One listen to Debelah Morgan's new single, "Dance With Me" which takes the 1950s pop-tango "Hernando's Hideaway" and turns it into radio-ready cha-cha and you might think she's just another singer looking for a hook.
Not true, she insists.
"I love the song's sound and feel," Morgan said. "But at the end of the day, it's got to be the emotion that connects with people."
So, while the single serves as an ear-grabbing introduction to the album of the same name, don't expect a whole disc's worth of gimmicks or samples. Dance With Me (due Aug. 15) digs deep into the 24-year-old Detroit native's love of classic R&B, pop and soul.
"I'm a pop girl who loves pretty lyrics and nice melodies," said Morgan, who now lives in New Jersey and writes most of her own material.
"It's hard for me to sing something I can't connect with," she added. "Even when I've sung songs I didn't write, if I connected in an emotional way, there was some magic on it. If I didn't, I was just another demo singer."
The first thing you notice might be Morgan's voice, honed in a performing arts high school in Phoenix, where she grew up. Her range runs from the throaty growl she uses on "Dance With Me" (RealAudio excerpt) to high notes in "Rain" (RealAudio excerpt) that would make Mariah Carey envious. But she said she hopes people relate to the lyrics, not just the sound.
She and her brother Giloh, 29, wrote and recorded Dance With Me in her basement. The do-it-yourself approach was a matter of necessity, not choice. At the time they started recording, not only was Morgan without a record deal, but she also had filed bankruptcy after two failed albums, 1994's Debelah and 1999's It's Not Over. The latter was not released in the United States.
Though Morgan and her brother had always worked as a team, record label officials told Giloh to "keep away" during the making of the first album, she said. Then, after the two had worked together on It's Not Over, the label took Giloh's name off the credits.
She spent several months in 1999 working three jobs at a time, from a clerk at a shipping company "I can hold an envelope in my hand and tell you how much postage it will take" to what she called the worst gig of all, working a lotion cart in a shopping mall. But even though she was taking a forced break from music, she hadn't soured on the biz.
"No matter what happened in my past, those bad decisions, I made them," she said. "By focusing on myself and the fact that I needed to change, that turned everything around in my life."
Morgan and her brother started writing and recording again, and she said not having a record deal meant she could make exactly the kind of music she wanted, without outside interference.
"There was a kind of creative freeness that happened," she said. "I knew that, no matter what happened, I'd be able to hold a CD or DAT in my hands of something I did that I believe in, and that it would be worth it."
Getting a record deal was sweeter the second time around, Morgan said. "When you get an opportunity after having some hard times, you treasure it more than if it was just handed to you."
Peter Galvin, Morgan's product manager at Atlantic Records, said her coming to the label with essentially a finished album helped convince the label she's got the goods.
"She really persevered, and therefore her vision is very much her own," Galvin said. "We didn't have to hook her up with an outside producer to make the music work."
Aside from the title track and "Rain" an exuberant '70s soul-style dance cut her favorite song on the album is "I Remember" (RealAudio excerpt).
"[It's about] that first day when someone tells you that they love you," she said. "But it can have different meanings for different people. You could hear it and think of a past relationship that might make you a little sad, or you could think of the relationship you're in now, and it could help you refocus on why you're with this person if times are rough."
"Dance With Me" jumped from #81 to #68 this week in Billboard and is receiving heavy radio airplay.
"Musically, Debelah wants to reach a lot of people, and this album covers a wide spectrum of music," Galvin said. But, he added, "she's not striving to fit into anyone's idea of what a pop or R&B singer should be."