Des'ree (Contemporary Musicians)
British vocalist and songwriter Des'ree captured U.S. pop and contemporary rhythm and blues audiences in July of 1994 at the age of 25 with the hypnotically upbeat Top Five hit single "You Gotta Be." The song was featured on her second album, I Ain't Movin', which eventually achieved platinum status. In addition to attracting an enthusiastic audience, the song's success led to an offer from filmmakers Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese to contribute a single to the soundtrack for their motion picture Clockers, as well as to a guest spot on the television show Saturday Night Live.
Des'ree's music has sometimes been categorized as folk/soul since her sound fluctuates between soft and sultry, pensive and thoughtful, and smoothly soulful. Des'ree blends Caribbean rhythms with American R&B, flamenco, hip-hop, and English pop to create a unique musical representation of her own musical tastes and life experience in Barbados and England. Her music has been deemed not "black enough" for extensive airplay on black radio stations in the United States, a charge that has rankled the singer. She told Musician magazine, "I find it very hard when people say 'You're not black enough for black radio.'... The fact that I'm not like everyone else, don't you see that as a challenge?"
Early Love of Music
Des'ree was born Desiree Weekes in 1970 in London, England, and was exposed to a wide array of music as a child. Reggae, pop, and jazz were all played in her home, and she began taking piano lessons at the age of three. She later took up the viola and abandoned piano lessons in favor of singing, writing poems, and composing music. By the time she was 13, she was writing poetic lyrics and chords. Specific early influences for Des'ree include a diverse group of musicianstevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, Gil Scott-Heron, and Joan Armatrading.
When Des'ree was ten years old, her family moved to Barbados, and during her three-year stay on the island, the youngster was exposed to soca, calypso, and dub music. Her parents separated there, an event that caused Des'ree to briefly question her faith in human nature, and she moved back to London with her mother and sister after the divorce. Her time in Barbados exposed her to an uplifting and powerful tradition: black pride and black accomplishment. This pervasive feeling in Barbados of strength and optimism is evident in Des'ree's songs.
At the age of 16 Des'ree took a demo tape to a major record company just to test the waters. She told People magazine's Jennifer Mendelsohn that by the time she returned home, someone from the label had already called to set up a meeting. However, she decided "the time wasn't right" and waited until six years passedhen she was 22 and working at a health food storeefore she tried sending out a demo tape again.
The success of her breakthrough album, Mind Adventures, can partially be attributed to positive thinking. In interviews she repeatedly describes herself as spiritual and a believer in the power and effectiveness of daily affirmations. Des'ree told Entertainment Weekly's Michele Romero, "I woke up one morning with an oddly positive feeling and I told my manager to send my demo over to the chap who signed [pop singer] Terence Trent D'Arby.... Only he would understand my music." Her intuition proved correct when three days later, she was signed by Sony 550/Epic, even though she was very young and had no connections in the music industry.
Ashley Ingram of the British soul trio Imagination told Musician's Barney Hoskyns that he remembered when CBS (now Sony) artisits and repertoire (A&R) representative Lincoln Elias first thought of signing Des'ree. "[Elias] played me a very rough demo of the song that later became 'Feel So High.' It's not often that a singer can present a demo tape and expect the powers-that-be to acknowledge the full wonders, but on a creative level she shone. She leapt out of the cassette."
When "Feel So High" was first played on British radio, Hoskyns wrote, "it sounded like a young [contemporary jazz/R&B singer] Anita Baker perched on your shoulder and singing directly into your ear." Des'ree's 1992 debut album, Mind Adventures, did not fare as well as its hit single, but it did sufficiently introduce Des'ree's vocal and songwriting talents and paved the way for her second LP.
After the introduction of her first album, Des'ree toured with the pop group Simply Red and recorded a Top Ten British single called "Delicate" with TerenceTrent D'Arby. The song is featured on D'Arby's 1993 album, Symphony or Damn. "Delicate" provided Des'ree the opportunity to appear on The Tonight Show and The Arsenio Hall Show, which in turn made the executives at her record company more confident of her unusual brand of soul.
Employs Positive Thinking
Des'ree's "You Gotta Be" single from her second album, I Ain't Movin', which was released in 1994, is reminiscent of a motivational speaker's advice. The painful demise of the singer's real-life relationship with a boyfriendho was also her manager for her debut albumolted Des'ree into reading Shakti Gawain's Creative Visualization, which served as inspiration for the single and her second album. Des'ree explained the origin of her philosophy to Us magazine's Gregg Goldstein, "My mother always said 'Embrace the good and the bad with the same ferocity, and don't be afraid.'"
Des'ree's popularity soared. The year after I Ain't Movin' was released, it went platinum, and "You Gotta Be" reached the Top Five on the Billboard music charts. Des'ree then traveled to Ethiopia to shoot a video for her single "Little Child," which is about starvation in Africa, and embarked on a world tour with pop singer Seal. She was perhaps made especially aware of her growing fame when legendary bluesman B. B. King asked for her autograph at an airport.
Music Video Boosted Album Sales
The music video for "You Gotta Be" served to heighten Des'ree's visibility in the United States. The video was shown on the VH-1 channel longer than any video in VH-1 history. In the sophisticated black-and-white piece that features four simultaneous images of the singer, Des'ree blends the stunning beauty of a runway model, the grace of a ballet dancer, and a chic wardrobe. In markets with little radio play, it was clear that video exposure was contributing to album sales.
The success of "You Gotta Be" prompted New York Newsday to proclaim that for 1995, pop superstar Madonna was "out" and Des'ree was "in." The single broke into Billboard's Top Ten music chart at Number Seven in January of 1995, and its popularity led to more guest appearances for Des'ree, including spots on the Late Show with David Letterman, The Today Show, Soul Train, and CBS This Morning. She completed her first U.S. tour as a headliner in March of 1995, playing to full houses in 17 cities. People's Mendelsohn noted that in mid-1995 Des'ree was at work on a third album and a book of poetry. "I'm a restless person need my stimulation," the singer confided. "And now the world is my universe."
Mind Adventures, Sony 550/Epic, 1992.
(With Terence Trent D'Arby) "Delicate," Symphony or Damn, Columbia, 1993.
I Ain't Movin', Sony 550/Epic, 1994.
"Silent Hero," Clockers, MCA, 1995.
Billboard, September 28, 1994; January 28, 1995.
Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, February 17, 1995.
Musician, March 1995; May 1995.
New York Newsday, December 28, 1994.
Paper, October 1994.
People, May 8, 1995.
Request, January 1995.
Rolling Stone, December 1, 1994; January 26, 1995.
Time, February 20, 1995.
Us, February 1995.
B. Kimberly Taylor