Glenn Lewis The Return

Glenn Lewis The Return
Photo: Devon Walker
After being a prominent name (and voice) for the burgeoning "neo-soul/R&B" movement in the early 2000s, Toronto's Glenn Lewis has seemingly been largely away from the mainstream eye of late. To hear the Juno- and Grammy-nominated R&B/soul singer-songwriter say it, he never actually went anywhere — or stopped performing and writing new music — it was always a matter to making sure that his management and record label situation were in perfect alignment prior to releasing any new album into the wild.

From his critically and commercially acclaimed 2002 Epic Records debut World Outside My Window and hit single "Don't You Forget It," to planned-ups ( Epic Records' Back for More in 2005 and Remember Me on indie UnderDog Entertainment in 2007) never officially seeing the light of day, Lewis current release Moment of Truth can be called his official and long overdue sophomore release.

Now on the newly-relaunched RuffHouse Records label and working with top-tier soul producers like Andre Harris & Vidal Davis and Carvin & Ivan, Moment of Truth is just that, an album that plays to Lewis's smooth-as-silk vocal strengths and is content to play in its own traditional R&B-influenced musical sandbox. Lewis talked to Exclaim! about finally releasing a new album, the challenges of being an R&B artist from Canada, and his plans on re-introducing himself to new and existing music fans more than a decade removed from his successful debut.

So when did the idea of being a recording artist start for you?
Growing up here in Toronto, there's so much music that you're exposed to early on. Whether it's from a cultural standpoint — your heritage, in my case calypso or reggae — to listening to Top 40 radio as we didn't really have black radio until the 2000s with a station like [Toronto's] Flow 93.5. So I was listening to like Joni Mitchell, the Police and all different types of music along with the [calypso and reggae] that was played around the house. And this is also along with my parents as well, who were singer-songwriters. I would probably say the seed was planted then whether I knew it or not.

Later on, I could see the fulfillment that came with singing and songwriting and expressing myself through music. And it was a very cool escape, you know, for a lot of different reasons. It became something that I wanted to be a part of. At about 14, I started to get into songwriting and try to develop that craft. I met producers in Toronto coming up — we were all young and all had aspirations and were working together and trying different things — just trying to hone our craft. I remember meeting [songwriter/record producer] Alex Greggs who later on would work for [producer] Rodney Jerkins and on [R&B singer] Brandy's albums and stuff. It's pretty funny the humble beginnings — where we used to skateboard and later on in the evenings we would go over to his spot and he had a program called Music-X. We would program songs and just write.

After Alex, I worked with Ivan Berry and a number of other prominent musical figures in the city: Orin Issacs, who went on to be musical director on The Mike Bullard Show, and Ivan had Beat Factory Records. I can't really remember how it all came about — I wanted Ivan to hear what I was doing and he told me I was talented and let me know about an R&B compilation he was putting together. He wanted me to be a part of it. I submitted "The Thing To Do" and it made the album as a single. I had the opportunity to tour with the Backstreet Boys across Canada that Berry arranged and was the first tour I ever did. I remember I used to clown the Backstreet Boys but I met them and they were like the nicest guys ever to me. We hit the road and I actually became really good friends with AJ, Brian and the guys.

After that, I worked with producer 2Rude, another prominent producer in the city: we did "About Your Love" off another compilation [Rudimental 2k] that we did. It did well. Those were great times because Rude and I were really close friends. That was definitely a highlight and a great run. It got us the attention from a lot of folks, including Stateside. That's what eventually led up to me having my Sony deal in New York. I opened up a management team based out of Philadelphia who were also handling [producers] Dre & Vidal who were a part of the Touch of Jazz movement. They did albums like Floetry's first album, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, Michael Jackson, Usher. And my first album did well, as single "Don't You Forget It" got in the top five in the R&B charts. It got a lot of critical acclaim, from me coming from a basement apartment in Toronto to Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Stevie Wonder, you know, folks recognizing what I was doing musically.

What was your mindset at that time in having all that success?
It was a lot, man. It was a real whirlwind. There was a lot to process. I was really just trying to hold on. I remember that I was thinking so far ahead that I wanted my legacy to be able to leave all this great music behind and represent where I'm from. My close-knit family and friends that are here [in Toronto] who contributed to how I developed musically. And not only in music, but in life. If we weren't doing music together, we were hanging out somewhere, going to a movie or a club somewhere. So I just wanted to make them proud.

It was just moving at such a pace that it was a lot to keep up with. Always in my heart, it was funny — going to the States, having a lot of success there and people thought I was from Philly. I would always have interviews and tell people I'm from Toronto and they'd be like, "Toronto? You're from Canada?" And at the time people were just starting to find out about Toronto with [summer festival] Caribana, the Raptors with Vince Carter and different things like that, but for the most part people really didn't know a whole lot about Toronto. So that was cool to be sort of a representative of this place that was like exotic to folks. And in a lot of ways it helped renew my appreciation for home as well because I'd get to talking about what it's like and I'd stop and thing about it and it would hit that that [Toronto] has uniquely cool qualities and it's the place where I'm from.

So how frustrating was it that there wasn't a true template for success being an R&B singer from Canada? Especially in terms of it's almost like you have to leave and be recognized outside of Canada to have that success and greater appreciation for you as an artist?
I mean, there was a point in time that I realized that I had sort of hit a glass ceiling here. But even before then, I wanted to create that groundwork and wanted to get my feet wet and hone my craft. But ultimately at the end of the day, seeing the experience that my father [Glenn Ricketts of '70s Canadian R&B group Crack of Dawn] had being a musician and artist here, I think I realized that if I wanted to be a [soul] artist I was have to go to where the source of the music was inspired. I was heavy into R&B, soul, and gospel, musical genres with origins in the States. I think I knew, early on, that if I wanted to have any sort of success that I would have to go to the States. It's tough. It would be nice to be able to make a living here at home, to be able to stay home and be home. But those are sort of the circumstances that we've all had to deal with. Most artists like Saukrates, Jully Black, Divine Brown, Kardinal Offishall can touch on that one way or another. It's tough.

So after the success of 2002's World Outside My Window, how much pressure was there in making a follow-up record?
I couldn't really focus on having pressure. The real focus needed to be on just making great music. The problem with that at the time was, great music can account for a lot, but there were some things that we can't see. Things have to align a certain way. You can do as much as you can, and you can have a lot happening for you politically in your corner, but timing is everything. And at the time when I was preparing to come up with a sophomore record with Sony, there were a lot of changes going on with the label. A lot of people that were instrumental with the making of my [debut] album, most of them had left by the time I was ready to do the second. A lot of them had left and also the [illegal] downloading thing was starting to become prevalent, so a lot of labels were panicking. There were a lot of crazy things going on the time.

So the push that my sophomore album should have got didn't happen. And this led to my management at the time thinking the best thing was to leave the label and go somewhere else. Trusting them and their advice, we went and took different meeting with several labels but a lot of them just didn't know how to react to the whole downloading thing. So I spent a lot time having meetings, stepping away to create new music, revisiting [meetings], stepping away to create new music, whatever. And eventually this led to my new situation with Chris Schwartz and his RuffHouse label. He was looking at bringing the label back and he thought it would be a good idea for us to be affiliated as he respected me as an artist and in the music that I make. So it was interesting as RuffHouse being a hip-hop label back in the day, to me coming on.

After seemingly being away from the scene all these years, how did new album Moment of Truth come together?
I did the deal with RuffHouse in 2011. Prior to that I had been recording — I actually ran into Schwartz, one of the co-founders, in 2010 and he was asking me what I was up to. Him and my management got to talking and I just kept working. Then eventually, there was a situation where they were like "Yo, it would be great if we could be a part of this, this is what we are doing," and it sounded great to me. We worked it out and I started working on the album in 2011. It was a pretty easy process. I guess if you do it for a while you know what it takes. The aim really, was to put together an ensemble of just great songs. Just make some great music, vibe out.

Some of the inspiration was like really wanting to have like classic R&B elements with some of the consistency of the production happening today. But mostly deriving inspiration and sonic quality from a lot of the great music from yesterday. That was definitely part of the ingredient of putting together the album. Even the title itself, Moment of Truth, came from the idea that each song is like a conversation, a moment of truth, captured. I think it kind of came out that way in conversation. It's just one of those things, you know, that when you've been doing it for a minute, you just know what you are doing.

Moment of Truth actually represents your sophomore album. From the mid-2000s to now, what have you been up to?
From mid-2000 leading up to this new deal, I've always been working on music. I've always been writing, doing spot dates here and there, mostly stuff overseas. Couple dates Stateside and here in Canada. But for the most part, I stayed working on music. One way or another, whether live or in the studio.

Did you feel any pressure to change or update your sound to reach or connect with new audiences?
I think that regardless if it's music or whatever you do in life, from a foundational standpoint you have to present you. That's what people gravitate to and will take interest in — what's true to you and what's a natural representation of your artistic craft or persona. I just felt like, obviously you want to succeed, so it's not like I didn't think about it, but most of the time I would come back and think I've just got to do me and what I love and feel strong about. And people feel that.

How do you define success for this album?
I think definitely part of the mindset was to sort of re-introduce myself as it's been a while. Fortunately the case is I've stayed relevant for real lovers of the music with records like "Don't You Forget It" and "Fall Again" [from the 2002 Maid in Manhattan soundtrack), the track "Storm" and [2011's] "Good One" that I released independently. Those records kind of kept me relevant with music fans and I think the main thing is that people know I'm back and still making music. And with this intention that there's more to come.