Singer-songwriters Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds & Toni Braxton

With 16 Grammys between the two of them, Edmonds and Braxton reflect on their history, including their latest collaboration.

Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds' work has been a staple of urban contemporary radio since the late 1980s. He's won worldwide praise, countless awards—including an unprecedented three consecutive Grammys for Producer of the Year out of his total Grammy haul of 10—and written for and/or produced the biggest stars in the business. He co-founded LaFace Records and Soda Pop Records, expanded into writing for and producing features and has released 11 solo albums.

Toni Braxton used her blend of R&B, pop, jazz and gospel to become an international star, selling more than 40 million albums and winning six Grammys. She's also had success on Broadway, headlining her own Las Vegas show and starring in a TV reality series, Braxton Family Values, on the WE network. Her latest projects include a duets album with Edmonds, "Love, Marriage & Divorce," and a soon-to-be-released memoir, Unbreak My Heart.

The first female artist signed to LaFace, Braxton has history with Edmonds—the two first collaborated on Braxton's 1992 debut, "Give U My Heart." They are also headed to Broadway as special guest stars in the musical revue, After Midnight, based on the life of jazz icon Duke Ellington.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Toni Braxton and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds have a long history together, so much so that Toni calls him her musical husband. They first sang together back in 1992.

Over the course of their careers they have united, separated, and reunited, so the new CD is appropriate. It’s called “Love, Marriage & Divorce” and contains 11 powerful and emotional tracks about what they have both learned about each of those experiences.

We’ll start our conversation first with a look at clip from the CD, a cut titled “Hurt You.”

[Video clip from "Hurt You"]

Tavis: So Toni, I want to start with you, because the first thing I did when I got the CD – this is the first thing I do with all CDs. I open it up, pull out the liner notes. I want to know everything I can about the CD as I’m listening to it.

Toni Braxton: Okay.

Tavis: So I start going through these liner notes, and I’ve said this a thousand times in Face’s presence and probably a million times outside of his presence, it’s hard to write better than he writes.

Braxton: This is true.

Tavis: He’s one of the great songwriters -

Braxton: I agree.

Tavis: – certainly I think probably the greatest songwriter of our era.

Braxton: I think so too.

Tavis: That’s my sense of it. But you were not intimidated, because I see on some of these tracks these things were co-written -

Braxton: Yeah.

Tavis: – with Toni Braxton.

Braxton: Yeah. He encouraged me to write.

Tavis: So yeah, tell me about that.

Braxton: I was going through a divorce at the time, and he said, “Let’s talk about it, write about it. You know how to write.” I was a little uncomfortable at first, but he said, “No, do your thing. Put your feelings, put your emotions, excuse me, to lyrics, and make the lyrics. I’ll help you with the music.” I’m (makes noise).

Tavis: That’s all right.

Braxton: I got juicy mouth, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, it’s like one of those things, I’ve been (unintelligible). Okay, he’s -

Tavis: Was that intimidating for you?

Braxton: At first, because this is Babyface. He’s my favorite writer. But he made me feel comfortable. He said, “It’s important that they hear your voice on this album.”

Tavis: See, it’s one thing to get beyond the intimidation of writing with him.

Braxton: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: It seems to me, though, it seems to me to be another thing to be willing to be transparent enough to put your life in lyrics.

Braxton: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

Tavis: How’d you navigate that?

Braxton: Well there were a few therapy sessions. There were some times we would go to the studio and we wouldn’t sing at all. We would just talk about male and female issues and marriage and divorce and all that good stuff.

That made it easier to sing it, because I felt less vulnerable. With him, I don’t feel like I have to hide anything. He understands me. We’ve been together – hate to say we’ve been together – we’ve been together since 1992. That’s like telling my age – how old is she? I’m a little older. (Laughter)

But with him, it’s a comfort. It’s like I’m at home. Even though I was a little intimidated writing with him, he encouraged me. There was a few things he’s like, “That doesn’t make sense. I’m sorry, I am Babyface and I know that’s not going to work.” (Laughter)

There were a few of those moments, but overall I feel braver now as a writer. I’m more comfortable with my writing skills because of him.

Tavis: I suspect you would be at this point, working with him. So what that reality face did for me, looking at the liner notes and seeing that Toni has co-written some of these tracks on here, what it did for me is to make me appreciate your writing even more as a fan.

I say that because it’s one thing to have a woman in the room with you helping you write this stuff so you get a woman’s perspective, who knows better than we could ever know (laughter) what it feels like to be a woman.

But then I flash back to all the stuff you did when there wasn’t a woman in the room, like “Whip Appeal” and “Given a Chance.” You start to run the list of all the stuff you’ve written when there wasn’t a Toni Braxton in the room.

Where does that come from, your, this innate ability you have to write music as if there’s a woman living inside of you? Clearly, you’re all man. But where does that come from?

Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds: I don’t think – I think you just write about feelings, what people feel. If you just can realize how someone else, what they’re going through, then you write about that.

You know when you’ve hurt somebody and you know when you’ve been hurt, so you write about it. I don’t think it’s a big difference between what a man feels and what a woman feels sometimes.

Tavis: There may not be a difference, but you have a way of expressing it in such a way – I’ve seen you in concert a gazillion times – you have a way of expressing it where women in the audience just go crazy when they hear it because it resonates.

Edmonds: You just don’t be afraid to be emotional on stage.

Tavis: That’s the trick?

Edmonds: That’s the trick, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: (Unintelligible) All right, so Toni, tell me where this process began. So as I mentioned earlier and as you mentioned a moment ago, you guys have been together, gone your separate ways, come back together. What was the genesis of coming back together again for this?

Braxton: I was going to retire.

Tavis: Which we’re going to get to, because that sounds ridiculous to me, but go ahead, yeah.

Braxton: But I was going to retire, and my sister, Towanda – my family actually was trying to talk me through it and it wasn’t work. So Towanda snuck and called Babyface up and he said, “What are you doing? Come over. Let’s just come and talk.”

We aired some of it on “Braxton Family Values,” but the heat of our conversations were not on camera. He gave me some encouraging words that I didn’t want to hear, initially, I’m going to be honest.

But after a while it started to penetrate. Then he said, “Your music, our music, as singers and performers, we have the ability to heal ourselves, because music can be therapeutic. Talk about it, sing about it. It’s not time to retire. You should never retire, actually.” So it took a while. How long would you say, a couple months?

Edmonds: Yeah.

Braxton: Couple months. He got me in the studio finally, and I didn’t sing anything when we first got there. Just kind of let him talk and coach me through it. Finally he got me on in the booth and I started singing, and I was like, “This does feel comfortable.”

He said, “You have to fall in love with your music again, Toni. You have to remember you have this instrument. It’s beautiful. Learn to love it.” So I did, I fell in love again.

Tavis: All right, so now I’m going where you know I’m going, which is why. Exactly. (Laughter) Why in the world you were thinking about retiring.

Braxton: I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a phase of your life that’s very uncomfortable, we’ll say; very dark. I was a little depressed, I think. I have lupus, I don’t know if you know that, and I’d just been diagnosed with blood clots, and the doctor said, okay, you can’t really travel, you can’t do anything.

I kept feeling like every time I get knocked down I have the courage to get up, but this time I don’t feel like getting up. I can’t do it anymore. I just was going to throw it all in.

I said, “That’s it for me.” I was thinking no anything. I had no plans. I was on the no-plan plan. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I wasn’t afraid to be there. That’s when you know it’s a form of depression. Hopelessness, a bit.

Tavis: I want to just press one more time. When this is all that you’ve ever done and all that you’ve ever known and you’ve been blessed to do it so well at such a high level, and to be celebrated and rewarded for it, I’m just curious – what do you think you might have done? (Laughter) If not music, what would you do? What would Toni Braxton – you’re not going to be a flight attended. What are you going -?

Braxton: Right. (Laughter) This is true. I was thinking about acting, maybe I can get something on Disney, play a mom, play something true to character or – I had no idea. I really had no idea what I was going to do.

(Unintelligible) pay my bills. I’ll worry about that later. That’s not a good phase to be in.

Tavis: That advice, Face, that you gave her to not retire, and for that matter really to never retire, before she said that, my mind was there.

Because if this is what your avocation is, if this is what your calling and purpose is, and Face and I are both from Indianapolis and grew up in the same church tradition -

Braxton: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: – his mom and my mom, yeah. So when you grow up in this you understand that if this is the gift that you have been blessed to have and this is your calling in the world and your purpose in the world, how are you not going to do it?

How do you ever retire from music? You may not be making records anymore, but you can’t, when you’re a true artist, can you ever retire?

Edmonds: There are those that could, yeah, because there’s the love of music and there’s the business of music, and the business can take you out. Every artist goes through a point where you question whether you’re relevant.

Braxton: Yes.

Edmonds: You want to be relevant, you want to make sure that everybody still appreciates your music and appreciates you. If you get at a point where that’s in question, then you, along with everything else, and especially in Toni’s case, for being knocked down in so many ways in terms of just life in general, which is kind of getting on her shoulders, you get lost, and you forget what you were there for in the first place.

Tavis: So you’ve said two or three things I want to go pick up now. Now it’s getting good because you’re saying stuff I want to dig a little deeper into and have you unpack for me.

So when you say that every artist – and I take this at face value – when every artist at some point goes through a phase where he or she wonders whether or not they are relevant, whether or not their music is relevant, what did you mean by that?

Because relevancy for artists, true artists, can’t be tied to record sales. It can’t be tied to radio airplay. That’s the easy way to look at it. But true artists, you take my point, that can’t be what makes you relevant.

Edmonds: It is the first thought that you think of, record sales.

Tavis: Okay.

Edmonds: Whether you can, when you go out and tour, are people coming to see you, do people care. That’s when you were relevant before, when everybody wanted to see you.

What happens when people don’t want to see you and this is what you do? You want to perform and you want to sing, but you have nowhere to perform or sing, and you don’t know if anybody really cares.

For an artist, that’s where you give, and if no one’s willing to accept it anymore, then that’s kind of strangling, in a sense. So you have to get past that, of not depending on record sales.

One thing I said to Toni, look, Toni’s sold so many records, she’s sold eight million – more than that – but one album she sold eight million records. So if she never sells another record, you’re good. You’ve done your job.

What you have to do is get back to a point of loving the music that you do and not caring about how many records it sells, but does it feel good to you. Because ultimately, if it feels good to you, then you’re going to be happy.

It’s going to show on the records that you make, and people are going to fall in love with it again because that’s what they fell in love with in the first place.

Tavis: See, I have a hard time imagining, however you long you and Toni live, which I hope is a long, long time, I can’t imagine that y’all will ever get to a place where people won’t come hear you.

You may not be selling out the Staples Center or Wembley in London, but there’s always going to be a fan, because the stuff that you’ve written is the stuff that’s going to stand, I think, the test of time.

Some of this stuff coming out today ain’t going to be played 25 years from now, but I think your stuff will be. But let me ask how it is that you were able to get yourself into a position where you’ve been able to navigate well both the artistry of the business and the business of the business.

Because everybody wants to be Face, everybody wants to write their own stuff, they want to own their own content, they want to be making money for years to come, they want to stay on the charts.

You’ve been able to do well as an artist and as a businessman. How’d you figure that out?

Edmonds: Well it’s because I’ve been able to work with artists like Toni Braxton and besides just myself, I’ve been able to work in different genres of music, so I’ve been able to stay busy and kind of stay relevant in that sense.

Because it wasn’t all just on me. If I just had to do just Babyface, if it was just a Babyface album, then I would be like (unintelligible) question (laughter). Toni (unintelligible) talk to me.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Edmonds: But because I’ve been able to do all these other things, I’ve been able to grow from it and learn a lot from it as well. So I’ve been around so many artists.

Michael Jackson, he used to chase relevancy all the time. He always wanted to go a little bigger and better and keep that audience. There was never a point where Michael was going to feel like, “I’ve got to play the Nokia and that’s all I’m going to pull in is the Nokia.” That would not have been acceptable.

So it’s a thing as an artist, you chase, you chase that all the time, and what I’ve found is that it’s not the audience that you should be chasing, it’s your love for the music that you do you should be chasing.

That you are in love with the music that you do, because that’s what pulls the audience in.

Braxton: Yeah, I agree.

Edmonds: Is when they know that you are honest, and they can sniff out honesty anywhere.

Braxton: Yeah.

Edmonds: And if it’s fake, if you’re chasing, if you’re trying to be too young, if you’re trying to be something that you’re not, then they sense that. You have to be who you are. When you are, then if you’re a great artist, like you are, like Toni Braxton is, then they’ll see it.

Tavis: There is a lot of – speaking of honesty, Toni, there’s a lot of honesty on this record. There are a couple lines, in fact, on one of the songs, your song “I Wish,” that are so honest I can’t even repeat it on PBS. (Laughter) Because it’s just that honest.

But talk to me about the project specifically and about the content here, because there’s some good stuff on here.

Braxton: The song, “I Wish,” that you mentioned, my parents had gone through a divorce, we were on the divorce part of the album, the “Love, Marriage & Divorce,” and I said, “My parents were married for 35 years, Kenny, and they got a divorce.”

I said, “My mom had these issues about it. I actually wrote a song, I’m going to play it for you.” I was thinking about my mom and I came up with the lyric “I wish she’d break your heart” because my mom said it about my dad.

“I wish that woman would break his heart,” it was infidelity. “I wish she’d catch a disease,” I wish all these things. I wrote some melodies with it, and Kenny said, “That has to be on the album.” I said, “You sure?” “Trust me. Trust me on that.”

Tavis: See, that don’t fit – disease and melody in the same sentence. (Laughter) That just don’t, that don’t work. Only you and Face could figure that out. Yeah.

Braxton: Yeah, it worked out, but that’s what he said.

Edmonds: It’s honest.

Tavis: Yeah, it is honest, that’s my point. It’s terribly honest. (Laughter)

Braxton: It’s an honest song, and women feel that way. Do guys feel that way? Is that – no? Maybe?

Edmonds: Maybe, yeah.

Braxton: See?

Edmonds: (Unintelligible) the right one.

Tavis: Yeah.

Braxton: Have you ever felt that way?

Tavis: No comment. (Laughter) No comment.

Braxton: Okay. I was trying, I was trying.

Tavis: Yeah, I plead the Fifth. I’ll ask the questions around here, thank you very much.

Braxton: Okay, you’re right, this is your show.

Tavis: This ain’t “Braxton Family Values.” I’ll ask the questions here.

Braxton: Okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: I’m just being funny.

Braxton: I know. (Laughter)

Tavis: So when you get together, you get these two great artists together and you decide you’re going to do something, did the songs come first or did the frame come first?

That is to say, we’re going to do an album about love, marriage, and divorce, or did you just start writing songs and you know what? This sounds like love, marriage, and divorce. What comes first, how does that work?

Edmonds: Like that – just like that.

Braxton: Well I was going, like I said -

Tavis: Yeah.

Braxton: Just – exactly. (Laughter) We just starting singing about issues of the heart, and -

Tavis: And it became “Love, Marriage & Divorce.”

Braxton: – it became “Love, Marriage & Divorce,” yeah. Yeah.

Edmonds: It was something that, she wanted to sing about something that mattered. So initially it was about her life, and she was going through divorce, so I said, “Well, we’ve got to sing about it, but we have to sing about the love as well,” and -

Braxton: How’d you get to the divorce.

Edmonds: – and the married part, yeah. How it happened. But not – initially we were going to do it, like, through the whole relationship, and as we started doing that it started to feel a little bit like a play, and not honest.

Braxton: Yeah, yeah.

Edmonds: So it soon became just a collection of songs that give you feelings about each thing. It took a minute to kind of get there, just for the sake of us being in the studio and trying to figure out -

Braxton: Yeah, scheduling.

Edmonds: – what works, and Toni suddenly became a writer, and. (Laughter)

Braxton: I was like, “Are you serious?”

Edmonds: And then she knew everything, and.

Braxton: There were a few moments of that

Edmonds: So we had a few times where it was like we were fighting like cats and dogs.

Tavis: Yeah, (unintelligible) -

Braxton: Creatively.

Tavis: Yeah. How’s Toni Braxton going to tell you? Yeah. Is that how it went?

Edmonds: Well, Toni Braxton would tell anybody.

Braxton: I’m sorry, I’m sitting here. I’m right here. Refocus.

Edmonds: Toni Braxton will tell anybody -

Tavis: Will tell anybody, yeah.

Edmonds: – what she thinks she knows she’s talking about. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, since she’s asking questions on my show. I see how that works.

Braxton: I’m sorry, it’s a girl thing.

Tavis: Yeah, she just takes over, yeah, I get it. (Laughter) This is what they call in the business these days a “concept album.” It’s not just a bunch of songs. There’s a concept here, love, marriage, and divorce, and all the songs fit the concept.

I’ve talked to a thousand artists over the years who, certainly of late, are trying to find the right concept for their new project, which strikes me as interesting, Face, because back in the day, since we mentioned “I Wish” earlier, I think the last time I saw you, you and I were backstage at a Stevie Wonder concert.

Stevie, just a few weeks ago, as you know, did the whole “Songs in the Key of Life” album here in a concert, top to bottom, and just killed it. Whole album, top to bottom.

It just reminded me, as this conversation does now, that there aren’t albums made like that anymore, where you put the thing on and you go from top to bottom. Now we try to find concepts to make that work.

But what happened to the business where you could put – there are a lot of – people put singles out all the time. But it’s hard to go to a record store these days and just pick, just run into the record store and just pick a bunch of albums that are out that are new, you put it on and you’re happy to hear it top to bottom and it all makes sense, like a concept.

Edmonds: For the most part, people are chasing singles. They’re chasing hit singles.

Braxton: That’s true.

Edmonds: So when you’re chasing hit singles, you don’t necessarily think of the album as a whole and whether it feels good. So the main thing that we talked about, the first priority was that this album felt good.

Above everything, that it felt good. Once we were there, then everything else would kind of fall into place. So we didn’t, when we sat down we didn’t know exactly what the songs would be.

We had no idea. The thing that’s interesting is that yeah, you can sit down and talk about a concept album all day long and not get it. I think we were lucky, we were blessed that we actually came with material that it felt right.

The very first song we did was “Hurt You,” and when I was sitting there with Daryl Simmons, we were sitting inside the studio, and Toni started singing. The moment she started singing I said, “Oh my God, there go Toni Braxton.” (Laughter)

It was so nice to hear and feel, because it felt like I just hadn’t heard her or felt her like that in a long time. So it was good.

Tavis: Aside from the fact, Toni, that you know you’ve done something wonderful here that everybody’s talking about already, were there other takeaways for you at the conclusion of this project?

You know you can still sing, obviously, and you know you’ve got a great record here, a great album, top to bottom. But since you were on the verge at one point of just walking away from this, were there other revelations that you’ve had since completing this now? You feeling a little better about, a little different about it?

Braxton: I am better. It’s not 100 percent, because it’s a process.

Tavis: Sure, it’s a process.

Braxton: But I like my voice again.

Tavis: Was there a time you didn’t?

Braxton: Yeah. I thought it was out of style and it was dated, because that’s what I was being told. I said, “You know what, that’s not true. I like my voice.” I used to love my voice, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a performer. I enjoyed singing.

I think sometimes as an artist you lose sight, you get so – how do I say this? Sometimes when I see other artists and I’m like, “Oh my God, they’re so huge, look at their success,” I forget my contribution too.

You can get lost in that sometimes, looking over the fence of other people and forget what you have in your own backyard.

Tavis: See, that comment strikes me as fascinating, though. I know what you mean by it and I suspect that you and others have heard this, as you said. But for someone to tell you that your voice is out of style – it’s one thing for your songwriting, it’s one thing for your style of playing, it’s one thing for there are always advances in instrumentation, in production.

I get all that, but how does a voice go out of style? That’s like the most insulting thing.

Braxton: It was pretty insulting when I heard it. I heard it a few times. “The industry’s changed; music is a lot like fashion.” But I consider myself the classic black dress that never goes out of style, but I lost sight of that somewhere along the way.

Tavis: Face, anybody ever have the nerve to tell you that, that your voice is out of style?

Edmonds: Of course. Yeah, yeah.

Braxton: I think most entertainers, singers, have heard that.

Edmonds: It’s just -

Tavis: So what do you do with that? Like, what do you do with that?

Edmonds: You ignore it.

Tavis: Yeah.

Braxton: I didn’t do that, though. I (unintelligible).

Edmonds: You just ignore it. Look, there are certain songs for (unintelligible) there’s certain songs, a way that you would sing, particular way that you would sing, and they sing a little bit behind the beat.

If you don’t do that, then you’re dated. You’re too old school. So basically what’s happening in music, I believe, today, is that the door is opening up again and people aren’t so narrow-minded on what has to be trendy.

So at this point everybody’s kind of like, they’re just looking for music to make them feel good. That makes it work for us.

Tavis: Speaking of making people feel good, I want to personally thank you on national television for bringing back melody. Thank you very much. (Laughter) Because somewhere along the way it just got lost.

Braxton: Sometimes.

Tavis: It just got lost, the melody just, like, went out the window. Nobody’s writing melody anymore.

Edmonds: There’s a few people that are.

Tavis: Yeah, only a few. I mean I say “nobody,” but yeah.

Edmonds: So and I think because of that, those few people that are, it’s kind of opened the door for even Toni and I to kind of reappear, because it’s happened. Bruno Mars -

Braxton: Yeah, he’s one of them.

Edmonds: – clear melody. Pharrell, he’s been coming up with great melody. It’s changing, and there was a point where it was all just kind of straight linear kind of melodies, but it is changing.

Even Drake comes with melodies. So it’s like you’ve just got to look for it. It might not always be your cup of tea, but I think that’s why I’ve always listened to everything, because if there is something that you don’t like in a particular genre, well, you can find it elsewhere.

Tavis: So Toni, you know everything about singing. What’s your takeaway from this project about songwriting?

Braxton: I actually enjoy the songwriting process. I didn’t think I would ever enjoy it as much as I have, because I’m always the singer. I want to sing, I want to sing about my feelings as opposed to write about them.

But I felt very comfortable. Not at first, though, huh, Kenny? It took a second. It took a second for me to get there, but I feel like I could write for other people, maybe, Babyface (unintelligible) maybe. (Laughter) Thought I’d throw that out there.

Tavis: You’re going to flip and start writing for him now, huh?

Braxton: That was my moment. I felt good about that. (Laughter) Yeah.

Tavis: If you can do it, I ain’t mad at you.

Braxton: You know?

Tavis: The new project – they are back together and the project is called “Love, Marriage & Divorce,” starring Toni Braxton and Babyface. Don’t get much better than this. Honored to have you both on the program, and congratulations.

Braxton: Thank you so much.

Edmonds: Thank you.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

COMMENTS

  1. tonya
    February 21, 2014 at 12:38 am

    Thanks Tavis for your comments on the Toni and Babyface feature.

  2. Melissa
    February 22, 2014 at 4:09 am

    I truly enjoyed the interview. Mr. Smiley asked great questions to both artist. The album is awesome. I’ve missed both Babyface and Toni Braxton. It’s great they are back singing together.

  3. Dorothy
    February 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    great interview Tavis I love the album usually I can’t sleep with music playing or with any noise but this album get me to sleep I play it every night haven’t felt this good about music in a very long time.

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