Three years ago, Toronto-based R&B singer Divine Brown released her self-titled debut and scored a radio hit with the retro-flavoured single "Old Skool Love." Just a few weeks later, Brown's label Universal Music Canada released Toronto R&B singer Jully Black's debut as well.
In a country with limited exposure to homegrown R&B divas at the time, the introduction of two such powerful talents at once was an unusual move. Arguably, Brown was the victim of this release schedule. While Black went on to become a more well-known star and released five singles from her debut, Brown had to be content with only "Old Skool Love"'s impact.
Shortly thereafter, Brown made some changes behind the scenes.
"I left my management company and because I was signed to an imprint label that was distributed through Universal, I left them as well," Brown tells Popjournalism during a phone interview. "A lot was going on at the time, but I felt I needed to be in a position to work with someone else."
Now signed with Warner Music Canada, Brown is ready to take her place as a major Canadian star with her sophomore release The Love Chronicles. The first single, "Lay it on the Line" became a top 10 hit, and the album is full of many radio-friendly, potential hits — and critically, she's paired with a new label readying not only to release more singles, but also to promote her internationally.
This scenario has to be a breath of fresh air for Brown.
"[Warner] has given great support, and as a company, they have put their best foot forward with this record," she says.
The Love Experience builds upon Brown's doo-wop and lovers rock R&B sound, but adds more distinct pop-and-dance elements to the mix. The result is a mainstream, but soulful collection of tracks that sounds both retro and current — which is exactly the feel Brown sought during her recording sessions.
"When I was recording, I wanted to recreate the memory of the feeling I had listening to my dad's records," Brown says. "So much great soul music is part of my DNA; It's intimately who I am. But I didn't spend time listening to older music — I wanted to capture the memory of what it was like then.
"My family had a cousin in New Jersey and I remember we went out for a drive and 'Shining Star' by the Manhattans came on the radio" — Brown stars singing the verse, "Honey, you are my shining star / Don't you go away" — "I remembered how that made me feel."
Tracks like the sassy "Bebe," "Sweet Surrender" and "Lay it on the Line" obviously were meant to sit comfortably on a diner jukebox playlist alongside the Manhattans.
While Brown counts Chaka Khan as her primary vocal influence, both Mariah Carey and Minnie Riperton also had an important role, as Brown revelled in using her five-octave vocal range to hit sky-high notes from Carey's "Love Takes Time" and Riperton's "Lovin' You."
"I never knew I could hit those kind of notes until I was 16; it was tough to practice when anyone was home because I didn't want to annoy anyone," she recalls with a laugh.
Certainly, that isn't the case anymore.
Brown is currently itching to go back into the studio to record new tracks for The Love Chronicles' international versions.
"I got this one song that is really hot. I'm ready to call my producer, since I got it too late to include on the initial release. I was sent a couple of different tracks and this one came out of nowhere."
She repeats emphatically: "It's hot."
About Robert J. Ballantyne
Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.