Sometimes it's best to catch Detroit's most talented musicians outside the city to get a real sense of how universally appreciated their artistry is.That was the case for Detroit-based soul singer Dwele (born Andwele Gardner), who was recently in Miami, working out the kinks for his upcoming tour. As he performed, the vibe inside the upscale lounge was heavy; women on the dance floor were singing along to his songs, but there were also a handful of Miami Dolphins in the building, coyly mouthing the words to his 2003 hit, "Find a Way." It was a short set, and, by the time Dwele finished, people in the audience were literally begging him to do more.
That's a typical night on the road for Dwele. Nevertheless, he still truly appreciates the love he gets outside of his hometown. He's about to spend even more time away from his beloved city, as he embarks on a month-long tour in support of his newest album, Sketches of Man, which was released this week. It's a smooth, melodic 20-track disc that showcases a lot of growth on his part since his last project, Some Kinda, came out three years ago. For some musicians, that would seem like a long time between albums. But for Dwele, his frenetic work schedule and creative process have made it all seem like a blur.
"When you're actually in it and you're constantly touring, the years go by really fast," he says. "You look up and it's like, 'It's been three years since I put the last album out?' It feels like maybe a year ago. [But] I've mainly been working and traveling the world. I'm finding out what it really means to be an artist."
Spend time with his most recent album and you'll be glad he took the time. The reflection and growth have all shaped what easily feels like his most complete work to date. His new single, "I'm Cheating," is already getting radio spins across the country, and, with the right push, seems poised to become an R&B summer anthem. The song has a double meaning; if not listened to closely, the listener could get the wrong impression.
"The song came from a relationship I was in," he says, grinning, "where everything was good, but that extra thing wasn't there ... without saying what that extra is." When asked if that "extra" was sexual in nature, his boyish grin gets a little wider. "Pretty much," he continues. "She wasn't sexually where I needed her to be. I think she kinda peeped that, and so she took it there for me. That's where the basis of the song came from. So it's like, 'Ladies, if your man is gonna cheat, make sure he cheats on you with you.' But it relates to a lot more than just sexuality. It's about stepping outside of yourself and being what your partner needs."
He composed the track in November of last year while in Los Angeles, working with G-1, the same producer that did the beat for his first major single, "Find a Way."
Interestingly, he's no longer with Virgin, his label for the first two albums. The company chose not to renew his contract when it ran out, but according to Dwele, the split was "amicable."
"I was signed with them for two albums," he says. "We did the two albums and that was it. A part of me was ready to leave anyway. I remember there was a time when I was on Virgin when I was wondering if I'd be better off doing my thing independent ... especially back when it was taking me two years to get an album out. I signed with them in 2000. My first album, Subject, didn't drop till 2003. That was like three years of what?"
Subject would go on to move more than 250,000 units, with little help from Virgin. The label opted not to spend a lot of money on that album. There wasn't a big push for the follow-up, Some Kinda, either, which, unsurprisingly, didn't do as well.
Regardless, Subject made Dwele a household name among neo-soul fans. He's now often looked at in much the same vein as Anthony Hamilton or D'Angelo for what he does — soulful crooning without all of the hooting and hollering. He's also a heck of a musician. He plays four instruments (trumpet, keys, bass and guitar) flawlessly but claims he "can play anything well enough to make a song out of it."
The casual listener might think it absurd to assume that the crisp production and stellar instrumentation on his albums is all done by him — but 95 percent of it, in fact, is. He produces the lion's share of his albums at his Detroit home loft. For Sketches of a Man, only two songs were recorded by outside producers; the rest is all pure Detroit grit. There's also a bit more of a hip-hop feel to the new release as well. One of the album's best tracks is a crazy, 1-minute, 20-second interlude that's a tribute to his late friend J Dilla, essentially taking the rapper's beat.
"I'm curious to see how mainstream audiences that were never privy to his music are going to take to it," he says. "I just hope it gets his music out there."
This third album is being released by RT Music Group (headed by his managers, Ron and Tim Maynor) and distributed by Koch. It should allow all players involved to keep more pieces of the pie. But more importantly, it gives Dwele more creative control.
"I'm eager to see what the differences are being on an independent label versus being on a major," he says. "Like, I've never really had input on what my cover art would be or where I wanted my videos shot. Now people actually call me and ask if I'm OK with this or that. We shot the video for 'I'm Cheating' at my loft downtown. That probably wouldn't have happened on Virgin."
Good things have been shaping up for him since he left that label anyway. He was nominated for two Grammy Awards last year — one for his version of Earth, Wind and Fire's "That's the Way of the World" (on their most recent, Interpretations album), as well as for his vocal work on Kanye West's "Flashing Lights."
He says the Kanye collaboration took him by surprise. The two have had a friendship for several years. But for "Flashing Lights," Kanye flew him out to Los Angeles at the last minute to record a hook for his song.
"Kanye is a work horse," Dwele says. "He's the only cat I've ever seen that can work out of six or seven studios at one time in one building. He's real direct. When I came in, I had the harmonies done already. He heard it, and was like, 'I wanna rock stadiums with this joint.'"
Dwele's style is certainly more global than most R&B artists these days. Rather than opt for the strong gospel style power-singing, Dwele would rather groove the listener to the bone. But when asked if he thinks Detroit as a whole is behind his sound, he pauses for a little bit, and then replies: "No."
"It seems like Detroit still looks at me as a local artist," he continues. "Which I am. But I also pay the bills with what I do. The people in Detroit look at me like, 'Just come up and perform ... we're not gonna pay you.' And because of that, I don't do too much in the D. But I'm not really mad at that. I think the whole thing about being an artist is your mystique. But somewhere has got to be home for everyone. And for me, Detroit is home."Jonathan Cunningham is former Detroiter who's music editor of New Times Broward-Palm Beach. Send comments to [email protected]