“I love to perform. I love to see people come in ‘down’ but then leave a show with joy. I love meeting people and sharing my gifts. I enjoy the ovations when people have been touched. I love to share with the foundations I work with to give back and help young artists to establish their careers and get jobs in the industry. I enjoy giving back and being a part of the evolution of music.” —Ann Nesby
From new jack swing to electronic dance music (EDM), few have survived and even thrived during that musical evolution as gracefully and fearlessly as Ann Nesby. The phrase “living legend” gets indiscriminately bandied about quite a bit these days. Yet, in the case of singer/songwriter Ann Nesby, on her 25th anniversary in the music business, nothing less than such effusive language will do.
With a storied career that includes two GRAMMY Award winswith the Twin Cities-based Sounds of Blackness collective and six nominations since embarking on her solo career in 1996, Nesby has toured with Luther Vandross, had duet smashes with Sting (“Demolition Man”) and Al Green (“Put It On Paper”), written a Top 10 R&B hit for Patti Labelle (“Right Kinda Lover”) and a soul classic (“Home Alone”) on Gladys Knight’s last gold-seller. Even Nesby’s dues paying session work was with such luminaries as Janet Jackson and Alexander O’Neal. In other words, Ann Nesby has worked among the best as one of the best almost from day one.
If that weren’t plenty, at a time when veteran peers were absent from radio or the clubs, this indefatigable star boasted five Top 5 Dance hits spanning two decades, including the #1 Billboard Dance Music cover of Brainstorm’s “Lovin’ is Really My Game” in 2000. Did we mention Nesby, who has appeared both off-Broadway and in film (“The Fighting Temptations), is also a staple of the urban theater circuit, having starred in shows by the black theater trinity of Shelley Garrett, David Talbert, and Tyler Perry? With her latest genre-hopping, über-contemporary release, Living My Life, it’s clear Ann Nesby’s far from done.
That Nesby’s achieved so much over three decades in a fickle industry is stunning enough, that she did it being unapologetically herself is itself a rare feat worthy of applause. Voluptuous before Jill and Adele made it trendy and performing genre-defying songs of love, inspiration, and God, Nesby has never allowed herself to be pigeon-holed or been less than an original, even now.
“Early in my career I had the chance to talk to Lou Rawls and ask him what is responsible for his longevity and he said ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,’ which was simple enough. For Living My Life, I kept true to Ann Nesby while bringing the music of the times and worked with young producers who brought who they thought Ann Nesby is without forcing myself on some young music. I kept to who Ann Nesby is as an artist,” said Nesby about her forthcoming project.
And who Nesby is can be as varied and inspiring as her history. A child star in her Joilet, IL gospel circuit, Ann had a close adolescent brush with girl group stardom with The Sensations, but Nesby’s no-nonsense, religious father put an abrupt end to his 14 year-old singing secular. Nesby wouldn’t get her first real industry break again until age 32, but thereafter she proved unstoppable. A Nashville songwriter’s contest begat recordings with the James Cleveland Gospel Workshop of America begat an introduction to gospel legend Donald Lawrence which eventually led to the role that first catapulted Nesby to fame, a lead singer for The Sounds of Blackness, a vocal and instrumental ensemble whose work bridged gospel, R&B, dance, and jazz. An award-winning run of ‘90s hits followed including: “Joy,” “Testify,” “The Optimistic,” “I’m Going All The Way,” and #1 dance hits “I Believe” and “The Pressure. The group’s early influence on Nesby is reflected in what would become Nesby’s signature brand of “life music,” both secular and inspirational songs about real life crisis, love, relationships, survival, and, of course, spirituality.
“From my stories there is going to be a story you can relate to or draw from, a bad relationship or something you’re in the midst of. Sometimes people don’t move forward when they think they’re the only person in that situation and if they hear the song, they might have something they can relate to and that touches their heart,” said Nesby about her craft. “I try to write about solutions for the problems I present, what solution I tried.”
Accordingly, Living My Life reflects the layered lyricism that had R&B icons like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis grabbing Nesby for their production team, resulting in major hits for other artists. As with Nesby’s Top 15 solo dance hits “Hold On” (#5) and “Can I Get A Witness,” (#11) the artist sometimes known as Lula Lee still manages to keep some of her best material for herself. Pulsating inspirational anthems such as producer newcomers Jordan Dollar and Charles “C.Dob” Dobson’s “Higher” and “In The Morning” or Terry Hunter’s (Kanye West, Justin Timberlake) devastating tribal remix of Kendrick Dean (Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige) and Brian Alexander’s “Living My Life” are all prepared to rule the clubs and summer block parties while stealthily sowing life sustaining seeds of truth into the lives of Nesby fans. Songs of resiliency are threaded throughout a project that delves more into the EDM and pop sides of Nesby, as with the anti-bullying “Cannonball” from Norway’s Dsign Music team, which finds the artist expressing a confident freedom that comes from still releasing fresh and relevant music several generations in…and counting.
While tightening her crown as a reigning Queen of Inspirational Soul on her sixth solo project, this woman of faith also doesn’t resist taking listeners to old school church with the Vernon Messam (Canton Jones, Jeff Sparks) produced ballad of encouragement, “I See Beyond,” an intimate moment that finds Nesby alone in God’s presence in powerful worship. As with the demonstrations of faithfulness at the heart of gospel forays like In The Spirit and The Lula Lee Project, her emotional alto soars in an unequivocal voice is signature Ann Nesby. Keeping it holy, newcomers Darnell “Baby D” Davis and Brian Kendrick provide a light Minneapolis funk for Nesby to pour personal and Biblical life lessons against in the powerhouse “Alright,” with a groove that never loses its praise.
As with quiet storm classics like “I’m Still Wearing Your Name” and “I’ll Do Anything For You,” the sage wife of 20 years ensures an honest, female empowered take on relationships gets equal time on Living My Life. Working with Kendrick Dean of Beyoncé fame, Nesby co-writes a trio of what may be her most memorable love and heartbreak songs, with the no-holds barred “Let It Be,” the mid-tempo bump of “Remember,” and the bare-knuckled power ballad, “Through With You.” Not to be outdone, producer Michael Snoddy (Drake, Jamie Foxx), strips away all gimmicks for a rare bluesy torch song, “Point of View,” that serves as a showcase for an instrument as agile and powerful as ever. Nesby even throws in a silken acoustic guitar duet with Lewis Sky, “This Is The Love,” produced by Patrick “Guitarboy” Hayes (Ron Isley, Chrisette Michele) Throughout these romantic and emotional narratives Ann’s message is the same as the example of her storied life and career.
“If you have dreams, hold on to them. Fight for them. Work hard for them. Invest in yourself. Put God first, and get ready for the hard work that’s behind the bright lights that you look so forward to being under. And most of all be true to yourself,” said one who has never been anything less. And we’re all better for it. Amen? Amen.