Ask her considerable fan base who Siedah Garrett is and, first and foremost, they’ll say she’s a singer and a co-composer of the internationally recognized, self-reflective anthem “Man in the Mirror,” immortalized by Michael Jackson (and her) on 1987’s “Bad” album.
And, oh yeah, she sang background vocals on most of the tracks of Quincy Jones on “Q’s Jook Joint” in 1995 and on Q’s “Back on the Block” in 1989.
[A notable exception to her background vocal work on “Block” — and a personal favorite of this author — was her lead vocals on Mervyn Warren’s (ex- of Take 6) funky little ditty, “Wee B, Doinit” on which Garrett, along with Ella Fitzgerald scatting, Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin, Take 6 and Sarah Vaughan, comprised the “Acapella Party by the Human Bean Band.” (Siedah really bee doinit on that jam!) Additionally, Garrett collaborated on the vocal arrangements on that cut.]
So yes, many folks know she owes much of her fame and success to QJ and MJ.
But if you ask industry insiders about Garrett, they also know that she was among the first new artists Jones hand-picked to develop on his Qwest Records label in the early 1980s. And they know she won a Grammy™, and was Oscar-nominated for co-writing “Love You I Do,” sung by Jennifer Hudson in the film adaptation of “Dreamgirls.”
And they know that in 1984, when Temptations lead singer Dennis Edwards needed a replacement for — get this — Chaka Khan for “Don’t Look Any Further,” it was Garrett’s demo tape that was used in the final recording. Even Chaka has to appreciate the fact that Garrett’s vocals helped make that song a top-five R&B classic and one that still packs dance floors today.
And when British soul band The Brand New Heavies needed a new lead singer, Garrett stepped up and took up the reins.
But even they don’t know all the many facets of this multi-hyphenate artist. Singer, songwriter, actress, yes — even TV acting stints on “The Facts of Life” and “Amen.” But painter, sculptor, and handbag and knitwear designer? Say what?!
We wanted to know more what about this woman, who says she chose her name from the book of Muslim names to mean “shining like a star,” or “starlike.” And, more importantly, what she’s been up to since she singlehandedly turned out the Quincy Jones celebration of his 60 years in the business at the Hollywood Bowl this summer when she sang, solo, “The Man in the Mirror.”
On a recent phone interview, Garrett was anything but the diva that she could be, given all she’s accomplished. She was light-hearted and fun, full of energy and enthusiasm — and stories about her path toward the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Here’s what we learned: She’s an L.A. native, who attended Louis Pasteur Junior High School (not L.A.C.E.S.!); she went to Dorsey, graduated from L.A. High but along the way also attended Muhammad’s University of Islam, a private Muslim high school (located on Central Avenue and Santa Barbara Avenue — ha ha!).
Her mother was in a short-lived vocal group with her sisters called “The Other 3” — a nod to the Supremes. They performed in local clubs, which, Garrett says, “may have opened the window on what that world was like.”
Her first recollection of singing before an audience was at many a church, where her talents got her and her mom lots of attention. But she says she didn’t really want to “sing for her own self” until seventh grade, when a student-guitarist invited her to perform with him at a talent show, which they won.
Garrett says, “…and that’s what got me going … All of a sudden, like the next day, everyone was telling me how much they liked my singing at the talent show.”
In high school, there was the choir, of course, but she didn’t really start to branch out on her own and seek her own identity until she started joining bands. Her first paid gig in front of a non-student audience was as Black Velvet (the band’s name) and Satin Soul (the two female singers). It’s that experience that whet her appetite to do what she does now.
At her mom’s urging, “Say You Love Me” singer D.J. Rogers gave her the shot that led to her singing background vocals on one of his ’70s albums. That was the first professional gig for which she got paid fo’ real!
In listening to her music, one hears a variety of musical influences: pop, R&B, rock, house etc.
LAS: Where does that love of diversity [of music] come from — your mom, school, the community?
SG: I’ve never thought about it like that. I think that developed from wanting to be included on everything, just not wanting to be compartmentalized as to what I can do … I appreciate my diversity as a singer because it helps me as a songwriter … I don’t just write pop or R&B songs. I can write anything and, as a songwriter, that’s something you have to develop … and I think it just spills over into the vocal thing …
LAS: Tell me about your songwriting technique.
SG: [Laughs] It’s as varied as the people that I co-write with. Ninety percent of everything I do is a co-write. So people are as different and diverse as the projects that they work on, so when I work with different people, the project is always different, which keeps me thoroughly entertained and kinda sharp like nothing is ever staid, routine, which is one thing I really appreciate about my job.
When I go to do what I do to earn a living, I go to play. Only musicians and athletes go play. Other people go to work so I really enjoy what I do … So the technique of writing a song depends on if I’m writing it with a keyboard player and we’re sitting down for the first time at the piano to start something new … or if a get a track from a musician that is just basic music … or if I get a track from someone that’s music and a melody … or if I’m hired to write songs for film or television …
LAS: So then, the songwriting technique that led to “Man in the Mirror”?
At which point, Garrett told of the events surrounding the song, co-writer Glen Ballard, Quincy Jones’ involvement, the very first time she talked to Michael Jackson on the phone, when he told her he loved the song and he loved her voice and that he wanted to sing the song like her.
SG: It was the most amazing day and week and time in my life.
Of that time, she adds, pensively, “It’s all kinda surreal now that I think of it, given all that’s happened in the last couple of years … But it was a very, very heady time …
Garrett’s currently living in another very heady time, what with a collection of songs she’s just co-written with Sergio Mendes for the soundtrack for the animated feature (2011), which includes “Fly Love” performed by Jamie Foxx.
Now the chanteuse is gearing up to release a new collection of songs through her fan-driven website at Artistshare. She says she hopes the new project will touch and inspire all who hear it: It will mark her first album offering as a solo artist since her raw, rock-driven 2003 sophomore CD, Siedah.
“For the first time, I’m coming up with the best songs I can write without the confines of a radio format, or the restrictions of a record company having a say about what my music should sound like,” Garrett states. “It’s really quite liberating.”
To learn more about this truly liberated Renaissance woman, go to http://www.artistshare.com/siedahgarrett.