It has been eight years since Washington, DC native (but New Haven born) Debórah Bond’s critically acclaimed debut, Day After. A lapse of time that would challenge even the most promising major label debutant, developing new material whilst living off expenses, songwriting royalties n’ caviar. But for the bootstrap and hustle of an indie artist like Debórah (pronounced de-BOR-ah), despite commissioning the makeweight remix album After Day in-between, the absence of new music would normally mean only one thing – that the artist had given up on seeing her name in lights and returned to the more settled life of Christmas in Connecticut.
“That wasn’t the case, at all. It’s really crazy actually,” says Deborah on the line from her home in the DC area. “When Day After first came out (in 2003), it was a very, very slow build for folks to really catch on to it. And it took so much time crafting the live shows that we really didn’t concentrate on doing any more writing. Once we decided we wanted to - and in we, I mean myself and my production team (and touring band) 3rd Logic - I struggled with writers block. This just came out of nowhere; just waves of not really knowing what I wanted to say or how I wanted to say it.”
The spark for the new project, the ambitiously titled Madam Palindrome, came after the belated 2008 video release of Day After fan favourite See You in My Dreams.
“Fans just really started to demand new music. It’s actually a great feeling to know that you have people out there that respect your work and enjoy what you do, want it and want more. And it was cool timing, See You in My Dreams got accepted by VH1 Soul and BET here in the States and really picked up a buzz – that, more than anything, gave me the kick in the pants to get motivated and put something new out there.”
Before starting the Madam Palindrome project proper, Bond and 3rd Logic already had an ace in the pack, having coaxed the soon-to-be-retired English maverick Lewis Taylor to contribute to the lively If I Didn’t Need You.
“It was the quickest, swiftest moment in time ever.” Says Deborah with an air of disbelief, even now. “My manager asked me ‘if you could work with anybody, who would it be right now?’ and I had really just been going crazy over Lewis Taylor, I was in awe of his work, everything I heard from him. Then three weeks later my manager tells me, ‘I think I can make that happen.’ It’s still a mystery what he said (he’s not Bond’s manager anymore), who he spoke to, how it really came to be… and I couldn’t really believe it, I still can’t. I was thinking, ‘I’m just this chick here – not really doing anything magnificent with this little album Day After – he won’t want to work with me.’”
But Lewis didn’t hesitate, what he heard he thought was “pretty cool” – a demo where Bond had sung all the parts – and via the magic of the internet returned his contribution. Though, initially, the parts he sent didn’t have quite the full LT treatment of harmonies n’ Marvin-isms that Bond was after.
“It was so surreal, he sent me some stuff back and I was like ‘Hey, so listen—this one section here, you’re kinda holding back. Can you do something more like you did on this song?’” Debórah laughs. “I gave him examples of songs that he really embellished with harmonies and things and he told me how ‘he was in a place where he felt like less was more.’”
An early indication of his pending retirement perhaps, the ultimate less is more. “He didn’t feel like he needed to indulge in all of that, but said that if I wanted him to, he would. Then he sent back the vamp at the end of the song where he’s following the hook (Debórah sings) “I tried talking to you/is the message getting through?” And he just goes into this, syncopated, “Yeah… yeah… didn’t mean it… yeah,” - very Marvin Gaye, and I’m just losing my mind. He sent way more back than I thought he would.”
Taylor’s performance pushed Bond out of her comfort zone, made her re-record the vocals on the vamp to rise to his contribution. With the song wrapped, the communication ended. Bond couldn’t wait to meet him, taking a trip to see Taylor at the now infamous Bowery Ballroom gig in NYC.
“Everybody that you could think of in music was there,” recalls Debórah, “I was standing right next to Stuart Matthewman (from Sade) and Eric Roberson. And he did an amazing show; he appeared to be very overwhelmed at how much love he was getting and how many songs we were all singing along with. Then he cancelled the rest of the tour - that was it! So I’m left with this beautiful song, that I was still working on mixing, with no album to put it on yet, and he just disappears. That’s my moment with Lewis Taylor. I never met him. I tried that day; I wanted to be like, ‘Hi, I’m the girl you did the song with!’ But I don’t know where he went after the show and I never heard from him again.”
“The Deborah Bond duet was done when I was still active in the industry; I had no idea she was going to put it out so long after it was done. My life as an artist is in the past for me …” is all Taylor would say, when answering a request for an interview.
As a footnote to a brief, but dazzlingly brilliant body of work, it’s fitting that one of his last collaborations would be featured on Bond’s Madam Palindrome, an independently made masterpiece. Legendary engineer Al Stone (Jamiroquai/Bjork) even sidestepped his own agent to work on the album.
Says Debórah: “Because there wasn’t a big budget, Al Stone’s agent pretty much told me we couldn’t afford him because he’s big-time. But we sent him a couple of tracks, 5:35 & Say It and he intervened, said ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this. I’m moved by it, it’s refreshing. I will leave my agent out and will help you in any way I can.’” Al Stone mixed the album in two weeks.
The aforementioned 5:35, itself a palindrome (for those, like me, who didn’t go to grammar school a palindrome is a word, phrase, number, or other sequence of characters which reads the same backwards as forwards) is the centrepiece of the album.
“Midway through writing the album, 3rd Logic and I sat down, reviewed the songs to see if we could find anything that tied them all together. And with the songs that we had, we noticed that they seemed to be written from two perspectives: like the song Say It is from the perspective of having a childhood friend, and then you get a little older and you start seeing him not like a brother anymore but more like a lover kind of a thing. It’s a change in perspective. So we noticed that that was going on … you see something from one direction and from another but there’s still something common in the middle. We may think we see it different, but in the end we really see it the same, like a palindrome. 5:35 came along after we had the concept. My bass player from 3rd Logic, who produced that song and also produced Highest Mountain (another killer), we call him Funky Chuck, he had an idea for a song based on his real life experience, everyday he’d leave work at about five-thirty-something (all of 3rd Logic and Debórah, who works at a radio station, have full time jobs to compliment the musical vocation) and he’d go outside and smoke a cigarette, see this girl and she’d walk by every day at that same time, around 5:35. He started calling her his 5:35—he would tell his friends, “I gotta go—my 5:35 is out there, I just want to check her out.” So we wrote it with the twist, maybe his 5:35 is considering Funky Chuck her 5:35, checking him out as well. And as soon as I heard it I just felt so Princey — it made me want to emulate the influence of Prince and Janet Jackson, with a naughty-disco-fun vibe. We tapped it into a little Ashford and Simpson flavour during the bridge too and made it our own, a 3rd Logic and Debórah Bond song. I love to make something …” Just then the ring from the phone interrupts.
“Hold on for just a second; I apologize.” Says Debórah.
“Hey Funky Chuck, I’m in an interview right now with Manifesto. Call you back. Bye.” Chuck’s ears must have been burning.
“Yeah, that was Funky Chuck. His name is actually Aaron, which is so funny because when I met him through the guitar player, Robbie McDonald, they all said his name was Chuck. (For ages) I had no idea he was called Aaron.”
Debórah met Robbie first, when he was in a funk band called Soul Element. Along with drummer Kinard Cherry, Robbie and Funky Chuck left and formed 3rd Logic, approaching Debórah to cut some tracks. “That set off Day After.” Says Debórah, adding: “We all felt it was a great fit. I don’t mind being the only girl, but to begin with it wasn’t so fun. Now with these guys, I’m completely attached to them. Spoiled; I feel like I’ve found my musical soul mate band. And yes, one of the band members is my boyfriend (Robbie); I don’t tend to broadcast that. I’m not one of those singers onstage who introduces the band saying, “And on guitar… my boyfriend!”
Its Robbie who’s responsible for the cool, gnarly, gritty guitar solo on Mr. Day’s Dream - arguably the albums most innovative piece of music, with its violin lead (courtesy of bass player Funky Chuck), ELO/Mr. Blue Sky style robotic vocoder and Bond’s operatic backing vocal. A part she had to be cajoled into providing.
“I thought it was so ugly and yucky, at first. I didn’t really want to do it. I knew why they wanted me wailing out these really yearning notes, but I also don’t enjoy hearing myself unless I’m as close to being in tune as I can be. When they played it back, I was, ‘Oh man … are we really keeping this? People are going to hear me sing like this?!’ But they ganged up on me, especially for that song, because we were channelling a little Pink Floyd. I love the song Great Gig in the Sky, and Chuck was like, ‘There’s a girl that sings in this song, and she’s just yelling. That’s the kind of energy that this song needs, you can do it!’
I feel it now, though to this day we don’t even really know what that song is truly about. We we’re like, ‘Let’s just be adventurous, go with it, and do something that’s really out there and not necessarily what Independent soul artists may do…’”
Unusually in the digital age, to really understand the whole concept you have to buy the physical release, see and read the packaging, listen to mastered CD, view the website and devour the whole project. Playing a few music files won’t convey the sheer amount love and graft put into Madam Palindrome.
“To be honest it’s been hard,” admits Bond now.
“It’s been a very, very winding road for me and recording Madam Palindrome was not my favourite thing to do; it was not an easy time. I had some head games going on: I was nervous about my vocals, I had 3rd Logic… there was lots of pressure; because they’re very, very hard guys. We could have released the album last summer but the graphic design and illustration wasn’t ready, but a good friend of mine, Shuhei Matsuyama, he worked on the graphic design and the illustration… literally for seven months he did all of these hand-drawn illustrations that are all throughout the art and are brilliant and have really cool significance. We’ve put lots of little Easter eggs and all kinds of things throughout it, but people don’t really get it. Even now, people who have the album.
We want it to feel like an art installation, like art, this concept. Not even just music, but like a complete package. And we wanted to present it so richly that you would think that I was on a major label – the quality of everything, the printing, the mixing, the engineering—we wanted it to feel as if it was top notch. In our minds it is, we wanted to present it in that way, and also show a lot of our peers that we can do music (to that standard) independently.”
Even if this album had been released on a major, it would have had the wow factor, and you don't need me to tell you what type of word "Wow" is...