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Pepper MaShay keeps the dance floor hot and spicy

Dance diva to play S.C. Pride

Pepper MaShay: ‘I thought of ‘Dive In The Pool’ as kind of a novelty thing.’

Honey. Baby. Sweetie. These terms of affection are liberally sprinkled throughout dance music recording artist Pepper MaShay’s speech and they instantly put any worries of diva-dom to rest. She’s a doll.

Her unbridled affection for the area only makes things better. “Oh, I can’t wait to get back there,” she gushes.

There’s no resisting a star who admits that she has a day job in L.A. soliciting feedback from movie audiences at test screenings. Although, you suspect it’s not really the “star” who’s talking — but good ol’ Jean McClain, the accomplished backing vocalist and session singer who has worked with the likes of Tina Turner, Cher, Celine Dion and Mick Jagger over the years.

Sassy, hot Pepper may get all the glory, but it’s clear that Jean has done the work to make this wave of success happen. This divide between icon and artist is intriguing — so it’s the first topic we broach in our exclusive Q-Notes interview.

Q-Notes: What are the significant differences between Pepper MaShay and Jean McClain?

Pepper MaShay: [Laughs] It’s like being Superwoman, baby. You get up one way in the morning, then by the evening you put on a whole other suit of clothes. I’ve been a wife — but I’m not a wife anymore — and I’ve got two grown sons and a four-year-old grandbaby. Pepper gives me the release of almost living another life. Changing my name gave me the opportunity to come with a whole different identity.

QN: You’ve sung behind an impressive array of artists over the years and you’ve been in the spotlight for a while now as well. Has one made you appreciate the other more?

PM: Yeah, it really has. Because of my work as a touring background vocalist I was able to get a taste of exactly what the artists go through and how people become so affected by the songs they come to know and love. If the artist and the songwriter do their jobs right there’s a deep appreciation by the people who come out to see you.

QN: How did “Dive In The Pool” come about?

PM: I was working at my regular job and [producer] Barry [Harris] called me and told me that he had an idea and wanted me to come over after work. He had a lot of the record done when I got to the studio and by the end of the evening it had just come together. For me that session was a lot of talking like my mama and having an attitude.

Afterwards I pretty much just forgot about the song. I thought of it as kind of a novelty thing. That was like May of 2000. But, honey, by the time I got to Japan in August, touring with my good friend Bobby Caldwell (“What You Won’t Do For Love”), my friends were calling, “Girl, you’ve hit Billboard, what’s happening?” Barry had given the record out to DJs and it just blew up. I was actually getting ready to do a contemporary blues album with Keb’ Mo’, but I had to put that aside. Barry’s manager told me the clubs were calling off the hook and you gotta ride these things when they happen.

QN: Was there a noticeable difference in the impact of “Dive” after it was played on an episode of “Queer As Folk”?

PM: Baby, it became explosive! It was this fun song for the summer that was dragging into the winter and then here comes the show. Barry didn’t tell me he had gotten it onto “Queer As Folk” and the next thing I knew it was nonstop.

QN: Did you feel any pressure following up such a huge hit?

PM: No, because when you’ve been a singer for 25-30 years you can put it in perspective. I already had a body of work — mainly in Europe — and my records almost became the things for DJs over there to have in their bags. I had a string of singles hit from ’97-’99 with Azuli [Records], but they were all House songs. You know, “Dive” is not even one of those records I’m known for in Europe. They thought it was too techno.

QN: “I Got My Pride” became another smash. How did it feel to sing those lyrics to gay audiences around the world?

PM: Oh, it was incredible. That was a period when I was really just getting into the gay community that I had been kept away from — not by choice, but by being a wife and a mom. Barry knew he had to have something to follow “Dive” up and [“Pride”] got on “Sex and the City,” which put me right back on top. Too bad I didn’t write that song, because that’s where you make your money. But I did good for myself — putting my family in a duplex and putting me in the path of a lot of great DJs and producers.

QN: So I hear your working on a solo album. What’s that going to be like?

PM: Honey, I’m still working on that doggone thing. I’m frustrated because of the way the industry is changing, but I’m excited about the project. [Artists are] having to work like independents these days — roll up your sleeves, promote your own records and do it yourself!

Pepper MaShay will perform in Columbia, May 20 at the S.C. Pride Festival in Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

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