Ruben Studdard gets personal on 'Letters From Birmingham'
In the nearly nine years since Ruben Studdard beat out Clay Aiken for the “American Idol” title on the show's second season, his career has mostly avoided the seeming “Idol” curse that has plagued some of the show’s biggest voices.
The charming singer -- whose Luther Vandross-inflected vocals and cuddly size earned him the moniker of the "Velvet Teddy Bear" -- has steadily released a slew of gold- and platinum-selling discs and dabbled in acting, starring in the musicals "Ain't Misbehavin'" and “Heaven I Need a Hug.”
The 33-year-old hasn’t been immune to the pitfalls of fame itself, however, with his personal life garnering more than its fair share of ink. In November, he filed for divorce from his wife of three years, he’s shifted labels a few times, and at the moment his alleged troubles with the IRS have received more press coverage than his new album. Despite the scuffs, Studdard remains the same affable and humble Alabama-bred boy who used his gospel-rooted baritone to charm 24 million Americans into crowning him the “Idol” champ back in 2003.
The singer has chronicled the ups and downs of his not-so-private life on his fifth album, "Letters from Birmingham," which was released on Tuesday. The revealing disc serves as his debut for indie imprint Shanachie Records.
Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Studdard takes the concept record approach by tracing a whirlwind relationship from its early beginnings of courtship, marriage and its eventual dissolution -- interspersing spoken-word love letters in between.
“Birmingham,” though largely grounded in 1970s and '80s soul balladry and up-tempo R&B, offers a few surprises including a deft cover of Bobby Brown’s “Rock Wit’cha.” On Studdard's divorce anthem, “June 28th (I'm Single)” -– the title pulled from his wedding date -- he reinterprets the “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” standard “Pure Imagination,” effortlessly transforming it into a quiet storm bedroom romp.
Studdard spoke with Pop & Hiss about getting personal (on record) and longevity long after “Idol.”
The most important thing to me is, I’ve never really been transparent with my fans at all. People have always asked what was going on with me or what happened and I kind of … my music has always been surface and I wanted to be different. I wanted to be able to connect with my fans on a personal level and let them know what’s going on with me … and do great songs. Not only were they personal but I wanted them to be at a level where getting personal wouldn’t matter.
You’ve thrived in both soul/R&B and gospel. Where do you think you fit in the landscape of today’s music?
I’m fitting wherever people like great music. People have really been responding to this single. The next song, which I hope will be “Love Skies,” I think the people are going to gravitate to it because everything [on the radio] is so synthesized. I think the more adult crowd will really gravitate toward this album.
Creatively, did you snag some new collaborations for this record?
On the production side, I worked with one producer and one writer. I worked with Harold Lilly [Alicia Keys, Monica, Brandy] and Elvis Williams [Beyonce, Usher, Fergie]. Harold and I have been friends for the past nine years and I’ve been wanting to work with him on a complete album since we started together on my first album [Lilly has four credits on Studdard’s debut, “Soulful”]. It came together exactly how we wanted it to.
I asked Kelly Clarkson this same question, but it seems a great deal of winners and runners-up on “American Idol” have been plagued with a career curse. What do you think you’ve done to maintain longevity in this industry?
Firstly, I think I have God’s favor. I’ve been blessed because there are a lot of great singers out there that didn’t make it past their first album. I’ve really been blessed to be in this position. Secondly, I think because I really pour my heart out in these songs and I really mean it, people can feel it. Especially with this album, people are going to feel me on this album. Kelly Clarkson does the same thing. If you ever hear her sing, she’s really going in on it. She’s not just singing a record to sing it.
Since you won “Idol” in 2003, it seems there’s an exhaustive list of similar shows looking to find superstars. What’s it like to look back on what the show did for you and see these compeitions now?
I’m always excited to see somebody get that opportunity to live their dream. I know how hard it was for me, prior to winning at 24 and getting to where I wanted to go. I went to school for 3-1/2 years as a vocal music education major and I had been trying my whole life to get to the point where I’m at right now. It was only because of “American Idol” that I reached that plateau. I’m always happy for people when I see God blessing them the way he’s blessed me.
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photo: Ruben Studdard. Credit: Shanachie Records