Maybe it’s because he’s young (not yet 30) or still new to the pop star game, or a polite Southerner at heart (despite last year’s move from Richmond, Va. to Los Angeles). But when I ask R&B vocalist Elliott Yamin if he’s had a chance to check out New Orleans’ French Quarter — where his tour bus is parked as he speaks to Xpress — he earnestly promises to do just that.
Actually, everything about the American Idol Season 5 third place finalist is down-right humble. From his unassuming underdog role on the reality show to his debut, self-titled release, Yamin seems to make his mark by quietly surpassing all expectations.
For starters, the vocalist hardly looks like a soul singer — though he points out that he inherited his talent from is mother who used to sing in a Richmond-based doo-wop group. Weaned on Dinah Washington and Stevie Wonder records, Yamin now claims, “I think I’m contributing to the movement of bringing back really tasteful R&B.”
And just how is he doing this? For starters, he co-wrote half the songs on his CD. He’s also a partner in the resurrection of Hickory Records, a defunct Acuff-Rose imprint, probably most famous for Donovan albums. Yamin’s disc is the label’s first release since 1979. “I’m a partner in the record deal,” Yamin notes. “I’d like to make it my own and bring other artists on.”
Here’s the low-down on Yamin’s plan for R&B-chart domination (not to mention his views on instant fame, rising rock bands, the state of music today and where he picked up the slogan “Sing like Yamin it”).
Mountain Xpress: How is the French Quarter?
Elliot Yamin: I wouldn’t know. I mean, I’m real excited to be here but I haven’t had a chance to walk around yet. I plan on doing so very soon. It’s really cool here.
Where do you call home, these days?
I live in L.A. now. I have a condo that I rent in Studio City, actually. Officially, it’s been a little over a year now. I’m not a stranger to L.A. I was born there,, and lived there until I was 10 and I’ve always been to visit my old man there. It’s not a change really, it’s just my whole life has changed. I’m not really there that often, I’m on the road a lot. So in that respect it’s very different.
How have things changed for you?
(Laughs) Yeah, it’s a pretty drastic change from what I was doing a year and a half ago. But it’s great, you know? I’m having the time of my life.
How has the instant-fame aspect of Idol affected your career path? And are there advantages to over-night success versus having to work ten years to break in to the business?
I almost kinda feel like … well, I don’t know if ‘unworthy’ is the right term to use, but I kinda feel like I took major shortcuts. I’ve had this gift [of singing] almost my whole life, but I was afraid to use it. A guy like myself, I just wasn’t pursuing a career, even though I wanted to. I wasn’t in any way, shape or form trying to become a recording artist or trying to become a singer. Those were just pipe dreams I had on the back burner of my mind.
Sometimes I feel bad. Like, we’re on a tour with Josh Hoge and The Last Goodnight. Sometimes things don’t go right. Things don’t always go right when you’re on the road, and then I look at guys like Josh Hoge, who had a [record] deal and his deal got shelved and he’s been doing this for a few years now. You look at how hard the Last Goodnight is working and they’re a new breaking band. I just feel like sometimes those real artists who have been trying for a long time get slighted a lot. I feel like I’ve gotten all this glory, all this success overnight. I still work hard myself, but it’s just weird. It’s just different, man.
Are you in a position to help those people get recognition?
Yeah, hopefully. I want to see those guys blow up so I can say I knew them when (laughs). Anything I can do to help is great.
How much input to you have into who opens your shows?
I have input. It was ultimately my decision who went out [on tour] with us. I was pretty open to whoever wanted to come out with us. It wasn’t that big of a deal to me. However, I know know the lead singer [Kurtis John] and the keyboard player [Ely Rise] with the Last Goodnight. Ely was actually my original keyboard player, and I did a couple tracks with him on my record. I met Kurtis when he was out in L.A. recording a record. So, I had an established rapport with those guys early on. We’re all good friends, so it just made sense. They had major label resources and major label backing and I don’t. We’ve both been helping each other.
Tell me about your label.
Hickory Records is kind of resurrected. It was a defunct label that Sony had back in the 1970s. We kind of brought it back from the dead and I’m the new launching artist. I’m a partner in the deal, we did a 50-50 profit-sharing deal. Eventually, I kind of want to make it my own and bring other artists on. I think there are so many ways to do things independently these days. It’s really the only way to go. The music business is always thriving, but record businesses can be kind of shady.
How were you introduced to soul music?
I got into soul music from a very early age. My mom was a soul singer in a doo-wop band around Richmond, Va. She’d always play Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Washington, Aretha Franklin and all those kinds of soul singers. I kinda grew up on it. I grew up on old soul music ,and just hearing her singing it all the time around the house kind of helped influence me, you know. I’ve always taken up an interest in that style of music. I guess that’s just where my soul comes from.
Are you bringing soul music back?
I think I’m a contributing part to the movement of bringing back really tasteful R&B. There’s so much junk on the radio. I just want to make quality music. That was my goal from the beginning. The cool thing is, I’m able to contemporize some of my sound and some of my music, and have some cross-over appeal, too. That certainly helps. Yeah, I just want to bring R&B back kind of tastefully.
How much writing did you contribute to your album?
I co-wrote five or six songs on the album. I’m still trying to hone my skills as a writer. Writing songs doesn’t come that easily for me. I’ve always been able to articulate my points pretty well, even on paper, but to put in in songs form is another animal. It was a great learning experience for me to get in with other writers and producers and get to experience the process. We’ve been doing it out on the road because you have a lot of free time on your hands. I’ve been trying to get better. It’s great. I love going into the studio, just sitting around with a bunch of really talented cats and coming up with concepts from the ground up. The music and the melodies and the lyrics. That’s a fun process to go through.
Do you play an instrument?
I don’t. Just the vocal chords. I’m slowly learning to put together different chords on the guitar. I’ve always had an infatuation with the keys. Being on the road, on the bus and stuff, the guitar is a little more accessible, so I’ve been fiddling around with the guitar a little. But I’m not good by any standards. If I could play and instrument right now, I’d be coming out with songs right and left. It would be a whole lot easier and quicker to get things done. But that’s the beauty of being in the position I am, to be able to surround myself with such great musicians and writers and talent.
Do you think youth is overrated in pop music today?
I think there are a lot of young musicians my age — [in] my age group and in my generation — who are really putting their stamp and making a dent in the music world today. I’m proud to be a part of that. I think pop music in totality can be a little too contrived sometimes. People tend to try too hard. I’m seeing a lot of unnatural vibes, you know what I mean? One of things I try to do is make sure I’m genuine about music. I don’t want to compromise my integrity or my style of music just to make a buck. I’m not in this to make a buck, I want a lasting career and make music people can feel and appreciate. So far we’re doing that, so I’m very proud of the way things are going on our end. I want to continue to be enthralled by music and I think the rest will take care of itself.
Who came up with “Sing like Yamin it?”
(Laughs) You know what, I’m not going to say I did. During the season on American Idol, the crowd looks a lot bigger on TV that it actually is. It’s really just a couple hundred people in the audience. Of course everybody brings signs. They make T-shirts and signs, and they hold them up. You’ve seen that on TV. One night, very early on in the competition, I looked out and a girl was holding a big ol’ sign sign that said, “Sing like Yamin it.” The first one I saw was “Vote like Yamin it.” I think the follow wing week I saw, “Sing like Yamin it” and I thought that was genius. So I kinda chose that like my entity name and I’ve got that on my MySpace. I kinda stole it from whomever made those signs, and I’ve just been running with it. It’s great, it makes perfect sense. It also helps; people have a hard time pronouncing my name or spelling it, so it makes sense. It’s very clever.
Elliot Yamin plays the Orange Peel on Saturday, Nov. 3 with the Last Goodnight and Josh Hoge. 8 p.m., $20 advance, $22 at the door. Info: 225-5851.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter