Jason Walker, Raising The Roof
Interview by Jeffery Taylor and D. Michael Taylor
Listening to a Jason Walker track is a surreal experience. To the uninitiated, the first response is usually disbelief. There is no way a voice that big, that soulful could come out of a skinny white boy from Pittsburgh. Raised on a steady diet of legendary soul and R&B divas, Walker’s voice is a rare marvel that is tempting to shrug off as a gimmick. He must be imitating the voice of a big black woman intentionally, right? But closer listening reveals a vocal quality that is uniquely his own. This is no drag queen; he has no desire to be anything but himself on stage. And he’s well on his way to proving to the world that it should be taking this major talent pretty seriously. Signed on legendary house music producer Junior Vasquez’s label JVM with a multi-album contract, his next release will be a powerful one-two punch from him and producer Quentin Harris.
Jason Walker has had a charmed career. Soon after moving to the big city from Pittsburgh, his unique talent got him recognized rather quickly after a recording of a track called “My Life” made its way to Junior’s ears, and the rest is clubland history. The second single, Hani’s production of “Foolish Mind Games” went all the way to number one on the Billboard dance charts, leading to Walker’s first full-length release, This Is My Life.
He has no formal vocal training, but Jason has been preparing for this role all his life, singing from an early age anywhere he could find a mic, at church, in school productions, and at every talent show he could find. The audience keeps getting bigger and bigger, but he’s taking it all in stride. movmnt caught up with Jason to discuss his career, his upcoming releases, and the pesky need to constantly prove to people that he’s not pulling an Ashlee Simpson on them.
How did you come to be in New York?
In 1998, I went to this karaoke contest in D.C. and met Sammy Allen (who is in thereally amazing rock group, Seven Stitches,in LA). We loved house music, we loved dance music, we were raver babies together. It was magic! Even though we lived in separate cities, we were like this (crosses fingers) for the next four years. She said we should move to New York together. So we moved here.
What have you been doing recently?
I just started recording my next album and Quentin Harris is going to produce it.
We just interviewed Quentin Harris…
Isn’t he the sweetest, most gorgeous…(sighs)
How did you and he begin working together?
He remixed Ã¢â‚¬Å“Foolish Mind Games. I love it! It’s so deep.
We got a little sneak peek at his new album (No Politics) and got to hear your cover of After 7s Ã¢â‚¬Å“CanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t Stop.Ã¢â‚¬Â Whose idea was it to cover it?
Mine. I’ve always loved that song. It’s funny because one of my manager’s friends was listening to After 7 and told me, “You should do this”, and it just kind of stuck in my mind. Quentin wanted to do a cover for the album. “I have a couple in mind myself”, he said, “but if you have one, just come over and we’ll record a couple and whatever comes out better…”Â So he said, “What do you want to start with?”Â I said, Ã¢â‚¬Å“LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s do the After 7 song first. Well, after we did it, he said, “OK, we’re not doing anything else”.Â I knew that after we did Ã¢â‚¬Å“CanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t StopÃ¢â‚¬Â that the guys at JVM were going to hear that and want him to do the next album. And that’s exactly what happened.
How did you start working with Junior?
Well, I moved to New York with Sammy. She was working at this karaoke bar in the East Village called Planet Ropes. A girl that she worked with named Amanda Cee, who is her manager now in LA, is a songwriter. She wrote “My Life”Â with Gary Brown. So, through Sammy, I meet Amanda, and Amanda said, “You know, I have this song. It’s called ËœMy Life”. Why don”t you record it?”Â She knew some people that work close to Junior and his label and she gave it to them, not expecting anything to happen… It gets to Junior – he likes the song. He wanted to reproduce it. So that’s what happened. He did a whole new track and I cut some new vocals and… there’s the song.
When was that?
He was playing it from October of 2003 but it didn’t come out until March 2004.
Then what happened?
They wanted to do another single. Jerome and Junior [who run the JVM label] had this song called “Foolish Mind Games.” Jerome asked me, “Do you know who Hani is? Because if you like this song and you want to do it, you’re going to have to go record with him.” And I had to sit down. Because some DJs and remixers and producers are bigger to me than movie stars are to the average person -because that’s my world. I have so much of Hani’s music and I just love his work. “You mean I have to go record with Hani? Are you kidding?” They played this song for me, and it was amazing. So I went and recorded “Foolish Mind Games”Â with Hani and that led to an album deal.
Wasn’t it the first artist album to be done on Junior’s label?
Yes! That was really special for me being a boy and being the first artist album that JVM has ever done. Over the next year, we recorded songs and slowly put the album together. Junior and Jerome did a really great job of A&R. Every song on there… they fit together well, and the other producers that they commissioned to do tracks, like Chad Jack and Dynamix and E-day and Hani – I think they were great choices.
How do you like working with Quentin Harris?
It’s been incredible working with him. He’s something else. I love being there and watching it all happen. He’s an amazing musician. We were in the studio last Thursday night and we recorded a song and, honestly, it was better than sex.(laughs)
Your first album was all dance. What genre of music is your new album?
It’s deep house with some downtempo R&B. I think the great thing about Quentin Harris doing it is that he can make it all make sense because it’s all one producer, and he’s well-versed. This is the direction that I wanted to go. I didn’t want to do the same kind of record. I wanted to do something different. I don’t ever want to do the same thing twice. I wanted to make it possible to break into other types, other styles.
Was it a challenge?
No. I used to sing with blues bands when I lived in Pittsburgh. I moved to New York to do dance music. I wanted to do it. I love it. It’s a passion of mine. But I also like to sing other things. I grew up listening to Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan… I want to do some of that music, and I think that with Quentin I’ll be able to.
When are you planning on releasing this album?
I don’t know for sure, but I know that it’s going to be next year. We have about half of the songs done.
Do you enjoy performing at clubs?
Oh! Nothing is better than that! It’s nice to go and sing for people, because so often no one knows what anyone looks like. So when performers actually get to sing their song, it makes it more real. There are real people behind what you’re hearing, people that really love this kind of music and work hard to bring it to you. So it’s important, and it’s great.
And even more so for you since a lot of the time you are accused of not looking like you sound…
I remember when I did shows in Pittsburgh with one of my really close friends named DJ 7up. We used to play raves together and club nights around Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. He would spin house tracks and I would do vocals over them. People didn’t think that it was me! They’d think, “Why is this bitch up therewith a microphone?Ã¢” And it would take a minute for people to realize… he’d have to drop the music out, and then it was like… (raises eyebrows) A lot of people think it’s a girl. I get that all the time. “You sound like a big black woman!” Well, thank you! That’s what I sang growing up, that’s what was comfortable for me. So I take it as a huge compliment. But there are times when I want people to know it’s me.