Deborah Cox is on the phone. She sounds relaxed and open, laughing easily whether recalling the first time she heard herself on the radio or discussing the pressures of being a gay icon. She’s calling from Miami, where she lives with her music producer husband, Lascelles Stephens, and their children, Isaiah, 3, and Sumayah, eight months.
The 32-year-old Canadian has come a long way since her self-titled debut album dropped in 1995. She’s recorded a string of R&B (and in remixed form dance) classics, including the record-setting “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here,” “Things Just Ain’t The Same,” “It’s Over Now” and her roof-raising anthem “Absolutely Not.”
These hits and more have netted her three Juno awards (the Canadian version of the Grammy) and two Soul Train awards. She’s racked up nine number one hits on Billboard’s Club Play chart. And in 2004, she made her Broadway debut starring in Elton John’s musical, “Aida.”
Here’s what the multi-talented artist shared with Q-Notes in advance of her Feb. 24 performance at Charlotte’s Velocity nightclub.
You grew up in Toronto. How long has your family been there?
I’m a first generation Canadian. My parents moved there from the West Indies — Guyana.
Same-sex marriage is now legal in your home country.
Yes it is. And I’m really kinda surprised that there’s such a fight to stop same-sex marriage here in the U.S. It’s just not a big deal.
Who were your musical influences growing up?
Hmmm, who were my musical influences…Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin…jazz was also a big thing in our house, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday.
You were once a background vocalist for another Canadian diva, Celine Dion. What was that like?
Very interesting. It was in the early part of her career when she was doing her English albums in the U.S. It allowed me perform on “The Tonight Show,” “The Arsenio Hall Show,” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and a lot of other cool dates right around that time. It was fun, but a strenous schedule. I learned about discipline watching how she prepared for her show. She often wouldn’t talk to preserve her voice.
After getting signed, your debut single, “Sentimental,” made the top five on Billboard’s R&B chart. That must have been like a dream.
I remember I was driving on the 405 Freeway [in Los Angeles] listening to the radio when they mentioned that it was in the top five. I nearly swerved off the road! [laughs] I was doing so much promotion for the single I never got the chance to take it all in. Then on the radio that day they had people calling in requesting it. I was really amazed…and happy…and excited. [laughs]
Until last year, the record for having the longest-running number one song on the R&B chart (10 weeks) was a tie between you (for “Nobody’s”), Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. That’s an amazing peer group.
Yeah, it’s really great. The word I’m trying to live up to in my career is longevity and “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here” is one of those songs I’m looking forward to belting well into my ’70 and ’80s. I wanna be like Tina Turner.
Getting back to Whitney, what was it like recording the duet “Same Script, Different Cast” with her?
It was a great experience. We were getting ready to shoot the 25th anniversary of Arista Records special and we were rehearsing for the show. Afterward, we went into the studio and did the song. Bobby was there and we all cracked jokes and didn’t do a lot of singing. We had a really good rapport together.
Your songs have topped the Club Play chart so many times. How did dance music become such an important aspect of your career?
It started out with the simple idea of doing remixes and it was just that. But once the remixes caught on, it became important to me to rerecord the vocals on all my dance records. To make each it’s own idea, with different vocals between the R&B version and the dance version. People were really open to it and recording the dance stuff became a career of its own. Also, when I re-sing the songs I always discover other things about them that come out. It’s fun to play around with melodies and hooks with the remixes.
All those club hits have garnered you a huge gay following. Is being a gay diva all its cracked up to be?
It’s so much pressure! [laughs] It puts so much pressure and emphasis on what you wear and how you look and you must sound incredible — of course, I try to live up to that every time. But, yes, the gay fans remember every single outfit. [laughs] I’ve heard people remark, “Oh, she already wore that at this.” But, it’s a fierce outfit. I wanna wear it again. [laughs] No, it’s fun. You just share in their appreciation of you having great hair, great make-up, great shoes and great clothes.
What is it about “Absolutely Not” that causes gay men to lose their minds on the dancefloor?
The message: Just be who you are and don’t compromise. The infectious, confident attitude of that song was important to me because I was going through an identity thing in the midst of recording that album. I was trying to find songs that would work in the marketplace. R&B had moved to a different place and I was trying to figure it all out. “Absolutely Not” was just this outpouring of emotion. I didn’t want to compromise my integrity. I had to stay true to myself and my fans. That message resonates.
Are you working on any projects your fans can look forward to in the near future?
Yes, I have a new album coming out in May called “Destination Moon.” It’s a big band jazz album with me singing songs popularized by Dinah Washington. I’ve always been a fan of hers both as a person and as a singer, so I’m really excited about it.