Syleena Johnson understands the power of authenticity.
The R&B singer and actress' newest album, Rebirth of Soul, honors the musical traditions of her father, legendary blues singer Syl Johnson. Syleena covers soul classics from the fifties and sixties, a departure from the singer's normal, confessional recording style; previous albums are billed as chapters of her life.
“I sing from my soul on all levels, but with this I didn’t write any of these records so I had to sing from the record of that time,” says Johnson. “It’s quite different than what I do as Syleena Johnson.”
The difference echoed throughout the entire recording process. Musicians who worked during the classic era of soul music provide the album’s accompaniment. It was Johnson’s first time recording live in a studio.
“It was a bit nerve-wrecking simply because I’m a perfectionist and I know that they know the authentic way it’s supposed to go,” says Johnson. “It was phenomenal though. I think that there’s a different kind of grit and authenticity when there’s live instruments involved in a record. I think the consumer’s ears can feel it but I don’t think they can pinpoint what the exact difference is.”
Syl Johnson produced Rebirth of Soul, making the album the first musical collaboration between Syleena and her father since This Time Together By Father And Daughter in 1995. Her father chose the musicians and was involved in every recording session. They jointly selected songs to cover.
"I went into the studio and I wanted to recreate something that was from his era and pay homage to the greats of that time," says Syleena. She adds her personal flair to soul classics like Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" and Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind," as well as some of her father's hits. The album's third track, "We Did it," is off Syl Johnson's 1973 record Back for a Taste of Your Love. The song was co-written by Syleena's mother, Brenda Johnson. Syleena remembers listening to the track as a child.
The care and precision of the recording process make it impossible to tie Rebirth of Soul to any specific era; the chameleon album could just as easily have been released during the 60s. Syleena mixes jubilant songs with those that lament human struggles. On "Is It Because I'm Black," she sings, "Looking back over my false dreams that I once knew/ Wondering why my dreams never came true/ Is it because I'm black?" On "The Makings of You," she celebrates, "You couldn't miss with a dozen roses/ Such would astound you the joy of children laughing around you/ These are the makings of you." Some things, it seems, are timeless. Soul music is a home for all of them.
“People think soul music is a genre when it’s actually not. Soul music is music that comes from your soul. If you sing songs that come from experience then what comes from the heart goes to the heart. If you’re singing from your heart, you’re singing from your soul, and that’s gonna go to another person’s heart and soul,” says Syleena. “If you’re singing from your soul then to me you’re considered a soul singer.”
Rebirth of Soul comes out Friday, Nov. 10. Johnson will host a CD signing from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at DBS Sounds.
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