My first ever artist/musician interview, originally published in January 2006. "Aaaah bless" I hear you say. Believe me, having never spoken to one of my idols before, I was proper bricking it. I needn't have worried because James Poyser was/is an all round nice geezer. Still I remember turning to the wife moments after putting the phone down and saying "Think I blew it at hello."
Axis All Areas
Stop what you're doing and go grab your favourite contemporary soul albums, I'm talking post '97 - don't worry - i'll wait (start a little hum) ... doo doo doo doo ... right, got them? Now check the credits I bet you see the name James Poyser in at least one.
Yeah thought so. Because Grammy winning, philadelphia based producer James Poyser is one of the most sought after maestro's in modern music. The reason? He's a throwback to the genius producers like Jerry Wexler or Malcolm Cecil, men who, rather than laying an identifiable one-size-fits-all production signature sound on an act, would prefer to explore the artists own individuality, maintaining a critical ear for quality and craftmanship. Poyser's expertise has seen a who's who of soul music practitioners drop by his Axis Music Studio's to benefit from the magic, names like Erykah Badu, The Roots, Jill Scott, Bilal, D’angelo, Kindred, Ronny Jordan, Sy Smith, Vikter Duplaix, Jaguar Wright, Mariah Carey, Cynthia Biggs, Will Downing, Anthony Hamilton and on, and on. Hell the list is almost as big as one that shows George Bush's enemies and you know that needs some ink. So Ok, we (Underground Soul) interrupted Poyser as the red light was on in his own Axis Music studio, whilst he was concentrating on applying the final mix to the new Ty Tribbett album …but he didn't seem to mind and was happy to break down what he thought about the music biz, his influences, projects for 2006 and a love for Bugs Bunny!
Hello Mr. Poyser, you were born in Britain…why did you desert us?
I was born in Sheffield yet left to move to the US when I was 9. I still got family in Bradford and London.
Tell us how it all began?
I started playing drums in a church, playing by ear. I took up another couple of instruments and ended up on piano. After that I began playing with a lot of local groups, no names, just local bands and choirs and this lead me to work with the likes of Ce Ce Peniston, The Fresh Prince & The Whitehead Brothers. More and more I worked with Jazzy Jeff’s production company A Touch of Jazz and learned how to write and produce songs. And then here we are now. My breakthrough was Erykah Badu’s Baduizm. Right after that I began to get noticed. She and I had just started working with the Roots. And I did a song with her and Amir Thompson (?uestlove) and it worked out.
Do you write with the artist in mind?
It depends there are times when you have the track idea together or they may come up with a lyric or melody. What we do is we just sit down together and just vibe. It varies - there is no set process. These are not formulaic singers we work with. You can’t just throw them any old song. They sing songs that compliment their own artistry or sound. You can’t just give them something that you can give anybody else. They know specifically what they want so you gotta be able to have things that fit with them.
What would you say is the project you’re most proud of and why?
Maybe the first Ty Tribbett album (he’s a successful gospel singer). Working with Ty because he’s been a friend of mine for years, he’s like my little brother. For that to come out and then have success. It was a gospel album that at that time in the industry didn’t feel like a regular gospel album. It felt sooo good.
He’s not in the room at the moment is he!?
No no! I’m just here working on his new stuff.
Was there a production that didn’t perform to your expectations that you felt strongly about?
I think the Bilal album, whilst we only did Sometimes. Bilal to me is one of the most incredible singers in the industry today. I mean hands down there are not more than 2 or 3 people that sing better than him. I thought that the response to him should have been a lot better, a lot bigger just because of how great he is. I guess it’s a work in progress with him but he just amazes me every time. We worked on some things for his new set that we haven’t finished yet.
What are your thoughts on the current scene?
Back when Prince came out the artists were given leeway to grow. It’s not that way anymore unfortunately. The current climate is “We want a hit, lets go on to the next thing”. Hopefully they have something and can be successful with it. But the industry is definitely stacked against the artists nowadays.
Do you encourage or work within the independent scene?
Yeah I’m working with independent artists right now. We are working on Carol Riddick’s album and have a few other things planned.
You have performed in the studio groups the RH Factor (with Roy Hargrove) & The Randy Watson Experience (formed with Amir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson of The Roots). Is that something you’d like to take to the stage?
I played on the stuff with Roy, who’s a good friend of mine. But Randy Watson, that’s just something that Amir & me did on the side. Apart from our other projects. We haven’t performed live with that yet but you know…maybe (laughs). If the right thing came about I’d love to perform that live!
You produced Philadelphia soul songwriter Cynthia Biggs project (writer of 'Nights Over Egypt') - did Philly soul influence you growing up and if so how?
You right here, so you hear the stuff all the time. That whole sound Gamble & Huff influenced me a lot. The connection with Cynthia came about because years ago I had my room in the old Philadelphia International building. I used to write out there and Cynthia would be around and she wrote on some things, a couple of tracks.
You’re not exclusive to one type of music. As well as soul you also work on hip-hop, rnb, jazz and sometimes more experimental albums like International Affairs by Vikter Duplaix. Do you have a preference musically?
I love music period. I grew up listening to as much as I could and listen to everything now. I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to do things that feel experimental. Cause I love I.G. Culture, Jazzonova and Bugz In The Attic. All those guys, I love all of that stuff. The experimental side is not that far fetched for me. So with the other things I’ve done the Soul & Gospel. It’s all the same to me, its all music. I think it works.
So what do you listen to at home, what do you play in the car?
Poyser: It depends. You could find me listening to anything. From Hezekiah Walker to Joni Mitchell to The Beatles to Ghostface to Young Jeezy to classical. Or sometimes just what I’m working on. I was listening to Ty Tribbet in the car because I’m mixing that right now. At home before I left I played an old George Benson album 20/20. Actually I was listening to that and I was listening to this Bob Marley Live In Chicago and Warner Brothers Looney Toons/Bugs bunny Soundtrack! (Laughs) I’m dead serious I listened to all of that this morning. The Bugs Bunny soundtrack just had all of the songs that he sang in the cartoons. You know like those old songs from back in the day I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover (laughs)
You got a song coming out, a duet between Jill Scott & Patti Labelle called “What About Love?”. What other projects are you working on this year?
Working on Erykah’s new album, Queen Latifah, Jill Scott again, The Roots, Will Smith, LA Guitarist Doyle Bramhall and also Wendy & Lisa.
Who would you like to work with that you haven’t yet?
Oh yeah. There are hundreds of people, I couldn’t even go down the list. I’d love to work with Sting or Mary J Blige.
What do you think of her new album (The Breakthrough)?
I think its dope. There’s some cool stuff on there, I love the Raphael Saadiq song (I Found My Everything) I think its amazing.
Do you have any ambitions outside of producing?
I’m working on some films. I’m scoring a soundtrack for a movie now called “Totally Awesome”. The music is still current with maybe a couple of orchestral pieces in there. I want to do more soundtracks. There are also a couple of TV shows that I’m talking about doing the music for.
What would you consider a classic album?
Aaah, Stevie Wonder Songs In The Key Of Life or Bob Marley. There maybe some albums that people don’t view as classic because they didn’t have those big hits but for me sometimes those filler songs are better. The songs that aren’t the hits on Stevie’s albums are my favourites. Or Bob Marley and Al Green. We're gonna start work on Al Green’s album too by the way!
Wow - cannot wait to hear that! Mr. Poyser thank you very much for your time.
You’re welcome, thank you.
Originally published via Underground Soul - February 2006