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Brenda Russell Returns With Her New Album, Paris Rain, And Top Writing Collaborations

By Dale Kawashima

Brenda Russell has worked steadily as a recording artist, songwriter and musician for more than two decades. However, this past year has seen a flurry of activity from her, highlighted by the release of her latest album, Paris Rain (on Hidden Beach/Epic Records), and some very noteworthy songwriting collaborations. She has recently written songs with Stevie Wonder and Carole King, and she collaborated with Brazilian composer Ivan Lins to write "She Walks This Earth (Sobra Rosa)" for Sting, for which he won the Grammy Award for "Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male.".

Brenda Russell
Brenda Russell performing at the Jazz Festival in Barbados.

Russell is probably best known for her Grammy-nominated hit, "Piano In The Dark," and her Top 10 hit for Oleta Adams, "Get Here." But she has enjoyed many other successes over the years, including recording seven albums as an artist, plus writing hits for Luther Vandross ("If Only One Night") and Donna Summer ("Dinner With Gershwin"). Most recently, she co-wrote with Stevie Wonder the song "Justice Of The Heart," which has been recorded by Wonder for the upcoming movie, John Q., starring Denzel Washington.

"Itís been a busy time for me, first writing and recording the Paris Rain album, then touring and helping to promote it," said Russell, who lives in Los Angeles. "Iím very pleased with how the album turned out, and the support Iíve gotten from Steve McKeever (President of Hidden Beach Records) and the label staff."

Paris Rain is Russellís first album in seven years, and during that time she continued to write regularly, building a collection of songs in preparation for her album, as well as writing for other projects. A breakthrough occurred in 1998, when she was approached by McKeever to sign with Hidden Beach.

"It was truly a case of divine intervention," explained Russell. "I was singing for the first time at the Agape Center, which is an inspiring church where people from all religions can get together and meet. After I sang, Steve (McKeever) came up to me, and said how much he loved my music. I knew and respected Steve from the music business, but I didnít know he had launched Hidden Beach Records (which is co-owned by basketball star Michael Jordan)."

"Steve told me he would be calling my manager, and he did," added Russell. "The next thing I knew, my manager called me up to say, ĎI think I have a record deal for you!í In this arena of music, itís often difficult to get noticed. It was a blessing to me that Steve came along."

Russell had already written many of the key songs for her album, but she wanted to collaborate with some other writers she admired to add a few more songs. She contacted Carole King to ask if she would write a song with her for the album.

"I got up the nerve to call Carole King, whose music I always loved," recalled Russell. "I was a big fan of her album Tapestry and songs like ĎI Feel The Earth Move.í I was excited when she agreed to get together and write. She came over to my house, and we wrote ĎMove The Mooní for the album. It was an unbelievable feeling, to have an artist who has been such an inspiration to me, to come over to my house and collaborate."

Brenda Russell
Brenda Russell

Shortly thereafter, Russell had completed all of the songs for her album. She decided to co-produce Paris Rain with her keyboardist Stephan Oberhoff, who had done an impressive job of co-producing her demo recordings. She then brought together many of her longtime, musician friends to play on her album, including such jazz and pop stalwarts as Jimmy Haslip (bass) and Russell Ferrante (piano) from the Yellowjackets, Sheila E. (drums), Paulinho Da Costa (percussion), Greg Phillinganes (keyboards), and saxophonists Dave Koz, Everette Harp and Kirk Whalum.

Paris Rain marks somewhat of a departure for Russell, with most of the songs heading into a more mature, jazz/New Age direction. "I used to record more uptempo, dance/pop tunes to try to appeal to younger radio formats and audiences," explained Russell. "But at this stage in my life, I wanted to make an album that I felt comfortable writing and creating, not just fitting into radio formats. Paris Rain has a jazzier, more adult style, which can sometimes be difficult to market. It creates a challenge, but artistically, it was definitely the right direction for me."

Paris Rain has gotten off to a good start, with the first single, "Catch On," becoming a Top 10 NAC (New Adult Contemporary) hit. Hidden Beach will soon be releasing a new single, "Walkiní In New York." Russell has been touring on behalf of the album, including opening for George Benson for some shows. She has also performed at jazz festivals in Barbados and St. Lucia. In December, she joined other top, jazz musicians as part of the nationwide Dave Koz & Friends Christmas Tour.

In addition to her artist career, Russell remains very active as a songwriter, collaborating with artists for their albums, as well as writing for special projects. One such project was a tribute album Russell was involved with: A Love Affair: The Music Of Ivan Lins. This album featured guest performances by Russell, Sting, Vanessa Williams, Chaka Khan, Grover Washington, Jr. and Dianne Reeves. Russell collaborated with Lins to write "She Walks This Earth (Sobra Rosa)" for Sting, and Sting won a Grammy Award for his vocal performance on this song.

Russell is very excited about her new collaboration with Stevie Wonder for the film, John Q. It was Russell who learned about this movie project, and contacted Wonder (whom she is friends with) about co-writing a song.

"Stevie called me back and said laughingly, ĎSure Brenda, Iíll win an Oscar with you,'" recalled Russell. "The next time we spoke on the phone, he sang and played on piano a melody he wrote for the film. It was so beautiful, I was dying on the line. I couldnít believe I would get to write the lyric to Stevieís gorgeous melody. I wrote a lyric with the title "Justice Of The Heart," and now this song is set for the movie, with Stevie as the artist performing it."

This collaboration is the latest chapter for Russell in her enduring, successful career as both an artist and songwriter. "Itís very gratifying to work with such wonderful artists whose music I love," said Russell. "Iím blessed to be working with such talented people, and as an artist and songwriter, to have the creative freedom to write songs that truly express the emotion and feeling I want to convey with my music."

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