Karyn White "Unfinished Business" By Edmund Barker
Karyn White, the muti-platinum, two time Grammy Nominee and R&B songstress behind new jack swing era hits like “Secret Rendezvous,” is back with a new sound and a new movie. Gale and the Storm is a story of showbusiness that takes elements from Karyn’s own personal experience. I spoke with her about creating the film and lead character, the soundtrack album, and what the life of a diva is like.
KW: Actually, I was the co-writer as well. Yeah…it was awesome, to combine acting with singing—it was challenging, because it’s a low-budget film and I’m the executive producer, so we had to do the soundtrack at the same time we were doing the movie. So I would wake up and do vocals, and I’d have to be in the studio at 5 o’clock, and I’d go from 5 to 2, and then from 2 to about 1 o’clock in the morning we’d be shooting the film, so… (laughs) We were on, how would you say, a natural high—we were in the flow, and it was really great, because it was the first time I’ve ever taken on this kind of challenge. I did six songs in two and a half days, and it was amazing. I really showed that I can do more with less time when I’m up against the gun.
EB: Wow, sounds like a really tight schedule.
KW: Yeah, finances will do that, right? I didn’t have Warner Bros. this time writing the bill!
EB: Well, that’s independent cinema…this film is something of a passion project for you, from what I can tell—do you and (director) Derrick Muhammad have any major inspirations in the world of movies for making the film?
KW: Oh, yes. It’s sort of based on my life, but also on Jay King, my manager at the time who was in Club Nouveau…so, we used both of our lives, but we also watched a movie called Begin Again with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, and that was a big inspiration for us. We loved the way that story was told, and we loved the pace, and the style and the tone, so we kind of incorporated that style and tone of the movie when we were doing our project. In the film, he is a down-on-his-luck music producer and she is a songwriter. And also, Adam Levine was in it—great movie, you really got check it out. It’s kind of underrated, but I really love that movie.
EB: I will. You’ve had an illustrious career going back to the 1980s with Grammy nods and hit songs like “Superwoman.” Is there a moment you can trace back to in your life where you decided music was your passion?
KW: Wow, yes. I decided for sure when, I believe I was like 12, and I won what was called Hal Jackson’s Talented Teens. It was a pageant, and my sister was in it the year before, and she didn’t win…I think she was a runner-up. So, I told my mother that when I get in, I’ll be able to get in the pageant, and I’ll win it. Once I was in that whole environment of competing, and using all of my talents, because you had to do the speaking and the dance and perform your talent, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I mean, I knew it when I was younger, but that let me know that I could actually, physically be it. Because I won the talent show, it gave me the courage and confidence I needed to stamp my flag on it and say “yup, that’s it.”
EB: What was the experience of becoming a producer and co-writer for an independent film like?
KW: Oh man, becoming a producer and co-writer…it was incredible, because we were studying. I took acting lessons, I’m still taking them…I’ve always been of the mindset of “I wanna create my own,” so I would go to a lot of auditions, come close, but not get the role. And so, I believe in writing my own story, and carving my own path, and as entrepreneurs we had the fire and the heart in us to say “we’re gonna do this ourselves, independently.” And it was a challenge, and it was fun because when I was with Warner Bros., I dibbled and dabbled and every music video, I had a big hand in. And these were two hundred to three hundred thousand dollar videos. Our little indie film didn’t cost fifty thousand. So, I’d already had that plug of working with great directors, and it was just the next step for me. When I went to acting class, we would break down scenes, and Derrick and I also went to film school—we took an online course, and we studied under independent filmmakers. So, we did a lot of research…it wasn’t that we just woke up and said “let’s do a movie.” It’s all in the passion of Derrick, ever since he was a young kid. So, I was just in a position in my life where I was ready to do that next thing, because I’m always challenging myself as an artist and an entrepreneur to go after my dreams—“what is it that I’m wanna do next,” you know? That’s how I live my life.
EB: In the song “Hurricane” from the movie’s soundtrack, there’s an interesting lyric about deleting a clingy guy from FaceBook. Is that drawing from real life, or from the movie?
KW: [laughs] I can’t tell you that! No, it’s a little bit of both. Hurricane is—when people first hear the album, I feel like that’s the song they’re really responding too. And these lyrics were basically that Gale Storm, my character, had had a relationship with the band leader, and he was sort of stalking me, trying to see if Gale Storm would get back in the business and sing again. It’s kind of two-fold, I had it in my personal life but also in the character. When you can draw from real life, especially when you’re a singer, it makes the performance even greater, because you’re coming from truth.
EB: The film is about a musician who took a hiatus from the R&B scene, but decided to get back into the game. Since this part is sort of based on your real life, what was it like to go back into music recording after taking a break for your family?
KW: Well, like the character Gale Storm and like myself, making a comeback is tough. You’re dealing with having to pretty much start over, because even though you have legendary history, life went on. Seven years have passed for the character, and music had changed, so you find yourself like “wow, I used to headline, and I used to have this group, but now I’m coming back into this thing and I have to start from the beginning.” It’s humbling. It takes a lot of fire and passion to look at the endgame and not worry about the steps it’s gonna take. Even though you have this legendary previous success, you gotta think about the endgame, and know that you left…Gale Storm walked away from the business, and that’s kinda the price you pay. And that’s not just for me—Tina Turner was big with Ike, but then when she started over she had to start in clubs—and every artist doesn’t wanna do that! Especially if you’ve left and come back, it’s very humbling.
EB: Are there any ways that you would say Gale Storm’s life is different from yours?
KW: I don’t know, it’s very similar…because she had to have something believe in her and show her herself, and that’s what Hannibal, my manager, was. He had to really pore into me for me to remember who I was. You lose your confidence, and he has to build it back up. So, that’s very similar to me—my managers have to pore into me, saying “you can do it.” Even though you have that success, sometimes you just stop believing. You have to have a team around you, and I know I did, one that was a big support for me. And I still do. Like I said, the business has changed, and they’ve moved on. But it’s nothing like having those classic hits—that’s really what gets me going, when I get up on stage and see the response. I never take it for granted. I believe that it’s still in me, and I believe I’m better. I hope I’m answering your question, I kinda went a couple different ways there!
EB: Do you have advice for young women trying to navigate the music business nowadays?
KW: Yes. I would definitely say—it’s a business, and with probably 90 percent of business today, you have to be the writer, the producer, the social media person, and so on. You really have to do it all. The great part about the independent world is that you get to control your destiny, and you don’t have people telling you “this is who I think you are.” So, there’s a tradeoff there. And I think it’s amazing, the times we’re in now, but it’s a lot of hard work. You just have to stay focused on the vision, and take small baby steps…there’s a book that I love by Ari Herstand, about the new music business, so I would definitely recommend that. I feel like, with R&B, we’re losing a lot of differentiality in artists…and that’s one thing I’d say to artists: to have your own style, and your own sound, and to not be afraid to do something different. And for me, I wanted to do that with this album—I wanted to get out of the box of the L.A./Babyface sound, or the Jimmy and Terry sound. And I created this character of Gale Storm, because I could do something like “Hurricane” and have it be like “wow!”, or “I Am The Storm,” which is funky… I wanted to show a different side of me on this soundtrack, so I would definitely encourage artists right now to get out of the box. Don’t be afraid to be different! You gotta go to it and be who you are as an artist.
Follow Karyn White on Twitter @Karyns_World
The official website for Karyn White may be found at http://www.KarynWhite.me