Usher: ‘The fans want my soul’
I Could Not Have Said it Better Myself…Hahaha Another very mature interview!
Baring his soul is second nature to R&B superstar Usher, but although he has documented his recent divorce on a new album, he’s got to keep something back
Usher Raymond IV is in a thoroughly good mood. “I’m happy to be in this space and this place,” he smiles, draped over a soft leather sofa in a recording studio in the basement of a Hollywood hotel – though he’s speaking metaphorically, not literally. “Energetically, my soul, my mind, my focus – I’m happy, I’m relaxed, and I’m ready to do it all over again.”
You’d expect the multimillionaire R&B star who, according to the US music industry trade paper Billboard, stands second only to Eminem as the most successful artist of the 2000s, to have one or two things to smile about as he prepares to release his sixth album. The first signee to his record label, Justin Bieber, is an international overnight star thanks to YouTube. The basketball team he co-owns, the Cleveland Cavaliers, have just won their league. He turns down more offers to appear in Hollywood movies than he accepts, he enjoyed good notices for a three-month stint on Broadway as Billy Flynn in Chicago, and even his male and female perfume ranges have been bestsellers.
But the last few years have been difficult for the man hailed as the best dancer in pop since Michael Jackson, and credited with inventing Justin Timberlake (the former ‘N Sync star’s debut album was built from Usher’s blueprint). There’s been birth and death, severed relationships, both personal and professional, and worries over a career that hasn’t returned to the stratospheric heights his globe-conquering, 20m-selling Confessions album reached in 2004.
These are tough times for soul singers who aspire to a place in the music’s rich history (Usher’s status among the greats is already assured: the late James Brown once called him “the Godson of Soul”). It’s not just that the music has changed: the new paradigm for a successful musician demands constant interaction with fans and artfully choreographed press campaigns to produce saturation coverage around record releases and tours. There’s no room for mystique, and if your private life is public property, what’s left to put into your art? And what if you’re a naturally private person who, despite having grown up in public and spending years making music that has to be sincere to succeed, doesn’t really want to have to put all the details of your personal life on public view?
“I don’t have a private life – that’s the catch,” Usher says with a smile. “What R&B music is, and what it always has been, is taking an emotional experience and singing it passionately. Privacy is something that just isn’t there. Every other day something’s written about you, but you can’t get caught up in it. I try to live my life, and whatever is said in the press, I think my music will allow me to address certain things with people. Or, if people wondered if there were certain truths in certain things, my music basically sets the record straight.”
Or does it? Somewhere in there, Usher created a paradox and hit commercial pay dirt by finding a way to appear to be baring his soul in his art without actually having to open up all of his life to widespread public scrutiny. He did this with spectacular success in 2004, and is clearly trying to repeat the trick with the new album, Raymond v Raymond – another collection of sometimes ambitious, sometimes over-sentimental, state-of-the-art R&B.
The first single from Confessions was the daringly minimal dancefloor hit Yeah!, a collaboration with fellow Atlantans Lil’ Jon and Ludacris, which hit No 1 around the globe and briefly made the hip-hop sub-genre crunk look like it was going to change the world of pop forever. But what sealed the deal were the lyrics on the album, which seemed to spill the beans on a private life that had hit the headlines. The song Burn was widely interpreted as Usher’s take on the demise of his two-year relationship with the TLC singer Rozonoda “Chilli” Thomas – and lyrics discussing affairs and sexual liaisons spiced up a story that appeared to bear a striking resemblance to his personal life.
Raymond v Raymond plays similar games. In 2007, Usher married his stylist, Tameka Foster; the couple have two sons. In February 2009, during a cosmetic surgery procedure, Foster suffered a heart attack and was put into a medically induced coma. She recovered, but in June, the singer filed for divorce. So not only does the new album’s court-case-echoing title appear to suggest the record is Usher’s take on the saga, but there’s the not altogether unconnected matter of the album’s first single (a US R&B chart-topper in December), Papers, in which Usher talks about a relationship deteriorating to the point where one person serves a divorce petition on the other.
“I was still married when the record was written,” he says. “When it was brought to me, I said, ‘Well, this isn’t really my story.’ And Sean [Garrett, the song’s writer] said, ‘Yes it is: don’t you feel that you wanna walk away from the whole thing at times?’ The last thing you want to do in a marriage is give up, but when you’ve tried everything you can, then the best thing to do is realistically have a conversation about letting go. I have to balance two worlds: the world of the artist that I am, and the world of the person that I wanted to be – the man, the husband who is home on time. And that’s what the song’s about.
“And unfortunately,” he continues, switching unprompted from discussing the art to the life, “my marriage did come to its demise. But I wasn’t the first and most certainly won’t be the last to have a divorce. I still collect the beauty of what that is, sometimes, in my mind: I just think back to how I felt when I found my wife. It was one of the most sincere moments in my life, and I’ll never diminish that. I was very happy to have had that experience with her, and to have had two beautiful boys, who we raise together. But it just didn’t work out for us.”
So the art, then, mirrors the life, but with restrictions and caveats. Just as he was quick to explain that specific infidelities described in songs on Confessions were not literal interpretations of actual biographical facts, so again Usher is trying to have his cake and eat it – to make soul music that rings true to the life his fans know he lives, but which keeps enough of what’s really going on close to his chest. But trying to hold back, he believes, isn’t going to work.
“I try to keep the songs very general, because when people listen to my music I want them to be able to pull from it,” he says, “to maybe get something from it that helps them in their life. But that’s not really what they want, though: they want your soul. They want to know how you really feel. ‘If we buy into you, and spend our hard-earned money on hearing your story, we wanna feel like we’re taking a glimpse into your life, and understand how vulnerable you are, how emotional you are, what your obstacles are and how you overcame them.’ I have a responsibility both ways – to be an incredible man, but also to be very artistic and open. Honesty is the greatest gift that we can give each other; and there are certain things I talk about on this album, about infidelity or whatever it may be, that are very difficult. But it’s about communication, and about growing in every aspect of the journey through life.”
That journey began in Dallas on 14 October 1978. A little over a year later, Usher’s father – Usher Raymond III – left home and the family moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the youngster’s early aptitude for music was honed in a church choir. As his talent blossomed, his mother, Jonetta Patton, took Usher, his stepfather and half-brother to Atlanta, where there would be more musical opportunities. At 13, he appeared on a TV talent show, Star Search: though he didn’t win, it led to an introduction to Atlanta-based record executive Antonio “LA” Reid, who signed the teenager to his LaFace label.
I meet Usher the day before he does a stint mentoring contestants on American Idol. Despite the part a similar show played in his own career, he is sharply critical of the fame-first imperative that the current raft of reality TV shows appear to promote; moreover, he believes today’s music industry methods are preventing artists from achieving true greatness.
“The true art form of music is being lost, because it seems so easy that everyone can do it, and that it can happen overnight,” he says. “Television is a lie. It can’t happen overnight. The artist who thinks that it can just comes and goes. The reason why great singers cannot exist in this time is maybe because they’re not properly managed, and maybe they don’t understand the full gamut of what being an entertainer is.
“We’re dealing with an industry that is slowly but surely dying, every day,” he continues. “So [a manager] finds someone with a great look, and it’s, ‘Wow, let’s make him sound great, so we can sell some records.’ Then there’s the record companies that’s mass-producing these versions of these people; versions of this broken art. While it works, because it sells records, it damages the business. Great executives like LA Reid, I think, understand that there’s a perception that goes with a great voice that you have to make sure you preserve. And my mother was – still is – the type of manager [who understands that].”
Ah, yes – Usher’s mother. Until late last year, Jonetta had been involved not just as a parent but also as his manager. Mother and son had parted professional company once before, though she was reinstated after the comparative commercial failure of Here I Stand, the followup to Confessions. But in March last year, they split again. “It was an agreement between the two of us,” Usher explains, “but that message has been misconstrued because we just never chose to have a conversation in public about our relationship. I can have many managers, but I can only have one mother. And having been introduced to these new stages of my life where I do need that support, that’s where I need her.”
Among those new stages have been the birth of his two sons, his impending divorce, and the death of his father. Usher and his father were estranged, then reconciled – but it is a source of regret to the singer that his father never got to meet the fifth Usher Raymond. “He wasn’t supposed to die,” the singer says. “It wasn’t a life-threatening situation: he had liver problems, and was preparing to undergo surgery that would definitely have given him more time. But he didn’t make it. There’s not a day that I don’t wish my dad at least got a chance to see my son, who’s the fifth Usher Raymond. A lot of times, names were appointed to workers – or, rather, slaves – based off of things that they do. So the first Usher – my great-grandfather – could potentially have been an usher. Kinda hard to fathom, that one would be named based off of his duty, but that is the lineage of this black skin that I wear.”
He chuckles a little, aware of the element of pretension in the phrasing. Often portrayed in print as a truculent or bad-tempered interviewee, Usher is today charming and lucid. While prone to flights of hyperbole – at one point he compares himself to Da Vinci and Picasso, and he occasionally refers to himself in the third person – he always manages to laugh at his own preposterousness.
“Having these experiences over the last two years made me more normal than anything,” he says. “That’s why I embrace everything that’s happened. All of it is a life lesson. There are no mistakes: there is only an opportunity to do better, or learn more. Don’t be overwhelmed by what lies in the future, and don’t get caught up on the past: live the best you can in each and every moment, and be historic in everything you do. And what makes the most incredible experiences and moments is not taking it so seriously.”
Raymond v Raymond is out now on RCA