Interview with Stephanie Mills

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Stephanie Mills I'd say my new album is all about getting to basics, back to square one, to what people want to hear from me." So says Stephanie Mills and the young lady's got a valid point, given that her current single "I Feel Good All Over" is truly leaping up the black music charts in the States and her album, "If I Were Your Woman" is turning into one of her biggest sellers.

"I feel like this is my best work since the days of "Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin'" and "Sweet Sensation" ? only it's even better because I've matured so much since then," enthuses the petite entertainter, busy in rehearsals for an upcoming national tour.

Until you stop and think about it, you may not realise that Stephanie Mills has sold quite a few records in her career as a recording artiste. Starting out with "Whatcha Gonna Do" in 1978, she had a string of hits with producers Mtume and Reggie Lucas, including "Put Your Body In It" and "Never Knew Love Like This Before" for 20th Century Records, before moving on to Polygram where she scored with "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore?" and her biggest hit from that period, 1985's "The Medicine Song".

Then last year, Stephanie topped the black music charts with "(I Have Learned To Respect) The Power Of Love" from her first album for MCA. Stephanie isn't too sure just how many records she's sold over the years but we both agree that it's most likely in excess of 5 million.

"But I still want to be able to sell millions of albums ? that hasn't happened yet, and definitely not on a worldwide scale," she comments. But Stephanie's hopeful that, with her new LP, that may change. "I really wanted this record to fit my personality, to reflect me and what I'm all about and I think that this may be the first record that really does that. In the past, I've recorded songs that were what other people suggested and I don't think anyone knows me better than me which is why it's been great to have had so much input into this record."
Along with manager and sister-in-law Cassandra, Stephanie is the executive producer on "If I Were Your Woman". "That means we have control of everything ? the budget, picking the producers, the final selection of songs, total creative control. I'm very happy that MCA allows for that because a lot of companies don't. And I think they're seeing that it's paid off."

She says that her first MCA album did pretty well, especially considering that she hadn't had any new releases for a while. "It was my way of making sure people knew that I was back one the scene," noting that she went on tour in 1984 with "The Wiz", the Broadway musical based on "The Wizard Of Oz" which catapulted Stephanie to national recognition when she first began playing the role of Dorothy whilst still in her mid-teens, back in the mid-Seventies.

In choosing producers and songs for the album, Stephanie says she was mindful of what her audiences like. "I went out on the road last year for about three months, which was the first time in about three years. And I fould that although people like those 'up' numbers, they love the ballads. When I did "Feel The Fire" (which she recorded during her 20th Centry days) and "Power Of Love", the people really responded very well. They are songs that really have emotion in them, so we picked songs that reflected that and people who we know could bring that out in me."

The production line-up is impressive: Nick Martinelli (who produced the first single), Ron Kersey (who did last year's "Power Of Love"), La La, Paul Laurence, Davey-D & Russell Simmons, labelmate Robert Brookins and Wayne Brathwaite.

"Each one of them brought a different element to the sessions but the unifying factor was the quality of the songs. We didn't go in and record any more than you find on this album: we didn't overcut and then select. Plus for the first time, I had a lot to do with writing the songs."

Indeed, Stephanie co-wrote four of the albums's eight cuts and found the experience particularly rewarding. "I came in with the basic lyrics and lyrical ideas and then worked with the different producers in finishing off the songs. I definitely want to keep writing because the material and then becomes even more personal.'

In choosing the songs, Stephanie opted to cover a Gladys Knight & The Pips' classic as the title track for her album. "I've always wanted to do that song and I felt that it reflected what a lot of women go through," she comments. Other songs ? like "(You're Puttin' A) Rush On Me" (produced by Paul Laurence) and "Secret Lady" (La La's contribution to the album) ? also reflect "where my head is at, what I have to say about different situations," she adds.

Stephanie's preparing for a three to four month trek across the country as part of the Michelob Class Acts tour, with The Whispers and Robert Brookins. "Last Year, we went out with Atlantic Starr and it was fantastic. I'm really looking forward to this tour too because I think we have a hot line-up," she notes.

Asked how she prepares for a long stretch on the road, Stepanie says that there are certain golden rules she has. allow enough time for myself and the band to be fully rehearsed. That way, we're ready from the start. I also stay I in shape and watch my weight!
"By the time I'm ready to go out there, I have nothing else to concentrate on ? the album's finished, the videos are done. I just had to focus on my show."

Part of her tour will include a special one-week stint at The Apollo Theatre in New York which is where Stephanie first started, winning an Amateur Talent contest for six consecutive weeks at the tender of age 11. The prize wa opening for The Isley Brothers and it was the first step in her auspicious career. "Sure, it's like a homecoming for me, particularly my family and many of my old New York friends will be there."

Even though Stephanie's established herself as a recording artiste, she feels that | the public still identifies with her as "Dorothy" from "The Wiz".

"No matter how big the records are, people still relate to me that way. I really don't mind because I loved all the work I did on Browdway with the show. But I also want a career in records that's even bigger than it is now."

While it's true to say that female vocalists are more in vogue than ever, Stephanie feels that the success of her music "depends on the music itself and how well it's narketed. It all comes back down to the product."

She says she listens to some of her contemporaries "but not like we're in competition with each other. We all have something to offer and I love the success that they're having, women like Anita Baker and Janet Jackson. In fact, I don't vatch and worry about what they're up to and I love to go see them perform because I think of it as being educational for me," she comments.

When Stephanie isn't in the studio onstage, you're likely to find her at home or at the Imovies. If she's at home, chances are she'll be deep inn a book by Jackie Collins or a biography by Diahann Carroll Mary Wilson or Tina Turner.
"Those books are educational too!" she laughs. "But seriously, those biographers allow me to see what women have been through in this business, to see beneath the surface. I think that it's inspiring that people keep going when they have so much to contend with. And," she reflects, "we're still going through it!"

Stephanie feels that she has to excercise some caution in who she dates "because I don't want to go out with guys who aren't interested in the real person, guys who just want to go out with you because you're a public personality. So my boyfriends are guys I've gotten to know over a long period of time. Same thing with friends: it's hard being in this business to make a lot of new friends so a lot of the people I know are people I've known for years."
Stephanie says that the one major aspect of being a known entertainer that she doesn't enjoy is "knowing that I'm under a microscope all the time. People listen to what I say and watch what I do and always take it to the extreme, I guess they don't realize that we're normal people underneath."

Be that as it may, the one thing that isn't normal about Stephanie Mills is her talent, which is undoubtedly extraordinary. Her current album is possibly her finest to date and if you want the chance to see Stephanie in person ? in itself a real threat ? buy this album, give the lady a hit and she'll be winging her way to the U.K. in a flash to give you one of the most soulful shows in town!       (David Nathan Blues & Soul)

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