Top music blogger and Rainbow Post friend Howard Stump had the enviable opportunity to interview the appealing and talented Jason Walker recently.
The opportunity to talk to Jason Walker about his music was something I could not possibly pass up. When the appointed time came, I have to say Jason was sweet and charming, and more than willing to talk about the music.
I shall start from the beginning, like what music had he grown up with in Pittsburgh?
“My mother had, and still has,” he told me proudly, “a record collection that would be the envy of many a DJ, and I grew up around really great music, like Motown, Disco and Pop music.”
It seems his mother could be credited for much of his current path. “I started singing when I was 4, and my mother put me in a church choir,” he explained. “I joined the choir and found that I loved Gospel music and lady singers, if you will.”
Does Jason feel like part of Pittsburgh is still with him? “I feel like my really young years are still with me, like the years when I’d blast Patti LaBelle from the dining room when my parents weren’t home,” he told me, laughing. ”And the neighbors would tell them “Oh, he was singing again…” I feel like I carry that with me all the time. I think a lot of the imprinting I did as an artist happened in Pittsburgh. I feel that is how I really started to learn how to sing.”
So what was the next step? “Once I started finding myself in high school, I started writing music, too. I was singing with a black group, at the time, there was some interest from some labels – we wrestled with them for a few years. Then there was some interest from Motown. But they just wanted me, not the group. I was kind of looking for a way out at the time, so that was a welcome exodus, if you will. Well, that ended up being a really, really bad deal. I remember my attorney at the time telling me “if you sign this, there is no way out for you. They’re wanting you to relinquish all rights to everything, but promising you next to nothing.” So I ended up not signing. I was living in Pittsburgh, immersed in the dance music and the club scene. I was just 18 when all this went down.”
I’d heard of his triumphant turn on the Harlem stage, and wondered how much winning on Showtime At The Apollo influence or change his career? “That show, that night, that performance, it really changed me. They say that the Apollo is a really harsh crowd, and I feel like that puts it lightly,” he recalled, laughing. “And if you can sing there, you can pretty much sing anywhere. If you can win that audience over, then you’re on the right path. That was definitely a life changing evening. My singing and winning is what prompted me to move to NY, because I felt it was where I had to be.“
And so the New York leg of the journey begins. Walker moved to the city, and was soon signed by legendary DJ/Producer/Music Impresario Junior Vasquez. It is with Vasquez that Walker’s first two albums, This Is My Life and Flexible, were born. I asked about the sound and energy of the music. “I was a big Junior fan before I moved to New York, so the thought that I got the chance to work with him was a big thrill for me. His music was kind of uninhibited, wild, and sometimes erratic. And I got to be a part of that. I thought I had a better chance of working with Peter Rauhofer or Danny Tenaglia than with Junior Vasquez. No one else was sounding like him. He paved the way for a lot of people, with that kind of sound.”
What was it like working with the legendary DJ? “I feel like my music with him came in on the heels of when he was really, really big on the New York club scene. But he was still packing the really big places. The insanity that was Junior Vasquez was still, like – the city was still abuzz with him and everything he did.”
After the muscular vocals and driving sound of Junior Vasquez, Jason worked with Quentin Harris. With Harris, this work seemed to have a more personal touch. “Oh, yeah. I agree with you there. I have always considered myself to be a pretty well-rounded singer. I moved to NY because I wanted to do club music – that was my plan when I moved here. Just because an opportunity came along to work with Junior didn’t mean I didn’t want to do anything else, or wasn’t able to do anything else. An opportunity presented itself and I jumped on it. I jumped on it because I love that music and I thought Quentin was amazing. It was a thrill for me to do it. I guess I was a little burnt out with ‘All-things-Junior’, which could happen with anybody. I felt like dance music was moving in a different direction and I had come to know and admire a lot of producers I wanted to work with, and who wanted to work with me. And Quentin was one of them.”
“He remixed Foolish Mind Games, my second record with Junior,” Jason remembered. “That kinda sparked a relationship between he and I, and when he was doing his first album, No Politics, he asked me to be a part of it. That is were Can’t Stop happened. I remember him telling me, “OK, I have two ideas, we can record them both and whichever comes out better… He wanted to do a cover song with me, which I was fine with. It was either going to be You Belong To Me, which was originally by Carly Simon but Michael McDonald had done a great cover, or it would be Can’t Stop, by After 7. I always loved that song, and thought it could be a really hot contrast. So that is just the one we did first. When he heard how it came out, and saw the natural progression of the song, he said, ‘OK, this is the one are going to go with.’ So it went on his album and became a single off his album, and it further solidified our relationship, as far as working together. I feel it made our friendship grow stronger, cause he is a really good friend of mine. He is really underrated in the US, cause if you travel outside of the country, he is everywhere, all over the place.”
“But when we did that record together, then when he did the second album, Sacrifice, which I think came out last year, we ended up doing two songs together; a cover, Circles, by Atlantic Star, and an original composition of mine called Home. I wanted to work with other people. By that time, the partners split and Junior Vasquez Music dissolved. So I was free and clear to do whatever it is I wanted to do, which is how my latest album, Leave It All Behind, happened.
Jason’s latest album, Leave It All Behind, and the new EP, Live And Unplugged. You can purchase them on iTunes here and here, and Amazon.com here or here. Don’t forget to check out Jason on his official website here.
The songs seemed much more personal on the album. What was it like putting it together? “The thing was, when I was with the label,” he confesses, “I didn’t want to give them any of my material. So half of the album, I wrote myself.“ Could he tell us a little about those songs? “I felt that the things I was writing about, it turned out to be an accurate representation of where I was at the time, and how I wanted to be heard. I knew that some people were going to turn their nose up – the hard-core dance folks – they weren’t going to understand where I was. But I really didn’t care. At the end of the day, I am not just a dance artist, I am a singer. “
The new stripped-down, unplugged EP is yet another departure. Rather than exploring the muscularity of his voice, there is an exploration of nuance and restraint. “Well, I feel like with all the stuff I did with Junior, it was all about the power and the production,” he remembers. “It was so for the dance clubs. So when I left that situation, I just wanted to take a step away form the insanity and sing a song without all of the lights and the kick drums, the baselines and synthesizers.”
But that wasn’t the only reason. “My dad, he’d always say, ‘You know I love to hear you sing, I know you like dance music and it’s not really my thing, but when are you going to sing a slow song, when are you going to sing a ballad for me, because I love when you sing that.’
“Well, I found myself wanting to do that, after I found myself immersed in dance for so long, I just wanted to do other things. They were things that I used to do, that I have never forgotten how to do, but they weren’t in the forefront of my life anymore. I wanted to revisit that. I wanted to explore those again. So that is why the album not only happened last year, but especially why the ‘Unplugged’ EP happened, too.”
So how did the EP come about? “That is just a recorded rehearsal, one song after the other, no editing, no autotune, no anything,” he revealed. “I had no plan on releasing it. I did it at a friend’s studio in the city, and when I listened back to it, and let a few people listen, they all thought I should release it – put it out there. It is the other end of the spectrum. There is everything from This Is My Life and Flexible, so Hi N-R-G and so heavily produced, and there is this, where there has been almost nothing done – a little bit of vocal compression and a bit of reverb, that is it. And I felt like it was a natural progression of me as an artist.”
How did he feel without the driving drums and instrumentation he had for so many years? “I didn’t feel naked at all. In fact, I felt better and more comfortable than I ever felt in any nightclub. I know that sounds a little crazy, but it is the truth. When I let people listen I thought maybe people would identify with it. And maybe they’d like it.”
With those questions completed, my own curiosity got the best of me. Is there a song that he has yet to sing that has him wanting to give it is that Jason-spin? “I’ve always wanted to sing A Song For You from Donny Hathaway. I just always wanted to.“ What about his ‘guilty pleasure’ that might surprise his fans? “Do you know who one of my favorites is? Toni Childs is one of my favorite singers, she has such a unique voice, and I love that. She is such an individual. She had that big booming voice that not a lot of people are going to get, but I get it and I love it. That might be a surprise to some people.”
If Jason got first crack at any song from the last five years, which would it be? “Ha! I’ve always loved – this is gonna sound a little cheesy, but – I’ve always loved the song The Climb from Miley Cyrus. She just doesn’t know enough yet to sing that song. It’s like when LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood both sang How Do I Live. LeAnn Rimes was what, she had to be less than 20. [She was actually 15]. And Trisha Yearwood was a mature woman. I mean LeAnn’s version was vocally amazing, but when you listened to Trisha’s you just heard the maturity and the way she turned a phrase, and how she connected with the lyrics.”
I’ve read that you performed at a Broadway Bares benefit. Is musical theater something that interests you, or was that just a one-off appearance? “Yeah, that was a couple of years ago. Well, it is funny, because I was singing at a benefit remembering the Paradise Garage. It was at Santos Party House and Quentin was playing, and they had asked me, Robert Owens and Barbara Tucker to perform. So I was going to perform during Quentin’s set. I was doing two songs. I was doing the Reverend Carl Bean’s Born This Way, not Lady GaGa’s, but the first one,” he retells with a wry smile in his voice. “And I was doing I Need Somebody To Love Tonight by Sylvester. Quentin was all about me doing that song. He said ‘you really gotta do this song by Sylvester. It’s obscure but it was prevalent during the times of the Paradise Garage.’ Well, when I was performing, the director for Broadway Bares was in the audience that night, and he asked me if I would sing that song in a portion of the show.”
“I had never done anything remotely associated with Broadway,” he explained. “I was used to singing in dance clubs and blues bands, not anything even close to Broadway. It was a really good experience and I had a great time. The audiences were great and very receptive.” So would he be open to doing a Broadway show? “Sure! I don’t limit myself,” he said, laughing.
Is there anyone he’d like to work with, living or dead? “Oh, there are two. Rollo [Armstrong] from the band Faithless, who produced Christine W’s first album [Land of the Living], which is, in my opinion, the best Dance record ever made. And there is T-Bone Burnett. I would cut off an appendage to work with T-Bone Burnett because that man is a genius. I mean there are other people, like Red One and Babyface, who I’d like to work with. But those two, Rollo and T-Bone Burnett, oh,” he stops for a moment for a respectful breathe, “they are at the top of my list.”
Is there a favorite song he has written or likes to perform? “Uhm, you know what? No,” he told me matter of factly. “Honestly, honey, I never put a set list together or do an order. It just happens. Everything I write comes from a different place, and they all mean just as much to me as the others. There is no favorite.”
When should people start looking for tour dates so they can catch Jason Walker live and in person? “Over the next month or two. I have a few shows lined up in New York, but I am working on a few shows for the European market. So the next couple of months.“ I certainly can’t wait until he is playing a show in my area.
I’d like to truly thank Jason Walker for taking the time to talk to me, and answer all my questions. After spending some time getting to know him, as much as I love his music, I am now every bit a fan of the man. Leave It All Behind, and the new EP, Live And Unplugged can be purchased on iTunes here and here, and Amazon.com here or here. Don’t forget to check out Jason on his official website here. You can also be his friend on Twitter and/or FaceBook, and get the updates as they happen. And if you haven’t already, please consider making an investment in your listening pleasure and check out Jason’s Kickstarter page here. With a pledge of $10, $25, $50 or more, you can pre-order a new album, and get many other benefits you can read about on that page.
Howard’s award winning daily music blog is Soundtrack To My Day,