I was quite nervous when I got word that Donell Jones agreed to my interview request. I’ve been a fan of his music for years, and have even had the pleasure of seeing him performance live years ago at Madison Square Garden, but he’s always struck me as the heady, serious type. But I was determined to meet and master the challenge, and I made it my personal mission to try to make Mr. Jones smile. I shared my intent with Jones via Twitter the night before the interview, and found myself giddy with glee when he flipped the script on me with the following @reply.
I learned a lot about Jones during our half-hour chat, by the end of which my old perception was replaced with newfound appreciation and insight. I found out that for his new album, Jones wrote all of the songs (save one) and played all of the instruments (except for the guitar), in addition to producing all of the tracks. This information impressed me, but I was also intrigued to learn that with his latest project, Jones says he just had fun with the album and got back to the essence of what making music is about. And I was inspired to learn why life is so great these days for the 40-year-old father and family man, how’s he’s pushing the boundaries of his music with a tribute record to Michael Jackson and his first-ever rock ’n’ roll song, and the legacy he wants to leave behind with his music.
VH1: When did you know for sure that you wanted to be a singer?
DJ: I think I had to be about 16, going to high school, and all the girls used to ask me to sing—”Sing this song by Bobby Brown“—and I tried to sound just like him. And I would hit it on the head! Every person’s song they asked me to sing, I would try to sing it just like them and they were like ’Man, you sound just like that person.’ I was always able to change my voice to make it sound like somebody else’s. So then I started to develop my own sound and from then I just claimed it, I was like ’This is what I want to do,’ and I just went for it. I was working at McDonald’s when I was like 16, and the manager was putting together a group. He sang, and he was like ’Man, I want you to try out for my group,’ because he heard me singing making burgers and everything. He was like man you sound like you got a voice, so I tried out for the group, I got into the group, and it all started from there.
Fast forward to 2013, and your seventh album. How is it an evolution of your music? What about it is signature Donell, and what about it gives fans something they’ve not gotten from the Donell Jones experience yet?
I would say my signature sound would be “Sorry I Hurt You” and “Closer I Get To You.” And I think what’s gonna jump out is “I’m So Gone.” It’s my first time doing a rock ‘n’ roll record in my life, and what it’s talking about is some serious stuff. When you listen to the lyrics it takes you to another dimension, you know? That’s one of them records that I think people will be like ’OK, he stepped out of the box on this one.’
Not only are you doing your thing singing on this album, but you’re talking on a lot of these tracks! That’s not typical Donell… Is that an indication of a more open, more engaging, more vulnerable Donell?
I’ve definitely dropped some of the walls that I’ve had up over the years. For a long time, it took me awhile to come out my hats, because I was really self-conscious about my bald head. A lot of things in my life I look at it now like, that’s stupid, a lot of the phobias that would bother me before, now I kind of dropped all of those things. It took me awhile to figure that out, I don’t know what I was hiding behind, but I guess with age knowledge and wisdom comes, and now I just see those things as being so immature and it just really didn’t make any sense. So I’m definitely a lot more open now. And honestly plays a big role in that. Once you find out who you are and you are truthful to that, then nothing else can bother you.
You seem like a very private, introspective guy with an old soul. How would you describe yourself?
I’m real laid back. In some ways, I’m an introvert. I don’t like to be around a lot of crowds of people and stuff like that. I’m really private. A lot of people say I’m shy and I don’t think so, but I just enjoy the things that I enjoy in life. I’m not really into a lot of material things and stuff like that, I got two cars, my wife drives one and I drive the other… I’m a basic guy. Music is just my job, and I love it. But that’s what I look at it as. I don’t look at myself as some R&B star or anything like that. I just really appreciate the fact that I’m able to do what I love to do and take care of my family doing it.
How do the ideas for your songs come to you? What’s your creative process for making soulful music? And how do you fuel or spark your creative process?
You know, I like the outdoors. I like to just clear my head from just all thought so I can let something else come in. I do a lot of meditating, I listen to countless music from the past—you know Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Isley Brothers—these are all greats. And that’s where I pretty much get my inspiration from to create new music, by listening to what came before me, so that’s my creative process. If I didn’t love the art of music, I probably wouldn’t do it. But I really, really get a kick out of the art itself, just being able to go and sit down at a piano and stuff just comes out. I mean, it amazes me every time I make a record, because sometimes I sit back and I listen to the records, listen to the lyrics and I think to myself, “Damn, where did this come from?” or “What made me say this?” So it’s intriguing for me, it’s truly something special.
You’ve reached a milestone in your life, turning 40. How has age shaped you as a person and as an artist?
To be honest with you, I mean I’m just getting here, but I love the idea of 40. It just makes me feel like I’m a brand-new person, like it’s a new beginning for me. Everything to me now is so much more serious. I have a different outlook on life and what I want to do with it. So I’m embracing this – it’s beautiful.
Speaking of beautiful, that’s the title of the second single off the new album. How do you define beauty?
I say to a lot of people, you could be the most beautiful person in the world and still be ugly at the same time. It’s all about the personality. I wrote that song because most times when we meet somebody, we’re physically attracted to them first, but it has to be a lot more than that just to keep us there.
The song “You Know” contains the charged lyric “Sex is on my mind, I want it all the time…” and really explores the power of physical attraction. What made you go there?
I didn’t write the song – that’s the only song on the album that I didn’t write. But it’s written by Alija Kamillion. She’s a hot writer, she wrote “Pour It Up” for Rihanna, and I just had to have her on the album. She’s a great artist, she actually sang the “ooo la la” part on the [Closer] record. But I think the song itself is really basically just another message. Just guys, you know, sex is on my mind, I want it all the time, but I got a girl at home. Why do I keep telling this girl that I’m gonna change, but in my head I’m always thinking about all these women, so how can I actually change? So it’s really about either you gonna do this or you gonna do that – make the decision. You can change, but you gotta clear your head of all these thoughts that’s coming in about all these other women. It’s nothing when there’s all this variety and all these different women – there’s no attachment to that. And for me I’d rather be attached to someone that I’m going to share something like that with.
You share a special connection with Michael Jackson, so much so that you including a tribute record to The King of Pop on your album. Can you talk about that?
For me, Michael Jackson is just…that’s the reason why I do music. Being able to watch an artist like that and watch all the stuff that he’s done, not just as an artist but as a humanitarian, just being able to watch a person’s career go from where it went to banana-stardom, there’s really no other. And all the messages that he had in his music, that really inspired me to become an artist and be able to profess my love for some of the things l love in life, and do it through music. Because I think that as human beings we do have a purpose, to kind of help the generations along and put some good stuff out there so they have some stuff to look back on that’s good. Everything shouldn’t be sex, sex, sex. There should be some love involved in some of the things that we do. And I think that Michael showed that, so that’s why I wanted to write a record just professing my love for his artistry and for him being the person that he was.
[Photo Credit: eOne music/Candyman Music]