Will Canada ever deserve Deborah Cox?

25 years after the release of her groundbreaking, self-titled debut, the R&B/soul artist looks back.

25 years after the release of her groundbreaking, self-titled debut, the R&B/soul artist looks back

"It had to be bulletproof." (Courtesy of Deborah Cox)

Even before the release of her 1995 self-titled debut album, 21-year-old Deborah Cox was already a veteran of the music industry.

She'd been performing in clubs in and around Toronto since she was 12 years old, and after more than a decade of honing her craft and proving herself as an entertainer, backup singer (six months for Céline Dion) and session singer, Cox was finally releasing her first record. Her interviews with press from that time reveal a clarity and focus that were preternaturally grounded, compared to many of her peers. She spoke about longevity, quality, quiet determination. She was barely out of her teens, and Deborah Cox had already done the work. She wanted to be seen and heard on her own terms. She was ready — but Canada was not.

This is the story about the making of Deborah Cox the album, but also Deborah Cox the artist, who had no choice but to forge her own path. Yes, now she's Canada's "queen of R&B" and she's long been credited with putting R&B on the Canadian map.

But 25 years ago, every major Canadian label rejected Cox. She was almost over before she'd even begun.

"I had a tremendous amount of support in the community when I was doing the clubs and doing sessions," Cox tells CBC Music via Zoom a couple weeks before the Sept. 12 anniversary of her breakthrough. "But they didn't have the infrastructure to be able to take it to the next level. Some of the people that they had already signed were not doing what Lascelles [Stephens, Cox's then songwriting partner and high-school sweetheart] and I were doing. It took a long time for the industry to really catch up and create an infrastructure that you have right now. It's amazing. It's just taken over and has just made an amazing mark, and created so many incredible, iconic artists. But there was just no support system [in Canada] at the time for soul music."

All American

Infamous American producer/manager Clive Davis had the infrastructure in place. He had spent years developing and producing artists that Cox held in the highest regard, like Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton. Davis loved what he heard on the demo, and in 1994, Cox and Stephens (now her husband and manager) relocated to Los Angeles. Looking back, Cox says it was all thanks to one song. 

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"'Where do we go From Here' was the song that landed my deal," Cox says. "That was a song that we wrote right there in this little apartment in Scarborough. After writing so many records, that was the one that Clive heard and it resonated and, I think, spoke the potential to him. He really heard where I could go. I set a really high bar for myself and as an artist, I just do, and I was comparing myself, oddly enough, to people that were on the radio already. If you want something to aspire to, aspire to the ones that are really going to challenge you."

On "Where do we go From Here," Cox co-created a perfect showcase for the raw wonder of her voice. She seems to hold multiple truths between the notes, and there's an aching complexity to her performance. The track is also a powerhouse close to the album, a brilliant bookend to the Deborah Cox's opener, the lead single "Sentimental," which Cox describes as "the perfect marriage of jazz and pop along with the hip-hop vibe." 

The hitmakers

"Sentimental" was co-written by Cox, Colin Wolf and famed songwriter and producer Dallas Austin, who has worked with everyone from TLC and Grace Jones to Aretha Franklin and Madonna. Austin was just one of a handful of superstar songwriter/producers featured on Deborah Cox.

"I mean, the hits between Babyface and Diane Warren. I was just like, 'Oh my gosh!'" Cox laughs. "The first time I was in the studio with Face, he was just so complimentary and encouraging and really inspiring. We sat and we talked just about all kinds of different things before we even started working together. He was this really soft-spoken person who saw that I was probably starstruck because I really didn't say much. But, the fact that he was having a conversation with me about helping me to find my own voice through the songs and through the music was a true testament to the respect that he had for me as an artist. I really value that and he had no ego about it, either, you know, which is rare. [Laughs] Very rare."

Babyface and Warren co-wrote "My First Night With You," the ninth track on Deborah Cox, and Warren also penned the album's seventh track, "Never Gonna Break my Heart Again," which was produced by Keith Thomas, who had also produced some of Cox's favourite BB and CC Wynan records.

"I just loved the experience," Cox says. "It fuelled me and it filled me up in a way that was just like, you know, if the world ends tomorrow, I'd be good because I'm working with a lot of my heroes. That was the thing that really I held onto because that first record was not nominated for a Grammy, but I felt like I won so many awards. I did win a Juno though. I just feel so fortunate for all of those encounters with all these great producers and musicians that were on that album."

[The record] just had to be bulletproof. There was a bit of pressure for it to work and for it to be successful.- Deborah Cox

Young at heart

But Cox also had to advocate for herself and her vision. She may have already been a veteran of the music industry, but she wasn't old, and she had to remind people of that regularly. 

"As a young person you want to be with the in-crowd, you want to be able to have the latest bop on your album, you know what I mean?" Cox laughs, recalling being presented with big ballad after big ballad. She wanted to dance, and she wanted a club hit, so she wrote it herself. "Call Me," the fifth song on her record, was co-written by Cox, Stephens and Vassal Benford. Originally it was written for Patti LaBelle. 

"'Call Me' was one of those songs that started off with a soft and pretty ballad style and then kicked into a beat and I just remember wanting to have something with a pulse and something that made you move!" Cox says. "A lot of our conversations were mainly, 'Hey, remember I'm 21. I'm not ready to be just in all the concert halls just yet. I still want to have fun.'" 

Deborah Cox was released on Sept. 12, 1995. It peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and No. 25 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and would go on to win a Juno in 1996 for best R&B/soul recording. But it was when Cox first heard her songs alongside the likes of D'Angelo and Groove Theory that she felt truly "vindicated." 

"All that struggle and challenge led up to the outpouring of the style of songs in that first album, because it just had to be bulletproof," Cox says. "There was a bit of pressure for it to work and for it to be successful. As soon as you heard the music, you would know that there was something different, something special and something unique about this situation. And I think that's what we were really striving for: I didn't want to be like everybody else."

Representation matters

And she wasn't. Cox wasn't inheriting the "Queen of R&B" honorific from her Canadian predecessor; there wasn't one. The pressure to make her debut "bulletproof" was the burden of representation. As a Black woman from Toronto making it in the United States, Cox had to succeed — for herself and any other Black R&B and soul artists coming up behind her. Cox was the first, and it was hard.

"There's a lot of loneliness," Cox says. "I think there's a lot of unsurety, too, because as a pioneer, you just don't know the inroads you're making. You don't know how far you're actually going and there's no one there to cheer you on really outside of your own bubble. You don't really have any perspective, you just know what it's like when it's done and it's decades later and people remember. But it's OK to, I think, acknowledge that path if that's the path for you. I tell artists now, 'Listen, there's no right or wrong way. There's just your way and the path that God chooses for you when it comes to this journey.' And music is so different now. The industry is so different now. So I don't even know what to tell these kids outside of just, 'Use your social platform to get your voice heard out there.' So yeah, being a pioneer has its pros and cons, I guess. More pros outweigh the cons at the end of the day, because you essentially are noted for your uniqueness and for being the first."

It's been both a burden and a blessing, Cox concedes. 

"As a Black woman, as a Black artist, coming out there were so many expectations and then also perceptions of what I should be. I am someone who came out of a household that listened to all different types of music. I love R&B, soul music, gospel, country, calypso, reggae. My household, we listened to everything. And I love jazz. I wanted to be able to be an artist to express all of that. And so that's why, over my career, I've recorded all these different styles and I've ventured off into different things because I just didn't want to be pigeonholed into just being or doing one style."

There are many conversations happening right now about the experiences of being Black in Canada. In the early '90s, Cox says, "there was a lot of unknown."

"I don't really think there were a lot of people that really understood the mosaic of Black culture," Cox says. "There's so many different colours and so many different styles. If you just take certain things for what they are, then that's what it is. For me and my journey, I've been really blessed to come across people that got me, they understood who I was, they understood me as an artist and as a woman, and that it wasn't important for me to do certain things to make it in the industry. I wanted to be known, and I wanted to be known for the quality. That can sometimes take a longer time for people to come around and get to it, but that was my preference."

Success and thriving on one's own terms takes determination, but that's not all.

"It takes a little bit of boldness and it takes a little bit of patience," Cox says. "It takes a little bit of being fearless and being a warrior to make it all work because you have to understand timing. You have to understand that you may not get that support, and you're just going to have to fuel yourself with some kind of motivation to keep going. Because there were moments there before I got signed, where I was like, 'OK, I don't know if this is going to happen. Maybe I should consider something else.' Which was fine. It was heartbreaking, but if the opportunity isn't there, then what can you do? So you have to switch it up and figure something else out. I think a lot of times people face that, and they just don't understand, or they don't really know how to find that motivation within themselves to keep going and move forward. When there is no path, you just find yourself making your own path. For me, I've been lucky along the way to really meet people that were real champions and that's helped me tremendously."

I had no idea if I was even going to be accepted in the music world. I wasn't sure — there were a lot of uncertainties at the time. I just knew that I wanted to make a mark, make an impact. I wanted my music to influence and be inspirational.- Deborah Cox

A new hope

Cox is proud of the legacy of her debut. 

"I carry a lot of gratitude for the experience because I had no idea who I was becoming," she says. "I had no idea if I was even going to be accepted in the music world. I wasn't sure — there were a lot of uncertainties at the time. I just knew that I wanted to make a mark, make an impact. I wanted my music to influence and be inspirational."

Cox wanted to make something timeless, and she believes that if Deborah Cox came out right now, it would stand up to the music that's happening today. This year and all it has wrought — the global uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to anti-Black violence and police brutality, the rise of fascism, the global pandemic, the climate emergency — re-contextualize the song Cox still holds closest to her 25 years later.   

"'Where do we go From Here,' that's like a crossroads," Cox says. "It can mean many different things. When the lyric meets up to the moment or to a very specific time and it speaks to many different situations, then I think that's how you know [its reach]. It determines how far you can go, how far you've come and where you're going to next." 

Even Cox's vocal performance on "Where do we go From Here" — how she embodies both anguish and hope simultaneously — is its own marvel. It's a difficult balance to strike, but it's also her truth. 

"I think that's how I live my day," Cox says. "I'm always crying out. And I'm always anguished a little bit. I think that is the essence of me. That is the essence of who I am. And I think that's probably what people pick up on when they hear me speaking. I sit here sometimes with a big smile on my face, but sometimes I'm just like, I don't know what to do next. I don't know what the answer is. I don't know how to get us out of this situation with everything that's going on. How do I still try to find hope, you know, and lend some kind of positivity to someone else to help motivate them? Where do I find that? How do I find that? That's the question that I have every single day, and I'm trying to tackle it every single day as I just move in the world.

"So that is the question: where do we go from here?"

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner