Multi-talented singer, songwriter and producer Joi Gilliam was one of the few artists who was ahead of her time when she debut her 1994 album The Pendulum Vibe via EMI with the assistance of mega-producer Dallas Austin. Since her debut single, “Sunshine & the Rain”, Joi has amassed a cult following who enjoy her continued musical contributions. I caught up with Joi in this exclusive interview to discuss everything from her career, impact, taking the independent route to new music and much more!
Terrance: Growing up in Nashville, TN, did that environment impact your love for the arts in music?
Joi: Yes it did. I started dancing when I was probably three and I also participated in some theatre groups associated with the Summer Church School I used to go to which was really cool called First Baptist Capitol Hill. I had a deep appreciation for music since I could talk and there were lots of culturally rich things that would come through Nashville and they were available to me. My mom recognized that I was an artsy kid and so anything that came through Nashville, theatre-wise, concert-wise or anything like that, she would always get tickets and make sure that I was able to see it and participate in it. It definitely made an impact and also gave me a very broad and diverse sense of artistic appreciation.
Terrance: How old were you when you relocated to Atlanta?
Joi: By the time I was there for good I think I was about 21. That’s definitely where I got serious and started working with Dallas Austin for sure, but he and I had met in Nashville about a year prior.
Terrance: Creatively, what was going through your mind during the recording process of your debut album The Pendulum Vibe?
Joi: That’s a really tough question being that, that was 25 years ago. I don’t know exactly what was going through my mind other than I was excited and I finally knew I was poised to do something in a different way that haven’t been done before and I think that Dallas knew that as well. I’m certain neither of us knew the ripple effect or impact that it would have for years to come, but I would definitely say I was excited about doing some different shit.
Terrance: It’s been described as the album that inspired Madonna’s Bedtime Stories. How much do you believe that to be true?
Joi: I would say there’s probably a decent amount of bility to that, only because as the legend goes, I believe she heard The Pendulum Vibe and decided she wanted to work with Dallas after she heard it. I think perhaps she was moving in one direction and perhaps decided to move in another. Upon hearing the record I’m not super firm on that, but I do know that she definitely came to Atlanta and worked with him I think after hearing The Pendulum Vibe.
Terrance: Did you ever meet her?
Joi: Yes. She was a very nice lady and super cool and had a lot of respect for me, even as a new artist at the time. She was also responsible for the call that ended up landing me the Calvin Klein CK One Ad, so yeah she was alright with me (laughs).
Terrance: Can you share what caused your sophomore album Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome to get shelved?
Joi: It’s pretty simple. The label EMI folded and then Dallas sort of tried his best to pull another situation together with an imprint he called Freeworld and an attempt to put the album out on Freeworld which was a merge between him and maybe V2 at the time and then that folded just as we had released, “Ghetto Superstar”. So there were two attempts at putting the record out and I don’t know how many promo albums were printed up at that time, but there was a decent amount, enough of them for people to get their hands on them and trade them and things like that, but that’s essentially what happened. I’ve been told that it’s like a cool cult music classic. People still rock with it and ask about it and people still buy it. It’s for purchase digitally on my website, so people can still get it.
Terrance: You joined Lucy Pearl for a short stint replacing Dawn Robinson. Did you all ever record any material together up to that point?
Joi: No, none of that. I literally just came in to finish up the live shows. Raphael Saadiq also kind of wanted to go in, I guess a more rockier, kind of funk-base direction and so it wasn’t really finished like that I should say, particularly in the live arena so we did a few more dates and did some TV and basically that was it. But it also began a dope musical kinship between Raphael, Ali Shaheed and I. We’re still great friends til this day.
Terrance: Why do you think “Missing You” from your third album Star Kitty’s Revenge was such a success?
Joi: It’s a well written song and has a classic R&B feel to it. I think that’s why people who enjoy that classic R&B vibe gravitated towards it. A lot of what I do is such a mash-up of a lot of different things. It’s never been deadhead R&B or deadhead anything, so I think “Missing You” was a little more pointed in the R&B direction and people dug it.
Terrance: What made you decide to take the independent route with your fourth album Tennessee Slim Is the Bomb?
Joi: Well, I mean kind of for obvious reasons. As an artist who is not really pointed in any one direction it can be a little difficult for a corporate structure to figure out how to market that without pigeonholing them and it makes it even tougher for an artist who is black and a woman. If it doesn’t necessarily look or sound like anything you’ve heard before then you don’t know how to sell it and so by the time I got to Tennessee Slim Is the Bomb I had learned my lesson (laughs).
Terrance: Dionne Farris mentioned a similar situation about the majors not knowing how to market her look or sound.
Joi: Right. She ran into the same thing. She absolutely 100% ran into the same problem. I figured I’d cut my teeth on putting it out myself. Initially, I was signed to Pookie, which was a label deal Raphael had and he ended up not moving forward with Pookie, but he was very much like, take your masters and run with this and that’s what I did.
Terrance: Your new single “Stare at Me” is out and has been described as a little different, darker and grittier than previous music.
Joi: I guess but maybe not when you listen to “Techno Pimp” or “Say, Say Lil’ Fine Ass Niggah” or if you listen to some of the stuff on Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome or even “Sunshine & the Rain” for that matter. “Sunshine & the Rain” had a darker vibe. It was a little more industrial. I think it’s really more of the same, but just as an evolution. I think it’s very much inline with what people who have been on this journey with me. It’s precisely what they would expect, which is kind of not to expect anything other than knowing that they are going to dig what I’m putting out (laughs). “Stare at Me” is a great track and I’m really proud of it. Brook D’Leau of J*Davey fame is the producer on that. He’s a super, super great drumsmith and just a sonic badass. It was a treat working with him and he ended up producing the track for the forthcoming project. He’s on three more songs and also did some additional editing on three of the songs that I produced on the album. He really helped with helping me get my drums real super crispy like I wanted them and have really razor sharp edits. He was super excellent at things of that nature and he was very helpful throughout the entire process.
Terrance: What do you hope listeners take from their experience with the new album?
Joi: All I would ask is when you’re listening don’t treat it in a way we’ve been conditioned to treat music that comes out these days. Music deserves so much more than that. Good music. It deserves to be treated as a meal. A well prepared yummy hearty meal and I encourage people to treat it as such and if they don’t they would be doing themselves a disservice and really not just with my project, but with other music that comes out. Don’t let these folk think you got to listen to a song a couple times and you gotta be begging for something else. You gotta sit and let it penetrate you and let it get all up in you. Let it invoke your imagination. You can’t do that listening to something twice.
Terrance: What’s the one song in your entire catalog you love to perform the most and why?
Joi: That varies from time to time. That’s more of a mood situation. I don’t necessarily know that I have one that I like to perform. I know the ones that I feel an obligation to perform (laughs) and I enjoy performing all of those, you know? “Sunshine & the Rain”, if somebody’s coming to the show and they are a supporter of mine, they want to hear that. They want to hear “Missing You”, “Lick”, “Another Rocket”, “Dance With Yesterday” and they want to hear my Betty Davis and Labelle covers and they also be wanting to hear this mash-up of “Techno Pimp” and “Say, Say” I began doing several years ago. It’s all a treat to perform and feels really good. “Missing You” is one that I perform in a lot of different mediums. I’ve performed it acoustically, freestyled with it, remixed it live sort of as an impromptu. I think I’ve done more with “Missing You” live than the others in all types of formats and it’s probably the one I know best, so if someone was to ask me to do something off the top of my head that would be it.
Terrance: Can you elaborate when you say you reject the idea of people who are quick to call you underappreciated or underrated?
Joi: I can. I reject that idea because that would only be if you were measuring me from a stance or from a commercial standpoint or what you identify as commercial success and we all know that commercial success is very fickle. It’s not rooted in a whole lot but popularity and whatever the swarm is leaning towards, however; when you’re an artist like me and so many others whose been a little less visible I think the people that fuck with us, fuck with us because of what we feed them and because of what we inspire and because the music and messages hold up well overtime. The idea of being underrated is just an untruth as far as I’m concerned because I’m not underrated to the people who know about me and nor do I view myself as that. I view myself as someone who is received and taken’ in precisely by who I need to be taken’ in by at a particular time. Shit my motto is, those who have an ear to hear let them hear.
Terrance: This month we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Women’s History Month and with that being said, do you think it’s important now more than ever before to address Women’s Rights?
Joi: I’m a little leery of speaking about things in wide mass public settings only because it’s not for everybody’s ears at a particular time nor is everyone intelligent for such a level that they can receive what you’re saying and I’m not a person who is big on debating or arguing with people. I’m very much a “I said what I said” type of person (laughs). I think it’s important to continue have dialogue amongst those who are a bit less enlightened or a bit less educated or a bit less evolved in the understanding of the power of women not just in this Country but in the world and who are not as understanding of the fact that we birth you all and you would not be here without us (laughs). For me, I have those types of in-depth conversations in much smaller spaces and I think the smaller space conversations are extremely important in the trajectory of pushing things forward because I think people are less apt to act or to put on if you are talking to them in a much smaller space than you are talking to them in a larger space.
Terrance: Are there any upcoming shows or special appearances we should look out for?
Joi: There’s some TV stuff that will be coming out probably the beginning of Summer. I can’t say what it is but it’ll be something cool that everybody’s kind of gotten into in the past couple of years and I’ll be featured on a very popular TV show and I’ll be performing on that. The album will be coming out in April and I will be doing shows in April as well. I’m currently wrapping my mind around putting the show together and I’m taking my time and be collaborative in my efforts, that’s something I didn’t really do before I kind of was the burden of putting things together and the show was all on me and it all turned out well, but I figured that moving forward I would combine my efforts with ones who are also great at what they do. I want to be able to give the people that have been supporting me all this time an even more kick-ass experience live and I’ll be on the road this Summer.
Terrance: One thing you would tell your younger self just getting started in the business.
Joi: Don’t you dare doubt yourself. Not for one fuckin’ minute.
Terrance: Any final words you would like to leave for the readers or your fans?
Joi: Thank you for the continued support. Free your mind and your ass will follow (laughs).