A 20-YEAR MUSICAL PARTNERSHIP AND THE ALBUM THAT ALMOST DIDN’T HAPPEN
It’s what nearly every musician wants, yet only a handful get to experience. And it isn’t fame, although that can prove elusive to all but the most talented and hard-working few.
It’s getting to create under their own terms, doing it the way they want to do it, driven only by their love of making music. Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds have done that in their latest collaboration, and the result is their album of duets, Love, Marriage & Divorce.
With a 20-year musical partnership that has sold over 60 million records and includes 16 Grammy Awards between them, it would seem Braxton and Edmonds wouldn’t have trouble recording an album together anytime they wanted to do one. In reality, the much- anticipated album nearly didn’t happen, as Braxton had considered dropping out of music altogether. Luckily, she was talked back into it. “A very important person in my life, Kenny … Babyface … he called me and said, ‘We need to talk.’ And he talked some sense into me. It took a second, though, because I was dead set on, ‘No, I’m not doing it.’ I had fallen out of love with it. Didn’t mean to, I’m not even sure when it happened. I just — I didn’t want to hear songs on the radio. I didn’t want to watch any of the award shows. I just wanted to be away from music. I wanted out. I wanted it out of my life. He said, ‘Toni, you know it’s okay to feel this way. Every artist has gone through this, but you can’t give up. Stop thinking of the business. Stop thinking of the dollars. Stop thinking of being number one. Just perform and be an artist again. Remember that feeling you had when you first used to perform and how it gave you life? Think of that feeling.’ So, it worked.”
Heading to Edmonds’ studio, Brandon’s Way Recording in Los Angeles, they started work on the album and their great working relationship started back immediately. The familiar feeling of collaboration was there, as Edmonds says. “The nice surprise was that from the moment Toni started singing, it was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ So we had an ‘Oh, my God’ moment in the very beginning. Sometimes you’ve got to wait for ‘Oh, my God’ somewhere in the middle of the recording. But it happened from the get-go, so I think it made the process a lot of fun. It was work as well. In terms of the freedom that we had this time, we weren’t concerning ourselves with whatever the trend was on radio.”
“On this particular project we went with what felt good.” Braxton adds, “We were trying to tell a story as well, but we didn’t want to try to get on the bandwagon. We try and narrate what we were feeling personally with Love, Marriage & Divorce through our voices, our songs. Sometimes, you have a theme … let’s stick with the theme. We got off-track sometimes, but it worked. It was good. It was even better that we got off-track.”
For the recording itself, the goal was capturing the creative magic that was happening in the room. Edmonds explains a bit about the process from behind the board. “We have the SSL there, the Duality. These days you’re doing—there’s outboard gear that we use, still—but for the most part that goes to Pro Tools and then programming. I like Logic, myself. I’ve been doing it that way. Used to be on the MPC 60. Every now and then I’ll mess with that, but for the most part I deal with Logic and send it over to Pro Tools.” Technology aside, it was still really about capturing the emotion of the performances for him. “Our goal is, whatever we do, just let’s make sure it feels good. That’s our threshold: feel good. So it gave us a freedom to be adventurous in that way and not have to worry about certain benchmarks that you have to hit. Every now and then, we’d mess around with something that might have been more trendy and, whether it made it or not, the reality is, we could. We had the freedom to do it. If we didn’t want to, we didn’t have to.”
With the tracks completed, Braxton and Edmonds began to play a few live performances. While Edmonds was performing constantly up until the album, it was Braxton’s first time back on stage after a fairly long break and she was a little uncomfortable at first, as she explains. “What’s really odd, our first performance for this project was on Jay Leno and I was so nervous. I’m not usually nervous when I perform. Maybe the first five seconds and as soon as I get to the mic, I’m fine, but I was—my palms were sweaty the whole entire performance. He kept holding my hand while we were singing this song. But it made me feel good that you’re human—reminded me that it’s okay to feel these feelings. I don’t want to get set and so, ‘Oh, it’s what I do.’ You want to have that newness, that greenness to it.” One of her earliest memories as a performer was on a T.V. program as well, although for a different reason. “My first performance ever on stage as a professional … I remember that feeling and when I was on the show I … couldn’t wear underwear … and that was my intro to the music business. Sometimes you wear these tight dresses and underwear is not your friend. It’s not a good look. You get talked about. So that’s how I was introduced to the music business: on Arsenio Hall, no underwear, sing the song, try to not think about not having underwear on and—yeah, from that point on I said, ‘I’m going to wear dresses that will allow me to wear underwear.’”
With an upcoming tour, Edmonds reflects on his first few times on stage as well. “I hid behind the guitar. The guitar was like my security blanket. The very first time I went on stage, I did not have a guitar and so I didn’t know what to do with myself. So once I had a guitar, it actually grounded me … kind of became my voice.” While he made a home for himself on stage eventually, he still looks at his performances very much like he did as he was starting out. “It’s never taken for granted. I’m always a little nervous. I might not act nervous, but I never think, ‘Okay, I’m going to go out here and we’re going to kill them, it’s going to be a great show.’ I never say that. In fact, I don’t let the band ever say that, because every time they’ve ever said, ‘Oh, we’re going to knock it down,’ all of a sudden, you’re going to have a bad night.” He laughs. “You have to give 100 percent every single time, because when you don’t, the audience isn’t with you. There’s nothing like when the audience is with you. That’s the best feeling in the world—when everybody’s with you and they’re up in there singing your songs. That’s … it’s a little hard to beat that particular feeling.”
To Braxton, working with Edmonds is like coming back to where it all began, as she says, “Feels great. Kenny’s been on every single album of mine, with the exception of Pulse. I mean … obviously he’s supposed to be in my life, always.” And, of course, Edmonds is happy to work with the woman he encouraged to sing again. “There’s not going to be another Toni Braxton that’s going to pop up. There are voices that happen. So you’ve got Whitney and you’ve got ‘Retha, and you’ve got people that have—I’m not just talking about great singers—people that have unique voices. From the moment that you hear it, you know who it is. And that’s Toni.”
With a new album and a new beginning, Braxton recalls another starting point: the time she felt she wanted to become a musician. “I was about 7 years old, in church. Music was always around. I knew I wanted to play … I didn’t know that I could sing … but I remember music affecting me in that way. I knew it was something I would always want to do. When you’re a kid in church, everyone would encourage you to play and sing. Everyone would commend you—whether you were good or not. I think that gave me the confidence to be the performer that I am today.” Edmonds had a different experience. “I didn’t quite grow up in the church. My brother came into the house with an acoustic guitar. He was playing something I couldn’t figure out—he was right-handed and I was left-handed— I spent all my time trying to figure out that little lick because it was just so cool to me. Once I picked up that guitar and started playing it, I didn’t want to put it down. “
Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds are making the final preparations for an extensive tour in support of Love, Marriage & Divorce. The culmination of their 20 years of work together, the live show will feature the two artists doing what they truly love to do: make music on their own terms. “I think what’s unique is that it’s both of us together.” As Braxton says, “An hour-and-a-half performance and you get to hear all the music that we’ve done separately as performers, as well as songs we’re collaborating together on this album.”