Can You Feel It? - In Conversation with Robert Owens (FoH2016)
I was recently lucky enough to speak to Robert Owens. It feels strange to speak to one of the people who were the initial impetus for this project (with Can You Feel It? and Tears) and he be so, down to earth, so real, so approachable! His insights contain a lot less hyperbole than many others, and feel rooted in the realities of life and the scene rather than an idealised version of what was or could have been.
Many of the conversations I've had for this project have been with DJs and writers, people who use the musical material but don't necessarily generate it first hand (although I mean no offence by this and I imagine most or all would agree with the sentiment). Speaking with Owens narrowed that gap, shrinking the distance between creation and utility. As one of the archetypical Chicago house vocalists from the 1980s, and still a power-house in the field today, he's singularly placed to comment on so many aspects of the music and track how it's evolved over time. In fact, a recent sample pack from Loopmasters simply refers to him as "The Voice Of House".
The extracts below are simply a few selected highlights of what we discussed most pertinent to this project (but the whole conversation was a great experience). I've also popped three versions of Can You Feel It on the playlist so you can hear the progression of the idea, surrounded by other great Owens tracks. Enjoy!
RO: My name is Robert Owens, I'm a vocalist, DJ, recording artist. My roots stem from Chicago, I've lived in New York, I've lived in L.A, but I would say probably first starting to DJ and play and perform was in Chicago.
FOH: And that was firstly, on your own, and then it was with Fingers Inc. correct?
RO: Yeah, I actually started doing parties myself, in a basement where we would pass out flyers all down neighbouring neighbourhoods and put them into peoples mail boxes. And we would charge them $5 to get into these basement parties. And then that escalated on to me doing clubs and some college/university parties later. And then I met Larry Heard, and I started actually recording vocals against some of his instrumental material, and that's how I got into the whole recording area of the house thing. At this beginning point there were labels that became interested like DJ International, Trax Records, they found out what we were doing and they became interested in some of the product that we were putting out and playing. I would play stuff off of cassette, give it to Frankie Knuckles, I'd give stuff to Ron Hardy, Larry Levan, had stuff so much on cassette, so it was nice when you had these big profile DJ's interested in what we were doing, you know? At that early stage for us it was just a real fascination that we came up with things that people like from a low budget production angle. Because they were playing stuff off Salsoul, West End records, which was high production things. You had full orchestration and everything on some of those tracks, and to get those type of DJs playing that type of material and then them playing some of your minimalistic material it felt really nice for a lot of the young urban kids doing these projects and stuff back then.
FOH: That wasn't where you started musically was it? You were church trained originally as a vocalist right?
RO: No before—I was in church. One of the famous churches I was in, in California off and on, was Voices Of Cornerstone which was Rev. James Cleeveland's church. He was a high profile back in that period of time, early stages. So I sung there. But various churches when I would stay with different family members; that was a big thing for a lot the urban families- that you went to church you know? So you were almost forced into it, you know going back and forth, and I would instantly always draw fascination with the choir because, usually they would try to get you to join some area within the church; if it was a deacon or whatever, you would join some area and the area that I was always fascinated with would be singing. But I always wanted to sing the background, I never wanted to sing a lead and they just tapped me to do it a few times and people just really enjoyed me doing lead singing. So it was more like people kind of pushed me into the area, then it was like "there's something there, you should do it". And, you know, all throughout my life, even coming up in high school and stuff, even working various working jobs, people would ask me to sing to them while they were doing the job or we were doing the jobs and stuff so, there was something there that others saw in side of me that I didn't even fully recognise at the early stages. You know, I knew there was a desire there and I like doing it but I just never pictured myself in the forefront doing it. Until I got that encouragement from a lot of others.
FOH: Do you think that that church upbringing is somewhere where people starting to engage with music, is a common thing for a lot of the house vocalists or do you think you're quite unique there?
RO: I think it probably stems form way back from even tribal period you know? People like communal events when they get together. I think that goes back to a whole tribal mentality. People—everyone likes to commune. It's like even in dance events, everybody likes to be where a lot of people are gathered, they're all focused on an energy of a happiness together.
FOH: When you look at some of your back catalogue, and some of the stuff you've done recently like the tune you did with BCee "Keep The Faith" and the tune you did with Deep88, and going back stuff like "Bring Down The Walls" and "A Path": so much of your output, and house music generally, especially in that early period of the late 80's, seems religious I suppose, Was that something you were trying to do? Or was it accidental?
RO: I think just naturally some sense of spirituality is there within me. I would say I've probably lost the religious aspect of things because now I'm learning, just through research on the internet these days, you acknowledge so much that could be truth and reality about religion, so that I've taken more of a backseat, and it's more that I've focused more on spirituality. There is just a natural warmth in me that's spiritual as opposed to viewing something written in a book in the way someone may have lived or would have been like in a particular time you know? For me it's all about how you treat people and energy that you give out to people and that comes from more a spiritual aspect. I know how I want to be treated in life and I always try to give people that same respect, that same respect that you want to come to you. And that has nothing to do with something written in a book, or the way someone else lived. And especially with technology and how things have advanced in the world, we know so much more about truth and reality than a lot of people knew those many years ago. So I think everything should be reality based opposed to a fable.
FOH: One of the tunes that I've been talking about an awful lot and that's come up an awful lot during interviews interviews and during this project has been the Fingers Inc. version of "Can You Feel It" because the original one was Larry's version, which was the B-side to Washing Machine I think?
RO: Yeah it started as an instrumental. During the period of Paradise Garage and Warehouse and these kind of places we actually sung the vocals over it but we just hadn't recorded the vocals, but the vocal version was always part of our show all the way back to Paradise Garage, even there we performed the vocals. But I can to England and they got me to actually record the vocals over the track in England so that's how my vocal version actually came about. But from the very beginning the vocal version was part of our show we performed live.
FOH: Oh right. Because the version that I knew growing up was the version that had the Chuck Roberts acapella on top?
RO: That came later yeah. Somebody put that over it. But the original ORIGINAL vocal version was the 'Do Dah Dah' (sings) where we'd both be singing, that was the one we did live all the time. And we kept saying we'd get around to recording but originally originally started as just an instrumental.
FOH: It really surprised me when I very first heard the proper vocal version because it's, would it be fair to say, a darker track with the real vocals on it.
RO: Yeah. I wasn’t even supposed to do that! (laughs). I was in a session, and they just got me to do it in the booth and they recorded it. But I wasn't supposed to actually do it because we just kept it as something that was special for the live show. You know, where people knew it on the live shows but it ended up happening. But it wasn't supposed to come out like that.