage with the business of marketing, selling and generally running themselves as artists
Not only am I independent, but I’m also self-funded and it takes a lot of funding to do it all, but on the flipside, it gives you all the creative freedom to do what you want to do. If somebody else had been holding the purse strings they wouldn’t have picked the songs that I recorded. Somebody would have pushed for a more instant hit, or would have been against the album cover. I’ve had so many people with so many different opinions on what I should do, or sound like…but I make the decisions and an independent artist on my own label and thank god, I’ve been right so far, most of the time…the bad thing is that if you don’t sell records, you can’t pay the bills and you don’t eat. Fortunately, I am very goal and plan orientated and I do have a business plan and use the knowledge gained from my MBA all the time, but I’m learning to balance that also with my strong faith, knowing that it’s my time and I will make it happen. I get those small wins where God is saying to me, keep going, Winston. It’s difficult though. I mean, you can control so many things, but I can’t control what people like. I can only promote myself, put the music out there and do my best, but it’s up to the people if they like the music and want to click to download it. That is out of my control and it is scary. You have to have that faith to keep striving.
I asked Winston if he had considered developing a more commercial sound to help with the business side of being an independent artist in today’s market.
I wouldn’t be human if I said I hadn’t thought about it. But I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing, and I’m now seen as doing my own thing, hopefully with more substance. It’s funny though, people are coming to me saying, how are you doing this? People are sending me encouraging notes and thanking me for bringing R&B back. So I’ve got to be doing something right. And as an independent soul artist, if you go after the big hit, you may not hit with the masses and you run the risk of alienating the discriminate listeners.
As much as I love to champion the independent soul and R&B scene, I am concerned at the lack of younger independent artists creating substantive soulful music. As opposed to the youth-fixated charts, the indie-scene seems rather skewed towards to those in their thirties and beyond. As an advocate for soulful music, I want everybody to love our music and ensure it has life beyond its years.
I never thought about it that way, but you know, the younger folks are perhaps more concerned with the instant hit. With soul music, you can’t have that outlook. You really need to put that grind in. Some of the younger folks can’t comprehend the work that has to go into it, they want the hit and the ringtone and BANG! And a lot of us are a little older and have been through the failed experiences which has helped to push us and put the work in for ourselves. But I would also like to see younger artists coming through. That’s why I started my own label. Eventually, I would like to have younger folks on the label and help to mentor those that have a desire to sing soul music. I want to ensure that soul music lives. But at the moment, the focus is on me. You can’t help others be successful unless first you are. It’s been a great year. I got four Soul Tracks nominations, and was recognized by the editors for an honorable mention and was on the Grammy ballot, in addition to the chart with Bad4U. And I can’t wait for 2012, Keep Movin’, we’ve got a big push for that cut in 2012.
Keep Movin’ is a wholly positive, somewhat anthemic cut that has grown in stature over time chez SoulCuts, much like the whole album. And it’s often those albums that take a moment to get into that over time become your favorites. I asked Winston whether this slow burn, or unravelling of layers over time, was intended.
I think it just happens. But I’m definitely an advocate of good writing and trying to get a good song as opposed to a ‘hit’. I think the album does sneak up on you. It does have a slow burn, which is great. I don’t know if you followed Whitney Houston in her prime, but she could work the same album for a couple of years, and I wanted to have a project that would resonate with the listener whatever their mood, where tracks might hit more in a certain season. I wanted to have a project that could stand the test of time. There was a little bit of thought behind creating that, but overall I just wanted to create music that people could enjoy, smile and have fun.
Winston’s influences are definitely not worn on his sleeve. But behind the modern production and contemporary sensibilities it’s apparent that Winston looks to the old school for inspiration.
My influences are the one-name-wonders, Teddy, Donnie, Stevie, Marvin, Michael, Luther. But I take it as a compliment when people say they can’t hear the influences in my voice, because what I do is try to take a bit of everything and then come up with my own sound and I think I’ve been successful in coming up with a sound that is ‘me’. But those artists influenced me in the way that they told a story, they conjured things up in your imagination and it wasn’t so abrasive, up-front and blunt like a lot of folks like to sing now. As for a favorite, you know, they’ve been playing Luther a lot on the radio recently, particularly music from his Christmas album and its made me realize how much I miss Luther Vandross. He was great. He was effortless. The way he died, and how tragic it was, it just makes me sigh, man. He didn’t do all the running, he just sang the song. But then I’ve got to give it up to MJ and Marvin too. Those are my three greatest influences, or favorite artists.
Winston acquits himself equally well on the a variety of tempos and styles contained in Lifeology 101, but he seems most at home on the downtempo material. It’s a difficult task to make romantic or sexy music without coming across as cheesy, or sleazy, nowadays.
I am more of a balladeer. I love love songs. But I wanted to have a balance on the record. But, you know there’s something about a love song and communicating that energy, it’s just something I love to do and resonates most with me. And I have been told I have the sexy thing going on (laughs), but I try not to play it up too much. You won’t always see me ripping my shirt off every time I’m on stage (laughs). Truly, I’m a romantic at heart. When I sing, I want to paint a picture the way that Teddy and Marvin did when it comes to ballads. I think that’s being truly authentic. And those guys had a sexy thing, but they weren’t talking about breaking the headboard because they’ve been doing it all night (laughs).
Before we finished our conversation, I had to ask Winston about that name. It’s pretty memorable: Winston Warrior. Surely it wasn’t his actual name.
No, it’s mine. People are like, what does that name mean? People say to me that I must have changed my name, but I say, just go and look at my Facebook page and you’ll see a whole host of warriors. My parents gave it to me and now I’m using it to the best that I can.
With a memorable name, substantial music and an affable and focused demeanor, here’s to Winston’s continued ascension. As the man himself says, “The Phoenix is Rising.”
Learn more about Winston at his website, www.winstonwarrior.com. You can purchase his album from the aforementioned site and all the usual download places.