Interview: Family man J.D. Steele goes it alone

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J.D. Steele, of the renowned singing family the Steeles, has taken just about forever to record his own album. Not that he’s been sitting around like some bump on a log. When not writing, performing and recording with his siblings Jevetta, Jearlyn, Billy, and Fred, J.D.’s been writing and producing with Jevetta (including her newest disc My Heart, the cast recording from her hit play Two Queens, One Castle) and flying to Africa to direct children’s choirs (there’ll be fresh news about that in the coming months).

So the guy has been plenty busy—he just hasn’t let his own light shine out from under the bushel basket. Well, that changes with his CD Songs, a fine offering of contemporary R&B that relies on inventive melodies and tasty chops rather than falling back on the market’s stuck-in-a-rut formula of cookie-cutter tunes and four-note, computer-aided vocals. Live or in the studio, J.D. Steele is the real deal. You can take that to the bank.

Why haven’t you done a recording like Songs before now?
I haven’t done a solo album before because I have spent so much time in my career either on theatrical projects or on the Steeles’ projects—all of which I have enjoyed immensely. All of those projects have helped to shape what musical sensibilities I have.

It’s taken a while. You had some 70 songs written. How’d you choose the ones to use?
I chose songs for this project that best fit how the concept was developing. There are other songs, but maybe their future lies somewhere else—as in other projects, I hope.

Most songwriters write on piano or guitar. You don’t play an instrument. How do you write your songs?
I write my songs and arrangements in my head, and then I translate them to the other musicians. Thankfully, I can sing all the chords and parts. I never trained in theory. I am a big proponent of encouraging young musicians to get an education in music theory, which is something I wish I had done in retrospect. But I never take this gift for granted.

A typical writer tends to work out of one bag—but you write R&B, gospel, jazz, even pop if the occasion calls for it. What’s up with that?
I have been exposed [to] and influenced by so many different genres and artists throughout my life. I love a lot of different types of music, so that is reflected in the variety of projects that I have been fortunate enough to be involved in. I am a lover of diversity.

You’ve written a lot for your sister, Jevetta. How do you draw the line between hanging with your sister and working with a professional peer—or is there any line to be drawn?
There is no line to be drawn. Working with my family, whether touring or recoding, is the absolute best! We are a very loving family and we have a great time together. They have always been a source of great inspiration and support. Jevetta is a great writer herself.

That’s her, isn’t it, singing on “The Day” [on Songs]?
Yes, that is Jevetta on the duet for “The Day.” You’ve got to be pretty confident to duet with Jevetta…or you’ve got to be her older brother. She da bomb.

What’s next?
I am looking forward to going to Athens, Greece for the 25th anniversary of The Gospel at Colonus in June this summer. I have performed the show 1,217 times since 1983 and it is still really fresh and exciting every time we do it. This is the first time [I’m] ever doing it in Greece, where Sophocles wrote the text before he died. After that, I go to Arusha, Tanzania to work with a new group of kids in a village at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This will be a new adventure to develop a performance group similar to the group we have in Kenya. I am really excited about this opportunity. And the beat goes on.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.

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