February 13, 2013

Leon Ware: Soldier of Love

By Etan Rosenbloom & Cassandra Momplaisir

Leon Ware

Leon Ware photo by Robert Adam Mayer

This Valentine’s Day, Paris will be blessed with a live performance from songwriter, producer and performer Leon Ware. Who knows what those Parisians’ evenings will bring after the show. If this ASCAP soul legend has his way though, it’ll be the kind of thing that isn’t polite to talk about in public.

From his classic songs during Motown’s heyday (Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” is his, as is Marvin Gaye’s entire I Want You album) to his beloved solo records on to the countless artists that have sampled his work, Ware’s music has been getting people in the mood – nay, defining what the mood is – for well over four decades now.

We spoke with Ware at a great point in his career, knee deep into a new album and readying a long-simmering children’s book and animated series, Safari Blue. In our wide-ranging interview, the 73-year-old didn’t mince words about the current state of the music industry and the world at large. But what came through more than anything was his wisdom and unending love of love, in all its forms – romance, compassion, lust, and of course, music.


2012 marked the 40th anniversary of your self-titled debut album. What do you remember about those years?

1972. The '70s were probably my most productive years, as far as making notable records. They were all done under a bit of a cloud. The '70s were very heavily mixed with substances, and it was a very wild time for myself and a lot of people I worked with. I don’t know anybody that didn’t love the times. It was so creative, along with the dancing and the wild life, but you know, that was the joy that we were getting from what we were doing. It was a very good period.

Was there a sense that you and your collaborators were doing something new with soul and R&B?

I knew that I was doing something new. I was constantly on the edge of saying things that then were definitely prohibited. It was this so-called “screening” that you had to be aware of what you said. I liked that, because I still do say things that make people a little uncomfortable. But not uncomfortable in a bad way. It’s just that they’ll ask themselves, “He didn’t really say that, did he?” 

What kind of prohibited things do you mean?

Sensual remarks. I’m quite explicit when it comes to saying certain things at certain times, but I won’t do that now. I do it, but I think age is teaching me to be a little bit more discrete. I don’t think that I’m ever gonna be unrecognizable as far as my attitude where sensuality is concerned, sex is concerned, romance is concerned...if you wanna call it the whole picture. As far as love is concerned, you can count me in. I’m one of the soldiers that is happy to live, dedicate, devote and spend my whole life as a servant of love.

What about sonically? When I listen to your first record and what came just a few years later with I Want You and Musical Massage, they sound almost like different strains of the same music.

From 1970 to 1980, I would say from [Michael Jackson’s] “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” when I met Quincy [Jones], which was two or three years later, I was starting to write a little different. Actually the song that he loves, the reason that we got together first, was “If I Ever Lose This Heaven.”

That song is considered as much of a jazz song as it is an R&B song. I like that because I straddled the fence of being an R&B / jazz writer for the past 50 years. The fact is, I love jazz so much that I think I instinctively leaned towards chords that were not R&B chords. Now 50 years later, more young writers and people are doing it. I don’t say that I was the first, but I was one of the first. As things grow, just to say you were part of the party is fine with me.

You’ve said in previous interviews that “I love learning and I’m looking into new things.” What are the new things you’re focusing on musically?

I’m hungry. My love for it keeps my appetite hungry. I don’t know that I’m really ever satiated, but I love what I’m doing. Classical is still a very big love of mine, I listen to it everyday, have for many years. Some pop music and some R&B, not as much as I would love to…I think it’s a lack of color that younger writers are putting into their work, due to the demands that the times put on them. They’re restricted to be as deep as they could be, because the times that we’re living in now don’t call for it. They’re not looking for anything of real depth.

It’s unfortunate, but it’s not like this decade is short of brilliant minds. It’s short of people that respect brilliant minds. And each year into the decade that we’re in, it seems we go further away from the passion, the honor, the respect that art itself is supposed to get, and it’s not getting it. We used to be intimidated, motivated and inspired by our peers. Let’s put it like this: the mindset is so different, because writers aren’t asked to write songs that other people are going to sing.

That’s not because the writers couldn’t write it. They’re not being challenged. They’re not being asked. If there were just a street, so to speak, or a station or a mindset of people that strictly stayed on giving kids a look down this road that tells them why they should be passionate, why they should really dig in. What’s the true power of being an artist? It is not accolade. It’s when you have someone listen or look, or be involved with your art and they cry. They close their eyes and they take all in with them and they live with it.

I keep my wants and desires, because that [which] drives me, and will continue to drive me until I transist, is never gonna subside. It’s never gonna die. It doesn’t lessen by what’s going on out there, because it started in here. ::points to heart:: This is where it lives at and this is where it grows.

I haven’t had to concern myself about writing a good piece. I think my concern has been being smart enough to know who to talk to, know who to do business with. Then the other side of me, as they say, [is that] I’m also very idealistic. A lot of the things that I do are my ideas. Whether it makes me money or not. Most of them have not made me money.

Do you think that that’s the path every artist should follow?

No, I think that every artist should follow their heart. That [which] drives them spiritually, intellectually, and better yet, sensually. I say “better yet sensually” because my work is totally embodied by saying something romantic. I feel like that is a service that you could never pay the amount that that’s worth. The world could never more appreciate, more respect the work that people do to make you put your arms around somebody. Or not “make you,” but be that allure, that elixir, that moment, that atmosphere that not only turns you on but turns anybody on that’s listening to it.

Again, I’m glad that most of who Leon Ware is comes from inside. I don’t look to the world to make me arrive at a smile, to add to the hunger that I have to say things that are gonna be useful. Because as Quincy said, “It’s one thing to be driven. It’s another thing to stay hungry,” to want to want to turn that next page, even before it wasn’t suppose to be turned.

There were years where you weren’t as successful as you thought you should have been. You seem to have a different definition of success now. Can you talk about how your definition of success, a piece of music’s success, has evolved over time?

The mindset of the era that we’re in now, from movies, to literature, songwriting, artists themselves, is to do things. I wouldn’t say that it isn’t to do things that will be kept, but we as a public have seemingly thrown away the writers that supply us with our loves, our hates, our tears and our happiness. We’ve said “Hey, don’t dig deep, give us a bump and a grind and we’re fine.” That sucks, man. Because the essence and the beauty and the depth that comes out of writers that lead the human spirit into the other level is being damaged and it’s being polluted.

Whose responsibility is it to try and change that?

Anyone’s! Its not anyone’s doing or undoing. We are a changing species, the world is changing, we are gonna be doing things, we gonna be doing some s**tty things. For the past ten years, I don’t think it’s been s**tty, but close to it ::laughs::

Hopefully [there are] many that are not deterred. In fact I consider the challenge of my life right now to stay alive and to say and do things that the young ones can embrace and will embrace, and in embracing it, will help others to embrace it. We haven’t taken the step into the future as far as I’m concerned. We’ve kind of allowed apathy to step in, and allowed the pursuit of a dollar to be the most important thing. I think the pursuit of money has definitely destroyed the pursuit of art.

Is there anything you’re delighted to see about how music creators operate today?

What we’re doing is kind of circular, and we grow from the circles sometimes, and sometimes we go back. What I see happening presently, and I’m really happy about, is that now you can have an artist sit in the middle of an audience of 2000 with a guitar, and not have to have all the other stuff around, and have them really listen. They’re going back to really listening to people again.

Now you can do what I’m gonna be doing, a lot of onstage [performing] in the coming months. The only reason why I haven’t done it [more] is because the quality of listeners wouldn’t embrace me doing something that would call on them to actually listen. So I’m somewhat compelled to do a show that has the bump and grind. I don’t mind it, but like I’ve said to my wife, most of the clubs that I’ve appeared in aren’t clubs where I could do a half an hour show where I sit at the piano just by myself and sing, even though I’d love to do that and I’m good at that. That’s Leon Ware’s gift to the world.

You just mentioned how you love just sitting at a piano, singing and playing that way. Is that how a lot of your songs come together? Just you at your piano?

Ninety percent of them. I’ve never practiced writing a song any one particular way. I like being spontaneous. I could write a song walking down the street, in the kitchen, sitting on the toilet stool, in the bathroom, in the shower. I’ve not restricted myself. Understand this: the one thing that I appreciate about rappers, especially in freestyle when they do say something that’s meaningful, [is that] that means there’s a card inside that’s waiting to be dealt. And if we really know how to get that out of us, we gonna be saying or doing something that the world that listens to us, that we are servicing, is gonna love so dearly. As I say to my wife and friends of mine, the reason why I will never corral myself into a routine is because it will keep me from being branded. Which in some peoples’ minds is slightly insane. ::laughs:: 

When you hear my next album, there’s a song on it. I played it for three people and two of them cried. It’s because it’s so endearing. It’s called “You Know Me.” When I hear it, I cry. I cry a lot anyway. When I’m really into either a romantic mood, or know that I’m saying something that when whoever hears it, it’s gonna touch them, that gets me off, man. I swear, that gets me off.

There are so many artists over the last 20 or 30 years who sampled or covered your work. How does it feel to have your music re-contextualized, re-recorded in a way that you never could have envisioned?

When it’s done like some of it has been done, I’m happy, especially [with] the checks that I get. But before the check, I always feel like some of the work that’s been done –from Tupac to Prince to Jay-Z to different people that sample — I feel like they’ve at least taken the dust off of the work. As far as where they take the piece of work versus where I would like them to be, it’s two different things. I kind of like the fact that it’s so far away from where I would’ve been. It’s a good thing.

We have turned down some works that were, I would say, not only in bad taste, but just uncomplimentary, even to the artist themselves. As I was always taught, If you say something nasty to someone, you had to come from a nasty place to get there. I feel like you have to watch what you say, and where you’re coming from, because it can make you just as bad as the things that you say you’re against. I’m probably as guilty as any other human on the planet. I do have an eraser on my desk, so… ::laughs::

Tell me about the most magical moment you remember writing a song.

When I wrote the song “I Want You,” my son had just been born. My daughter was three years old, and I cried so hard. It’s because it meant so much to me. Not so much that it was gonna be a hit, because I didn’t know it was gonna be a hit. But what I was saying, and how I was saying it, and where I was coming from and some of the words, it’s like… you could say a phrase that can mean your life, but the phrase doesn’t really tell the story. I’m good at that. It’s my lack of knowledge as far as grammar, or words is concerned. But timing, which we all live with, is probably my challenge and somewhat of a gift. Because I don’t allow myself to be corralled into what I want to say. I might be somewhat corralled in how I wanna say it, I do know that.

I’ve spent a large part of my life, probably from 24 to now, being glad that I was doing what I’m doing and I definitely like being different. I’m called different, the way I play the piano is different. I spend more of my time alone – not lonely, alone – and I have people in my life that love and live, and we’re very close in the way we look at the world. Me and my wife are very much in love and we’ll probably expire together, but as far as being, we’re very different. And I think that’s the one thing that keeps us together. She’s constantly threatening to leave me, because I’m such a whack. I understand that, but I give her a medal for hanging in there. ::laughs::

You’re putting your final touches on your new album. Do you have a name for it?

Its called Liquid Carpet.

The wateriness of that title sort of connects with your long-in-the-works children’s book and animated series, Safari Blue.

Well most things sort of connect with Safari Blue, because anything that’s wet… ::laughs::

What can we expect and not expect from Liquid Carpet?

Every day I grow more and more in love with the theme of this [album]. I’m doing three songs that are great pieces of music. Not my pursuit of anything other than that...because this whole album is gonna be about the ability to write a really good song. Not going after the marketplace. I’m not concerned about what anybody’s gonna say. I do know this: writers around the world will listen, and they’ll shake their head. It’ll be a “yes” album.

I got three songs, out of the nine or 10 that I’m gonna do, that are probably some of the best work that I’ve done as a writer. And I’m really sticky. I challenge myself in this way: You cannot sing any song that I’ve had a hit on over the other. I don’t copy myself. The only thing that I’m consistent on is my chords. My chords are similar so, when I finish with each song, I check out whether it’s close to the next song and the melody that’s over it. If I write 20 chords, 20 times, all 20 will be from a different place. They’re the same chords but different.

What rappers do for writers around the world – and if any writers are listening to me now, listen to this: first, they take the dust off of a piece of work. Then you ask me, “How do I feel about their interpretation of where they take a particular part?” The advantage of that is that in answering, [you’re discovering] how to expand your world. Turn your pages over to two or three different people and let them run with it. That’s how you change and embrace your world. Then you’ll get three or four different ideas that’ll help you grow. Most people don’t think like that, but they will. We can turn each other on; we can help each other grow. Just open the door, so that we’re not corralled and we’re constantly telling people. What’s this phrase they’re using, “think outside the box?” ::laughs::


Visit Leon Ware on the web at www.leonware.com

Like Leon Ware on Facebook: www.facebook.com/leonwaremuz

Follow Leon Ware on Twitter: @leonwaremuz