Singer-songwriter Brenda Russell was chuckling about conventionalism the other day at lunch.
Her career has been unconventional. So was her marriage. So are the songs she writes--particularly her hit single "Piano in the Dark," from her album "Get Here," on A&M; Records.
"I don't try to be different," Russell said. "It works against you in this business. With me, it just happens. I just do things and they're different. I follow my instincts. Maybe I'd be more successful in my business and my private life if I did things like everybody else. But I just feel like I'm different from everybody else."
Some of the people in the casual Westwood cafe, crowded mainly with students, probably felt it too. No one else there was dressed so elegantly. Certainly no one else there had a limousine waiting outside.
Russell, who's affable and very low-key, had stopped in Westwood for a snack--a mountainous hamburger--and an interview on her way to the airport. Since "Piano in the Dark"--No. 14 on the pop chart and a candidate for the Top 10--is also breaking in Europe, she was flying there on a 9-day promotional tour.
A Brooklyn native who's been singing and composing since she was a toddler, Russell wrote most of the lyrics for "Piano in the Dark," a moody ballad about a troubled relationship, featuring vocal support from Joe Esposito. Co-written with Jeff Hull and Scott Cutler, it's the kind of mature, literate tune that rarely makes it to the Top 20. When's the last time you heard a hit pop ballad that ends with a lingering, wistful piano solo?
Russell's sexy, warmly expressive vocals are just right on that single. Strangely, though, she doesn't think of herself as a good singer. "I've always been insecure about my singing," she said. "That's why I've focused so much on my songwriting."
She's insecure about her age too. "I don't tell people how old I am," she said. "I don't want to be judged on my age."
Though she's worked as a background singer in concerts, Russell is frightened at the thought of starring in her own shows--a possibility now that she has a hit record:
"I need more confidence in my singing before I do a solo show. Being a background singer is one thing, but being on stage as the star is something else again. When you walk out there with all those people staring at you, it's like you're naked to the world. And I hate being criticized. There's so much I have to get used to."
Though she's not well-known to the pop masses, other songwriters and industry personnel are very aware of Russell. She doesn't have a string of hits but she does have impressive songwriting credentials. Roberta Flack and Earth, Wind & Fire, among others, have recorded her songs.
Last year, Donna Summer recorded Russell's clever "Dinner With Gershwin," which did well in England but was just a minor hit here. Apparently, the song--which suffered from excessive production and Summer's outcast status in some radio circles--did more for Russell's career than it did for Summer.
"It turned a lot of people on to me as a songwriter," Russell said. "It put me back in the spotlight."
Russell had some success with her first solo album, 1979's "Brenda Russell," featuring the single "So Good, So Right," but had no luck with her three '80s albums--all on different labels. One, recorded in Sweden in 1984, was never released in this country.
She credits A&M; artist and executive Herb Alpert with her current success: "He used one of my songs ('No Time for Time') on his (1985) 'Wild Romance' album and asked me to sing lead on one song. I also sang some background vocals and did some other writing for the album. At the end of '86 it was Herb who signed me to A&M; again."
It was also Alpert, she revealed, who pushed to have "Piano in the Dark" released as a single.
"They were going to put out another song called 'Gravity' as the first single. It was up-tempo and more like the kind of commercial song that would be a first single. But before they put it out, Herb said they should go with 'Piano in the Dark.' He said it showed more the kind of artist I am--that I'm not just another R&B; artist. He said he felt something about the song--that it was different and special."
Possibly the most unconventional thing Russell has ever done was to marry white singer-songwriter Brian Russell in the '70s. They wrote together and worked as a vocal duet--both as background singers and on their own albums. Though respected, they never achieved much popular recognition. Their two albums on Rocket Records, though full of good material, didn't get much air play.
Russell didn't have any horror stories about overt racial discrimination. "While we were together, there weren't any great racial problems," she recalled.
But, Russell said, she found out after the marriage ended in the late '70s that they were victims of covert discrimination--particularly by radio.
"After we split up, I heard that a lot of people weren't ready for an interracial couple singing together and having babies together," she said. "Apparently, that was part of the reason we weren't accepted. Radio people were a big part of the problem. They couldn't accept us. It's a shame people have to be that way. It's a shame they couldn't have judged us just on our music."
She and her ex-husband have an 11-year-old daughter who splits time between them. Her daughter is a sore point. Russell would like to spend more time with her:
"She's been mostly living with Brian. That's a very painful thing I go through all the time. I'm separated from her too much because of work. I hate that. I can sympathize with all those mothers who don't have enough time for their kids because of work. Kids don't really understand why you're not around. This really tears at me. It's so upsetting that I even hate to think about it."