Interview: Amel Larrieux Talks Growing Up in NYC and Philly, Groove Theory, and Music-Loving Cities

Interview: Amel Larrieux Talks Growing Up in NYC and Philly, Groove Theory, and Music-Loving Cities

A city girl, Amel Larrieux first hit the music scene during the mid-'90s as one half of the R&B duo Groove Theory. In 1995, she and Bryce Wilson released the group's self-titled debut album, Groove Theory. The album spawned several hits including "Tell Me," a definitive gem that no old-school lunch mix is complete without.

After leaving the group in 1999, Larrieux began the new millennium on her own, releasing her debut solo album, Infinite Possibilities, in 2000. She would go on to release three albumsBravebird, Morning, and the jazz cover album Lovely Standards—through her independent label Blisslife Records with her husband, Laru Larrieux.

In 2010, Larrieux and Wilson began performing as Groove Theory once again, and she's currently prepping the release of her next solo project, Ice Cream Everyday. Prior to her performance at D.C.'s historic Howard Theatre on December 21, which is produced by Jill Newman Productions and Blisslife, she and Complex chatted about growing up between New York and Philly, Groove Theory's origins, and that indie life.

Interview by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)

You grew up in the West Village?
Born and raised.

Growing up in that environment, did it steer you towards a career in the arts?
Absolutely. Not only because my peers and all of their parents were artists or aspiring artists, but my parents were artists. It was the norm to me.

And then you moved to Philly. How old were you?
I was in 7th grade, I think; so 12, just turning at 13. My mom is a professor and she took a position at Temple University and got tired of commuting. It didn’t resonate well with me, so when I was able to come back to New York—the quickest I could was four years from then. I spent four years in Philly, but my heart was always here in New York, so I came back here when I was 16, lived with my grandmother and was on my own quite early.

You went to CAPA—Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts in Philly.
Yeah, my first two years I was at a private Quaker School called Germantown Friends, and then for the second two years I went to Performing Arts.

That’s crazy; I’m from Philly. The fact that you went to GFS is also crazy because I went to FSS.
You did not! I tested for Friends Select and my math scores were so low I couldn’t get in. When I was here in New York, I went to this progressive private school called Little Red School House, and there was no emphasis on math; it was all about creativity and progressive art kidss. So when I tested for all of these Philly private schools, it was a whole ‘nother shebang.

Were you at CAPA when Boyz ll Men were there?
The two years I was there, Ahmir and Tariq from the Roots were there. Tariq was actually dating one of my close friends. Ahmir was there, Christian McBride, the bass player, was there, Joey DeFrancesco, all the guys from Boyz ll Men, Mark Nelson—an original member of Boyz ll Men. And it’s so funny because when I was at GFS, I don’t know if you know G-Love & Special Sauce, but Garrett and I were classmates as well. It’s crazy, all of us that felt music—I was always singing choir, even at GFS, and performing in the talent show, and Garrett was doing his little band with his friends in his garage. But all of us really did follow through with our love for it, regardless of what journey or path we took.

I guess you didn’t really get a chance to get into the arts scene in Philly because you left when you were 16.
Yeah, because it’s so different now. I go there now, and I love it—I could even think about moving there; I mean, my mom and my stepfather are there. My mother retired and has authored four very amazing books about African-American influences in the dance world. The latest book is about Joan Myers Brown and the Philadanco, so her position in the world of arts in Philly is a respected one that gives her an inroad into what’s going on. I could think about relocating my family there, but in the mid-'80s when I was there—I left it ’89—it was not the Philly that it is today. But it was still a black city, like it is now. Now New York has changed so much, it’s gentrified so much, the arts scene has changed and the feeling of diversity isn't there. But it will always have a special place for me. Still, I could see being in Philly.

When you moved back to New York, how did you meet Bryce?
I ended up living on my own; my mom helped me get into this school called City-As-School, which is an alternative high school. Mos Def was my classmate there, at this alternative school where you could go to a couple of classes a week. But the thing was, you could do an internship at the company or organization of your choice. I interned for a woman called Karen Durant at Zomba Music Publishing, part of Jive Records. I also interned at the Africa Fund, and I was very much interested in helping to abolish apartheid. Right before I graduated, I was still interning for this woman. She went to Rondor Music Publishing where she got an even better position, and contacted me when I was in my last year of high school, saying, “I’d like to hire you as my assistant.” While I was working for her, Bry was one of her producers. She knew that I was always writing songs and so was always introducing me to different people. When she told me Bryce was shopping for a deal, and trying to put together a group and had these demos, and I was actually typing the labels for these cassette tapes and storing them away. She said, “Why don’t you write to one of these tracks?” He asked me if I would just demo it, and when I did, he said, “Why don’t you be in the group?” He had all of these different singers coming through that weren’t songwriters; I ended up demoing my song and then I wrote two more songs, demoed those, and his friend from years before got a position at Epic Records as an A&R and basically said, “Hey, come and let’s have some meetings.” We signed with Epic.

Did you guys think that “Tell Me” would take off the way that it did?
No. I wrote it for someone else completely. I wrote it for Trey Lorenz; I didn’t wanna do it at all, because I felt it wasn’t my song. I was like, “I wrote this song for someone else!” This is not me, this is a guy’s song, and it’s just not where I’m going. The label was adamant; I don’t want to say there was “beef,” but it was kind of awkward because it was supposed to be on Trey’s album, and so that’s why the male vocals—that’s Trey—are still there. I don’t even know what happened, but it's all red tape and bureaucracy. So no, I didn’t think it would take off; I didn’t want to do it. But they thought it was going to be a hit, and it was. For all that I’m disappointed with in terms of my years at Sony—and I was so glad to get off that label—that was the one thing they were absolutely right about.

Wow. You know how artists have those songs that everyone loves but they hate performing? I hope it’s not one of those songs for you, because it sounds great and people love it.
Oh, no. That’s the thing, I’m so thankful from all these years of being in this industry; the maturity of getting out of your own head, getting out of your own way, it’s so fulfilling to experience something that I wrote and sang through someone else’s eyes. And that’s why I love live performance—I really couldn’t give a crap about being in the studio, I hate it. I like writing the song and I like performing it, because then it’s not in my hands anymore; it’s a community thing. “Tell Me” is about everyone else’s experience with it, and I live through them; that’s what makes it fun.

Let’s talk about Blisslife for a second. What eventually led to you taking the independent route?
My husband is my manager and producer. We met before Groove Theory—Bryce introduced us—and we both have always danced to the beat of our own drum, writing stuff as the Groove Theory music was coming out. We both felt hindered by what we couldn’t do. That went on for many years, and we finally got out because of mistakes they made.

Do you think your husband realized that the Internet was where music was headed and that helped the move?
Dude, he was fighting with Sony over why I had so little Internet presence; he was the one who spearheaded our Blisslife website. He started having all of the emails sent to me on the road, and I would just start answering people. The label had absolutely no sense at all of what was going to happen, but he knew. He built my Internet presence, single-handedly.

He’s a smart man for that. You and Bryce started performing together as Groove Theory again a couple of years ago. For every group, it seems inevitable that they'll break up at some point, even if it’s just for a little while. What was your experience?
Because he introduced me to my husband and because I knew him before we started making music together—we were working together for three years before Groove Theory even came out—the relationship between us never changed. It evolved, but it never ended. Bryce calls me on my birthday every year. It was about timing—he’s still pursuing a film career, and I was doing my solo career. Timing-wise, if he’s shooting a movie or I’m in the middle of being on the road, performing is easier to facilitate. Doing another album is a little more complicated; it’s not something we want to put out ourselves. It’s something where we’d like to have a good situation from a label because of the work it requires, and because we have other careers that involve time and energy.

Bryce and I are more interested in waiting for the right offer to come along in terms of recording. In terms of being on the road, it’s just like picking up where you left off before. And I’ve had this solo career where, thank the universe, even if I don’t have an album out, I can still tour in support of everything recorded. Even this past summer, we did the Blue Note Festival at SummerStage; I included songs from my solo albums as well as Groove Theory songs, and vice versa, in my own Amel Larrieux stage show.

How are things coming with your next solo album?
I’m amped. I love what we’re doing. One, I have the luxury of being an independent artist, meaning I'm not under label pressure. Two, I don’t do “trend driven music.” The music that I’ve been into all my life, it’s timeless. You can tell when something’s dated, and that’s probably because they were using trendy sounds or drum beats, or the subject matter was trendy. I haven’t been influenced by that kind of thing. We have songs from four years ago to two months ago that are still super-relevant for us and to the circle of people that we test our stuff on.

We want a cohesive project. I want it to be lasting, I want it to be meaningful, I want it to resonate the way that other people’s music has done for me. We’re mixing and mastering right now, but I’m just about to record a new song that I know in my heart has to be on the album. It’ll be out when it’s the best possible thing.

Same title?
Yeah, that’s stuck. It makes sense in terms of where I’ve been while I’ve been writing it, and what I’ve grown into. The idea of Ice Cream Everyday is a metaphor for that. Finding the drop of beauty that you have to add to the elixir of your life every day, and that’s how you kind of survive in this chaos. Music has been that for me.

You performed at the Howard Theatre back in May, a month after its multi-million dollar re-opening. What was it like performing at a renovated version of a building with so much history?
I have no idea what it looked like before, but now it's like, oh my God, fancy schmancy—I was getting distracted by the screens that are practically up on the ceiling while I was performing.

Yeah, I’ve only seen photos of the old building. It shut down in 1980, and I wasn’t close to being born yet. But looking at it now, it's amazing in there.
It's totally amazing, and I’m doing it again on December 21. I’m so excited, I was asking my husband, “Are we gonna do Howard again?” It’s such a treat. The sound is on point; half the battle of my career in music, it’s the sound at my venues. I don’t love being in a place where there’s seating, because it's never as much fun as when people are standing. But I love D.C.; D.C., Chicago, the Bay Area, L.A., New York, and Detroit. They’re cities where people have a kind of uncanny relationship with music, it’s so big and it’s so passionate. There’s more room for experimentation. There's always a very tangible encouragement coming from the audience.

Interview by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)

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Tags: amel-larrieux, groove-theory, new-york, philadelphia, washington-dc, blisslife-records, howard-theatre
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