Date of Interview: 06/17/2010
Auburn Williams is the lone female artist on Beluga Heights’ roster. And for this very reason, super-producer J.R. Rotem and her male companions – Jason Derülo, IYAZ, Sean Kingston, and Mann – have dubbed her as the “Princess of Beluga Heights.”
Blending the finest elements of pop and R&B, Auburn has garnered a considerable amount of underground buzz with her debut single, “La, La, La.” And with the release of her debut album, you can bet your bottom dollar that Warner Bros. will ensure that she receives the “royal treatment” – considering the massive successes attained by her label mates.
In the midst of a promotional campaign for “La, La, La,” Auburn managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on Keyshia Cole, her passion for film-making, and the influence of her cousin, J. Isaac.
Clayton Perry: According to your bio, you were raised in a “no-nonsense” household, where you only listened to Gospel music as a kid. At what point did you begin to broaden your musical palette?
Auburn: Well, I always listened to Gospel. In fact, I still do. But when I started to branch out, I only listened to artists like Aaliyah and TLC –stuff that my mom would approve of to a certain degree. Even though she really didn’t know too much about them, I knew she wouldn’t get too upset about me listening to them. So let ‘s just say that I wasn’t listening to anything crazy! [laughing] Once I started singing—at the age of twelve, when I started really recording—I was in a group that ultimately didn’t work out. When I was in that group, I was writing most of the songs. So I definitely had influences outside of the Gospel world.
Clayton Perry: As you began your solo career, did your mother have any qualms with you singing music that was not strictly Gospel?
Auburn: My mom really didn’t really have a problem with me singing secular music, because I never sang anything that contradicted who I was as a person. I was singing about real-life stuff – everything that had to do with me. And I was still talking about God. I was still talking about being a kid. And I was still having fun. So I was doing pretty much all that I am doing now, except I’m an adult! [laughing]
Clayton Perry: Well, that’s good to hear! [laughing] At least you know that your mother would not mind sitting in the front row of your show! [laughing continues] That is always a good thing. As a native of St. Paul, where do you seek or find inspiration for your music. It goes without saying that the city is not really known for being an incubator for musical talent.
Auburn: That’s really true! [laughing] Honestly, I don’t have a very good explanation for the inspiration behind my music. I don’t have a reason as to why I write the way I write, or anything like that, because all that I am is because of God. Everyone doesn’t want to hear that, you know. But I honestly don’t understand myself fully, because I know how random I am and how just all the over the place my sound is. But I know it had a lot to do with the way I grew up. I’m not putting all the inspiration off Minnesota or where I was born. But my music, for the most part, just grew with me. Any life experiences or anything that I went through, I wrote about it. I think because I wrote a lot, and because I always wanted to be so in tune with what I was writing or understand it so much, because I was so close to my music, I felt like that’s why it’s evolved and that’s why it’s the way it is now, just because I actually grew with my music. You know, it’s not the same as it was when I was sixteen. It’s not the same as it was when I was seventeen. It continues to grow with me, because I literally write about my life and what is important to me at that point in time. Granted, I have my goofy songs. I have my songs that will just make you dance. But besides those songs, the songs that I’m really talking about now, are the songs with message inside of them, or the songs that I want people to get something out of them. So, I don’t know. Hopefully, that answered your question! [laughing]
Clayton Perry: Oh, that was just fine! [laughing] you got behind the mic for the first time at age nine when your cousin J. Isaac, a well-known local singer, invited you to his home studio. What lasting influence has he had on your career?
Auburn: Oh, he’s had a tremendous influence on my life, him as well as cousins of mine that I grew up singing around. Him as well as my cousin Jeremy Bishop. When I first started making music, Jeremy [made the beats. He knew how to get a lot of stuff out of me. The thing with him and Jason [Isaac], they were always just as passionate about music as I was. So they always had some type of advice to give me – especially when it came to getting the right emotion out. J. Isaac taught me how to sing from my diaphragm, how to express my emotions vocally, and why movement was so important, even if you felt silly or even if no one could see you. Because of him, I realized how important it is to actually believe the words that you were singing. And that’s why it was so much easier for me to sing the songs that I wrote, because I knew I believed the words I was singing, and because they were my words.
Clayton Perry: As you learned all of these skills from J. Isaac, you were able to put them to good use, when you opened you opened for Keyshia Cole – performing in more than 20 cities. What on-stage experiences or back-stage memories shine bright? And what lessons did you learn from Keyshia, as you watched her perform night after night?
Auburn: Honestly, I can’t say that the lessons I learned were from watching her perform. I saw her seriousness. I saw how serious she was about music. You know, she doesn’t play. But what I did learn was, before going on the tour, beforehand, there were some people in my ear. They’d talk around me and they’d say things like, “Oh yeah, I heard that Keyshia was like this,” or, “I heard Keyshia was like that”. Understand, I’m still young. I don’t know anything. I’m coming into the door and I’m not even signed yet. So I’m just kind of eager to go. But after hearing that, I just wanted to stay out of her way. That’s the mindset that I had. The mindset for half the tour was, I don’t want to get on her bad side. I was kind of scared of her! [laughing] I was scared of her the whole time. But, this is the part that kind of squashed all that. My last show was in Atlanta. It was the last, it was the end. And at the end of my show, I went back to where she was, and she said to me, “I’m really proud of you.” And she pretty much let me know that she had been watching the show. And for her to say that, you know, with her being the headliner. She doesn’t have to watch whoever’s opening up, especially someone that nobody knows. So the fact that she was actually paying attention to the show, and then she actually had words to give me afterwards meant a lot to me. And it demolished all the big criticism that I heard about her previous to that. What I learned from that is not to listen to “he said, she said” first…
Clayton Perry: Definitely.
Auburn: …and then also not to try and sum up a person by the way that they look or the way that they present themselves. Because honestly, my family used to call me Wednesday, after the character from the Addams Family. I was never social. I never spoke to anybody. I rarely spoke to anybody. And people for a long time, they thought I was mean or they thought I was weird. But I knew how I was, and my family knew how I was. It’s just I had to learn how to show that, how to really put it off. So that tour, it just really did do a lot for me, without me knowing. So it was a really great experience.
Clayton Perry: I really find the comparison of you to Wednesday Addams to be very interesting, because I envision you to be a very vocal person. As the “The Princess of Beluga Heights,” you are the lone female in the company of so many men: Sean Kingston, Jason Derülo, IYAZ, Mann and, of course, J.R. Rotem In what ways do you hold them down – or keep them in check – behind the scenes? How do you find your own place?
Auburn: Well… [laughing] …that is the thing. Before signing with Beluga, when I actually first met Zach and Tommy, I told them—and they also, without me having to say, which surprised me—I told them that I knew who I was. Or at least, I knew who I aspired to be. I know that I only like to sing words that I believe that will not contradict anything about me. I told them that I’m very strong in my faith. I told them that I don’t sing about sex. I told them this because I wanted all of us to be on the same page. And they in turn said, “Oh, we know. That’s why we flew you out here.” They respected that I knew who I was. And I like to put that out for anyone that needs me. I like for people to know ahead of time, well, it’s not a gimmick! [laughing] I’m really me, and it just so happens that I’ve been blessed not to be in this situation. No one ever believes that someone can just literally be a normal, boring, dorky person from Minnesota, who just happens to be blessed and happens to be signed to J.R. Rotem’s label. That’s all it is. So, I really don’t have to fend for myself because literally everyone has my best interests at heart. Everyone has my back. Like I’ve been telling everybody at Beluga, it’s more of a family. It’s not really technical. It’s not, “Hey, we’re going to schedule you and so and so to do a song.” It’s not even like that. Let’s say I’m going to the studio, right? And I hit up IYAZ or vice versa, and he’s like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “Oh, nothing, going to the studio.” If he has nothing to do, if he has a day off, he’s like, “Oh, okay. Well, I’ll come, too.” And that’s how we just happen to have songs together, because we just both happen to be there. We both just spontaneously do something. The same goes with Jason, Sean and MANN. I have songs with all of them, actually. You know, it was accidental. It’s always more fun.
Clayton Perry: Is that how “La, La, La” came together?
Auburn: Yeah, actually! [laughing] And the funny thing about “La La La” is that’s the only song that I did not write. My first single is the only song that I did not write. Every other song, I wrote. [laughing continues] But IYAZ wrote that song. And you know, they called me into the studio, and they knew that I would say no if they said, “We’re using this song that you didn’t write.” [laughing] And so, what they did is, they were kind of sneaky about it. They were like being super sweet. I walked in, and Tommy and J.R., they stand up. And I’m like, “What?” Because they never stand up. You know, we’re always just really chill. And they just stand up. “Hey, Auburn, what’s up?” And I’m like, “What?” And they’re like, “Hear this song out. We really think that it has potential, and we really think it sounds like you. And you know, as soon as they told me that IYAZ wrote it, of course I’m going to listen, because me and IYAZ are super tight. So, they played it. I couldn’t hate it. I loved it. We recorded it that night. I put my flavor on it, and since then, I just fell in love with the song.
Clayton Perry: That’s a really interesting story how that all came together. Although your album is not quite finished, I had a chance to go onto your MySpace page and listen to a few tracks. Out of all the tracks, the most shocking was “Move,” which showcased your rapping skills! When I heard the line, “me plus you equals minus one hater,” I fell out laughing.
Auburn: Oh… [laughing] …most people pick up the Teyanna Taylor line! [laughing continues]
Clayton Perry: Now, I know you are not a violent woman… [laughing]
Auburn: Who? Me? [laughing]
Clayton Perry: …but I was very impressed by the range and diversity of your tracks. There are very few women who have showcased their singing and rapping talents simultaneously on the same project. Of course, there is Lauryn Hill. And Missy Elliott. Is this a trend that people should expect to continue on your debut album?
Auburn: All that I can say, for now, is that you can expect something very different. Something really “Auburn,” because, like I said, I’m very random. I don’t know how to sum me up. The best way I can sum me up is just by saying that I’m simply complicated. I’m really, really complicated, and the same goes for my sound, my music. Oftentimes, people get kind of confused. Whenever I go onto YouTube and read the comments, I see that people hear “Perfect Two” and then listen to “Move,” and they’re like: “This is the same girl? This is the same chick that sang ‘Perfect Two’?” [laughing]
Clayton Perry: Right! [laughing] I can understand the confusion! [laughing continues]
Auburn: I’m kind of all over the place, so for the album, I want to make sure I’m not too much spread out. I want to make sure it’s all pretty much put together in a way that people can understand, and they can get a better idea of me. So that’s the only reason why we don’t even have an album right now. Like we’re still working on the album. We have more than enough songs to make an album. But we’re just being really trying to make sure we do it in the right way, so that people can understand my sound a little better. So expect the album to drop really soon!
Clayton Perry: One question that was lingering in the back of my mind revolves around your strong and consistent YouTube presence. As I was watching the video for “Perfect Two,” I noticed – in the final credits – that you directed it. With everything that you have going on musically, at what point did you discover your passion for film-making?
Auburn: Well, on thing that a lot of people don’t know that about me is that I’m a dork, literally. It’s not a game. I’m literally a dork. I can sit on my laptop for days and figure out something to do. So I really love making homemade videos. I do random stuff like that. So pretty much what people are seeing is just the stuff that I randomly do when I’m bored. And it’s going to be even more amazing now, though, because I have a powerful dope label behind me, so I can work with powerful brains who are actually professional! [laughing] No more flip-cam for me! [laughing continues]
For more information on Auburn, visit her official MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/auburn