Philly Blunt: Shareese Ballard

Hey, remember 15 In Philly? MAGNET’s 15th-anniversary survey of our hometown music scene apparently left a lot to be desired in the variety department. It made our friend Rocco DiCicco ask, “Youse guys listen to anything but india [sic] rock?” (He didn’t actually ask that, but it’s always a good time stereotyping Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.) Every once in a while, Rocco tells us about a Philly artist you need to know about.

Shareese Ballard (better known as Res) did something most young, aspiring musicians would consider unthinkable: She asked to be let out of her major-label recording contract without having a safety net to fall back on or, necessarily, a game plan for the next step of her career. Res’ critically acclaimed (and many say criminally underrated) first album, How I Do, was released in 2001. MCA Records saw great promise in the young talent and put a great deal of resources behind her, including sending her touring the world in promotion of the LP, opening for acts like Maxwell, Mary J. Blige, Alanis Morissette, John Mayer and Michelle Branch. The video for her first single, “Golden Boys,” was a staple on VH1, and her third single, “They Say Vision,” reached number one on Billboard‘s dance chart. How I Do went on to sell a not-too-shabby 300,000 copies and helped Res develop a rabid fan base and garner huge props from industry insiders who saw her as a truly unique, genre-busting, eminently gifted artist who would be around for a long time.

In 2003, Geffen absorbed MCA Records and dropped most of the label’s acts. Res was one of the 100 or so Geffen kept onboard. The only problem was that the label didn’t want to release her second record, which was mixed, mastered and ready for the world. After years of inertia from Geffen, Res eventually had had enough. She asked the label to release her from her contract. Geffen complied but retained ownership of the completed album (which she eventually leaked for free to her fans in 2009). Not long after the split, she was invited to tour the world with Gnarls Barkley as a backup singer, just as “Crazy” was just starting its trajectory to becoming a number-one hit across Europe, North America and Australia. Soon after that whirlwind 18-month tour ended, her father died. Res moved back to Philly to be with her mother and family. It was the first time she had lived back in her hometown since her wild ride in the music industry began.

I met up with Res at Silk City Diner in Philly. When she walks into a room, it’s hard not to notice her. She carries herself with an air of purpose and confidence that immediately draws your attention, as do her stunning good looks. But her physical beauty quickly becomes an afterthought once you start talking to her. Her motivation, street smarts, innate business sense and belief in herself immediately grab your focus. These qualities are so ingrained in her core that you would never question her decision to abandon a cushy label deal without a backup plan. She knows how talented and unique she is, and she has a very clear understanding of what she is capable of. She gives you the sense her destiny is much bigger than being an independent artist living in Philly.

It also becomes immediately apparent that Res has her shit together. She continually talks about making sure she releases her music “in the correct way,” taking the time to promote herself “in the correct way.” She also talks about landing the right endorsement deals, about manpower and resources. It is a much more honed and deliberate sensibility than the spray-and-pray approach many independent musicians pass off as a promotion strategy. But perhaps the most important thing she has going for her is a boatload of resilience. She doesn’t lament about how hard it is getting music heard, or how much easier things were when the label was taking care of everything, or anything else, for that matter. And even with her huge ambition and confidence, she has no illusions that her success is guaranteed, and she knows that she has a lot of work to do to get her career to where she wants it to be.

Res is getting ready to drop a slew of new music that’s a testament to her eclectic talent and genre-bending musical sensibility. There is the debut Idle Warship album, a side project with longtime collaborator and acclaimed rapper Talib Kweli. Then there is Refried Mac, an EP of her unique interpretations of some of her favorite Fleetwood Mac songs. Finally, a full album of her original songs (featuring cameo appearances by Big Boi from OutKast and other big names who have loved Res for years) is in its final stages.

Res is equal parts the colossally ambitious artist and laid-back, down-to-earth girl you feel like you’ve known your whole life. We discussed her years living and working in L.A., wearing insane outfits on the Gnarls Barkley tour, the pitfalls of being pigeonholed, her frustration with Philly musicians, major labels vs. independent ones and rebuilding herself in the music industry.

MAGNET: How long have you been back in Philly? How are you feeling about it these days?
I’ve been here about three years. I came back because my father passed away, and I felt like I needed to be with my family and get used to him not being here. I focused on that for about a year and didn’t really do any music. But I’m ready to move. [Laughs]

You have a ton of new music ready to come out. Would you prefer to end up on a major label? Do you think they can still deliver, or do you think things have changed so much that you could be just as successful going the indie route?
I would prefer a major label. The point I’m at in my career, the type of things they can deliver could really help. Notoriety-wise, manpower, endorsement deals. All those things that if you’re an indie you don’t really get connected to.

When How I Do came out, it was such a unique and eclectic record, but it seemed MCA was specifically marketing you as a neo-soul artist. Did you feel pigeonholed into that category from the beginning?
Well, at the beginning there was some of that but eventually they had me touring with people like John Mayer and Alanis Morisette. So things were starting to go in the right direction as far as a broader audience. On the other hand, it has been a problem because if you run a playlist with my name on Pandora or something, the similar artists that come up are always Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, who I love but think I am pretty different from. But because I was initially promoted as a neo-soul artist, my name gets automatically associated with those people. It’s hard because no matter what type of music I put out or what my live show is like, that’s what I get attached to online. And the Internet makes that type of stuff more important now than ever. It’s like a piece of toilet paper trailing me on the way out of the bathroom. I think once I put out this new music, though, it’ll make people realize what I really do.

So you didn’t really feel any pressure from the label, like the music you made needed to fit into something they were specifically investing in you to be? After How I Do, did you feel any heightened sense of expectation from MCA for your follow-up?
I made the music I wanted to make from the beginning, and I got signed based off of that. I created the image I wanted to create, and I worked with people who supported that and believed in it. So, there was never any real pressure on me from the label to be something they wanted. I just did what I did. Going into the second album, I was confident because I got signed based on who I was, and they hadn’t told me what to do with the first record, so why would they do that for the second? They just opened my budget and didn’t tell me who to work with or anything.

That’s great that you had that kind of relationship from the beginning.
Yeah. Well, there were very low expectations for that first record. They just signed a bunch of artists and threw everything up against the wall to see what would stick. And I stuck. Plus, the president of the label personally signed me, so it would’ve been hard for people to tell me what to do.

What was that hiatus period for you like when you had finished the second album but Geffen wouldn’t put it out? Were you enjoying living off an artist’s salary chilling in a house on the beach, or were you totally frustrated with everything? What were you doing to keep yourself positive, motivated and busy?
I was just living. I was happy going on vacation, hanging out with my boyfriend, writing music and performing. It wasn’t bad at all. It just got to a point where I said, “Oh my god, how many years have gone by?” I just knew that this couldn’t last forever—them paying me a salary and spending a lot of money every month on me not working. I mean, how long am I gonna live off these people’s dime and not put anything out? I’m not stupid. It gets to a point where you have to realize that eventually either the rug is gonna get pulled up from under you or you’re going to step off the rug. So, I stepped off, knowing that I would be taking a few steps back to move forward. But it was something I felt I had to do.

Soon after the Geffen split, you ended up going on the Gnarls Barkley world tour as a backup singer when their song “Crazy” was just blowing up. How did that come to be an what did you get out of that tour? How did you like being a backup singer rather than the person out front?
I had a friend who suggested I audition. At first, I didn’t know if I should do it. I mean, I was a solo artist who had had some success. Cee-Lo had opened up for me at that point. But when it came down to it, I felt like I needed to be out singing. If I really love to sing; fuck if I’m doing it as a solo artist or backup. The music was good, so fuck whatever, I thought. I was on the road with them for about a year and a half. It was so much fun and only about 20 percent of what I normally have to do, and it turned out I ended up touring in this 11-million-record-selling band. I was getting paid well, we were wearing crazy outfits like the Lucas Film costumes from Star Wars. It was really the most fun I’d had on tour in a long time because it wasn’t all about me. But I’m used to being out front, so when I was up there my presence wasn’t of someone who was used to being in a band, it was of someone who is used to having a band. I learned about how I looked at situations, about my confidence, about how to be humble. Stuff like needing to fall back when you’re part of a team and not necessarily leader of a team.

You mentioned your hiatus from music when you came back to Philly. Now that you’re about to release all this new music, does it feel like you’re starting over? What has it been like doing all this on your own?
I don’t really feel like I’m starting at ground zero, but for me, being independent is not helping me. If I were at the beginning of my career, being independent would be right along with everybody the fuck else, but I’m not everybody the fuck else. I’m not saying I can’t learn a lot from people who are independent, and I don’t need to be handed anything in particular. But I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where if I have major companies affiliated with me like Coca-Cola or MCA or whatever, I know I would get further. Because I know what the fuck I’m doing. I show up on time, with a smile on my face. I know money invested in me is not going to waste, because I’ve sort of a proven myself.

Are you optimistic about the future?
I am. I’ve always said, “You’re destined to do what you’re destined to do.” I believe in what I do, and I have a strong fan base of people who wanna hear my music. I just need to connect the dots. I think once I release this music, it’s gonna be a whole different world. I wanna take advantage not only of the major-label side, but I wanna use what I’ve learned from the indie side, too. For years, I didn’t realize what the indie side can do for you. Now, I realize it’s most important to get the music to the people who want it, but you still need to get it to the people who you know can get it to a broader audience.

What’s your take on Philly as a music town?
You know, there are some incredible musicians and creative people here making great music, but it feels like they all have day jobs. It’s kinda frustrating being someone who just does this 100 percent. Philly’s a great place to live, but it doesn’t feel like a working music town to me. It’s a constant battle with the musicians because of their other priorities. There always seems to be an issue with time, when people can rehearse and when they can’t. “My wife is complaining about money. I have kids.” Shit, bring your kids with you. We gotta rehearse. [Laughs]

One reply on “Philly Blunt: Shareese Ballard”

I’m feeling what Res is saying about independent artists. The last comment was hilarious “My wife is complaining about money. I have kids.” Shit, bring your kids with you. We gotta rehearse.” Although I will say this though you’ll run through a fair share of people who are “balancing priorities” that are more artist than entertainers, they’re more about the audience and expression than the business or commercial obligations. It’s a double edge sword with all of it. Ultimately you work with who gets it done, but I love the Philly artist scene and all it’s imperfections.

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