Circumstance might have led R&B musicians Syleena Johnson and Musiq Soulchild to meet, but it was chemistry that got them to record an entire album together. They sat down recently with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, and talked about the spontaneity of the project and the emotional underpinnings beneath the surface.
Syleena Johnson on her relationship with her mother
My mom was a singer. And a lot of people don't know that. They only associate me with my dad [blues musician Syl Johnson]. But my mom wrote a lot of his music, and he never gave her credit for it. So me and my mom were always at odds. There had always been this tension between the two of us. ... I just kind of found this out this year. My mom, she had a hard life. She went through a lot of different things with her dad and went into different addictions or whatever. But now she's better — she doesn't drink anymore, she's working on her smoking, she's doing better now.
Musiq Soulchild on his experiences raising himself
[My teenage experiences are] a constant reminder of who I am. They play a fail-safe role for me to stay grounded. Because what I've been through — even though I'm like 13, 14 years removed from those days — to me that happened last week, that's yesterday to me. I don't forget things like that. Being out on your own, having to depend on others, not really having a solid place to stay, you know couch hopping. Though sometimes because you feel self-conscious about depending on people and you just got that thing in your chest you know, "I'm my own person," but at the end of the day you got to humble yourself to ask somebody for a couple dollars or something to eat. As a young man growing up in a city like Philadelphia, you can't be no punk. So you kind of got this wall that you have to consistently break down for your own betterment.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, take two highly accomplished musicians, two friends with a love of reggae, put them in the studio for nine days, what do you get? Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRING ME DOWN")
MARTIN: That was "Bring Me Down" from the new album titled "9INE." That's a new calibration between R&B heavyweights Musiq Soulchild and Syleena Johnson. And they are both with us now to talk more about it. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
MUSIQ SOULCHILD: Thanks for having us.
SYLEENA JOHNSON: Thank you for having us.
MARTIN: Syleena, we are told this actually came together quite spontaneously and now - and we're used to this idea of collaborations requiring months of phone calls and checking of schedules with people, but that did not - with your people and his people - but that didn't happen in this case? Tell us how it did happen.
JOHNSON: Yeah, no. It wasn't anything like that. We were supposed to both, individually, do, like, a solo song with a producer named Kemar McGregor for his reggae compilation CD and because we were in contact with Kemar, and Kemar was like, oh, Musiq's doing a record, and he told Musiq the same, we were like, oh, then we should do a duet. Musiq's my boy, blah, blah. So then we came to the studio to do the duet and we hadn't seen each other in what - 5, 6 years?
SOULCHILD: Yeah, it's been a minute.
JOHNSON: So then we just started talking, and then we started talking about how we were inspired by the compilations project to do a reggae album. And because we're both so busy and we're both doing a whole bunch of stuff, including our solo projects...
JOHNSON: ...We were both like, let's just do a duet reggae album, you know. And then it was like, yeah, and let's do - and he was like, well, let's just do nine songs. And I was like, well, let's call it "9INE," and then we can do it in nine days. And it just went from there and we literally stayed in the studio, I mean, slept there.
MARTIN: And so it really was nine days?
MARTIN: Nine tracks, nine days.
SOULCHILD: Yeah, I mean, just to be fair, for, you know, for reality's sake 'cause I'm all about being real. It wasn't nine days consecutively, but ultimately - 'cause we just had to take some days off. I mean, it was just so funny how everything came about because, you know, we were like two kids - you know how, like, when two kids come together and they just - they can imagine the most outlandish, probably will never see the light of day type stuff, but you believe in it so much, you know. So it was kind of like that. It was like, yeah, we can do this. Oh, and we can do this, and we can jump off that building, and then we can fly. And then - you know. It was the same kind of energy...
SOULCHILD: ...You know. But we equally believed...
MARTIN: It's like a play date for grown-ups.
JOHNSON: It was a play date for grown-ups.
SOULCHILD: Yeah. Wow, pretty much.
MARTIN: The whole album does have that kind of happy feel, if I can say it that way. And I don't mean that in a trivial way - like, happiness is hard won. Let's listen to the first cut. It's called "Alright."
SOULCHILD: Oh, cool. Yeah.
MARTIN: All right, here it is.
JOHNSON: It's one of my favorites.
SOULCHILD: They're all your favorites.
JOHNSON: No, this one is really my favorite.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")
MARTIN: Syleena, you were saying this is one of your favorites. Why is that?
JOHNSON: Because, like, the vocal arrangement is so cool.
SOULCHILD: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JOHNSON: It's so happy.
SOULCHILD: Yeah. It's very happy.
JOHNSON: It's so happy, and it's just dope.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALRIGHT")
JOHNSON: I don't know, just the way it makes me feel is just - I don't know. I get really happy when I hear it.
MARTIN: One of the things I think that will please a lot of your fans is that there is this kind of happy factor in the work. And I think that one of the reasons that people who follow you both will be happy about that is that you've both been through some things. You know, Syleena, I don't know if it's - I hope it's not painful to bring it up, but your relationship with your mom, apparently, was strained to the point where you and your mom both agreed to appear on the OWN Network's TV show, "Iyanla: Fix My Life" to see if you could kind of bring some repair to that. I have a short clip from that. Would it hurt you for me to play it? Would it be - how would you feel about my playing it?
JOHNSON: No, it's OK. It's fine...
JOHNSON: ...Because we're past that point.
JOHNSON: So that's fine.
MARTIN: All right, well, I'm going to play that. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IYANLA: FIX MY LIFE")
JOHNSON: (bleep) I'm crying.
IYANLA VANZANT: Because...
JOHNSON: I'm happy and - I'm unhappy, and I'm sad. And I'm pissed about it because I don't want to be this way or feel this way. And I'm mad at you because you increase those feelings in me when I fight them every day. And I just want you to say, you're enough the way you are. And I feel that way about you. I want you to know that. I love you so much.
JOHNSON: Maybe I shouldn't have listened.
MARTIN: Yeah, sorry.
SOULCHILD: I'm over here welling up. I've never - man.
MARTIN: Well, how - do you mind? What brought you all to that point?
JOHNSON: My mom was a singer, and a lot of people don't know that. They only associate me with my dad, who's obviously a blues artist - blues and R&B artist for years.
MARTIN: Your father is blues musician Syl Johnson.
JOHNSON: But my mom wrote a lot of his music, and he never gave her credit for it. So me and my mom were always at odds. You know, always - there had always been this tension between the two of us.
MARTIN: I mean, why is that, because she felt you had opportunities she didn't have to express herself?
JOHNSON: Yeah, and my dad would favor me and, you know, I just kind of found this out this year. You know, but my mom, you know, she had a hard life, you know. She went through a lot of different things with her dad and, you know, went into different addictions or whatever. But now she's better. She doesn't drink anymore. She's working on her smoking. She's doing better now, and everything is better now.
MARTIN: Well, Musiq, you, too, though. I mean, I have to say that, you know, you've had a very distinguished career, but you haven't had the easiest time of it either. I mean...
MARTIN: You know, I think a lot of people do know your story. You're, you know, one of nine kids. After a certain point, you know, you were really out on your own...
MARTIN: ...As a young man, kind of raised yourself from teenaged on, and did - you know, do those experiences still inform the work now?
SOULCHILD: Yeah. Well, what they do is they play sort of like a failsafe role for me to stay grounded because I don't forget things like that, you know, being out on your own, having to depend on others, not really having a solid place to stay, you know, couch-hopping. And, you know, there were sometimes because you feel self-conscious about depending on people, and you just got that thing in your chest, you know, I'm my own person. But at the end of the day, you got to humble yourself, you know, to ask somebody for, you know, a couple dollars for something to eat for something to eat...
JOHNSON: Oh, that's so tough.
SOULCHILD: ...You know, and as a young man, you know, growing up in a city like Philadelphia, you know, you can't be no punk. So you kind of got this wall that you have to consistently break down for your own betterment. You know, and then you got to deal with people looking at you funny ways because, you know, like, hey, I don't really care about what you think. I need to get from A to B, and right now, you're the vehicle that's in my path, and it's either, you know, you going to help me out or not. You know, thinking about that, and then just taking matters in my own hands, you know. I'll just fend for myself, sleeping on trains, sleeping in parks, you know, just things like that, you know, and other things. And having to just really get just a sense of reality of what life is without support from loved ones, you know.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with R&B artists Syleena Johnson and Musiq Soulchild. We're talking about their new album "9INE." I want to play some of "Feel the Fire." Do you want to play the...
JOHNSON: "Feel the fire."
SOULCHILD: We could play "Feel the Fire" since you brought it up.
MARTIN: "Feel the Fire."
SOULCHILD: Hey, you brought it up.
MARTIN: All right.
SOULCHILD: Go ahead. Play it.
MARTIN: Let's play it.
JOHNSON: It's the single.
MARTIN: Yeah, all right, let's hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL THE FIRE")
MARTIN: You know what's funny? I can't - I don't know if anybody else can tell this or not, but every time we play a track, the two of you start giggling, just kind of...
MARTIN: Like, why is that?
JOHNSON: We're sorry. We're cracking, like, side jokes, and...
MARTIN: Are you thinking back to, like, when you were, you know...
JOHNSON: Actually, he did just say something that refers to the song.
SOULCHILD: Yeah, it was just interesting. This song, she literally paused for, like, two seconds, and then said, I got it, and then jumped in the booth and did her verse.
JOHNSON: Well, I was...
SOULCHILD: I was like, really?
JOHNSON: I was very excited...
SOULCHILD: Yeah, you was.
JOHNSON: ...To be able have...
SOULCHILD: Yeah, you were.
JOHNSON: ...To be able to express my sexuality.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL THE FIRE")
JOHNSON: I'm the kind of love-song singer that gets right to the point.
SOULCHILD: But what I think that's so ill about that is because people think you got to be just crazy over-the-top with your sexuality, and you don't have to be.
JOHNSON: No, there's a classy way to even do sexy stuff.
SOULCHILD: And you do it very well.
JOHNSON: So, you know...
SOULCHILD: You do it very well.
JOHNSON: It's a grown woman way.
SOULCHILD: I was just impressed. That's all.
JOHNSON: Thanks, Musiq.
SOULCHILD: Just impressed.
JOHNSON: I try.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations.
MARTIN: I'm glad for both of you.
SOULCHILD: Thank you.
MARTIN: What do you want to go out on? Since it's about you, I want to make sure you feel heard.
JOHNSON: Let's go out on "Promise," then.
SOULCHILD: That's good.
JOHNSON: Let's go out together.
SOULCHILD: Let's go out...
MARTIN: Musiq Soulchild and Syleena Johnson's new album is called "9INE." They were kind enough to join us from member station WABE in Atlanta. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
SOULCHILD: No, thank you.
JOHNSON: Thank you for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROMISE")
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.