Three years ago, Crystal Waters was a “Storyteller.” What is she today?
“Now, she’s just ‘Crystal,’ ” the amiable dance singer-songwriter said recently with a laugh. “She has more confidence in herself, doing what she wants to do and not doing anything specific to fit in.”
Of course, there still is the push and pull between her and the Baltimore-based Basement Boys, her longtime producers.
“I get to work with other people and do my own thing,” she said, “but the Boys are the basis of my sound, it’s where I come from.
“They expect me to come up with the magical hit every time. I get crucified, and they tell me to go home and try again. But I trust them with the production, and they keep me in step. It’s a great working relationship.”
On her third Mercury album, “Crystal” (released July 29), Waters still is very much in step, telling poignant stories over a driving club beat, but this time with a funkier edge. Her new single, “Momma Told Me,” features daughters Morgan and Lindsay on backup vocals, and her most recent hit, “Say … If You Feel Alright,” was a dream collaboration for Waters.
“I’ve always wanted to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis,” she said. “They know how to make fabulous sounds. I also enjoyed working with Dallas Austin (on ‘Body Music’). It’s fun to see how you can sound with someone else behind the boards.”
Then there’s her odd teaming with NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman on “Just a Freak.”
“Everyone asks me, ‘What was he wearing?’ ” Waters said, giggling. “The song was written not so much for him, but it sure fits him. The label thought it’d be cool to have him in the video, so they asked if he wanted to do the rap part.
“I was overseas when the deal was made, and one of my friends called me and said, ‘Dennis is getting married to himself,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, lord, what have I gotten myself into?’ Then when he showed up at the studio, he kicked a photographer. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He fully believes he has to stick with that persona. That’s the way he makes his money, but aside from that, he’s pretty fun to hang around with.”
Waters, niece of legendary actor Ethel Waters, helped usher in a dance revival in 1991 with the now-classic “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless),” about a street singer who sings out her heart and soul for money. With its compelling hook “La da dee, la da da,” “Gypsy Woman” peaked at No. 8 on Billboard’s pop chart and sold more than 1 million copies.
A year earlier, she was a computer technician at the Washington, D.C., Parole Board and had taken copies of her “Gypsy Woman” demo to a Music Business Forum. There, she handed them out to several producers, but the only ones to call were Thomas David, Teddy Douglas and Jay Steinhour, a trio of club disc jockeys who formed a production company called the Basement Boys.
Nearly seven years later, the club scene is bigger than ever, and Waters still is on top.
“I feel like I’m in a real good position,” she said, “because dance music is getting more airplay. But the one thing I’ve noticed is that dance music’s getting a lot faster and heavier. It’s hard to keep up.
“Usually my songs are at 120 or 121 beats per minute, and now I’m up to 128 and that’s still slow compared to what’s out there. Like, the Chemical Brothers are up in the 130s, and the Miami bass sound is past 140. I’m from the old school, I guess.
“The Basement Boys want me to pick up the pace more, but I’m like, ‘No, no faster than 125, please, please, please.’ And they think it’s too slow, ‘It’s like you’re singing a ballad.’ I can’t help it, this is me, this is Crystal.”
With two gold albums to her credit, Waters finally spoiled herself and bought a home in suburban Washington. She’s still furnishing it and unpacking boxes.
“I also converted one of the walk-in closets into a little studio,” she said. “I have a full basement and planned to put it in there, but I wanted the studio closer to my bedroom. You never know when I’ll get inspired.”
BWF (before we forget): Unhappy with the performance of “Crystal,” Waters split company with Mercury Records in November.
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