Again and again, she made me smile that year. And just when I thought she'd be around for a while, just when I thought she'd lift me into the stratosphere with more of her music -- poof! -- the girl was gone.
Adriana Evans is the mysterious songstress whose CD stayed in my changer and Walkman for an entire year, filling my headphones day in and out. I still play her album regularly.
In '97, my sophomore year at the University of Arkansas, the San Francisco-raised artist dropped her self-titled debut. That was around the same time Erykah Badu broke out with Baduizm, her Grammy-winning maiden opus, and Maxwell had scored platinum with Urban Hang Suite, his first record. The so-called "neo-soul" movement had started to bloom.
But where the debuts of Erykah and Maxwell could sound, at times, self-conscious and tentative, Adriana's record felt assured throughout, completely organic as it recalled the jazz-blessed soul of Jean Carne and Roy Ayers. Sista wasn't rehashing; she was extending. Live horns, strings, bass -- real players providing sympathetic backing throughout the record with subtle, unobtrusive touches of hip-hop here and there. But the debut, released by PMP / Loud / RCA Records, went nowhere. Then Adriana disappeared for seven years.
Now she's back -- raw and decidedly funkier on Nomadic, her long-awaited sophomore album and first release for her independent label, Next Thing.
"I just kinda went on a journey after the first record," says Adriana, 33, who's calling from her home in Los Angeles. "I went to Mexico, Brazil, San Francisco. I was just tired of the music business," she says with heavy emphasis on the last word. "The business almost made me hate the music, which is something I have always loved. I had to detox for a while."
Like any sensitive artist, Adriana was hurt deeply by the politricks of the industry. Getting her music out was tedious from the start. Her debut had been recorded and was supposed to hit the streets in 1995, when she was signed to Capitol Records. But just after Adriana turned in the master tapes, the label shut down its urban music division and promptly dropped her. It took about a year or so for her to get her masters back. In the interim, she met Paul Stewart, who headed his own label at the time, PMP, which was distributed by Loud / RCA.
PMP put out Adriana Evans in the spring of '97 but had no money to promote it. Soon, the label was history. Adriana was then moved to the RCA roster, but the company didn't market the debut, either. (I bought the album after seeing the singer-songwriter on Planet Groove, an old BET show.) When the time to work on a follow-up rolled around, the label wanted Adriana to change her sound: Less Jean Carne, more Mary J. Blige.
"The company wanted me to sing over hip-hop beats," the artist says. "They wanted to push me in another direction that wasn't me. On the first record, we were given complete creative control, which is unusual. But I didn't want to give that up. I wasn't trying to be difficult."
So instead of forcing herself into something that didn't fit, Adriana asked to be released from her contract. She got what she wanted and took off to find some peace. And herself.
Her mother, underrated jazz singer Mary Stallings, helped the young singer to refocus.
"She is actually one of my favorite singers," Adriana says of her mom, who, in the 1960s, fronted the bands of Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. "That was my school, watching my mom perform. I grew up behind the curtain, and I still learn so much from her -- things about craft and how to handle your business."
During her time in Mexico and Brazil, Adriana wrote songs. Returning to Los Angeles four years ago, she hooked up with her old collaborator, rapper-musician Dred Scott, a friend since her college days and co-producer of Adriana's brilliant debut. The 12 full cuts on Nomadic reveal a refreshing shift in the singer's approach. The songs are less jazzy and far more rock-oriented with generous dashes of funk a la Betty Davis and vintage Rufus and Chaka Khan.
"When I made the first record, I was on a strong Roy Ayers and Minnie Riperton vibe," Adriana says. "But I grew up in the Haight-Asbury section of San Francisco, so I heard Afro-Cuban, lots of Led Zeppelin, jazz-funk, lots of stuff. And I wanted to show more of those influences this time around."
My favorite track -- and my ultimate jam this year -- is "7 Days," a hard funk tune on which Adriana unleashes her inner supafreak, growling and wailing about missing her man. "What It Is," another smoker, rides a nasty, looping bass line with Adriana's vocals matching the greasy funk of the track. "Remember the Love," the first single, smoothly blends sensual, Brazilian percussion.
"With Nomadic, I wanted to take the listener on my journey," Adriana says. "The record is a lot more soul-searching and introspective."
Without the pressures of some jive label executive, she felt free to move in many directions -- hence the album's title.
"I don't want to be the hired help at some label," Adriana says. "I want to own my art and say what I want to say. No worries. No hassles."
So good to have the girl back. I'm smiling again.
To hear samples of Nomadic, visit www.adrianaevans.com.