One can make a very strong case for Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds being the most successful musician to ever come from Indiana. Forget about Mellencamp, Montgomery and even Michael for a second and examine the career of Edmonds.
No other producer from the Hoosier State has won three consecutive Grammys as Producer of the Year, as Babyface did from 1995-'97. No other Indiana songwriter has written as many Top 10 singles for as many different artists as Babyface. TLC, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men owe their successes to Edmonds; Madonna, Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton and Brandy have all had hit songs written and produced by him.
He's owned a successful record label, released 11 solo albums and produced a number of hit movies. Add a 25-mile section of I-65 that was renamed in honor of his accomplishments and you have arguably the greatest music entrepreneur from this state.
Now, at age 47, with years of wisdom and experience, he's recorded Grown & Sexy, which was released on J Records on Tuesday. It's a more mature, contemplative album of love songs for people who like their R&B smooth as Hennessey, mellow as a spring picnic and sexy as hell, in a Marvin Gaye booty-call kind of way.
Recorded in stops and starts over the past few years, Edmonds said he went through three albums' worth of material to choose the tracks on the new album. "I figured it was finally time to get it done," he said in a recent telephone interview from the J Records office in Los Angeles.
The title reflects where he's at today. "That's what the whole record embodies in terms of how it sounds, although it may have a youthful feel to it in parts. The reality is, grown and sexy means being confident about who you are, having a job, taking care of your responsibilities and just enjoying your life. Thirty-something and up: Those should be the best times of your life, because being grown and sexy, if you wear it well, it's sexy."
He realizes that popular music has been geared historically towards the young. "That's kind of how it's always been," he said, "whether it's rock and roll or hip-hop or rap, thinking that being old means you're square. The whole point is, today, most 30- and 40-something people are far more young than they were years ago. They're taking care of themselves more, people are more into exercising and eating the right kinds of foods and we're living longer. So when you get 30-something and above, you're at a point where your life is just beginning and you can start enjoying things. You should approach it that way as opposed to thinking that you've missed out on something. You're just getting started."
Edmonds came home to perform at Indiana Black Expo earlier this month and debut some of his new material, as well as his greatest hits. Coming back to Indy is always fun, he said, and he follows the same routine each time.
"I usually take a quick ride around the old neighborhood and see how it's changed," he said. "I always go back to my old school - elementary, junior and high schools - and take a look around. It's funny, because people tell me they see my sign on the highway every day and, to this day, I haven't seen it myself. I gotta find out where it's at and go take a picture of myself by it sometime."
While he's currently playing dates nationwide with Anita Baker, Face is planning to hit the studio after those appearances and do what he's most famous for: writing and producing great records.
"I'm getting ready to work with some new acts, so I'm keeping busy, but I'm going to do more live dates and touring. I'm trying to mix it all in. I'm enjoying the music, enjoying life. I'm trying to be grown and sexy."
He doesn't, however, spend a lot of time dwelling on his past glories, though, preferring to stay focused on the present and future. "I appreciate everything that I went through, because I learned a lot through it, and it's obviously put my career to a point where I've been able to work with a number of different artists, and today, working with artists of my choice. But there's always something else to do and always something else to go through."
Having worked with just about every artist imaginable, Face is making yet another breakthrough with his next project. "I'm working on a Bee Gees tribute record and, in the process of that, I was able to work with one of my biggest inspirations when I was growing up, and that was Paul McCartney. He did a remake of 'Too Much Heaven' and I was able to go to England and record that with him. So even to date, there's still amazing things happening with me, and still amazing artists to work with, so the ride's not over."
With Sir Paul scratched off the list, who's left? "I hope to one day be able to work with Sting and Elton John. I'd love to get back in the studio with Stevie Wonder one more time. As artists come up and there's a reason for us to work together, I'm game. But McCartney is off the list now."
He cites the hot production team The Underdogs as carrying on the tradition he and L.A. Reid started in the 1990s, but he's wary of making too many comparisons.
"It's different than the way it was then, and when Jimmy [Jam] and Terry [Lewis] were doing it. The songwriting isn't quite the same. You're pigeonholed even more than ever before as to what you can write and what radio is calling for. It's unfortunate, because you can't be quite as creative in some ways."
He said, "It's all music, it's all studying the radio and studying what people like and what people want to get to, if you're hanging out and you're going to the clubs and you know what it is. It's about being a musician and learning how to write what people want to hear. We were never totally dance music people to begin with, but we'd mess around with it, so we never felt like we were in that zone. For me, I've always been more ballad-heavy. But as a musician, the whole experience is to learn and to figure out what's going down."
Asked whether there are some of his hits he'd like to re-record if given a chance, he said, "That includes about everything. When things come on the radio, I barely can listen to it because I'm always re-producing it. I try not to, but as I learn stuff, I realize I could have done this or that instead. I've tried to stop myself from doing that. About six months ago, or maybe a little longer, I went back for the first time and re-listened to all those records, to see what it was about them that people may have liked about them. It was really the passion, more than anything. It wasn't the production as much as it was the passion that was coming across."
He said he's now ready to begin working again with some of his former acts, such as Toni Braxton and T-Boz from TLC. "The sky's the limit as to what work will happen, or won't happen."
He sees his new album as being as top-shelf as anything he's ever done. "It's about drama, love and relationships, which is more or less what I've done throughout my career, but trying to do it in clever ways. Hopefully, it can become a soundtrack for people's lives in the future. If nothing else, I hope I've helped create a memory for people."