Interview: Raphael Saadiq

The consummate soul man plays it cool.

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Raphael Saadiq

Raphael Saadiq Photograph: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com

There's posh, and there's posh. At Sony's midtown headquarters there are two reception areas: one for the general public, and one for the Sky Lounge on the 35th floor, where a mustachioed gent in a bow tie directs me to the Raphael Saadiq photo shoot.

Saadiq is of course no entry-level musician, having fronted R&B troupes Tony! Toni! Ton! and Lucy Pearl; collaborated with Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu and the Bee Gees; and recorded five superb solo albums—the fifth of which, Stone Rollin', drops on Tuesday 10.

A style icon, Saadiq strides into the interview room in crisp wool slacks and red-and-white brogues. (He's been wearing suits since he was seven years old and singing in church, he says.) Poised in a leather armchair, Saadiq insists that music has always been "a gentleman's game" for him. "My music is more blues-oriented," he says. "It's never really been about the 'I'm too sexy for my shirt' thing." His charming, guarded demeanor supports this notion, as does his description of his first big break, touring as part of Sheila E.'s ensemble with Prince: "I was too young for it to blow my mind; I was more stuck on being professional out there," he says. "They had a lot of fun, but it doesn't seem like anybody was too wild."

So far, so businesslike, but Saadiq was basically touring the world with Mr. Sex. Similarly, the video for the Tony! Toni! Ton! smooth jam "It Never Rains (in Southern California)" had Saadiq shirtless and positively glowing with desire. In 2007 he posed naked, entwined with Joss Stone, for a portrait accompanying her album Introducing Joss Stone, which he produced. And in 2002, Saadiq cowrote D'Angelo's Grammy-winning "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," a song (and video) so sexy that its merits are still debated in Ph.D. dissertations.

Saadiq had quite a partnership with D'Angelo, but quickly dismisses the notion that they might be two sides of the same coin. "That's definitely not me," he says. "I'm only around for the creativity, then I'm gone." How does he feel, then, about his songs being used for seduction, as they surely have been since the get-go? "Some people use no lights for sex, some people use light, you know?" he shrugs. "Once they get the product in their household, they can do whatever they want with it. It's only up to me when I make it, then it's out of my hands." It's a wonderful gift, though, isn't it? Saadiq laughs. "I mean, I've heard people say, 'We've made babies to your songs,'" he adds. "That's flattering. A lot of people say they named their daughter Deja [from 'Ask of You']. I think that's cool."

There's plenty of baby-making music on Stone Rollin', from the outrageously slinky, harmonica-drizzled title track to the raw garage-rocker "Over You." "This is the beginning of a cycle of records that will really define me," Saadiq says with quiet confidence. "When I say, 'Go to Hell,' and I sing, 'I can see my name written across the sky'—I didn't write that down. I just started singing it, and it opened up, like, 'This is it!'"

Saadiq recorded the album in his own Los Angeles studio ("You can sit there and create and make all sorts of faces; it's a huge joy"), playing all the instruments himself and taking occasional breaks to go to the driving range. Is he good at golf? "Nah, I just like to hit balls," he says. "I'd rather be good at music than golf." Making the right choices early on is important, Saadiq asserts. "As a youngster you just have to pick those five or six things—and make sure you're pickin' 'em wisely because you're gonna pay for it [Laughs], whatever they are."

Saadiq chose wisely. He's an astonishing talent, and he knows it. Even so, his enduring success over three decades is unusual. He remembers a turning point in the early days of Tony! Toni! Ton!, when, as the band was about to walk onstage, he passed a promoter whose face was hidden in darkness. "And the guy said, 'Yeah, this is your first record. Let's see what your next single sounds like,'" Saadiq says, shaking his head. "He said single. He wasn't talking about albums. And that always stuck with me."

Accordingly, Saadiq's next single has always been good. He's a soul survivor. With the exception of some iffy fashion choices in the '80s, he got here without compromising his dignity, without scandals or bad music. He's built a career on solid, enduring tunes and killer live shows. Now that's a gentleman's game, well played.

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