Kelvin Wooten is a Grammy nominated producer who is currently based out of Huntsville, Alabama. He plays multiple instruments and has arranged, written, and produced some of the top artists in the music industry. Some of the artists he has worked with are: Anthony Hamilton, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mary J. Blige, Al Green, The Bee Gees, Nappy Roots, Jill Scott, Raphael Saadiq, Macy Gray, The Isley Brothers, Tony! Toni! Toné!, and TLC. Mr. Wooten operates a studio and label called Woodworx in Huntsville, AL and one of the artists signed to his label is the rising star Deqn Sue. Her music has been played on the Netflix Series Orange is the New Black and she has been featured on NPR’s acclaimed Tiny Desk Concert series. I am currently playing her and Mr. Wooten’s awesome and catchy song “Bloody Monster” on repeat, which was featured on the end credits of OITNB’s Episode 11. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Wooten about his many endeavors.
Ayanna: What instrument did you start out with first?
Wooten: Actually, my first instrument was tuba back in middle school; which was my introduction into getting into music.
Ayanna: What made you want to start your label Woodaworx?
Wooten: The label began out of creative frustration. I worked with a lot of A-List artists doing a lot of Neo Soul and good R&B. But, I always had a thing for the underdog as well; for a lot of people who just didn’t have a voice. Woodaworx was started to give artists an opportunity to share their music, while keeping everything independent. This allows the artist to have their own creative control over what their music was going to be; and sound like and what they wanted to portray to the public. The big labels concern is about a product, so because of that, the artists become a product to sell a product, and the product isn’t all the time music. The music industry didn’t start as a basis to sell music (it started as a way to sell a product).
Ayanna: What is your opinion on the decline of physical album sales and the rise of music streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora.
Wooten: For independent artists, it winds up being a blessing and a curse at the same time. Streaming is a way for people to access your music a lot quicker than it would be to hear it through more traditional methods. But, the artist won’t make as much money with your music streaming; it’s going to be substantially less. However, you get an opportunity for people to know who you are and build up a core fan base. An artist needs to be able to find ways to get their music in other places other than selling your own records. (Like on TV shows, Commercials, Movies)
Ayanna: What was the process for getting “Freedom” placed in Django Unchained like?
Wooten: It was really organic. Originally the song was a Christian song. It was the first release off the label and I was working with the independent artist Elayna Boynton and it wound up being in some commercials, the sci-fi channel, and some other TV networks.
What ended up happening was that my manager at the time, who was also Anthony Hamilton’s manager, his wife was a budding actress (Kimrie Lewis-Davis, Scandal, Peeples). His wife was a friend of the music supervisor for Django Unchained, and she happened to let her hear the song. I don’t think she knew, at the time, that her friend was working on this film. So her friend said that she thought that the song would be great for a film she’s working on. Her friend’s client at the time was Quentin Tarantino. So she let Quentin hear the rough draft of the song we were working on, and Quentin loved it as is. He just took the rough draft as an mp3 and just inserted it into the film, and that was the process. So I say to a lot of people and artists that you always got to be prepared for when the time comes because you never know when it’s going to come. Just always do what it is that you love and somehow I think that it will always work out in your favor.
“Freedom”was produced by Kelvin Wooten and Featured in Quentin Tarantino’s hit film Django Unchained.
Ayanna: What is your production process when you start working on a new project?
Wooten: Every artist is different so you just have to go with the moment. Some of the artist I have worked with are more the singer songwriter type, so in that case they usually come to me with a song and lyrics pretty much complete so I just have to add additional elements around it. Another artist I’ve worked with, Deqn Sue, I program drums and she just goes with that feeling and that mood and the songs are created from there. Sometimes it’s a more traditional process, I sit at the piano and I start playing some chords and people just go from there. Sometimes I even start the production before the artist gets there. There’s really no rhyme or reason, I just need something to base it off of.
Ayanna: How did you meet Deqn (pronounced ‘deacon’) Sue, and what is it like to work with her?
Wooten: She’s based out of LA, but she went to school here (in Huntsville) at Oakwood University. I met her through a project I was working on at her school for a CD project the seniors do each year. We maintained a friendship after that and one time I went out to play for an Obama rally and I connected with her some years after she graduated and heard some music that she had produced on her own. I thought it was really good and we needed to see where it could go. So she came back to Huntsville and we worked on her first album, Zeitgeist. We’ve done some more music since then (her Snack EP and a new album now that will be out in the fall). Her music isn’t contrived; it’s really just different. That music she puts out is exactly who she is.
Ayanna: Are you listening to any new artists right now? Anyone coming out with music you really enjoy?
Wooten: I like James Blake a lot and a group called Thirdstory. But, I tend to listen to the music of my hay day, from when I started first doing music. I try to go back to that as much as possible. So that would be early Outkast, Tribe Called Quest, a lot of hip-hop. Thelonius Monk, Tony! Toni! Toné!, and Charlie Parker. I listen to a lot of that stuff just to get inspiration, cause outside of doing music I don’t really listen to a lot of it.
Ayanna: I read that Quincy Jones is one of your big influences, what do you admire most about him?
Wooten: I admire his production and his creative humility. Quincy is such a genius, but when you look at the records he did with Michael Jackson, he just employed so many of the greatest of the craft. He worked with the best of best when it came to instrumentalists. He was able to produce an artist and still allow them to be authentically who they were. But it still had musical depth and had the ability to reach the masses. He’s one of the people I always think about in producing. Don’t change an artist from who they are, give them a pallet to work from, and put them in the right kind of environment.
Ayanna: What is the most important message that you are trying to relay in your music?
Wooten: Just be yourself and go ahead and push forward with what you think you have at the time. You can’t wait, a lot of times, for your creativity to be at a certain place. We’re all going to evolve and change. You can’t be afraid to just go ahead and get out there.
So in Love by Jill Scott was produced by Kelvin Wooten.
Ayanna: What made you choose to settle in a small city like Huntsville rather than New York, LA, Atlanta, or Nashville?
Wooten: There’s really no reason other than that I have a daughter here. I just wanted to be close to her.
Ayanna: How do you manage your family and personal life while maintaining a busy professional life?
Wooten: It’s a challenge. One thing is not more important than the other. It has to be a balance between the two. If I had to choose I would obviously choose her life over anything. But, with regard to my career, if I don’t thrive then she doesn’t live either and also, if I don’t thrive she doesn’t have an example to show her that she can do the same thing.
Ayanna: What are some of your goals for the future?
Wooten: Keep doing what I’m doing. You’re never going to get to your destination if you quit.
It was great to speak with Mr. Wooten and hear so much of the great advice and knowledge he had to offer. What I took away from speaking with him was that you must always be prepared for whatever comes your way because you’ll never know when your big opportunity is going to come. I also took away that you should always do what it is that you love, because somehow it will always work out in your favor. Some of the best advice he offered was that an artist has to be able to market their music to multiple different outlets such as film, TV and commercials. Also, that an artist must remain true to themselves even when others may be trying to push them in other directions. I found this to be important because in today’s world it is even harder to make a living as a musician, so diversifying your revenue streams is definitely a good place to start. The importance of doing something you love is that it fulfills the goal of having a career that you are excited about each day that sustains you financially, and makes you happy. Being prepared is essential to success in the music industry and being true to oneself will ensure longevity and originality in your music career.
Link to Kelvin Wooten’s Woodaworx website: http://www.woodaworx.com/