Feat. Andre 3000, Brely Evans, Joi, Raphael Saadiq, DeAndre Griffin & Hutson Miller
It’s the stuff artists dreams are made of …
“I’ve got great news Taura,” said part time talent scout Kristin Hudson (who was the full time wife and manager of Montell Jordan) on a Sunday afternoon, sometime in 2001.
“Atlantic Records wants to fly you to New York for an audition with Craig Kallman!”
As the Executive Vice President of Atlantic and former owner of Big Beat Records Kallman was the big cheese. The man whose credits included Aaliyah, Brandy, Robin S & Notorious BIG’s Junior Mafia collective to namedrop a few. “So this is it - get ready” continued Hudson, “because guess what, they want you there tomorrow.”
“Well … Ok.” Taura Stinson responded, rather hesitantly. “But uh, tomorrow is not gonna work. I need a week to get ready.”
“No, they said tomorrow. And listen I spoke to the A&R guy Hutson Miller and he’s very excited. And Craig Kallman too, is VERY excited. You know Taura, these opportunities they come and they go.” To be specific, it was a track titled Number One that had everyone getting excited. A demo tape with the name Aura Jackson scribbled on it in black marker. Co-written by Taura with a-standing-on-the-verge-of-gettin’-it-on, pre-Love Below, pre-Hey Ya Andre 3000, it was a tune that Taura originally intended to place on some other artist – one who wasn’t as reluctant to be a solo singer.
She thought about it for a minute. “Yeah, I’m gonna need a week.”
Five days later on the following Friday afternoon and straight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, a nervous Taura and her ex-husband Alonzo Jackson are taking the elevator up to the Atlantic Records floor.
“Oh my god, I need a bag … an airplane bag.”
“Relax Taura, I mean Aura. Relax, you got this. You’re gonna be fine.”
Taura knew something was up the moment the elevator doors opened, because Craig Kallman’s assistant was standing, waiting to greet them. Usually, whenever Taura & Alonzo attended a production/songwriters meeting they’d be kept waiting - sat at a chair in reception reading the latest edition of Billboard or pacing the floor in the lobby. But the assistant walked Taura straight into her bosses’ office. ‘This is really it’ Taura thought.
‘They want to sign me as a solo artist … but I’m a writer.’
Despite her misgivings Taura Stinson, aka Aura Jackson, nailed the audition. She signed a contract, packed her bags to a rented mansion in San Diego and began creating the music, with just a smidgeon of help from her friends. You mighta heard of one or two: Outkast, Raphael Saadiq, Jamie Foxx, Destiny’s Child & Kanye West all made it to the party. But even with that dream guestlist, her label still managed to kill the buzz, denying the resulting album MeNu its rightful place in the new release section of Sam Goody’s or some other music retailer. Totally ignoring Atlantic legend Ahmet Ertegun’s assertion that - to a room full of Atlantic employees - MeNu was, in his, aherm, humble opinion; “The best album delivered to Atlantic Records in the last 20 years!” What would he know?! All the more bewildering with the considerable backing of future head honcho Craig Kallman in its corner that a “go decision” wasn’t forthcoming. Admittedly, Taura herself may have never really wanted to stand under the supertrooper spotlights, but it was still a cruel twist. After all, as a lyricist and composer, one who writes like an angel, Taura had invested her heart, mind & soul into the project, co-penning all of the songs. It’s the kind of blow that would force many a creative type to just sit at home for the rest of their days, watch American Idol and suck their teeth for 60 minutes. But thankfully not Taura, who in less than a year, following on from her major label disappointment, rebounded spectacularly to tailor, at the invitation of Raphael Saadiq, the Grammy nominated song Show Me The Way for R&B legends Earth, Wind & Fire. And whilst she had tasted success before – co-writing the biggest selling R&B single of ‘93 with the DRS doo-hop classic Gangsta Lean, plus placing the standout cut Killing Time on Destiny’s Child’s multi-platinum debut - this milestone was different, this was Earth, Wind & muthaf*ckin’ Fire. After the track was finished, Maurice White, sitting directly opposite Taura at Raphael’s North Hollywood recording studio, turned to the starstruck songstress and said: “You’ve got it kid.”
Not that it’s all been a boogie wonderland. In the last few years Taura has had to go through a divorce and battle both long and hard for the rights to MeNu (which is still sitting on her hard drive) but in doing so, like all great artists, has used her experiences, both good & bad, to inform and inspire her new music.
With loads on the slate in 2013, such as Gonna Be Alright sung by Steve Tyler for the new animated blockbuster Epic, Raphael Saadiq’s 5th studio album and a whole slew of cuts set to be featured in the Forrest Whittaker/Angela Bassett Christmas movie Black Nativity, it’s shaping up to be a vintage year in the work of Taura Stinson. And therefore, the perfect time to tell her story – with assistance from those who know her best. As Taura’s good friend and recording artist Joi recently commented:
“She's becoming the exceeding product of her wildest dreams. I'm proud of her, I admire her and I'm ecstatic for the world to find out what I've always known. That she's a special, bright light. It's her turn now!”
Originally born in Birmingham, Alabama but growing up in East Oakland, California, Taura
Stinson began writing songs whilst the rest of the kids in class were still perfecting their hopscotch skills.
“In 6th Grade I wrote the school graduation song to an instrumental of New Edition’s I’m Leaving You Again called Leaving Sherman School” remembers Taura, who starts to sing the line before getting embarrassed and cracking up laughing. “Originally I wanted to do it over a Madonna song but my mother wouldn’t let me do it – the general consensus in my house was that Madonna needed prayer!”
Her follow up, the junior high graduation song Hello World was much more sophisticated. With the help of her Mum, Yvonne Stinson - a pretty mean gospel singer herself by all accounts - Taura and her school chums Kimbrely “Brely” Evans & Mykah Montgomery rehearsed to become the next Supremes.
“We were just three little girls down the street, putting together dance steps in the backyard” recalls Brely Evans. Unlike the Supremes though there was no Miss Ross. “We could all sing, but I was the crowd getter,” Brely says. “I was the one on stage, who took the lead in the interviews, ‘Hey World it’s me!’ Mykah, whose uncle was jazz legend Wes Montgomery, was the all American girl next door but Taura really shone musically, she could write, sing and her harmonies we’re out of control.”
And they looked good too, which was actually how they got their break. On the way to a music festival a bloke stopped the group of girls to chat them up.
‘Oh you guys are beautiful. Would you like to be in our music video?’ His name was Dres and he was in the rap group Black Sheep.
Says Brely: “We we’re shooing him off – we were like, ‘look, were heading to college, we are NOT video girls!’ But he kept pressing, ‘seriously, you girls look like stars! You gotta do something?’ That’s when they sang for him. Without a demo, plan or publicity shot the new girl group christened Emáge we’re whisked off to the Big Apple and given a trial of three days studio time by Polygram Records. The resulting album Soul Deep included a Stinson original In Your Arms created during the initial session.
“I felt liberated,” says Taura. Who had been hangin’ out with Q-Tip & Ali Shaheed Muhammad of a Tribe Called Quest whilst she was recording the album in NYC. “That’s when I returned home to Oakland and co-wrote the song Gangsta Lean for MC Hammer’s group DRS.”
This Is For My Homies
At a time when every male vocal harmony group of the day, horny little fellas like Silk and H-Town we’re warbling about booty’s, getting freaky or licking someone up … and licking someone down, hearing a song like Gangsta Lean on the radio, with its sincere message paying tribute to the young American men killed senselessly via gang warfare, was refreshing. Only problem was, that’s the first time Taura heard it too, on the radio. The title may have changed - from This Is For My Homies to Gangsta Lean – but that wasn’t fooling anybody.
“When I was back in New York, Q-Tip said to me ‘I bet your name isn’t on the credits.’” Recalls Taura, who went with him to the nearest wreckastow to see if he was right. And he was, Hammer and the group (whose name DRS stood for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) had attempted to shaft the naïve young songwriter. Q-Tips involvement even sparked Hammer into a couple of beef’s, directed at ATCQ and Dres, imaginatively rhyming “you’re weak” with Black Sheep.
“I got a lawyer for the first time in my life so it was not a good way to be introduced to the music industry.” Says Taura. “No-one could believe it when Gangsta Lean went triple platinum or whatever, “adds Brely. “Everyone was so surprised that someone so young wrote the song. We we’re devastated for her. But she got the credit back (eventually) they also sent her the plaques for her living room wall. So the battle was won.”
With Soul Deep stalling, and discouraged by a lack of support from the label, Mykah decided to seek out a solo career and leave Emáge. “What could we do?” wonders Brely. “I guess Taura and I could have gotten another girl, if we’d had proper management, someone like Matthew Knowles, Beyoncé’s Dad, I know he’d have gotten another girl and kept going! But instead I decided to head out to LA and go to college. Taura got married. But I didn’t. I’m still single now!” Says Brely, her tone and the way she chuckles suggesting she wants that last bit put on record.
Originally, Taura planned to secure a solo deal too. But after the ‘ol scallywag Clive Davis swiped the song I’m Leaving (co-written with Craig Lindesay) for British soul singer Lisa Stansfield, Taura signed with UK publishing company Notting Hill and began to concentrate on writing full time, scoring a placement on the aforementioned Knowles daughter’s group Destiny’s Child. Killing Time, a gorgeous string drenched swayer, co-written with D’Wayne Wiggins, would feature on the Men In Black soundtrack. Alonzo too was starting to make moves in the industry – signing as a writer/producer with LA Reid’s Hitco publishing company, which meant upping sticks and moving to Atlanta. As the had in Oakland, Taura & Alonzo continued to collaborate on songs in ATL as part of the production trio Heeba Jeeba, along with good friend and musician DeAndre Griffin.
“We all grew up together,” says DeAndre, who now lives in Brentwood, California. “We called ourselves the Heeba Jeeba’s because we we’re trying to be weird! We we’re challenging ourselves as writers, but nine times out of ten what we’d end up rolling with were what Taura had started because she was such an awesome writer. She held a mighty pen.” According to DeAndre, all those old demo’s still exist on DAT or cassette. “I remember one song that Taura came up with called The Left Thing. Because you know everybody was always trying to do the right thing, but for her to come up with The Left Thing, that concept. I was just honoured to be able to write with her.”
Whilst in Atlanta, Taura hooked up with the Family Tree collective, consisting of ET3 (Andre 3000, Big Boi & Mr.DJ) - and in return for helping out a young singer, asked to write to the three Outkast songs, one of which would become Number One.
“I remember the lyrics at the time were pretty cool to me. It was one of those songs for artists and people in the industry.” Recalls Andre 3000, who’s all over the track singing along with “dahs” and “doodoo’s.
Which led Aura to the meeting with Craig Kallman and Atlantic A&R executive Hutson Miller. “In that first meeting I was totally blown away with Taura, vocally she was brilliant, but not just with the music but also with her beautiful soul.” Recall’s Hutson who begins to set the scene of the audition. “Because her name was Aura she wanted to have that setting, the lights turned down, incense & candles, so we could all go into her world… it was a great selling point.”
According to Taura, “I was really, I mean really nervous. So I thought having the room darker, on an overcast afternoon might help.” She laughs.
“Alonzo brought the guitar - just in case I needed to sing! So I had to set the tone, like I do in the studio if I need to deliver a vocal. I sang two songs for them, Number One which they had already decided was the single and we freestyled one too to show the creative process. When we were done, Craig called Michael Kushner, head of business affairs to the office, and said ‘right ok, I want to get this deal done before you leave the building.’”
Taura’s lawyer wasn’t available so they were able to go to the hotel and regroup. That’s when LA Reid called with a last minute offer, so too Andre 3000 who said 'I never knew you wanted to be an star, sign with us.' (*Taura says now: "had I signed with Andre & Big Boi, the album would have actually come out") But less than a week later Kushner was writing an advance cheque, all made out to Taura, who was on her way to the west coast.
“I couldn’t wait to get started.” Says Hutson, “you just sought of fell in love with who she is and everything about her, she’s very warm inside and the great thing is it comes through in her songs.”
Stinson began writing at the San Diego mansion the label had rented for her. Whilst she was there she got a call from Jake & The Phatman (production duo Glenn Standridge & Bobby Ozuna, who had already collaborated with Taura on the excellent Sara Devine song Take Me Home), who were working on Raphael Saadiq’s first solo project Instant Vintage. Raphael had requested her by name.
“Taura came in the part of my life when I was having a career change,” Says Saadiq. “It was after Tony Toni Toné, after Lucy Pearl, I was producing for different people and I wasn’t in a group. I wanted to take the lyrics a little more seriously.”
“I had met Raphael before,” explains Taura. “He had me come out to his studio in Sacramento and write for his girl group Willie Max with his cousin Kenya Gruv which was the first time I wrote under his direction. But it shouldn’t have been the first time.” Back in East Oakland, when Taura was in high school she was writing for the school paper and had an interview booked with local hero Raphael. But he blew her out to go on tour.
“Years later we we’re talking backstage at a Lucy Pearl gig in Atlanta and he said to me ‘wow I wish I had more time, I’ve heard about your writing, you know we should write together.’ And then I told him ‘you know, you really had the chance to write with me first!’ he was so embarrassed.”
“She never lets me forget that.” Responds Raphael, rather wearily.
The song he wanted her to contribute to was a funky little number called People.
“I drove up from San Diego and the process was so quick for me, because the subject matter. Socio-economics and conspiracy theories were dear to my heart.”
“I told her this was the idea, this was the melody and it should feel like Ball Of Confusion. That (gruff) Dennis Edwards typa voice was what I was trying to recreate, for my soft tenor.” With People in the bag for Instant Vintage, Raphael returned the favour with Off Balance for Taura’s album MeNu (the title could be taken two ways - Me & U or Menu as in musical selection).
“I got the track from Jake & The Phatman, who had collaborated with Raphael and Kelvin Wooten on it. That was the wonder team. I sang the first part and had this idea that at the end the guy would come in and also be off balance, so it would be good because they were balanced again. Together. And Raphael was like ‘yeah, yeah ok – alright.’ So he does it without me being there. Then I hear it and he sings: ‘Yes I’m walking to a new beat … I think I need some new sheets.’ And totally ignored everything I said! I was like ‘Nooooo you’re not supposed to do that.’ He’s like ‘well, everything doesn’t always end so happy. Sometimes you need a song that doesn’t get resolved.’
But I’m like ‘its embarrassing cause in the song she’s saying that the guy is her everything.’
‘But doesn’t that happen all the time though?’ He was right and I loved it. The label loved it.”
It’s one of the best songs, grooving along to a similar bassline to Saadiq’s own Skyy Can You Feel Me.
Another killer cut, recorded at the same time as the MeNu sessions was the spoken word ballad Broken Record, that unlike most R&B tunes of the time, melds art & commercialism to perfection. Arguably Taura’s best lyric, aligned to a warm melodic Saadiq-esque bass riff and dramatic, displaced choir sound crescendo.
Though Atlantic we’re dragging their heels. Rumour was that not everyone believed Number One was the single. They had a meeting, and Ahmet Ertegun the founder of Atlantic Records, delivered the album’s tagline.
“To have Ahmet Ertegun say it was ‘the best album to be delivered in 20 years!’ having worked with Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles, saying that about an artist I signed! That was a great feeling and testament to the kind of artist that Taura is.” Recalls Hutson.
Stinson kept plugging away, and delivered another potential hit critical of the industry with Crazy a track produced by Static and featuring Kanye West, which utilized an uncleared sample from Joni Mitchell’s River, who ultimately wouldn’t sanction its release because she was pissed with Time Warner (for helping to fund Bush’s war effort.)
The frustration of the Atlantic situation inspired Taura to write another gem.
“I was thinking time was not waiting for anyone. I laid it at Stankonia in Atlanta with a bunch of guys in the studio and I was visibly shaking. I kept thinking, 'what am I doing here? I’m a writer'. Keep in mind I was the biggest Outkast fan too. My husband was there, Hutson Miller was there. I remember Andre just saying, “hey, respectfully to everyone in this room you have to go – she needs an intimate moment.” So it was just myself, Andre and his long-time engineer John Frye and when we recorded it was as quiet as a catholic church, it was crazy intimate. The song was about time doesn’t wait for no one but the bigger part was if you do good to people than good will come to you. It remains my theory.”
Says Hutson: “Hearing Liquid Time for the first time was almost indescribable, the brilliance of it - not caring about anything but being with a certain person. We used
Beck’s father David Campbell (who’s worked with everyone from Adele to Robbie Williams) to arrange the strings. “Liquid Time is when I really noticed her writing.” Says the song’s producer and writer of the music Andre 3000. “It was all Taura. The energy that she painted on that song, she has an ability to conjure up relatable or resonating moments through song lyrics. Whenever a song can say to me "I recognize that feeling or experience" that’s when I feel like I’m dealing with a powerful writer. And that song could be sold to an artist today.”
After 3 years the verdict was in. Atlantic weren’t going to put MeNu out. Craig Kallman called Taura personally and said ‘I’m sorry, look if there’s anything I can do to help in future I will but at this point for this album it’s the end of the road.’
Says Hutson: “It was devastating for anyone that worked on the project, for me personally as well because I had gotten Craig Kallman so involved with it, but to not really get the full answers as to why? I only wish that we were able to push forward and allow people to hear it, and to let the audience make their choice.”
He continues. “Problem was the record label was going through a mutiny. It wasn’t Craig Kallman’s fault; he literally stayed in the studio for two days straight to prepare it for radio. Number One was a pop record, but the issue we had was with the pop department. That’s pretty much why that song never came out and just to be transparent, I believe they had an issue that she was a black artist performing this record. They didn’t think it would crossover. But Craig Kallman and I felt differently, we knew that this song would perform well at radio no matter who was singing the song, and with the likes of Andre 3000 on it we would have had the right radio play. It was around the same time as Hey Ya you now? Aura was ahead of her time musically.”
The company put the project on “override”, meaning if somebody else wanted it they’d have to come up with the scratch. But Taura dug in, like she did with Gangsta Lean, and eventually won back her masters.
A Saadiq & Stinson Joint
“You did everything you said you would Raphael, thank you.” Said a grateful Maurice White,
“and she is a great writer. You two make a wonderful team.”
Raphael knew the last part already. “We have a natural chemistry – nothing that’s forced. And she knows me, it’s good to have people around you that know who you are, and I wanted to work with someone who can write stories like I write stories. Her mother’s a great singer and her uncle had a group (The Gospel Clouds) and I wanted that spirituality for the Earth, Wind & Fire project. I felt like we had the same upbringing. You want to take every project to the next level. How can we make it better? Somebody on the team that’s gonna fight wit you and Taura is a fighter. On the new album there’s a song called Anything For You. We looked at each other once the vocal was done and we we’re like ok – that’s where we trying to go. This is how good everything has to be.”
So as a partnership, which songwriters would Raphael compare his & Taura’s work to?
“Not that I’m saying were at the level of these writers yet, but I would say Thom Bell &Linda Creed, but that’s a whole different breed of writing. It’s a different era, bigger, like huge songs. But that’s what I aspire to be. That’s the bar – I’m not saying that we’ve reached that yet. And I’ve been doing it for a while but Linda Creed & Thom Bell is the bar.”
Together Saadiq & Stinson have collaborated regularly over the years, on brilliant cuts that jump out of each of their respective discographies. Songs like Tonight by CJ Hilton, Glow by Kelis, Truth’s deep soul classic Catch 22 and of course, Saadiq’s own Grammy nominated cut Good Man from Stone Rollin’.
“Good Man is my favourite lyric of hers.” Says Raphael. “For her to be a woman and write a song like that for a man? Wow.”
But Raphael had to pull Taura to one side during the recording of Stone Rollin’
“I was in a very dirty emotional place, because I was going through a divorce. The funny thing was Raphael sat me down after the first few songs that we wrote and said ‘Hey, this is not your album. We’re not writing an album about your ex-husband.’ Sometimes things go on in my life that songs can’t heal, and he’s been the big brother that I never had.”
But it appears Good Man snuck past his radar.
“You can’t talk about what you want in a Good Man until you’ve had a bad one!” Is all Taura will say.
The Perfect Song
“The reason I like her is that she’s not the typical writer that writes the most ratchet lyrics but the flyest thing is she could write with me, with Dr. Dre or with Kate Bush. And she’s very, very giving. Almost like a prophet.” Says Raphael. “But if there’s one thing that holds her back it’s that she is too nice to people. She shouldn’t be sometimes. Like her little French bulldog can take over.” He laughs. “I tell her, Taura you have to pop the dog in the nose and then she’ll be good. Sometimes you have to deal with people in life like that a little bit too.”
“Though she sometimes has to be reminded by those that love her, Taura’s spirit is strong and resilient.” Says Joi. “There's a gentleness blended with tenacity. She's overcome much heartbreak & disappointment, professionally and personally. But she's never, ever given up.”
In the The Five Heartbeats film, Robert Townsend's character, Donald Matthews the songwriter, recites a line he’s memorized from one of his critics: “Duck Matthews will be a great songwriter one day when he has suffered more.” Taura can relate.
“I have like a million drafts saved, even though that other person will never see that email. Writing is a release. If I didn’t have that outlet I would be a completely different person. Suffering pain, fortunately or unfortunately, can set the stage for the perfect song.
Even now, there are so many songs that I am in the process of writing that are dripping with pain. But for other people, the listener, I try not to write songs like he’s gone, it’s over, I’m dead. Instead it’s I went through hell but now I’m in heaven … hold on a minute, let me close the door ...”
The line goes quiet, something has distracted Taura. “Oh it’s not the door; Lulu my dog has just turned on the fan.” Taura laughs, “No thank you Lulu, I’m cool enough.”
MeNu is still yet to be released.
Taura Stinson can be reached on Twitter via @TauraStinson