"These songs came from memories, and these songs helped shape who I am and they're still shaping who I am," says Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds about his beautifully emotional new album, Playlist. "They shaped my past and now they're shaping my future." Indeed, eight of Playlist's ten songs loom large in the memory of just about anyone who has loved popular music for the past three decades. The titles and the original performers alone constitute a pop-radio dream team: "Wonderful Tonight" (Eric Clapton); "Shower the People" and "Fire and Rain" (James Taylor); "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (Bob Dylan); "Please Come To Boston" (Dave Loggins); "Longer" (Dan Fogelberg); "Time in a Bottle" (Jim Croce), and "Diary" (Bread).
Much loved as they are, however, these songs are not necessarily the first ones that fans would associate with Edmonds, as he himself admits. "Coming from 'Whip Appeal' to these songs, it seems like a stretch," he says with a chuckle. "But it doesn't feel like that to me. It feels pretty natural." Indeed, while being characteristically respectful of the original versions, Edmonds layers in rhythmic emphases that make the songs move sensually on the bottom as the melodies float delicately on top. The result is immediately accessible acoustic soul music; old, cherished memories made new again.
Playlist was a labor of love for Edmonds because, as is the case with so many millions of other people, these songs are a big part of the reason that he fell in love with music in the first place. "When I was in the seventh or eighth grade, I would go to church on Sunday, and I'd listen to the music," Edmonds recalls about his childhood in Indianapolis. "That was the fun part for me. But when the preacher started preaching, I would leave and go to the car and listen to the radio. Normally, I would listen to the R&B station, but they'd be playing church music, too. So I'd switch to the AM pop station, and that's where I was introduced to James Taylor, Bread, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton. I was learning how to play guitar, it was acoustic music, and it talked to me. I loved it."
Performing songs that have meant so much to you for so long can present its own challenges, however. How do you live up to the artists who have set the standard by which you measure yourself? Edmonds had to confront that issue in the studio. "Look, I could have done a whole record of James Taylor songs, I love his work so much," Edmonds says. "What I appreciate about him is that he has so much love in his voice - it's so calming and cool. But initially when I sang ‘Shower the People,' I realized that I wasn't even close to the feeling that he gives. So I studied him to understand how he makes it feel so good, and ultimately I was able to get into that space."
Dylan’s "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" also required some thought – even though (or maybe because) one of Edmonds' children is named Dylan in honor of the great songwriter. "I was a little afraid of doing it, because in no way is my voice close to Dylan's," Edmonds says. "His voice is so free and rugged. But that song has always been great. And, finally, that's one of the tests of great music: a great song is always a great song."
Of course, Edmonds has worked with Eric Clapton – most notably on the Grammy - winning single "Change the World" – so the ballad "Wonderful Tonight" was a natural choice. "That's one of his songs that I've always loved, because he doesn't do a lot of romantic songs," Edmonds says, laughing. "That one was an easy fit."
Bread's "Diary," meanwhile, with its moving thematic twist and vision of love as a potentially painful mystery, is one of the places where Edmonds first encounters the atmosphere that would inhabit so much of his own music. "That's one of the first songs I heard on that AM radio station that really hit me," he recalls. "That was part of my training – the bittersweet romance, being in love, being heartbroken. That was the music that helped shape that."
Playlist's ultimate challenge, needless to say, was coming up with a couple of new songs that fit the album's richly textured mood. "That was a difficult task - like, okay, now you're going to add two songs of your own and compete with these?" Edmonds says. "But I'm lucky. I feel that I wrote two songs that can stand with everything else. They fit right in."
There's no question that "Not Going Nowhere" will touch the heart of anyone who has had to reassure his or her children that divorce won't mean a separation between parent and child. For Edmonds, whose amicable split from his wife Tracey was national news awhile back, the song came directly from real life. "I played the chords one day, and those words just flowed out like a conversation," Edmonds says. "It's part of a conversation that both Tracey and I had with our kids. We told them that we’re still the best of friends, and that nothing was going to change. We wanted to make them feel secure."
"The Soldier Song," too, grew out of a parent-child relationship after Edmonds visited a friend whose son had served in Iraq. "It brought it close to home, to see that connection," he says. "Regardless of what your politics are, when these kids go over there, they believe that they are fighting for us. And they die for us. Whether the war is right or wrong, from their hearts, they're fighting to make us safe. So we should remember them and respect them."
In conclusion, Edmonds says that, "Playlist is one of my favorite records that I've done. What's cool is that it's familiar, but it's fresh. I want people to hear something they know as if they’re hearing it for the first time. And I hope a lot of people really care for it, because I would love to do more – and pull out more of my favorite memories."