Diana King: Doing What Feels Right
By Sara Gurgen (V15#8 1997)
Since Reggae Report last caught up with Reggae/Rap/R&B diva Diana King, the sultry singer-songwriter married the man who inspired her crossover hit “Shy Guy,” moved to sunny South Florida, delivered a healthy baby boy, and is currently doing promotional activities in support of her new album, Think Like a Girl (Work), a powerful follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut, Tougher Than Love (1995 Work/Columbia).
During an early October interview while en route to a radio visit in Providence RI, the affable, articulate Jamaican-born artist spoke candidly about the long-awaited new album, her innovative vocal style, and the personal and musical developments that have led to this point in her career.
“I’ve been all over the place,” King said, referring to her effort to introduce fans to her new material. “Japan [and] a lot of [cities] in America. In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to Europe. I’m there for two weeks, then I come back [to the States] and do other promotions.
King’s jaunt to Japan was her eighth time there, the first being for Japansplash two-and-a-half years ago. “That was right when Tougher Than Love came out, and no one knew who I was,” she recalled. “I was opening, and it was so weird. It’s like so different now.”
During her recent engagements, King has been concentrating on performing tracks from Think Like a Girl, with the exception of the chart-topper “Shy Guy” featured on her debut album, as well as one of the key songs on the soundtrack the Columbia [film] Bad Boys.
King explained that it was written with Orville Aris, her husband of more than one year, in mind. There soon to be 1-year-old son is named Dior. “DI for Diana and OR for Orville,” King said. She also has a daughter from a previous relationship, Shalamar, who turns 10 in December.
Orville was again an inspiration for her on the new album. She wrote the tender love ballad “Still,” which happens to be her favorite track on the album, for him. As with the first album, many of the songs on Think Like a Girl –“Love Yourself” “L-L-Lies,” “Tenderness,” and the title track– address issues pertaining to women.
“The songs come from my experiences or those of my nine sisters; that’s why I usually write about love relationships and… women’s stuff,” King was quoted in a recent press release.
“‘Love Yourself’ I wrote specifically about one of my sisters,” King explained during the interview. “It’s also a general song, because I believe that’s the first love—loving yourself—and then every love comes after that.”
“Think Like a Girl is something that I always say whenever I’m talking,” she continued, referring to how the track came about. The co-writer on that song, Billy Mann, came in one day and said, ‘I have this great title,’ and I said, What is it? He said, ‘Think like a girl.’ I got so excited. I said, yes, yes. Once he gave me the title the lyrics just came.”
King went on to explain how she received the idea for “L-L-Lies,” the album’s first single: “We were just hanging out—myself, producer Andy Marvel and [writer] Arnie Roman, and we started talking. We didn’t even remember that we were supposed to be writing; we were just chatting, and I said, ‘Boy, men just love to tell lies.’ And that’s how it came about.”
While Think Like A Girl is made up mostly of originals there are a couple of covers, as well as the song that was recorded for consideration for a movie soundtrack. “’Find My Way Back’ was originally done for [the film] Speed Two, but they wanted something faster, more speedy,” King said with a laugh. “But we decided to keep it for the album.”
One song that didn’t make it on the movie soundtrack is the upbeat remake of the Dionne Warwick/Burt Bacharach/Hal David standard, “Say a Little Prayer.” “It was featured in the film My Best Friend’s Wedding. ‘Say a Little Prayer’ was not my idea,” King admits. “Work Group, which I’m signed to, handle quite a few soundtracks, so they send me songs whenever they have a soundtrack… This time, I knew the song because I used to sing it when I was singing cabaret on [Jamaica’s North Coast]; but I didn’t want to do it, ’cause I was thinking of doing my own stuff… then they said do it however you want to do it. That’s what got me, cause I thought I had to do it the same way as Dionne Warwick did it. But when they said that, I said OK, and actually I did it in Reggae. So the Reggae version—which is on the soundtrack—is the original version and then we did [a House] remix [for the album].”
The other cover on Think Like A Girl is a version of Cultures Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” which used to be one of King’s favorite songs to perform. I actually recorded it with [producer] Handel Tucker many years ago, but I didn’t even remember. When we were done with the album, he pulled it out of his bag and said, ‘Do you remember this?… He thought it was a great idea to do it again… He played it for my manager [David Sonnenburg,] and they all ganged up on me and said, ‘You have to do this.'”
In addition to her new album, King is also featured on the track “House of Love” on Steel Pulse’s latest release, Rage and Fury. “I always wanted to do a song with Steel Pulse’s lead singer David Hinds,” King said. “[However], it wasn’t my perfect situation. I wanted to do a duet, but there wasn’t enough time to go in and write. So we plan to really do a duet either on my next album or on their next album.”
Think Like a Girl’s producers include Andy Marvel (who was responsible for the hit “Shy Guy” and Handel Tucker. On King’s debut album, Tougher Than Love, Marvel and Tucker worked on tracks separately; this time, they collaborated. “It was great,” King said, regarding the experience. I could just relax, and because I know these people that I work with so well, the vibe was comfortable.
“The first time I was [too] shy to say, OK, ‘this is what I want,’ even though I did it to a certain extent. But this time, I [was] more confident of what I want to sing about, my style, and all of that,” she said, comparing the process of making the first album to her latest one.
Part of the comfort and confidence she experienced while working on the new album was the result of Tougher Than Love’s success. A total of 2.2 million albums were soldworldwide, and 650,000 in the US. In addition, the album was Top 5 on the Billboard Reggae albums’ sales chart for more than 25 weeks.
“I think that that had to do with that, ‘cause at least I knew that people liked what I did,” King confirmed. “So I was more confident in saying, ‘This is me, and I’m just going to be myself.’ With the first album, I had no idea what was going to happen. I was so stressed out just wondering what it would be… I didn’t even have a demo tape, so I didn’t even know what my style was… I went in and started working on the album. [With] the first song I did, I was worried that no one would get it or like it; but they did, so I felt a little better.”
When asked how she would describe her style, King readily responded: “It’s just mixed up, I think. I don’t want to be limited. If I try to sing a straight R&B song that doesn’t work. I ended up mixing it with Reggae or Pop. Wherever I go in the world people say, ‘Oh I hear more Reggae’ [or] ‘Oh I hear more R&B.’ Whatever they hear is true, because all of that is in there. Reggae is my first love, so I know it will always be in me, and I grew to love R&B.”
While the response to her mixing of styles has been mostly favorable, she has had to deal with people who tell her to stick with one musical genre. “That’s your opinion is what I always say,” King said, referring to how she answers critics. “Everyone has an opinion. I’ve met people who say I should sing straight up Reggae or I should sing R&B. That’s their opinion. They feel I’m a Jamaican, therefore, I should sing Reggae. And the R&B people think I have a good R&B voice, so that’s what I should do. You have to [do what feels right for you], ‘cause in the end you’re the one who will be left with it on you conscience. It’s not them.”
While growing up, King said she drew inspiration from “a lot of [veteran] Reggae [women] singers, Bob Marley, The I-Threes, Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, as well as Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, The Jacksons, and Chaka Kahn.” She also liked such European acts as The Police, The Beatles, and Phil Collins. Nowadays, when King gets a chance to listen to the radio, she enjoys Mary J. Blige, Maxwell, D’Angelo, and Erykah Badu.
King was born one of 15 children in Spanish Town, in St. Catherine, on Nov. 8 (she preferred not to give the year.) Vocal talent happens to run in her large family. “Two of [my sisters] sang background vocals for me on my last tour of Japan,” King said. “Three of them [her sisters] have formed a group [called Sista Dem]. They haven’t really done anything yet. I promised I would do some work with them, so they are waiting.”
At the tender age of 13, King ran away from home for reasons she declined to go into. “That’s why I started singing, because I ran away,” she explained. “I [used to] sing at church, at school, and even around in my area where there was a band jamming, but I never thought I would be a singer; it was just a hobby…The same day I ran away, I saw this friend of mine who was in a band that I would jam with, and he worked on the North Coast, and he said, ‘You know, the band I’m in now, they’re looking for a female singer. Why don’t you come and audition?’ I went in, I got the job, and ever since that I’ve been singing.”
When asked how she was able to stay on the straight and narrow during her teenage years without any parental guidance, King responded: ”I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t do anything that didn’t feel right. You always feel; you don’t know why, but you feel. Anytime I felt a certain way, I would just disappear from there, you know. Even now, I’m still like that. I think that’s what has brought me to this point. I still trust that little voice, or that little feeling, that tells me, ‘This is not right; you should not do that.’”
Although King began singing professionally at 13, it wasn’t until she was 17 that she realized she wanted to make a career out of it. “I was singing in hotels and clubs, and then this band that was very popular in Jamaica [City Heat] asked me to be their female singer,” King recalled. “I was really getting at that point where I was saying, ‘OK, what’s next? What else?’ [When] they asked me, it was just the perfect timing. We became so popular; we were all over TV. We were really busy, and that’s when I realized that I was a singer.”
When producer Handel Tucker approached King with his interest in having her do studio work, she said she “felt very excited”; however the only drawback was she would have to leave City Heat. “After months of going back and forth, ‘OK I’m leaving; OK I’m not leaving’, I left and started doing some stuff with Handel.” Tucker produced her first single, “Change of Heart,” for his now-defunct Infinity label in the early 90s (she couldn’t recall the exact year).
King also became very active as a background vocalist. ”I was singing a lot for a lot of Jamaican artists,” she said. “Anyone you can think of, I used to sing background vocals for. It was a lot of fun, but then I realized, ‘OK, so what about myself?’ Then I would do shows here and there in hotels or clubs, and then Shabba’s manager, Specialist, came to me and said, ‘OK, so are you ready to come tour with Shabba?’ King was ready indeed. She toured with the Reggae DJ for one year.
“It was great,” said King of the experience. “I would do it again. I went to places that I’ve never been, and it was a lot of fun. The first show we did I remember, it was in Trinidad I was there backstage getting ready, and when they called my name and I came out and I saw like 40,000 people, I almost fainted. I wanted to run off the stage. But it was cool. I closed my eyes and I just did it, and it got easier.”
The next big move in King’s career came with the cover version she did of Bob Marley’s classic “Stir It Up” for the 1993 comedy [film] Cool Runnings. King explained how that came about: “I got this message [on her answering machine] from Maxine Stowe from Columbia, who said she had heard good things about me and wanted to meet me and blah, blah, and a record deal, and [I said], ‘Like right.’ So I erased the message and went about my business. The next day, she called again and I was there. That’s when I realized it wasn’t a joke. [She asked] if I could come up to New York tomorrow, and I said, ‘OK.’ I went, and the next thing I know I was talking about a record deal with Columbia, but I didn’t even have a demo. That’s why I did ‘Stir It Up.’ It was [my] demo for Columbia.” They liked her version of the song so much, it was included on the soundtrack, and she was signed to Columbia (part of Sony Music) in 1994. Since then, she has been signed to Work Group, which is a division of Sony.
King’s association with Stowe not only led to a recording contract, but enabled her to be featured on the late Rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s first album Ready to Die (1994). “It was a time when Maxine was doing some work with [Puff Daddy],” King recalled. “Before he got popular, he was doing some remixes with Super Cat, and he wanted a female Jamaican to do some chatting.” The song she is featured on is “Respect.” “It’s very different from what I [normally] do. I think [I portrayed] an actress, and I was very X-rated… I cursed a couple of times, but it was for the song. It’s a role.”
The multi-talented King might get the chance to do some real acting in the future: “My manager [who’s] directing the new Jimmy Cliff movie, Many Rivers to Cross, look[ed] at me and said, ‘You would be perfect for the lead.’ I never thought of being an actress, but now I have a script [that] I’m reading and I’m trying to be this part. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I never planned this.’ So, all my life, things happen like that… As long as it feels good to me, I’ll do it.”
Get this Digital Magazine Download today – click here!