The video for Dionne Farris’ first single, “I Know,” has landed in MTV’s “Buzz Bin.”
For an emerging pop artist like Farris, the steady national exposure that entails is like being given a free hotel in one of the better neighborhoods on a Monopoly board: It’s no guarantee you’ll win the game and collect millions, but it sure doesn’t hurt your chances.
Farris, however, was not entirely buzzed when she first heard that MTV was playing it. To her, the version of the video that first aired last week didn’t seem finished. In fact, as she spoke by phone last week from Seattle, the second stop on a tour that brings her to the Galaxy Concert Theatre on Friday, Farris said that she wanted the clip for “I Know” pulled out of MTV’s bin so that footage showing a lighter side of her personality could be restored to the final cut.
“Some things are missing, some of the craziness I do,” said Farris, a poised, affable woman of 26 whose modest goal it is to transform the shape of contemporary R & B music.
Farris, whose rich voice was first heard in 1992 adding gospel-soul embroidery to Arrested Development’s hit single “Tennessee,” aims to restore some of the depth, variety and songwriting artistry that were once hallmarks of R & B.
With occasional exceptions such as Prince and Terrence Trent D’Arby, those qualities have been largely missing from the genre since the rise of disco and techno-funk, the death of Marvin Gaye and the end of Stevie Wonder’s amazing artistic hot streak of the 1970s.
Farris’ first solo album, “Wild Seed--Wild Flower,” is a strong bid to reassert the greatness oB past while moving forward with a sparkling, contemporary sound.
“I Know” is a terrific start. It has the bluesy slide guitar sass of Bonnie Raitt, the kind of rich, inventively arranged construction that Lindsey Buckingham used to bring to some of Fleetwood Mac’s R & B-influenced songs, and hip-hop rhythmic currents that kick the song into the pop present.
Most artists would be thrilled to get any version of a video into MTV’s “Buzz Bin,” which means special emphasis, with multiple plays each day. But Farris wasn’t about to let herself be presented in a way she thought was incomplete. She wanted the video to reveal some quirks, and not just “all the pretty shots of my face.”
“I’m not trying to be anal or stubborn, but this is my chance to present who I am,” she said. “With the business being so fickle nowadays, I may never get another shot. . . . I don’t plan to not be here; one of my goals is to have longevity and be true to myself. I’m a fighter, so I don’t give up.”
(In fact, a few days after the interview, a Columbia Records spokesperson reported that the video had been re-edited to meet Farris’ specifications; it remains in “Buzz Bin” rotation on MTV.)
Farris’ determination to present a well-rounded portrait of herself, rather than a glossy, salable surface, is evident from her album cover. It’s a sepia-toned photograph of the singer that depicts her sitting in a weathered-looking rocking chair made of rough-hewn wood. Her posture is bent, her hair is clipped tight to the scalp, and she is wearing jeans, clunky boots and an oversize flannel shirt that engulfs her tiny frame.
Farris says the shot, taken on her front porch in Atlanta when she was on the brink of landing her deal with Columbia Records, reminded her of the feelings of anticipation and uncertainty and the mood of deep reflection that came over her as she realized she was about to take a major step in pursuing her life’s work.
"(The cover) doesn’t say, ‘This is an R & B kind of record,’ or any other kind of record,” she said. “It makes you ponder, and wonder what’s going on.”
The music inside demands some pondering from a listener, but it also is rich in the pleasurB--an expansive vision of R & B that also incorporates rock, jazz, blues and folk influences. If Farris’ music sounds like a challenge to her genre’s drift toward hormonally driven blatancy, swooning, suffocatingly perfumed boudoir music and artless message-mongering, that is precisely how she intends it.
Raised in Plainfield, N.J., Farris got a strong musical grounding, singing in funk bands and absorbing the gospel sound in church. At 20, though, she found herself becalmed in post-adolescent uncertainty, which led to friction with her mother over whether Farris should get a job instead of lying around the house.
Feeling the need for a change, she moved to Atlanta, where her father lives. There, she established contacts on the city’s active rap and R & B scene and made her way as a free-lance vocalist working with several different acts.
One of them was Arrested Development, which recruited her as an adjunct member. But just as Arrested Development was becoming a sensation, Farris left, eager to pursue a solo career.
Farris found a strong musical ally in guitarist David Harris, of the band Follow for Now. She set to work with Harris and a crew of other writers who provided musical settings for her lyrics.
As she contemplated a solo career late in 1992, Farris said, “One of the conscious efforts I made was to sit down and listen to the radio. I knew (what she was hearing on R & B stations) wasn’t what I wanted to do. I thought, ‘We (black artists) are just saying a lot of jargon; we’re not talking about anything, we’re in limbo. We need to remember Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’ to remember Stevie Wonder and his great works.’ I wanted to work along those lines, to have some thought processes, some creativity.”
She followed through with an album of wide-ranging musical references and varied structures. The music and production support a voice that commands many hues and can convey a true-to-life mixture of contradictory feelings.
The album came out in November; Farris and her five-member band embarked last week on their first extended tour. After the two-month trek, she should have a better idea whether the mass market will also understand where she’s coming from.
Farris says she has been encouraged by the recent arrival of such like-minded, multifaceted artists as Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Des’ree and Carleen Anderson, who have emphasized songwriting and sought to escape the slick, cookie-cutter textures, incessantly repeated hooks, unambitious themes and shallow lyrics of formula R & B.
Farris says that in visits to some R & B stations, she has encountered predictable resistance.
“We went to one station, and the programmer said, ‘I love the record, but I can’t play it--it’s not our format.’ She said it had too much guitar in it. I said, ‘What about all these people who are re-sampling ‘70s music with guitar? Ohio Players, Sly & the Family Stone, Isley Brothers.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand, it’s not about me; it’s about us as a community, and how you’re keeping us narrow and pigeonholed. You have the power to expand it.’ ”
“I know it’s going to be hard,” Farris said. “It’s not what the format is. (But) somebody has to say, ‘This is ours, and we have to claim it as such.’ ”
* Dionne Farris and Mesh of Mind play Friday at 8 p.m. at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. $13.50. (714) 957-0600. Hear Dionne Farris
* To hear a sample of the album “Wild Seed--Wild Flower,” call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5580.