Independent homegirl Julie Dexter goes where her artistic spirit moves

Music Notes

April 21, 2005|By RASHOD OLLISON

MAN, JULIE DEXTER sure loves to talk. Her British-accented words breeze by like a breathless scat solo. She pauses.

"I'm sorry," the singer-songwriter says. "Am I going too fast?"

"Go 'head," I tell her. "You're cool."

Then she's off again, going on about her commitment to her craft and her new album, Conscious. The artist -- whose work stubbornly defies categorization as it incorporates elements of jazz, reggae, pop and ambient trance music -- is calling from her home in Atlanta. On the phone, she buzzes with energy, zipping from one topic to another, excusing herself to answer the other phone in the house. Dexter's busy running everything: her own label and production company, Ketch a Vibe Music, and her mouth.

Listening to her serene, somewhat detached approach on her records, I didn't expect that she would be so animated. I figured I was going to get a shy artist on the phone, an aloof chanteuse with better things to do than chat with a pop music critic in B'more.

Not so. Dexter, a likable homegirl from Birmingham, England -- who doesn't like to give her age -- seems to know what she wants and loves to share her ideas.

"Oh, man, I've got a list of projects I want to do: broken beat, hip-hop, more jazz, maybe rock," she says. "The beautiful thing about making music is that you have so many vibrations to do different songs. But with anything I do, I'm still Julie Dexter. It may not sound like the other project, but it's still who I am."

Conscious is nothing like Dexterity, the singer's acclaimed 2003 album that brilliantly married uptown jazz and funky dub. That record was instantly seductive, humming with vibrant horn arrangements and tight backing by Fertile Ground and others.

"Conscious is more of a collaboration with Michael Johnson, an artist on my label," Dexter says. "The lyrics and melodies are mine. But it's his musical backdrop. It's really reminiscent of Loose Ends, the music I used to groove to in the clubs when I was a teenager. It's the first time I've written to somebody else's musical backdrop. This was an easier side for me because I could concentrate on the lyrical content."

The album is basically a straight-up neo-soul record and a tad conventional for a free-spirited artist like Dexter. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. The singer's light, fluid vocals still seduce as they caress, float over and melt into Johnson's unobtrusive productions. But I miss the organic, live instrumentation of Dexterity, especially the horns. Johnson's beats may not always radiate the warmth of Dexter's previous effort, but the soundscapes are smoothly atmospheric nonetheless -- ideal for the singer's whispery, multitracked vocals.

"As an artist, you want to move; you want the license and the freedom to expand the horizon," says Dexter, who grew up idolizing Nancy Wilson, Abbey Lincoln and Sade.

"I've had a lot of people ask me why this album is so different. But it's a growth process for me. I'm an independent artist, so I exercise my freedom to be able to do different styles."

Dexter is exactly the kind of artist major labels don't like to fool with these days.

"I'm not just a neo-soul artist," she says strongly. "I'm not just a jazz singer, you know what I mean? I don't want to be in any one category. It's about being brave enough to expand yourself."

Since breaking onto the underground soul scene with the U.K. group J-Life in 1997, Dexter has steadily evolved. In 2000, she independently released a seven-song EP, Peace of Mind, which introduced her as a solo artist. But things started to gel three years later with Dexterity, her first full-length album. By that time, the Middlesex University communications graduate was established in Atlanta, playing joints around the city and beyond, including New York, the Baltimore-D.C. area and London.

Dexter seems to be content doing her thing on the underground scene. She isn't tripping about fame. Of course, she wants to sell more records, get her name out there, make more money. After all, she's an artist and a businesswoman. But the singer-songwriter-entrepreneur says she isn't about to compromise the integrity of her work or stop exploring the many directions in which her artistic spirit moves. So if that means she stays independent forever -- never signing a deal with a giant corporation, never gracing the cover of Essence magazine -- oh, well.

"Music is a healing for me," Dexter says. "I live my dream every day making music. I want to make my mark as a musician. Don't box me in."

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