Interview by Terrance Harris
Grammy Award-winning Singer, Songwriter, Producer and Visual Artist Tony Rich took the music world by storm with his breakout hit “Nobody Knows” from his 1996 debut album ‘Words’ courtesy of LaFace Records followed by other hits such as “Like a Woman” and “Leavin’”.
I caught up with Tony Rich to discuss his latest project ‘Encaustic’ which is available on iTunes, what it was like growing up in Detroit, getting signed to LaFace and much more…
Terrance: Growing up in Detroit, how did it shape you to who you are today as a musician?
Tony Rich: Growing up in Detroit was like, you know how you grew up in that city and at some point you would more than likely want to move out of that city because that’s what you’ve seen all your life up to that point? For me, I’ve always been that curious type like, what else is out there? So I was convinced Detroit wasn’t the world but I grew up in Detroit with my mother so I really didn’t have a choice to make a choice but the thing about the city of Detroit was there was always music so of course as a kid before I could choose music I would always hear what my mother was playing. Then there was the radio playing and then there was the video era and once I was old enough to choose what I wanted to listen to or see or whatever, that’s when I started to listen to different types of music because when you grow up in a house where my mom was always listening to R&B music and never listened to Rock or anything else and also in that time there were no computers around to discover new music like YouTube or iTunes so you were limited to your choices and once I could do that I started to listen to other types of music in addition to R&B and then there was Hip-Hop as well. I can say for me it was cool growing up in Detroit I didn’t spend a whole lot of time outside because I was inside creating. I gained my interest in music around 9 years old. I was doing visual arts so I started music as an extension of that as another way to express myself.
Terrance: How did you get discovered and signed to LaFace Records?
Tony Rich: I was in Detroit in ‘91 and I was actually working with this group there that needed a songwriter/producer so I was the guy who wrote the songs for them and one of the guys in the group, his brother set up a meeting for the group to do auditions. At the time John Salley was playing for the Detroit Piston’s and he had a recording studio there and John loves music and he was looking for acts and so the group went over there and I went with them. While sitting there I’m not saying anything and so John was naturally drawn to, the quiet guy, like what do you do? I’m like, I just write songs and I’m not trying to be out front like that and he goes, can you sing a song? I said yeah but I’m not trying to do that and so as time went on John reached out to me and not the group. He was not interested in the group. He wanted to link up with the guy who wrote the stuff he heard so from the point John was actually the first person to pay me some money to produce tracks and so I was working out of his studio for a while and then he was traded to the Miami Heat and once that happened he got rid of the studio and all of that. He and I kept in touch but while I was at that studio there were a couple of guys who were on their way down to Atlanta and they said once they get there they were going to hook me up and I was like, yeah okay, you know I heard that before. They actually called me maybe a year later because I was working out the studio they once worked out of and the guy that was running that studio would tell them whenever they would call that he have to think about it, and anyway they wound up reaching me at home and they then linked me to Pebbles who then flew me down to Atlanta the very next day and that day she sent me over to L.A. Reid because she felt that I could learn more if I worked with him as a songwriter/producer directly as opposed to her. That’s how I ended up signing to LaFace as a songwriter/producer.
Terrance: What was the experience like to win the Grammy for Best R&B Album for your debut album Words?
Tony Rich: Well, I was out on the road touring and promoting the Words album and back then you used to find out about your nominations by fax and I went into the office when I was in town which I was a bit shocked because my mind wasn’t there and I wasn’t thinking about that or the Grammy process or none of that so I wasn’t expecting it, but I saw it and looking at the Grammy nominations and I’m saying to myself, okay which one of these I wanna win? And I remembered being interviewed because I was in 4 nominations. One was for “Nobody Knows” for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance which I was up against Eric Clapton so quite honest I knew I didn’t have that one. Then I had Best New Artist and I think No Doubt was in that category and LeAnn Rimes and didn’t think I had that one. And then there was Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and I think Luther Vandross was in that category and I was like, I definitely don’t have that one. Then there was Best R&B Album and I was up against Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite and Maxwell came out maybe a couple months before I did, so when I was being interviewed I said I was going to take home at least one of those I’m not going home empty-handed but in my heart of heart I knew which one I wanted to win which was Best R&B Album and the reason I spoke that into existence was that would be the award that would change the game for me in my profession as a songwriter and producer and as an artist. I knew as a producer I could charge more. I knew that as a songwriter it would put me on another level and as an artist it would put me on a certain level as well but I wasn’t expecting the other element that came with that and so when I won, it was a really interesting experience because you go on stage and they hand you a Grammy and you think it’s yours and when you walk off stage they snatch it from you because your name isn’t on it and you don’t know that until it’s all over. So they snatch it from you and push you into the photo-op room, hand it to you again to take pictures with and they snatch it again, like where is my award? And then they send it to you in the mail UPS a couple months later so your high on winning kind of dies down because you can’t hold it in your hands til a couple months afterwards (laughs). Then when you get it, it’s like what do you do with it? People ask, where do you keep your Grammy? I’m like I keep it on a shelf in my closet. I mean, because looking at that doesn’t motivate me, but it’s a cool award to have and really cool to be in the category I was in especially since leading up to that, my music was never considered R&B. “Nobody Knows” definitely wasn’t playing on R&B radio still to this day.
Terrance: Because the support wasn’t there?
Tony Rich: I didn’t have a lot of R&B radio support if any, but when I went to do shows what you consider to be the R&B crowd, and let’s be clear R&B is just another word for black. It’s like Gospel and Christian. Gospel is like saying Black Christian Music and so I would see a mixture of faces in the crowd when I performed. Black people knew my music, it’s just they weren’t playing it on the radio so that means they had to discover it some other kind of way. Although R&B radio didn’t support my music, the R&B audience supported my music that came out.
Terrance: How would you best categorize your music if it’s not considered the traditional R&B?
Tony Rich: It’s almost impossible to be considered a black person and to not have heard or influenced by R&B music because even if you get off into other types of music as I did, that’s just going to be a part of your experience. There’s no way of getting around that. It also depends on how you fuse it into what you do. My music has never been strictly one genre. The first album you probably had 3 out of 10 songs that had an R&B influence but then there are some other songs that were very folky-like and “Nobody Knows” was very Country I just didn’t sing it like a Country artist and there was some stuff on there that sounded like Nirvana would have done it and there was some Steely Dan type of stuff. I’ve always made records like that I wanted to have a wide variety of sounds.
Terrance: Overall, do you feel you were treated fairly at LaFace given the roster of artists they’ve had?
Tony Rich: Well, I have to say when I was at LaFace I probably had it better than a lot of artists. Starting out as a songwriter/producer it’s a different relationship once you’re on the other side as opposed to being just an artist, because in the whole grand scheme of things it’s the most volatile relationship between a record label and artist whereas a songwriter/producer with the label that’s like buddy-buddy system. Once you’re an artist it become really, really strange and procurer, but the way I was set up there because I produced my own record I didn’t have to pay other producers so when it came down to it I made money on the frontend versus having to wait on the backend because the artist is the last one to get paid and the first ones to get charged and make the least amount. Often times when you seen as artist in that time they were Platinum but that didn’t mean anything other than the fact they owed that label a lot of money. They hadn’t recouped yet. You’d have to be multi-platinum to recoup and because I wrote my own stuff, as a publisher I made a lot of money on that so I didn’t have no complaints because I knew I was making money in other areas so I didn’t have the time or energy to focus on the unfairness of the other part because clearly contracts are not set up to be fair to the artist. They are just not. Then I left after the second album, it was just time for me to go and it was strictly creative because my manager at the time for my first album was actually offered a job which essentially left me without a manager who was a serious brainchild of breaking me out into the market. It put more of a strain creatively going forward on the next record than anything else, and so I decided to go to another label where I could get proper attention and that was right before they sold LaFace, so their attention was on being acquired. And also during the whole LaFace tenure, they never put out more than one artist at a time because they didn’t have the machine to do that and the year that they put out my second album they also put out Usher’s and Sam Salter’s album all in the same month and Usher’s record got some traction in the R&B market with it being an R&B label, they then started to push the funds that way.
Terrance: Bring me to date with your latest project Encaustic and the creative process behind it.
Tony Rich: The encaustic process in the painting world is where you fuse hot beeswax and fire to create layers so when you look at it it’s three and four dimensional and I was actually working on an encaustic piece because I’m into Visual Arts as well and I was thinking about naming the album and that’s when it hit me, yeah this is it. When I listen to a record and I select the music, I do an analysis of what I’ve put together so lyrically and musically it’s in layers, but it was an interesting record to make just because I captured things I wanted to capture like the vision I had for the record. I can’t say I had a thought on what the songs were going to sound like, I just thought what the record would sound like, like the elements of the string quartet. I wanted to use that because it’s more intimate and at the same time very haunting because with my music on the instrumentation side has always been kind of dark. That’s where I put those types of dark emotions essentials, sexual I put it into the music and intellectually is where I grow lyrically almost in a poetic fashion. I feel if my words can read like a poem then I’ve done the right thing lyrically and if the music can play by itself and cause people to feel things then I think I’ve done the right thing musically and then those fused together like an encaustic piece it gives you a multi-dimensional pieces.
Terrance: Cool. And to wrap it up. What’s next? Are there any shows scheduled?
Tony Rich: I’m heading back West and I’m going to start shooting 8 shorts for the 8 songs on the record. It’s going to be a really cool visual I’m going to roll out over the next 9 months. I’m going to approach this the same way I did when I was at LaFace and just work this project for a year and the clips are going to be really interesting because it will tell the story of the Encaustic process. I’m in the process of setting up the shows. I want to do some really, really special performances as opposed to just performing anywhere because I don’t think that really does anything. It’s always a special thing to be on Center Stage because it’s not a lot of people in there so it’s intimate and you’re pretty close to the stage. I think a string of shows like that is much better because then people walk away feeling connected to the performance.
Follow Tony Rich:
Instagram & Twitter @thetonyrich