Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features singer-songwriter Siedah Garrett.
Siedah Garrett will go down in pop-music history as the woman who co-wrote “Man in the Mirror” for Michael Jackson and then duetted with him on the worldwide hit “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” She also co-wrote Jackson’s 1991 song “Keep the Faith” and traveled the world with him as a backup singer on the Dangerous tour. And right before Jackson’s death, she was prepping to join him as a vocalist at the London This Is It residency.
But she has also a rich musical legacy outside of her work with Jackson. It includes recording and touring with Madonna, singing backup in the studio for everyone from Wang Chung to Barbra Streisand, and writing tunes for Dream Girls and Rio that resulted in multiple Academy Award nominations. She has a song on the new Diana Ross LP Thank You, and is hard at work on the new big-screen adaptation of The Color Purple. She called us up from her home in Los Angeles to look back at all of it, and to give us an update on her battle with MS.
How has your life been during the pandemic?
Man, I have been thriving. Creatively thriving. It’s been a complete reset for me. I know it’s been very, very difficult for a lot of people, and a lot of people I know personally are not faring well. With the further restrictions that are being required, they are just getting more and more fearful of losing their livelihood. These are restaurant owners and people in the food-service industry. It makes me more and more appreciative of the work I get to do.
Let’s go back to the very beginning. Tell me your first memories of hearing music as a young child that really connected with you.
It would have to be when I was five or six and my grandmother would listen to old R&B records. There were a couple that really struck her fancy. I don’t know why, but there was this song called “Slippin’ Into Darkness” by War. That was one of my grandmother’s favorite songs.
Who were some of your earliest musical heroes?
As a singer, it would have to be Chaka Khan. She’s my number-one all-time favorite singer. Chaka is the reason I sing. I have been very, very fortunate to tell her that. I was over the moon when I duetted with her on Quincy Jones’ Back on the Block album on a song called “The Places You Find Love.” It was just amazing. I was singing with my idol. It was crazy.
When you were young, did you see any concerts that blew your mind?
I saw Earth, Wind, and Fire once. I saw Chaka and Rufus. I even saw the Ink Spots at one point. There was maybe only one or two original members, but the fact that I was watching them do what they do was incredible. I also saw the Temptations. These groups work constantly all over the world. Even though we don’t see them in the U.S., they are constantly working in Europe and Japan and Croatia. It’s just awesome they still do what they do.
Of course, I’m a child of the Jackson 5 era. They were it for me. Every Saturday morning when their cartoon came on, we were glued in front of that TV set. No matter what.
How old were you when you realized you could sing really well?
I think I knew I had something when my mother started parading me around to these different churches. She would pat me on the butt and go, “Go on, go on. Sing!” She would get all the praise. “Oh, my God. Your daughter is such a good singer.” That’s when I knew, “OK, this is something my mother thinks I’m good at. Let me check this out.”
I didn’t really get it until I was about 16. My mother was a wallpaper hanger. She was working on R&B singer D.J. Rogers’ home. She kept telling him, “My daughter can sing.” He said, “Sure … your daughter, my plumber’s cousin, my maid’s nephew, everybody can sing!”
But my mother was very, very persistent. He eventually gave up and said, “OK! Bring her over. Have her sing. If she can’t sing, I don’t want to hear nothing else about it.”
She took me over to his house. D.J. Rogers was a huge man. I sat on his piano bench. He scooted over enough for me to find an edge to sit on. He played a chord or a riff and said, “Sing this.” And I sang it. He went, “Oh?” And he played a more complicated note or a riff and I sang it. He went, “Oh!” He pushed me off the edge of the bench, and the next thing I knew, I was in a recording session with these amazing singers on the album [Love, Music and Life] after his hit “Say You Love Me.”
I remember having so much friggin’ fun on that session with these singers! I was hearing these harmonies be created in my ears. I was a part of that. I was high for a week on that session. And then three weeks later, I got a check? I was like, “Oh, hell yeah! This is exactly what I need to be doing!” [Laughs.]
After that moment, did you ever think about a different kind of career for yourself?
No. Once I did that, it was over for me. And before that, I was in a talent show in high school. Because we moved a lot, I was never really grounded in school. I didn’t have any close friends since I knew I was going to be moving anyway, so I didn’t bother. I have issues making close attachments because of that.
There was this guitar player that was kind of nerdy. He wanted to be in the talent show, but he knew he couldn’t just go onstage and play guitar. He was worried they’d boo him off the stage. He went, “Do you want to sing this song with me?” We sang a duet on a Stevie Wonder song. It was “Isn’t She Lovely” or something like that. And we won! And them my mom introduced me to this man and I went to the session and I got a check. I was hooked.
What did you do to support yourself in those early years?
I did what I had to do in order to sing. I learned to type. I learned to be a receptionist. I had to work all kind of jobs. The only thing I’m happy I never had to do was work tables. I could always type, so I always had an office job. I didn’t like to work anywhere for a long time. Maybe that’s because of the way I was brought up. I always worked for temp agencies and I’d choose where I wanted to work: Century City, Beverly Hills … I would stay out of downtown L.A. since it was so depressing. I was like, “If I have to work, I’m going to work in a nice area.” And I’d take temp jobs in those areas so that I could sing.
Tell me about joining up with Black Velvet and Satin Soul.
Oh, man, you’ve done your homework. This was a group that I joined because the lead singer was a girl that was totally into Chaka Khan. That’s how I learned to dig Chaka. She introduced me to to her music and she sang just like her when she sang, and I had to do harmonies with her. We both had to sing like Chaka. It was awesome. That’s where Black Velvet and Satin Soul came from. She and I were Black Velvet, and Satin Soul was our six-piece band. We were awesome. We had so much fun.
Did you tour with Black Velvet and Satin Soul?
We never toured. We just did local clubs. It was a very low-key thing. We weren’t even signed. We just rehearsed in my friend’s living room after school. Her uncle knew a club owner, and he was like, “Sure.” We weren’t even old enough to be in the place we were playing.
How did that lead to Plush?
There were many, many, many iterations of bands that I was in before Plush. They came about when I met René [Moore] and Angela [Winbush]. I think it was through the guitar player in Plush. His friend auditioned us and we got signed to RCA Records. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience, but it was my first signing experience.
Why was it unpleasant?
It wasn’t a good fit. René Moore was constantly having me sing the demos for this group like his girlfriend Angela. That was a problem for me because that’s not how I sing. If you wanted someone to sing like Angela, sign Angela. So that was a problem.
How did you meet Dennis Edwards and get involved with his music?
I auditioned for Quincy Jones and a bunch of producer-songwriters were in the room. And because of these auditions, I met lot of people writing songs for Patti Austin for Quincy Jones to produce. Those songwriters saw me at the audition, and I started singing all these demos for these songwriters in L.A.
Dennis Lambert and Franne Golde saw me at these auditions and asked me to do a demo for a song called “Don’t Look Any Further.” I was like, “Sure.” Went and did the whole song. A few weeks later, Dennis Edwards came in and put his half of the song down. And so Dennis Lambert called me and was like, “I think this is going to be a record.” I’m like, “Great. When can I come and redo my vocals?” He goes, “No, we’re using your demo vocals.”
Oh, I missed a very important part. When I did my part and Dennis Edwards did his part, they wanted Chaka Khan to be the duet partner. I was like, “Cool.” When the record company wanted to put the record out, there was some issue where Chaka wasn’t available. The executives said, “We need to put this record out now. Who’s singing on the demo?” They go, “It’s some chick named Siedah Garrett.” “Fine. Put her on it.”
That was a huge step for you. Suddenly your name is on a big song.
Yes! When I asked Dennis Lambert when I could put the real vocals on the record, he said, “No, we’re using the demo vocals. It was a great performance. I love it.”
That’s why I tell singers to this day, “If you ever say to anyone, ‘Oh, that’s alright. It’s just a demo,’ I will choke you out.” You never know where that “demo” is going to go.
How did that song change your career?
I think the most significant change happened when I was riding in the car with my sister and the radio was on and the song came on. My sister goes, “Oh, this is my favorite song!” And she turned up the radio. I said, “That’s me.” She said, “No it’s not!” And at the end of the song the DJ said, “That was ‘Don’t Look Any Further’ by Dennis Edwards featuring Siedah Garrett.” My sister looked at me like she’d seen a ghost. That was the best! [Big laugh.]
You don’t know the relationship between my sister and I. She’d never say, “That’s my favorite” if she knew it was me. That was an extra little add-on for me. It was very, very fun.
In the months after that, you did a lot of background vocals for major artists. What do you remember about singing on the Starship album Knee Deep in the Hoopla?
Recording sessions where I get to sing and be with a group of like-minded musos who are serious about their thing, that is everything to me. And what’s what that session was like. That whole session was so much fun, and they allowed me to come up with ideas, and they were happy with the arrangements, the background vocals. I was stoked the whole time. I wish I had journaled more when I did those sessions. I just thought it would go on forever.
Then you sang with Wang Chung.
Yes! I don’t remember how I met them. I think they were just looking for a background singer to do these TV shows because I had recorded the background vocals at a session, and then the group started doing TV shows in the U.S. and they needed a singer since there was a very prominent female voice on the record, and it just couldn’t be two guys from England. They allowed me to sing with them like I was a part of Wang Chung. We did the song “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” on Carson and all these TV shows they were booked to do. I ended up doing a bunch of shows with them and working on that record. Their manager then became my manager. It was a great experience. I love them and him to this day.
Tell me about getting the job on True Blue by Madonna.
That was producer Stephen Bray. I’d been writing with him. I knew he knew Madonna, and I wanted to write a song for Madonna. He was producing True Blue and invited me to come and record. That’s how I met Madonna.
What was she like?
She was awesome, and she was stunning. No makeup. Straight-up beautiful. She was ridiculously youthful and gorgeous. And she was fun to sing with. She appreciated good singers, so she let me and the other singers do our thing.
Stephen Bray said, “We’re going to do this song ‘Where’s the Party’ and we’re going to need you to hire another singer.” I hired this girl that I knew and loved a lot. She had perfect pitch. Her name was Edie Lehmann. I hired her and I looked at Madonna and said, “Do you want to sing on this?” And so I hired Edie Lehmann and Madonna for Madonna’s record. [Laughs.]
What do you recall about making “Papa Don’t Preach”?
I thought the song was very edgy. I knew it was going to be controversial. That was Madonna’s thing at the time. She loved controversy. This song was like an ode to pregnant teenage girls all over the world and telling their parents that they “got into trouble.” Her doing this was very edgy and brave, I thought, and it worked.
After being on something as huge as True Blue and “Papa Don’t Preach,” do you start getting a ton more calls for work?
You would think, but noooooo. [Laughs] No. That’s not how it works.
You did sing with Bruce Willis the following year.
Yeah. Bruce was hella fun since he’s crazy. He was hella fun. He made sure that he had as much fun as he could possibly have every time he went onstage, so he made it fun for everyone that was onstage with him, and everyone that was watching him onstage. He was awesome.
The acting was a secondary thing to him. I think he always had a band, and the TV show [Moonlighting] gave him the audience that he always wanted in regards to his music.
How did your Michael Jackson chapter start?
That started with a meeting with Quincy Jones where he asked his West Coast songwriters to come up with a song to finish what we now know as the Bad album.
The reason why I was even in Quincy Jones’ orbit is because he had this cattle call of auditions. He was looking to create a group like Manhattan Transfer or the Fifth Dimension. He wanted a male/female vocal group. He had these cattle calls in Hollywood.
The night before the audition I got a phone call. It wasn’t from my dear friend in Black Velvet and Satin Soul. She didn’t call me. She was going to the audition herself. The person that called me and told me about the auditions was her boyfriend. He was like, “She’s going to these auditions tomorrow. Maybe you should go too.”
I said, “Quincy Jones? OK.” I didn’t know Quincy from the man in the moon. He said, “You need to go. It’s a big thing.” I said, “What time is it?” He said, “I don’t know.” But he gave me the address. I didn’t know what time, so I showed up at 7 a.m. The real auditions didn’t begin until noon. I was third in line. By the time that noon rolled around, the line was around the block.
We all go in and there’s a table full of clipboards. You write down the date and time you want to audition and you come back. I was there that day. I wanted to do my audition that day. I was ready that day. I did it that day.
Because I did it that day, Quincy told me years later that I set the bar. Everyone who came after me had to be as good as me, or better than me. For the next nine months, we’d get these letters. “Congratulations. You’re one of 500 people considered for the Quincy Jones project. Congratulations, you’re one of 250. Congratulations, 100 … 50 … 25 … 20 … 15 … 10 … 5 … 4.”
It was me and three dudes. Decca offered a writing deal and a publishing deal as a package. I found out this publishing deal said I had to write 12 songs a year, of which Quincy’s company owned 100 percent of the publishing. I am not a musician. Everything I do is a co-write. If we have to come up with 12 songs a year, that meant I had to come up with 24 songs.
And don’t let three people be in the room, because then it’s even more. I said, “I don’t want this writing deal. I’m not a writer and I don’t want to be on the wrong side of a publishing contract with Quincy Jones, so no.” The boys were like, “Fine.” They took a meeting with Quincy and signed. Quincy said, “Where is Siedah’s name?” They said, “She doesn’t want the publishing part. She just wants the recording-artist part.”
Quincy pushed the paper back to them and said, “You either all sign, or nobody signs.” Next thing I know, “[Imitates loud banging sound on a door and loud, angry voice] Siedah! Bitch, you better sign this contract!”
When three large Black men tell you to sign, you tend to sign. I signed and then I only wrote poems, so I set about the business of learning the craft of songwriting. Because I did everybody’s friggin’ demos during that time, I learned a lot about how songs are crafted, how they are arranged, how the different instrumentation creates different moods and vibes.
I learned so much singing demos for everybody, that it helped me as a songwriter. I’d be like, “Oh, I remember in this song how there was a bridge here … I like how this song started with the chorus … this song started with an intro and right into the first verse.” I learned so much. That whole experience was such a valuable lesson to me. I didn’t realize how much it helped me grow as a songwriter until much later.
That led to the Bad sessions?
Yeah. Then we jump to when Quincy was looking for another song. I took some notes at that meeting, and then I went to Glen Ballard’s, to whom I had only sung on his demos. I loved his songwriting so much. I said to him, “I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this, but Quincy is looking for another song for Michael Jackson. Do you want to try and write a song?” I had never written with him. I had only sung on demos. He was like, “Sure.” I came to his studio and I sat on the floor and I opened my lyric book.
Cut to two years before this day. I’m writing with jazz keyboard player John Beasley. He’s amazing. We were writing this song and the phone rings and he takes the call instead of letting the phone ring, and he begins this banal conversation with I-don’t-know-who. I remember flipping through my lyric book and going, “He is not taking a phone call while we’re trying to write this song.”
I was kind of angry and I’m flipping through my book. I heard him say, “The man? What man? Oh. The man in the mirror.”
Cut to two years later. I’m sitting on Glen’s floor. He says, “What kind of song does Quincy want?” I said, “I don’t know.” He then says, “Let’s see what happens.” And he turns on the keyboard. To get a sound on the keyboard, he starts playing these chords. [Imitates the opening to “Man in the Mirror] And I’m flipping through this lyric book and the phrase virtually popped off the page.
Every time I tell this story, I get goosebumps since I re-live that moment. It was awesome! I started singing the first verse to “Man in the Mirror.” I couldn’t write fast enough. I was like, “Hold up, Glen. Hold up.” I was trying to get it all out. My hands were just moving. In like 10 or 12 minutes, we had the first verse and the first chorus of “Man in the Mirror.”
It was a Wednesday evening. Glen said, “You go home. You finish the second verse. I’ll finish the track. We’ll demo the song on Friday.” I said, “Great.” We got back on Friday afternoon. Finished the song on Friday evening. I then took the song to Quincy’s house.
What happened from there?
He called me two hours later. I was at my house making dinner for myself. The phone rang. I picked up the phone and it was Quincy Jones. He said, “Sied. This is the best song I’ve heard in 10 years.” That’s an exact quote. I had tears in my eyes. And then he said, “But …” I didn’t want to hear shit. I just wanted to live in “best song in 10 years.”
“But Michael and I have been in the studio for two and a half years, and we’ve yet to record a song that Michael didn’t write. I don’t know, Sied. Don’t worry, though. If Michael Jackson doesn’t do it on his record, I’ll have James Ingram do it on my record.”
Now I love James Ingram as much as the next person. But Michael Jackson … James Ingram … Michael Jackson … James Ingram. Next time I heard from Quincy was three or four years later. He goes, “We’re in the studio recording your song.” I’m like, “Yes!” Then he said, “But Michael said the chorus is too short. We need some more lyrics for the chorus. Hold on …” And then I hear, “Hello.”
Quincy Jones put Michael friggin’ Jackson on the phone! I don’t know about you, but when I was coming up, Michael Jackson was my husband. My cousin had Tito. Another had Jermaine. Michael was my husband.
In my little brain, I’m on the phone with my husband! I had to just rein it in. I didn’t want to be fan girl. I didn’t want to be what I was. I didn’t want to let him hear, “Oh, my God, Michael. I love you so much. You have no idea. You’re my husband!” I didn’t want any of that to be heard in my voice. He said, “Hello,” and I went straight-up hotel operator. “How can I help you?”
The first thing he said to me was, “I love this song.” I said, “Thanks man.” The second thing Michael Jackson said to me was, “And I love your voice.” Oh, my God! Ooohh!! I was floating. I was on air. Then he said something about the second verse, whatever.
Even in my naiveté, I knew I didn’t want Michael to have to worry about coming up with new lyrics for the second half of this chorus. What I did was, I created six different stanzas for him to choose from. The one he picked as, “You gotta get it right while you have the time because when you close your heart, you close your mind.”
I wish I still had the list of the other five that were not chosen, but I haven’t been able to find that thus far. But I know it exists somewhere.
Did they call you into the studio after that?
Yeah. Quincy said, “This song is in a key that’s a little too high for Michael, so I need you to sing it in a lower key.” I was like, “Great.” I go down to the studio and I’m expecting to sing this demo in a lower key and then go about my business for the rest of my day.
I walk into the studio and it’s [engineer] Bruce Swedien, Quincy Jones, and my husband! Oh, my God. But I’m still not fan girl. I’m still going to be cool. And then Michael introduces himself like he needs an introduction. It was crazy.
I talked to him about what I needed for the song, and then Quincy tells me to go in there and do it. I start walking towards the vocal booth, and Michael stands up and grabs this humongous beatbox-looking video camera, and starts filming as we’re walking into this room. I’m looking behind me going, “What are you doing?” He goes, “I need to film you.” I said, “Why?” And then he said something that melts my heart to this day. He said, “Because I want to sing it like you.” Oh! No he didn’t just say that!
He follows me into his room and films me singing “Man in the Mirror” in a lower key. And now I have never, ever told this story, ever. And then Spike Lee’s documentary came out, Bad 25, where you actually have footage of Michael filming me. You can see in the mirror in the studio. I’m going into the studio to sing “Man in the Mirror” with the man in the mirror filming me to sing this song. It was just too many points of connection. It was insane. It was like energy pinging and popping off the walls. I’m telling you. It was insane.
How did you wind up on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”?
Well, I’m in the studio with Quincy and Michael just talking. I thought we were going to keep singing “Man in the Mirror.” There was a lot of background vocals that needed yet to be done. I thought Quincy was calling me back two days after that to finish the session. I walk in thinking there was going to be a choir like there was before. And it’s just the three of them.
I’m in the studio and I’m thinking any minute we’ll start “Man in the Mirror” and the choir is running late. But they start playing this other song, and Quincy calls over his shoulder, “You like this song, Sied?” I’m like, “Yeah.” I was actually knitting. He said, “Can you sing it?” I said, “Yeah, I can sing it.” He says, “Go on in the studio.”
I get up and I’m walking in the studio and I didn’t realize Michael was following me in the booth. I’m looking out and I see two music stands with two sheets of music and two lyric sheets that say “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” It says “First Verse Michael. Second Verse Siedah. Chorus Michael.”
It was in that moment that I realized I’m duetting with the fuckin’ King of Pop! What?! It was insane. Oh, my God. My life at that time was insane. It was just one incredible thing after another. It was just too heavy.
Then you sang it later with him in Spanish.
We sang that song in English, Spanish, and French. What? Yes! It was awesome. I spent more time in the studio recording those songs than “Man in the Mirror” because on “Man in the Mirror,” the whole song is just me and him until the choir comes in at the end.
We did a lot of recording at that time, and I spent a couple of weeks with him. That was the most connected that I ever felt with him, even though I toured with him for a year and a half.
That was for Dangerous, though. Why weren’t you on the Bad tour?
Michael asked me to go on the Bad tour. I was like, “Yeah, I think I would love that.” And then I started talking to Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton and to Warner Chappell and Warner Bros. Music. They said, “You’ve got ‘Man in the Mirror’ coming out. You’ve got this duet coming out. You really should do your own record.”
I had been rehearsing for the Bad tour for two weeks when I pulled out and did this record. In my pulling out, the person that took my place was Sheryl Crow.
You had a songwriting credit on one of the biggest-selling albums of the Eighties. That must have been pretty good for you financially.
Not too shabby. [Laughs.]
How was the experience of making your solo album Kiss of Life?
The actual experience of recording an album with Rod Temperton was the most friggin’ fun. I love that man like a brother. He was the brother I never wanted. He was the most talented, hardest-working songwriter I’d ever met. His process was so methodical and deliberate and intentional. He taught me not to settle. He and Quincy Jones taught me that the best songwriters are re-writers and editors, really. You’re not really finished with a song after the first pass. They taught me that. I alway try to hone my lyrics to make each line the best line that it can be.
Did the solo album live up to your expectations and hopes?
It went haywire. It didn’t live up to any of the expectations for me or my record label. It was very disappointing and very expensive and very challenging after that.
What happened is Qwest Records evolved into Warner Chappell. Warner Bros. decided they didn’t like the record that was created previously, so we made another record. This one was with Rod Temperton. I love Rod so much that there was no way I was going to get myself out of it. I would have had to sell 40 million records like Michael to make back the money. Of course, that hasn’t happened since, and it won’t happen again.
Tell me about writing “Keep the Faith” for Dangerous.
I think Michael said something to Glen [Ballard] and I like, “I’d like you to write a song like ‘Man in the Mirror,’ but a little edgier.” I don’t remember his exact words, but Glen and I got together and wrote the verses and choruses to “Keep the Faith” and then we asked Michael to write the bridge. All I wanted was a co-write with Michael friggin’ Jackson. We knew that if we invited Michael to be part of this song, our chances would be better at having the song actually make the album, and it did.
How did you wind up on the Dangerous tour?
I don’t remember. But I knew I wasn’t going to do another Sheryl Crow thing. I wasn’t going to miss it like I missed the Bad tour. I was very excited about being with my peeps since I knew everybody in the band. I spent two weeks rehearsing with them for the Bad tour and didn’t get to go. They’d call me from the road and be like, “We’re in Cork, Ireland! We’re in London!” They wanted me to be a part of it, but it would just hurt me so bad.
What was it like being on the road with Michael?
Being on the road with Michael Jackson was like touring with the baby Jesus. All his legions of fans and people that just can see a picture of him or hear his voice and know he’s in a hotel just start weeping and crying and professing their love.
We hated it when we were in the same hotel as Michael. There were three layers of hotels. The A hotels were for Michael and his guests. The B hotels were for the band and the singers. The C hotels were for the crew.
There were places in Europe where there were no B hotels. We had to stay in the same hotel as Michael. Those were the days we hated because we didn’t get any sleep. They would hold sessions outside the hotel where they would sing songs and light candles. They’d chant, “We love you, Michael!” It was hideous. We only enjoyed the times when we were away from Michael because his legions of fans were relentless.
We were in Spain once and we had an off day. I was like, “Yes! We’re going to go shopping. I can get leather and shoes! Let’s go!” I went downstairs with a bandmate and we exchanged our dollars for pesetas. I’m at the front desk, and outside the hotel they’ve roped off the pathway to lead us to the door because his fans were like a sea. They had a red velvet rope to part the sea so that the hotel guests could come and go freely.
We go outside the hotel and I see all these fans. I’m talking like, “We’re going to get shoes, and leather, and it’s going to be great!” I’m walking and from behind me I hear, “Hey! That’s Siedah Garrett!” I turn around and everybody starts moving towards me. We take off and start running. We’re running for our lives and they’re chasing us. I look over and go, “What are they going to do when they catch us?”
We ran for blocks. Somebody must have said, “Hey, what if Michael comes out while we’re chasing Siedah Garrett?” So they peel off and go back to the hotel. That’s what Michael’s life was like every friggin’ day.
What’s it like to walk onstage at a soccer stadium and see 90,000 people going insane? In videos I’ve seen, people are sobbing uncontrollably and literally losing consciousness.
It’s visual/audio insanity. It’s crazy, the loyalty that his fans still have to this day. They transfer that onto me since I’m the conduit. I’m the next link. His fans are serious about protecting his legacy. They appreciate the fact that I’m doing the same thing.
What was it like to watch him dance from so close every night?
It was truly awesome to watch him work, to know his rehearsal process and then to watch him take that onstage and just do it to perfection. He was so humble in the fact that if you’re the best at what you do, like Fred Astaire or James Brown, all these people that he admired and respected and sort of took what they did and put his little spin on it … those are the people that he respected the most.
No matter who they were, he let them know, and he let me know, that he felt he had as much to learn from me as I did from him. That’s the ideology he took into everything he did, from his dance to his vocals to his writing. He’s one of the most under-honored songwriters that I’ve ever met.
You played halftime at the Super Bowl.
He stood still for two full minutes on live TV while the entire country watched. What was that like?
That was ridiculous. When he was on, he was really, really on. He put on a good show every night. But there were some nights where we had to stand and applaud. We were like, “Damn!” He is the only person that I have ever known of or heard of that can spin eight full revolutions on his heel. What?! We watched him do it. Somebody filmed it and they slowed it down. It was eight full revolutions. Crazy. There were some nights where even we had to give it up, and we saw him every night.
Did you see him much offstage?
No. The most time I spent with him was in the studio [during the Bad sessions]. Nobody saw him on the road. He was very to himself. When we had off days, he would go to children’s hospitals and orphanages and we wouldn’t know where he was or what he was doing until we read it in the paper the next day. By that point, we were getting ready to go to the next place.
Tell me about your time in the group the Brand New Heavies.
That began as a writing assignment. I was meant to just write songs with each individual member of that band. Then they would choose the songs that went on the record. When I did that, they would send me tracks and I would do the demos in London. They flew me there. I would go once a month for, like, six months. I wrote all these songs.
The method of choosing the song for each album wasn’t, “Let’s pick the best song.” It was, “Let’s pick the best song the guitar player wrote, let’s pick the best song the drummer wrote, let’s pick the best song the bass player wrote.”
But since I’d written with all of them, I was on the whole record. They took the demos to London and were trying to audition England singers to sing, and they couldn’t, of course. So they called me and said, “Do you want to be in the band?” I was like, “OK!”
I had a dear friend that lived in London. She helped sort out an appropriate space for me to live, and I lived in London for, like, a year and a half. We toured all over Europe, all over the U.S. We did the Smokin’ Grooves tour with George Clinton and Erykah Badu and House of Pain. It was awesome. That was so much fun, and so free since George Clinton is crazy as hell, and he travels with a small country with him.
You wrote “Sometimes.”
Indeed. I wrote that with Jan Kincaid, the drummer, and it became a big hit in Europe. It allowed us to do this crazy video with Hugh Hefner. It was insane. He was on set. It was a lot of fun.
To jump forward a bit, can you tell me how you wound up on the Madonna Re-Invention tour?
I was having lunch by myself, as I often did at that time, at a very fancy restaurant, having a sushi lunch in the private dining area, which is only, like, six feet, so it was just me. And in walks Madonna and Guy Ritchie. Madonna goes, “Hey, Siedah!” I go, “Hey, Mrs. Ritchie!” That made Guy go, “Hey, this is different.” His whole time with her was probably, “Madonna! Madonna! Madonna!”
Madonna goes, “How have you been? What have you been working on? What are you doing?” When she said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m waiting for Donna to fuck up so I can take her place.” Donna De Lory is the backup singer that was on Madonna’s [Drowned World] tour with [backup singer] Niki Haris.
We finished our lunch and both left. About two years later, I get a call. “Hey, you still interested in going on the road?” “Yes!” And so I auditioned so they could see if I could do the steps, or whatever. I ended up on the Re-Invention tour. But I didn’t replace Donna De Lory. I replaced Niki Harrs. I had no hand in that.
Madonna is the hardest-working artist that I’ve ever worked with. She knows her limitations. And she’ll be the first to tell you, “Look, I’m not the best singer. I’m not the best dancer.”
But let me tell you what this bitch is the best at. Madonna is the best at marketing Madonna. Her fans love her, and all she has to be is herself. That is the best kind of artist to be since you can just be free and still have the support of your fans, which she does. It was awesome. It was like working with Michael on a slightly different level.
One of the biggest differences between Michael Jackson and Madonna is that with Michael, we rehearsed for three months and then we didn’t see him until we were on the stage. With Madonna, we rehearsed for three months, and we rehearsed after every show.
It must have been fun to sing “Papa Don’t Preach” and those old songs with her again.
Yeah. It was really helpful because you didn’t have to sing much since her fans sang all her stuff. It was fun and interesting to hear them sing her songs back to her, and she loved it. She also gave me a feature. I stepped out on “Like a Prayer.”
What was that like?
To have her “endorse” you as a singer was awesome. Her fans wanted to know who I was when they saw me with her. They never put the two and two together besides the savvy ones that saw my name on the True Blue album and put it together. But she let me do a step-out and she helped me, had her arms around me the whole time. She wanted everyone to know, “I approve of this girl.” She let them know by being very physical with me onstage, where the other singers she was just in line with them. It didn’t appear to the audience that she had that deep a connection with them as she did with me.
What’s it like to find out you’re nominated for an Oscar?
I couldn’t believe it. It was surreal. I could not believe it. It came out of the blue. I didn’t write the song in the movie [Dreamgirls] thinking, “Wow, this might lead to an Oscar nomination.” You just do the work and you move on to the next thing. That’s what I was doing. When I got the call from [Dreamgirls musical supervisor] Randy Spendlove saying, “You’re up for an Oscar, girl.” I was like, “What?”
You know what I was saying about writing being rewriting? We did about 24 or 25 iterations of the song in order to come up with “Love You I Do.” If I had said, “You know what? I’m sick of this. I’ve already written 17 songs. I’m done.” But no. I had to write about 17 more in order to write the one song that made the film. As a songwriter, when you’re writing for film or TV or musicals, the music has to be very specific for the scene. The song has to play a part in the scene.
With Dreamgirls, Jennifer Hudson’s character was in love with Jamie Foxx’s character, but she couldn’t tell him straight up, “I love you.” So she invited him to the studio and sang him this song that told him she loved him. In essence, the song was a third actor in that scene.
How was the Oscar ceremony?
Surreal. How often do you come face to face with Glenn Close? We were in the bathroom and she saw my jacket and went, “Oh, I love that jacket.” I’m from the hood. When on earth would I get the chance to be washing my hands at the same sink as someone of her caliber and stature? Only at the Oscars. It was awesome.
Then you had a second Oscar nomination for Rio.
Yes, I did. I don’t know how many Black women in Oscar history have had that happen, but I think I’m in a very small minority.
You reconnected with Michael before he died.
I did. Somebody from American Idol was singing “Man in the Mirror” and they called me to see if I wanted to watch the show. And so I did. I was in the green room and I saw this woman I had only seen one other time in my life. It was at Neverland Ranch. It was Michael’s nanny. She goes, “Oh, Siedah. I was just on the phone with Michael. Let me get him.” I was like, “Oh, get him! Put him on the phone.” I knew I had to get back in the TV studio. But I said, “When you do, tell him, ‘I miss his Black ass.’ “
She was laughing hysterically and said she would. The next break, I go back out and she goes, “Here, here. I have Michael on the phone.”
I get on the phone and the first thing I say is, “Dude, I miss your Black ass.” He says, “You so crazy!” I say, “You know I’ve been nominated for an Oscar.?” He goes, “I know! I heard about that.” I said, “And I heard you’re going on the road to London.” He goes, “Yeah. It’s going to be a big tour. It’s going to be great. It’ll be so much fun.” I said, “I wanna go!” He goes, “You wanna go on tour?” I say, “Yes!” He said, “OK.”
I went to these auditions to see if I blended with the other singers, or whatever. The next thing I know, there is no tour.
The news must have been shocking.
You have no idea. The people that know I know him, I was absorbing all of their grief for him, too. My phone wouldn’t stop ringing. “Channel 2, Channel 4, Channel 11 … Eyewitness News. Entertainment Tonight.” All these shows all wanted the scoop, they all wanted some dirt on Michael. I was invited to a nondenominational church in Los Angeles. The choir director was a friend of mine. She said, “Michael died on Thursday. We’re doing a thing for him on Sunday. The choir learned ‘Man in the Mirror.’ Would you come and sing?” I said, “Yes.”
I get onstage. The first thing I say is, “I’ve been bombarded with media. All these people want to know if I had any dirt on Michael. I have nothing for them. I only know the man and his music. That’s it.” They didn’t want to hear shit from me. They didn’t want that information. Everyone knows that. They wanted dirt, so I was useless for them.
It must be hard for you now after all these allegations have come out. They have nothing to do with you or with his music, but they’ve still turned off a lot of people.
They have nothing to do with the music, and his fans understand that. They get that.
When Michael and I did this duet, it felt to me like a love song. It was a love song that he was singing to me. When he passed so suddenly, I realize that I’d never expressed to him my love for him. So I wrote a tribute song to him called “Keep On Loving You.” I did a little video for it. When I look back on it, it makes me cry [because of] the state I was in when I wrote it, and I never got a chance to let him know how much he impacted my life. I’m sure he knew, but I’d never said anything about it to him.
You’re obviously a big supporter, so is it hard to see all of controversy that swirls around him now?
Yeah. It’s just bad all the way around. It taints his amazing musical legacy. It’s a stain. It’s unfortunate.
To jump to the present, tell me about working with Diana Ross on her new album.
I wrote a song many years ago that was very touching to me and very heartfelt. If I wasn’t going to sing the song on a record of my own, I really wanted a serious artist, a major artist with a maturity and an understanding of the lyrics. I thought about Celine Dion. I thought about Barbra Streisand. I thought about artists of that caliber, and I wouldn’t let it go until someone like that was interested in it. I knew I just had to wait.
My husband, who is also my manager, sent this song called “The Answer’s Always Love” to Diana’s A&R person. They heard it and liked it and played it for her, and she liked it, she recorded it, and it’s on her new album. It’s the first album in 15 years from Diana Ross. Her fans are chomping at the bit for the record. They cannot wait. I’m so stoked.
I feel like I know her because of how Michael talked about her all the time, and Michael’s relationship with her. I might even even get to meet her. That is just going to be awesome. It’s all because of that song [“Man in the Mirror.”] That song has opened so many doors and introduced me to so many beautiful things in my life.
Tell me about your new solo song “The New Frontier (Say Their Names).”
I just got so tired of shooting after shooting after shooting of unarmed Black people. Children. I wrote this song. At the time, there were only two or three names. I had to write verses after verse after verse because there kept being names I had to add, and stories I had to tell, about how these people died at the hands of people that were in charge of protecting them and serving us. They’re killing us with abandon! There’s no consequences, so I had to write about it.
Tell me about your health issues and how you’re overcoming them.
I don’t know how you overcome MS. It’s an incurable disease of the nervous system. You just manage your symptoms, basically. I consider myself lucky because I don’t have the kind of MS that is crippling like it was for Teri Garr or Richard Pryor. It does make me have short-term memory loss. I have relapsing-remitting MS. My symptoms come and go. If I manage it properly, my symptoms are minimal.
When I didn’t know what was happening to me, I was paralyzed on my right side from my ankle to my knee for, like, four weeks. I had drop-foot syndrome. I was walking with a brace on my foot and a cane. It was really, really bad. And then I went to a neurologist and found out that I have MS. Now I’m on a medication that really serves me.
There were three ways I could have gone. I could have gotten an injection once a month, a shot once a week, or take a pill every day. Guess what my option was?
Yeah. If I didn’t have to take a pill every day, I really wouldn’t know that I was sick at all. I feel very blessed. Not blessed to have MS, but to have the kind of MS that I’m able to live with.
What else are you working on?
I have taken the opportunity that has been offered me to timely step into the shoes that Allee Willis left when she passed away. She was the third person in the trinity of The Color Purple with Stephen Bray, and Brenda Russell. When Allee passed, both Stephen and Brenda suggested to their people that they might want to consider me taking Allee’s place since there still needs to be four new songs written for this new iteration of the film The Color Purple. I’m signed on to do that. I’m stoked about that. It’s a musical film like In the Heights.
The next thing I’m so happy to be involved with is the Will Smith film The Pursuit of Happiness. They have decided it will be a Broadway musical and I am writing lyrics for that right now. I’m getting ready to go to New York to work on that. I’ve been working on that for three years, but there’s been some contractual problems and some creative problems and some issues with members of the creative team, so we finally sorted all that out and we are starting up again.
I’m happy to be involved in that again. That was a lot of fun. We’ve already written 12 songs. We have just a few more to go. They want to set it up off-Broadway, see how it looks, and eventually take it to Broadway. My new goal is musical theater. That’s my new goal.
I’ll wrap in a second here, but it’s nice to think of the fact that every day people listen to “Man in the Mirror” and draw inspiration from it. It’s been decades of that. That must make you feel pretty good.
That song is played somewhere in the world every eight seconds. I’m happy about that. And there’s going to be MJ the Musical on Broadway and they have “Man in the Mirror” and “Keep the Faith” in the show. I’m stoked about that. That’s going to open next year.
Oh, there’s also a TV show called Dear White People. It’s the fourth season and it’s going to be a musical season and I’ve written the end title song.
You’re really busy.
A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.