Keni Stevens

“…I’m an observer of life, and the whole ‘Blue Moods’ thing was very much an eighties album, and it was a part of what was going on, not just in my life, but also the environment I was living in, and the people around me. It was indicative of the times.”Keni Stevens

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Keni Stevens is a British born and raised versatile singer, who enjoyed much success in the late eighties with the release of three solo albums, most notably the velvety Soul set ‘Blue Moods’ which received both public and critical acclaim. The sultry mid-tempo ballad ‘Cannot Live Without Your Love’ garnering Keni the most high profile success. Over the years as well as being a studio session singer to many high profile eighties Pop and Soul artists, Keni has been a record label owner and currently specialises in music and event promotions. Thankfully Keni has not hung up the microphone for good and has recently been back in the recording studio with good friend, and ex Central Line band member, Steve Salvari. Fittingly, Michael J Edwards caught up with an effervescent Keni Stevens for a fuller update prior to his cameo performance at Steve Salvari’s first solo gig at the Pizza Express Jazz Bar, London.

Michael J Edwards: Greetings Mr Keni Stevens, it’s a pleasure to meet with you at long last. Tell us, where did it all start for you?

Keni Stevens: My mother was a cabaret singer and my dad was a US serviceman, and that’s how my mum met him when she was singing on base. My dad was from Philadelphia, so that’s probably where a lot of my musical genes come from. For most of my life up until when I was fifteen I was in care, so my musical influences are the same as a lot of kids back then; through the sixties. It was groups like The Beatles and that whole thing. But when all the kids were listening to The Stones and The Beatles, I was listening to the people like Sam Cooke and music like that; and Otis Redding, I grew up on Otis Redding. In the late sixties everything was sort of like Rock Steady, just before it turned to Reggae, so I grew up listening to a lot of that stuff as well.

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

It’s quite funny, because eight/nine years later I ended up working in and having a share in a record label called Conflict records around 1974/75. I grew up listening to these people and the next thing I know I look up and one of my best friends is a guy Lloyd Charmers – who is not with us any more bless him – and I was sitting in the office talking to Ken Boothe and John Holt like we were all of buddies! So I kind of grew up with a lot of different music influences; but because my dad wasn’t around my mum always made sure that any time there was any black artists on television, she would say, “Keni quick, come and look at this!” The first person of colour that I can ever remember being on TV, which my mum used to drag me out of bed to watch was Cleo Laine on a Jazz Show hosted by a guy called Steve Race. Cleo Laine was the first person of colour I remember seeing on TV singing; which is strange because she lives about five miles down the road from me now. (Chuckles)

So that’s where that all started, and when I was in the children’s home I got my first guitar, which was bought for me by my House Mother, Sister Louise. That would have been around 1967; and I was like heavily into Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and people like that at the time. I was so taken by the fact that she’d spent her own money to buy me a guitar, I sat in the bedroom for three months until I could play three chords! (Laughs) The first song I played on the guitar was the ‘Grand Old Duke of York’. I started to learn more chords and I used to think, “Boy this is like hard work, it’s so much easier to sing!” I had little bands that I put together when I was in the children’s home in Harpenden. I came out of there in 1970, and started to hang out in north-west London. I was with a few bands and used to play here, there and everywhere, and around 1974 I was with a band called Raw Energy, and they had a little deal with Ariola Records in Germany. Peter Hinds from Light of the World was the keyboard player.

When that broke up I ended up just buying and selling records out of the back of my car all around places like Jet Star, buying and swapping. That was a pretty good life because we get to London about 11 o’clock and we were all done and in a pub by about half past two. We’d make about forty, fifty, sixty pounds a day, and that was good enough for us. Then I kind of fell in with some guys, and ended up working for NEMS Records – North Eastern Musical Services, which was Brian Epstein’s, the Beatles manager’s company; which always impresses people. One of my duties was to look after Marianne Faithfull, who was signed to the label at the time; I think she did her “Broken Dreams’ album on that label. At that time I was working with a guy called Tony Calder who was one half of the Immediate label with Andrew Oldham. Tony Calder actually promoted the first Beatles’ number one.

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

So by the time I was in my mid-twenties I was hanging out at the Embassy Club with photographer David Bailey and his wife Marie Helvin and Bryan Ferry, and all these people; I was just A-listing. They were some pretty good times and through that my friend Sam and I ended up having six little shops and stalls where we could sell all our deleted catalogue records. We borrowed a lot of them from NEMS Records, which kind of found their way into the back of our car (Laughs mischievously). That’s how we started our business. Years after that all finished I was doing library music in 1980/81. A friend of mine, Paul Madden had a studio in Luton, and I was doing some library music. I used to do a lot of covers for a German company, and I used to sing all the Culture Club and Phil Collins songs.

Then one day a few years down the road Paul said to me, “Oh, a friend of yours says he knows you, his name is Andy Sojka I said, “Oh yeah, I remember Andy from back in the day.” And this is like ten years later. He said, “He’s always in the studio, come down tomorrow.” So I went down to the studio and Andy was there, and Andy being Andy had a way of getting me to do things. So I’ve been there about half an hour and I found myself in the booth doing some backing vocals, and he said, “I’ve got a song for you.” And that song was ‘Nightmoves’, which came out in 1985. I absolutely hated that song, I re-wrote about three times and Andy said,”No, we’re doing it my way!” And that’s how the whole thing started for me as a recording artist. I never really set out to be a recording artist, it was just something that I kind of fell into, and it worked out.

Michael J Edwards: So were you singing prior to that?

Keni Stevens: Not seriously. My dream job was to work for a record company. When I was working for NEMS Records, I thought to myself, “Well, I’m with a major record label, and one day I would like to be the head of A&R and I wanna go out and find new people; that’s what I really wanted to do.

Michael J Edwards: So how did the single ‘Nightmoves’ blossom into the album ‘Blue Moods’?

Keni Stevens: It did a lot better than I ever dreamed of. I did a couple of singles in between, I did a single in 1986 called ‘All Day, All Night’, which didn’t do very well; and then at the end of 1986, I started recording ‘Blue Moods’. And after that everything changed!

Michael J Edwards: So why the title ‘Blue Moods’?

Keni Stevens: I don’t know really; I guess because it was an album of songs that I felt were quite moody. A lot of people normally say they’re feeling blue, and I said, “Okay, I call it ‘Blue Moods’ then.” So that was the idea behind that.

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Michael J Edwards: Where was the iconic cover photo taken?

Keni Stevens: That was taken in Andy’s house in Eton Avenue in Sudbury. That was my idea, and it wasn’t actually raining! Dick Miller was outside spraying the window and Andy was inside wiping the window pane so it didn’t steam up when I was breathing on it. So it’s quite an interesting back story.

Michael J Edwards: Did you pen all the tunes or were they co-written?

Keni Stevens: I wrote ‘Cannot Live without You Love’, I wrote ‘Spend the Night’ and I pretty much co-wrote the rest of the album.

Michael J Edwards: Well you got your writing groove on when you wrote, ‘Cannot Live without Your Love’. Where did you get the inspiration for that tune?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Keni Stevens: It started with the bass-line; it was as simple as that. And the thinking behind a lot of ‘Blue Moods’ was that as I had worked in the Reggae environment, it hadn’t escaped my notice that there were a lot of Soul songs that had been covered in Reggae. So I thought to myself, “I’m going to make an album of Soul songs and hope that they cover it in Reggae.” ‘Spend The Night’ for example was written as a Lovers Rock tune, and I thought that before I record it, or do anything with it as Lovers Rock, I’m going to record it as a Soul version and hope somebody sees that and covers it as Lover’s Rock. And that was covered about six or seven times by various artists.

Michael J Edwards: Please give us the lowdown on your performance of ‘Cannot Live without Your Love’ on ‘Solid Soul’. How did that come about?

Keni Stevens: That was at the studios down in Kennington; I don’t even know how that came about to be honest. The album ‘Blue Moods’ was number one on the Soul charts at the time. That was just a very crazy time for me. I did that, I also did a load of stuff up at the BBC on Pebble Mill. I did some stuff with Sky TV at the Windmill Theatre. A lot of the time it’s just, “Hi! Be here at that time!” I didn’t really know much about what was going on; that was mainly Andy Sojka, bless him, and Dick Miller of Jam Today, who arranged all of that.

Michael J Edwards: What label is that on?

Keni Stevens: I did ‘Nightmoves’ and ‘All Day, All night’ on the Elite label, best known for Level 42, Atmosphere, etc, and the Jam Today label was actually put together specifically for me and ‘Blue Moods’ – that was the beginning of Jam Today.

Michael J Edwards: Where was the album recorded and in which studios?

Keni Stevens: In Luton, in a studio on Brantwood Road, Luton. I did the first two albums i.e ‘Blue Moods’ and ‘You’ there.

Michael J Edwards: So segueing into ‘You’ what was the thinking behind that and how did it come about?

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Keni Stevens: A lot of those songs were songs I’d written, alongside what I did for ‘Blue Moods’. I just didn’t want to leave them, so I just thought, well that just happens to be handy; I’ve already got the next album written.

Michael J Edwards: So basically the album ‘You’ was Blue Moods part two?

Keni Stevens: Yeah, that’s what it was.

Michael J Edwards: Which songs resonate the most on those first two albums, or are they all your babies?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Keni Stevens: Well they are, but when you write songs you make a record. Once it’s gone to press and in the bag there’s nothing more you can do about it. I’m not the sort of person who gets precious about my work. You’ve got to let it go, once it’s out there people are either going to like it or they’re not gonna to like it. As Noel Gallagher would say, “If people don’t like it, I don’t mind, I still like it!” This is the thing, most people say that. “You must have written that song for this person or that person, or about this relationship or that relationship.” No, I’m an observer of life, and the whole ‘Blue Moods’ thing was very much an eighties album, and it was a part of what was going on, not just in my life, but also the environment I was living in, and the people around me; It was indicative of the times, and I don’t think people realise that. It’s like ‘Papa Was Rolling A Stone’ by The Temptations, that was very indicative of the time; and I think people forget that about music.

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Michael J Edwards: You released the album’s ‘You’ and ‘Living on the Edge’ on Debut Records. Was that label, a spin-off from Jam Today or completely different?

Keni Stevens: No it was completely different; that was Scratch Music; which was basically Nigel Wright and all the guys from Concord Management such as Shakatak. They also did all the LA Mix stuff with Les Adams, amongst other hits.

Michael J Edwards: Why did you make the transition from Jam Today to Debut records?

Keni Stevens: They gave me a load of money upfront; I didn’t get paid anything at Jam Today, I didn’t earn a thing. You’ve got to make a start somewhere, and I think you have to accept that somewhere along the line someone is going to rip you off, it’s just how it is.. I’m not bitter about it, as most of my money from Blue Moods, paid for a lot of other artists to record. Andy and I never fell out at all, I was still close to him up until his untimely death in 2000, I still miss him so much and I owe everything to him and Dick Miller.

Michael J Edwards: Why the album title ‘Living on the Edge’?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Keni Stevens: That was my life at the time; I was just living on the edge… You get to a certain stage and you become this whole different character, and everything you do is on-the-fly. Sometimes you have those days where you say never mind what day it is, what year is it! That was one of the reasons why I had to come out, it was just getting to a stage where it was going to be a lot of pressure; and I wasn’t really ready for that pressure, I didn’t want it. I used to enjoy going out partying, but I was never a ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ person, that wasn’t really my thing. I had my moments but it was just something I never personally got into.

But to me ‘Living on the Edge’ is a totally different concept to all of the other albums. I was looking at an adult contemporary market, because by the time you get to that stage you have to start thinking well; “I need to get quite serious about this!” It’s a job, then there’s the commerciality of it, and you have to want to sort of appeal to a wider market. For example, Anita Baker, the music she made for the Soul crowd were very much adult contemporary albums. And I think that’s very important for black artists to break free of that mould. You should be able to get up there and sing your songs, you shouldn’t have to get up there and dance like Michael Jackson.

I remember seeing Bill Withers at the Hammersmith Odeon, and the week before I had seen Freddie Jackson, and throughout the whole show, all you could hear was “Ahhhh!” You don’t see that with Bill Withers man, you can hear a pin drop; because people went there to hear his stories and to hear his songs, and to listen to him sing. I think we kind of lack that nowadays; it’s all about big production. And the thing with big production is you don’t have to be too talented to do that, the production will do it all for you (Laughs). This is why I like doing places like this, The Pizza Express Jazz Bar in funky Soho! This is good, because it’s either pub rock venues, or arenas and stadiums; there’s nothing between. Outside of London there is nothing in between; there’s no Ronnie Scott’s, there’s no Jazz Café, there’s no Pizza Express Jazz Bar. Granted, there’s The Stables in Milton Keynes, which of course is the late Johnny Dankworth and Dame Cleo Lane’s. A beautiful venue with an eclectic mix of music programming there, as well as various musical and community education workshops.

Michael J Edwards: Which artists from the present or past would you like to duet with?

Keni Stevens: I would have to say Barry White, because he wanted to record me. He came and checked my show out when I opened for The Whispers at Hammersmith back in 1987. He was sitting in the wings; his wife had been in to see me the night before and said to him, “You gotta come and check this guy out!” And he was like waiting in the wings, “I Wanna talk to you!” in his distinctive bass voice. But at the time the record companies, they just couldn’t get it together, it was a case of “My people will talk to your people”, and nothing happened. But duet-wise I was a big fan of Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees, I absolutely adored his voice, it has so many colours and textures in it… I like Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra. I’ve seen Sam and Dave live, I’ve seen Wilson Pickett live, Chairman of the Board and all those type of people. Even a duet with someone like Chet Baker, because I sing Jazz as well, I don’t just sing Soul.

Michael J Edwards: Can you expand on that, because nobody knows that side of you?

Keni Stevens: I’ve never really shown anybody that side, but I sing Jazz, I’ve always sung Jazz. My mum used to be a cabaret singer so she used to sing a lot of Jazz. I love the phrasing, and I was a massive fan of “Little” Jimmy Scott, bless him, he’s not with us anymore – a fantastic phraser. When I was working at NEMS records. I was given two tickets and I thought, “I don’t want to see this they’re Jazz musicians!” So I went to the Grosvenor Hotel and I saw Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, and I was thinking, “I need to go back to the drawing board here!” (Laughs)

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Having said that, I’m also a massive Opera fan, I love Luciano Pavarotti, I love the Soul that he had in his voice; and Enrico Caruso, he was another fantastic Bel Canto tenor. So I started looking at all the Bel Canto tenors; I loved all the earlier ones like Stefano and Caruso, and Caruso was one of the guys who brought in the whole Bel Canto thing with his paglliacci where he put the little cry into it.

Michael J Edwards: You also have a similarly distinctive waiver in your voice?

Keni Stevens: It’s a ‘cry’ – a split octave is what they call it; which is great if you mean to do it but sounds absolutely terrible if you don’t. (Laughs)

Michael J Edwards: It seems to have become your signature trait?

Keni Stevens: really? OK, I think that comes from growing up in the sixties. In the sixties there was such fantastic music out there, it was like a massive musical explosion, like from The Stones and all the obvious ones. And then there was this whole like what I call the Woodstock thing; there’s like Canned Heat and Jefferson Aeroplane, which later became Jefferson Starship and Fleetwood Mac of course. I grew up on all that stuff.

Michael J Edwards: Nat King Cole?

Keni Stevens: Don’t talk to me about Nat, I absolutely love his voice! Now here’s a man, I don’t know how a band followed him, because his phrasing was just ridiculous! So I’m here thinking, “Have you got any rhythmical structure at all, because I’d love to be able to sing this.” Funnily enough, I did a little festival out at a place called Clifton Reins, just outside Olney in Buckinghamshire for a friend of mine, and she was a Vietnamese orphan… She had been brought over here and was trying to trace her birth family… So she was having this charity event called ‘Free Spirits’ and it was to raise money for DNA kits, so they would have a chance of tracing their biological parents, which is something that is close to me because my father got shipped back to the States when I was a baby. That was in 1955, and in America it was still against the law in some States for interracial couples to marry. When I was born they shipped him back to America and that was the last we saw of him; so that was of interest to me.

There were two acts on the bill; I did my little bit, I sang, “Cannot Live without Your Love”, and I did a little Reggae version a friend of mine, Uchw Eke, does on his show of ‘My Cherie Amour’. I totally fell in love with the Reggae version of ‘My Cherie Amour’, I couldn’t stop singing it all the way home. They had this band before the headliner called ‘Mad Mods and Englishmen’, and they were singing things like Small Faces and Brian Auger and stuff like that, and I was thinking, “Wow! I haven’t heard this stuff in years!” The headline act was, ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’. You may be a bit too young to remember him, but he had a massive number one hit with a track called ‘Fire’. He’s seventy-three years old, and he was fantastic! I like Rock music, I like Jazz music, I like the Blues, I like Opera, although I’m not too keen on musicals, maybe ‘The king and I,’ ‘West Side Story,’ and ‘South Pacific,’ that’s about it for me.

Michael J Edwards: Why haven’t we heard from you since the ‘Living on the Edge’ album?

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Keni Stevens: You fall in and out of love with music; it’s just one of those things. And I always said when I’ve got something more to say then I’ll say it – like D’Angelo. Back in 2008 I did a track with Drizabone Soul Family; I did all the backing vocals and a duet. I’m working with a smooth jazz outfit called Esperanza, who have done an absolutely fantastic Smooth Jazz version of ‘Cannot Live without You Love,’ with Rhiannon Bradbury on lead vocal. It was put together by a guy from Hitchin called Rico Garofalo, an absolutely fabulous producer! I’m also doing a track for Steve Salvari’s album.

Michael J Edwards: Steve Salvari, please tell us a little bit about your connection with Steve and the song you’re singing tonight?

Keni Stevens: The song I’m singing tonight is a song made famous by Bonnie Raitt. It’s called “I can’t Make You Love Me’. The only difference is, Steve wanted to do it in a different way, so he put it on a 3/4 time signature, instead of 4/4, which meant I had to totally rephrase it! Thank you very much Mr Salvari! (Laughs). If you know the song ‘Break Up To Make Up’ by The Stylistics, it’s very much in that kind of vein. The funny thing is I can’t hear it any other way but 3/4 time now.

Also, Steve is currently working on a new album with me which will be out late 2015 or early 2016. Coincidentally, he’s probably one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with, for the simple reason that he’s one of the best orchestrators of arrangements that I’ve ever known. He’s just got that knack of putting the brass and string stuff together and the backing vocals. I did some backing vocals on ‘Golden Lady’ and I thought I’d knock this out in half an hour. Four or five hours later I was still there, the arrangement and attention to detail were absolutely ridiculous!

Michael J Edwards: The feedback I’ve received about Steve is that he manages to get the best out of an artist. He is firm but fair and has great interpersonal skills. Agreed?

Keni Stevens: He pushes me, and he takes me places where I’ve never been before. I said to him, “Steve, I’ve never really found myself as a vocalist; I’ve never been accepted as a vocalist, I’ve always been seen as Keni Stevens ‘Soul-boy’. And I thought, well no, there’s a bit more to me than that!”

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Michael J Edwards: Can you expand more on your forthcoming and long-awaited new album?

Keni Stevens: You’re gonna have to wait and see! (Laughs) Just to give you a hint, my Dad was from Philadelphia. A couple of weeks ago we did the first weekend session, and we put the guide down for three tracks; so we’re gonna pick it up again later i 2015. I’m back writing with a guy called Graham Ingram, he was the bass player in my band, and I wrote most of ‘Blue Moods’ and also my second album ‘You’ with him. The saxophonist is Mike Stevens, who is now with Gary Barlow and Take That.

Michael J Edwards: Is there a title for the album as yet?

Keni Stevens: I have one, but I’m not allowed to tell you! (Laughs) It’s due to come out in 2016. So I’m probably going to have two albums out, because I’m also doing an album with Steve (Salvari), which is going to be a different thing again.

Michael J Edwards: You’ve been around the industry a long time, what advice would you give to young aspiring artists whether they be fledgling singers and musicians or music producers?

Keni Stevens: It’s real simple, it’s a job! If you think it’s all women, fast cars and stuff like that, you’re mistaken. It’s a job, it’s a discipline and it’s just like working in a chocolate factory – you get sick of it very easily. I remember having a conversation at a benefit dinner for Muhammad Ali many years ago, and I said to him, “It must have been really hard to get to the top?” And he said, “No, that was the easy bit, the hard bit is when you don’t have to get up in the morning.” That’s the hard bit, when you’ve got so much money you don’t have to get up in the morning; actually you do, it’s a job!

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

Michael J Edwards: I know I speak for all the true Keni Stevens fans who were wondering where you are and where you’ve been, it’s good to have you back on the scene.

Keni Stevens: I consider myself to be very, very, very lucky; over the years, even though I’ve not had anything out since 1990, I’ve always had a really strong, loyal fan base, always! ‘Living on the Edge’ was released in South Africa, and I’ve got a massive South African fan base there also, so I’m blessed.

Michael J Edwards

Essential Promo Single: If Loving You Is All I Have (It’s All I Ever Need)

Essential Websites:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keni_Stevens
http://www.allmusic.com/album/blue-moods-mw0001738045

Essential Singles:
1985 – “Night Moves” (Elite)
1986 – “All Day All Night” (Elite)
1986 – “Too Much Too Soon” (Elite)
1987 – “Cannot Live Without Your Love” (Jam Today)
1988 – “Hurt This Way” (Debut)
1988 – “24-7-365” (Debut)
1989 – “Sailing” (Debut)

Essential Albums:
1987 – Blue Moods (Jam Today)
1988 – You (Debut)
1989 – Living on the Edge (Debut)

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Photo: Courtesy of Siobhan Bradshaw

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