Ruben Studdard Is Back, Singing Joy And Heartache

Nearly 10 years ago Ruben Studdard won American Idol. Since then he has released gold and platinum albums, but he's also had some personal ups and downs. Now he's putting the finishing touches on a new album, Letters from Birmingham. Host Michel Martin talks with Studdard.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It was one of those dramatic life-changing moments that many artists dream about but which almost never happen. In 2003, Birmingham native Ruben Studdard became only the second "American Idol" but winning 24 million votes. Overnight he would become household name. But he celebrated that night by performing this song: "Flying Without Wings."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLYING WITHOUT WINGS")

RUBEN STUDDARD: (Singing) Everybody's looking for that something, one thing that makes it all come clear(ph) . You'll find it in the strangest places, places you never knew it could be.

MARTIN: Since then, he has gone on to release gold and platinum-selling albums, toured the country, starring a stage production, "Ain't Misbehavin'," and even tried his hand at a movie role, and has had some personal ups and downs, which he actually talks about in his new album, "Letters from Birmingham." And here to tell us more is Ruben Studdard.

Thank you so much for joining us.

STUDDARD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And when you hear that, what does that bring up for you? When you go back to that moment...

STUDDARD: I must say – I must say that crying does not help you sing on key at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLYING WITHOUT WINGS")

STUDDARD: (Singing) A simple line can make you laugh or cry. You'll find that in the deepest...

Couldn't really tell where the tears came in at the time, because, you know, I was, you know, sweating and crying at the same time. But it most definitely did not help my performance, and that performance will live forever on YouTube, and I cannot get it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLYING WITHOUT WINGS")

STUDDARD: (Singing) You have found that special thing. You're flying without wings.

MARTIN: This new album is very interesting. And I was reading that you were actually inspired by Martin Luther, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," that you passing through the Atlanta airport and you saw a display about Dr. King. Now, of course, you had read the letter before, being from Birmingham and just being an educated person. But I am just wondering how that led to this collection of sexy love songs.

STUDDARD: It's always good to have a theme or a direction for an album. And, you know, in the beginning what I wanted to do was just make great songs. And so we did that without any direction. We were just making what we felt like were great songs. And so once we kind of got a vision of what we wanted to - we put the album in a box. And so that way we could write the songs that fit into what we thought the box looked like. And it turned out really well. And it - you know, for me, I wanted the album to play like a movie. So...

MARTIN: So it's like a collection of letters that describes the arc of a relationship, you know.

STUDDARD: Right. So it goes from the introduction to the courtship, to the romantic love, to the feelings of something's going wrong, even into the dissolution of a relationship. And it was great doing it, because, you know, I actually lived all those things, you know, that we wrote about in the album. And it was just - it was a fun project.

MARTIN: Well, what about that though? I mean, you did write about - it's because you are a celebrity now, people do know your business. And, you know, your marriage was celebrated and, you know, reported on and by, you know, celebrity mags and lifestyle magazines and all the details. And then, of course, two years later when the marriage ended was also a new story. And then you're writing about it as part of a song. And I wanted to know whether that was - is that difficult? Is that...

STUDDARD: Well, you know, I think the most important thing was for me to tell my story in my words, instead of allowing other people to speculate.

MARTIN: Well, let's play a little bit. The song that we're talking about is titled "June 28th."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUNE 28TH")

STUDDARD: (Singing) June 28th, I was saying I do to my bride. And two years later, in October, we said goodbye. And my bed's been so cold in the space you occupied. And what I want to say is: Baby, I miss you. And when I see you in the street, I'm a speak, but now it's official. Ladies, I'm single. So when you see me on the street, don't be scared to speak. I'm a need another lady. I'm single. Girl, I tried everything...

MARTIN: Can I ask you something?

STUDDARD: You can most definitely ask me a question.

MARTIN: You've got this big microphone...

STUDDARD: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And there are two people in a relationship, and you've got the big microphone. Is this really fair?

STUDDARD: Is it fair?

MARTIN: Yeah. Is it fair?

STUDDARD: I think it is. I think everybody, you know, chooses their career path. And, you know, mine is most definitely having the ability to express myself through music. And I don't think I would be a real person if I didn't tell the story in my words, you know what I mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SINGLE")

STUDDARD: (Singing) And I just need somebody to make me say, ooh, ooh, ooh, baby. Yeah. Yeah. And baby, I'll miss you. So when I see you on the street I'm a speak. But it's official, you don't really want to fix us. But you act like you don't want to break up. I can't wait around for you to make up your mind, your mind, baby. I'll miss you...

MARTIN: Is it relieving in some way to have an outlet to discuss these kinds of thing that can be so painful?

STUDDARD: Most definitely therapeutic. It's like having your own therapy session without having to pay the $115 per hour.

MARTIN: Well, there it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are speaking with Ruben Studdard.

STUDDARD: Yay.

MARTIN: We're talking about his new album "Letters from Birmingham."

STUDDARD: Applause. Applause. Applause. Applause. Applause.

MARTIN: Applause. Applause.

You know, there's some – I don't want to imply that just because we started with that song that the album is sad, because it is not.

STUDDARD: No.

MARTIN: But you also talk about, as we've discussed, that the album discusses kind of takes the life cycle of a relationship.

STUDDARD: Most definitely.

MARTIN: And then there's a song tonight with you and Chrisette Michele talk about as duet...

STUDDARD: Yeah. Right.

MARTIN: ...a lovely duet, talk about resisting the temptation of a hookup, you know, early...

STUDDARD: Right.

MARTIN: ...in a relationship and the importance of taking things slow.

STUDDARD: Right.

MARTIN: Why don't we just play a little bit of that for you?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO IT RIGHT")

STUDDARD: (Singing) Tonight was so much fun, but it's about time I should go. Let me grab my things so you can walk me to the door. I can't lie; deep inside I really want to stay. But if I do, it will be a big, a big mistake.

(Singing) It ain't just about blowing your mind. Ain't nothing wrong with us just taking our time, 'cause I've been down this road that we're going tonight...

MARTIN: One of the things that I thought was interesting about this is that you – and I think you've talked about this...

STUDDARD: Right.

MARTIN: ...is that a lot of R&B, sometimes critics of contemporary R&B feel that the genre has lost some of its elegance...

STUDDARD: Right.

MARTIN: ...and that a lot of it is about it has got very explicit in what kind of what goes on in the bedroom...

STUDDARD: Right.

MARTIN: ...as opposed to the kind of the seduction and so forth. And I just wanted to ask about your sense of that and what you're trying to accomplish with what you're doing.

STUDDARD: Well, you know, I studied music and people have been being, you know, sexually explicit in songs for a long, long time, and especially in R&B and blues and jazz. You know, they just had a more clever way of expressing the way they feel.

You know, for me, as it pertains to my music, I've always wanted to put out things that I felt comfortable listening to with my grandmother or my mother in the room without feeling like I had to turn it off or feel uncomfortable with them listening to it with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO IT RIGHT")

RUBEN STUDDARD AND CHRISETTE MICHELE: (Singing) Running, yeah. Kissing in the doorway, I feel something pulling me back in. It's too strong for me. For you and me to resist, to resist it, baby. And now I'm just about blowing your mind. Ain't nothing wrong with us, just taking our time. Taking your time, baby...

MARTIN: What's your process for writing? You've done covers. You've covered other songs...

STUDDARD: Right.

MARTIN: ...which are fun to listen to your interpretations, but you also write yourself. What's your process? And how do you decide when you want to do your own thing as opposed to cover something else?

STUDDARD: I hear some music or, you know, we go to the piano and we just start. You know if it's a hit or not, you know, you could play around with it for a while and know whether or not it's something that is worthy of, you know, putting on wax, as we say. I just let it come. And I, you know, I always pray before we start writing and it comes to me.

MARTIN: Do you have any particular ritual that you go through when you just – or is it just you could be doing anything, you knowing buying macaroni or something.

STUDDARD: I love being in studio. And, you know, and I get inspired by a lot of different things. You know, I keep this little app I have on my iPhone now that allows me to always record all my song ideas. So if I'm in the car or as the melody comes to my head I'll record it and go to the studio and we'll work on it.

With this album we actually took writing trips. We went to places and kind of secluded ourselves and just focused on, you know, thought about the theme of the album and just focused on these songs..

MARTIN: On the album you cover the classic Bobby Brown track "Rock Wit'cha."

STUDDARD: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You want to play a little bit of that? You want to hear it? You feel like it?

STUDDARD: Sure.

MARTIN: All right. Let's play a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK WIT'CHA ")

STUDDARD: (Singing) Now that you are here with me, baby, let's do it right. Lady, you know just what I need. I want to hold you oh so tight. Baby, just touch me anywhere. Cutie, you turn me on and on and on. Ooh, I'd like to run my fingers through your hair, so come on and stay with me all night.

(Singing) I want to rock wit'cha, baby. All night long...

MARTIN: That's yummy.

STUDDARD: Ah.

MARTIN: Did you have the famous haircut, though? That's really what we all want to know and that did you...

STUDDARD: No, I didn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: No?

STUDDARD: No wops. No wops.

MARTIN: Guess I'm trying to visualize that.

STUDDARD: No wops going on.

MARTIN: No wops going on there?

STUDDARD: Nah. No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STUDDARD: Still bald-headed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK WIT'CHA ")

STUDDARD: (Singing) ...all night long. Rock and roll, and roll and rock. Making sweet love, don't ya ever stop. Ooh, how about a little music now, babe?

You know, we were doing that song, you know, everybody sometimes comparing me to Luther Vandross. And I, it's kind of like embracing the comparison without trying to run away from it. And what I wanted to do was a song that was popular when I grew up. Because what Luther did, he always took songs that were huge hits when he was younger and made them into something that was uniquely his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK WIT'CHA ")

STUDDARD: (Singing) Girl I'm feeling your, feeling your heart beat next to mine. Baby, I'll make you feel so, so nice. Baby I'll make....

Bobby Brown, when I was, you know, in middle school, he was the bee's knees. You didn't get no bigger than Bobby Brown.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STUDDARD: That was it and, you know, that song was huge. I actually remember that getting that album for Christmas because I wasn't supposed to get any presents for Christmas that year because I had an F in conduct, so...

MARTIN: But you did get the present.

STUDDARD: You know what? And my mama and daddy were really slick with it because, you know, they usually always have my presents in our living room with the Christmas tree. And I woke up in the morning, no presents, no gifts. I went to my grandmother's house sad for church and, you know, dinner and all that stuff. Then I came home and I, something just told me to go downstairs. I was like I'm going downstairs to play Nintendo and I opened the door and all my presents were downstairs.

MARTIN: Oh. Aw.

STUDDARD: So, when I have some children now if they get F's in conduct, I'm not giving them nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. I'm going to remember that and play this again. I thought you were going the other way with that. You say, they shouldn't have been so mean about it.

STUDDARD: They should have stuck to their guns.

MARTIN: Well, you seemed to have turned out OK.

STUDDARD: I did all right.

MARTIN: You seemed to have turned out OK, for what I can see. Mm-hmm.

STUDDARD: They did a pretty good job. They did all right.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I do want to ask you a little bit about some of the other things that you've got going on.

STUDDARD: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You started the Ruben Studdard Foundation for the Advancement Children in the music arts. Tell us a little bit more about it.

STUDDARD: Well, you know, it's very difficult sometimes for kids that are artistic to find ways to finance their college education. So what we did, I started the foundation strictly as a scholarship foundation and we gave scholarships to deserving high school seniors that planned on majoring in music in college like I did.

And two years after we started the foundation this lady just called us randomly and said hey, could you come to Wallace State University and do a camp. And it was so successful, we had about 400 kids the first year, it was so successful that we've been doing them ever since here in Birmingham, and hopefully we can have them, you know, in all four corners of the state - north south east and west. But we've been blessed.

And the children have really, you know, learned a lot. Actually one of my students was on "American Idol" this year. He got cut, but he did good. A couple of them have won McDonald's scholarships. We have several students that have, you know, matriculated to different universities on full music scholarships and I'm very, very proud of them. And, you know, hopefully the things that we do in the summertime with them has helped enrich them and they will go out and do the same thing when they, you know, leave school and become working people.

MARTIN: Speaking of "Idol," as the winner of the second, second season - this show has had such an impact on the country. And now there are a number of these talent competition programs.

STUDDARD: Right.

MARTIN: It had such a big impact on your life, obviously. But when you think about, you know, sort of the totality of it, you know, on the one hand people think it's great because some of these shows have really brought back the importance of the voice and singing in a music education.

STUDDARD: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: On the other hand, some people think that they're just mean. You know, that they're just, they kind of bring out and validate a kind of a meanness in people's interpersonal discussions that are not really fun to watch and pleasant. So would you just think about it - your thought?

STUDDARD: I most definitely don't think that. I think, you know, I think America in general, we have pacified a lot of our young people. You know, the music industry is not an easy place to be and everybody is not going to always like you. I mean I've, you know, been able to do some amazing things and still to this day everybody is not my fan. Like our kids have to be competitive with these kids from other countries. Like just like they are thousands of kids in the United States that want to be musicians and want to be singers, there are thousands of kids in Japan and Germany and everywhere else and their parents are pushing them to be the best, always.

MARTIN: Well, all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yes, sir. Duly noted. Ruben Studdard is a platinum-selling artist. Of course, everyone remembers, he was the winner of the second "American Idol" season. His latest album, "Letters from Birmingham," is available in mid-March. And he was kind enough to join us from member station WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama.

Ruben Studdard, thank you so much for speaking with us. Continued success to you.

STUDDARD: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk tomorrow.

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