How Come Youre Not on American Idol?"
Off-the-Radar Singer Candace Jones Navigates the Treacherous World of the Music Business
In an era in which the music recording industry prefabricates talent to fit the latest trend, or TV’s American Idol submits them to its tribunal’s ridicule or the whims of fickle fans, Candace Jones is a rare exception. She actually has singing ability and the requisite attitude to back it up.
With the music industry losing interest in nurturing talent, Jones, along with her associates at the startup production company Risk Music Group, is taking advantage of new models of business and outreach. They are doing it themselves: making use of the democratization of recording technology and the internet, and cultivating audiences at performances in venues such as Manhattan’s Remote Lounge and Brooklyn’s Bar Sepia.
Born in New York but raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, the daughter of two musicians, Jones’s roots are in America’s most neglected cultural form-cum-museum-piece, namely jazz. However, she’s realistic and understands that the marketplace is a demanding bitch goddess. So, rendering unto Caesar, she sings R&B, with the desire of “wanting to sell millions” of R&B records so she can attend to her first love, jazz.
Seated in the backyard respite of Bar Sepia (where she also gigs as a bartender), she laughed when asked why she wasn’t on American Idol. “I don’t think it would be conducive to my artistry,” she explained. “Once you get past the audition process, you have to sign a contract that says that you may not work for a year professionally at all. Meaning I could not do music theater; it would block a lot of opportunities. I have to work, and they can’t tell me I can’t work for a year.”
At only 23, Jones already understands how the game is played and how it can limit you. “When [American Idol’s producers] do sign you, they hire people to do your album; it’s a big-label situation. It’s not, ‘Here, go write your own song and be an artist.’ It’s ‘Here’s your single, here’s your producer, go and work on other people’s songs.’ You’re trapped.
“I’m not [a major label’s] best bet if they are looking to invest in a trend or a fad. If they are looking to invest in an artist and a life-long artistry, then I’m what they are looking for.”
She wants to live a “double life,” singing R&B and jazz. “I want to sing R&B because I write beautifully and I write really personal songs. I write really good, solid songs. And I love jazz. I have to do both. I can’t not sing jazz just because I’m in the R&B game.”
And she has the chops to do both. Imagine the vocal register of Minnie Ripperton, the sass of Sara Vaughn, and the emotional depth of Anita Baker, and you’ll only begin to get an idea of Jones’s talent as a singer. While most contemporary R&B songs are heavy-breathing preludes to the nasty, she displays an uncanny talent for adding depth and texture to the old staple of modern pop, love. But it’s when she sings jazz or blues that she forcefully projects, swoops, dips, deepens, and teases out a song, as she did when she sang “Lush Life” and “Parker’s Mood” at a recent, packed Sunday-night gig in Prospect Heights.
Spurred on by her grandmother, who told her that she could never sing as well as Ella Fitzgerald, Ms. Jones has won awards for outstanding musicianship from the Berklee School of Music (receiving a partial scholarship when only 14). She attended Stanford University’s pre-college program, and studied at the University of California at Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program. She also won an award in a regional NAACP competition for classical voice in 1995.
At 15 she performed in Fab, a musical about the 1960s, at San Francisco’s Alacazar Theater. Later she performed in other musical theater shows, such as Bubbling Brown Sugar, Dream Girls, and Ain’t Misbehavin’. She became adept at singing rhythm and blues by performing for four years in Chosen, which has opened for Snoop Dogg and Chante Moore.
Working on her first album, tentatively titled Ms. Candace Jones, with her “partners in crime” Tracy Austin and Aaron Seawood, she says that she works fast and studiously; she can crank out two songs in five hours. However, it’s in live performances that she tries to have “creative moments” when the unexpected and immediate circumstances meet.
“It’s a moment when something comes from nothing,” she explained. It’s not pre-thought; it’s not pre-meditative. I didn’t think of this lick this morning. It comes right there in that moment because that’s how you feel and that’s how you are. It’s great.”
Although a member of the hip-hop generation, Jones is one of the rare singers who actually has a vestigial respect for that definitively old-school music: the blues. That became evident when she sang King Pleasure’s rendition of “Parker’s Mood” at Sepia recently. “It’s so primal and basic,” she said. “When you listen to a blues everyone feels it; you have no choice.
“People know more about [the blues] than they think,” she continued. “We’ve grown up with this music; all of us. If you've ever been over to your grandma’s house, if you've ever been over to your uncle’s house, if you've ever been over to your aunt’s house, you know this music...you know this music in the back of your brain.”
To Jones, some of her hip-hop cohorts are “tripping out.” She feels that some people are not being “responsible with their art.”
“These kids are out buying millions of your records—it’s irresponsible to be on a billboard holding a gun,” she argued. She wasn’t buying the rationale that it’s merely an artist’s image or storytelling. “Art, my butt!”
She feels that there is a difference between Al Pacino playing the lead character in Scarface and some hip-hoppers embracing the “thug life.” “Al Pacino’s name wasn’t Al Pacino in that movie,” she argued. “That’s not how he continued to portray himself throughout the rest of his career in every single movie that he did. When you’re an artist, a singer, a rapper, that’s how you are going to portray yourself from now until you are done. This is how you are putting yourself out there—this is me! You’re telling these kids this is okay, this is all good...Artists have a tremendous amount of responsibility.”
Even though she thinks 50 Cent is a “sexy guy,” she thinks he didn’t have to go the extra mile and pose with a gun. If she were a parent she wouldn’t be allowing her children to be buying that kind of material. “Absolutely not!” she said, with the kind of no-nonsense attitude that parents once imparted to their children in order to keep them alive and well.
So this is Ms. Candace Jones: an up-and-coming singer with bodacious talent along with an independent streak schooled in jazz and R&B—and with family values, too.
Candace Jones is currently on a three-month tour of Germany.
Norman Kelley's Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.