You expected to hear more from Tony Rich. In 1995, he broke onto the pop scene with thoughtful, nothing-to-hide "acoustic soul." (After overhearing the singer-musician describe his music that way in an interview, India.Arie, a friend of Rich's, used the phrase for the title of her 2001 platinum debut.) Seven years ago, Rich's first album, Words, sold more than a million copies, spurred by the monster hit "Nobody Knows." Critics loved him; he won a Grammy. And his back-to-basics, lyrically refined music presaged the "neo-soul" movement that flowered in the years after Words rocketed up the charts.
Then as quickly as he hit, Rich fell off the radar.
He had done something restless artists typically do: He followed his muse and turned in an album, Birdseye, that was more revealing, more adventurous than the first. LaFace, his record company at the time, wasn't feeling the change. The Detroit native received no support or promotion. Folks didn't even know Birdseye existed, which was reflected in bleak sales.
"When a label stands behind a record, it's gonna hit," says Rich, calling from his Atlanta home. "With Birdseye, there was a disagreement with the music. To be honest, I was ready to move on. It took about two years to get the legal stuff worked out and get my release from the contract. I didn't leave over money. I was a songwriter, so I was gonna get paid regardless. It was more over creative differences."
In the meantime, Rich, 31, concentrated his energy on producing his new release, Resurrected, which refers to his career renewal. The 15-track CD was released through Compendia, an independent label. Even after winning a Grammy and writing hits for himself, Toni Braxton, Michael Bolton, Boyz II Men and others, Rich found it hard to secure a deal. It took about three years.
He says, "That thing with getting doors slammed in your face - it's like, man, you don't how that feels until you're going through it. I had sales, I had awards. All of that didn't matter when it was time to get a new deal. I was looking for a label that would fund the project, not re-create who I am. Re-creation is up to the artist."
The fire you burn today leaves residue for tomorrow, Rich declares in the opening of "Future Daze," the lead track on Resurrected. The man is serious about making a more aggressive musical presence as guitars - acoustic and electric - scratch and wail behind his Prince-meet-Babyface vocals. That song melts into an urgent, Lenny Kravitz-like groove called "Free," which would sound right at home on an alternative rock station. As the CD moves along, Rich becomes harder to peg. The guitar-based arrangements suggest folk one minute and hard rock the next. The heavy bass lines and thumping programmed drums are akin to what you usually hear on R&B stations. But do yourself a favor and don't try to tag the dude. His influences and the sounds he produces are wildly eclectic.
"I never perceived myself as an R&B artist," Rich says, "more pop, rock, country, funk and rhythm and blues - because there's a difference between that and R&B."
Growing up in the Motor City, the singer-songwriter fell into music during his teen years. He was 15 when he took up guitar, something he says has always felt natural to him. Then he learned to play keyboards shortly afterward. Around this time, he joined a cover band and played dates on the weekends. At 17, Rich was recruited to play keys and sing background in a jazz-fusion unit. He also sang in church.
After high school graduation in 1989, Rich decided to skip college and pursue music. But nothing happened for a while. And one day in '93, his mother told him he had to leave the house. That night, a contact from Atlanta put him in touch with Dallas Austin, who, at the time, produced records for TLC and Boyz II Men. Rich's associate asked him to play a tune for Austin over the phone. The next day, Rich was on a plane to Atlanta.
He was signed to LaFace as a staff writer and producer, positions he maintained for nearly two years before releasing Words.
Although the relationship with the label soured just after he had proven himself as a talented, viable artist, Rich says he isn't bitter about the situation. He has learned, evolved and moved on.
"The way all this happened makes me think it was meant to be," Rich says. "A sacrifice had to be made. A time of absence had to occur in order for the resurrection to be complete. It just makes too much sense."