Avant Brings Old School Passion Back In Session

Cleveland-bred singer's 'Separated' — nominated for Soul Train Music Award — reflects influence of heroes Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway.

As his debut album, My Thoughts, edges its way to platinum status, Soul Train Music Award nominee Avant says the record represents a return to the kind of soul music that reigned "back in the day."

Avant — nominated in the Best R&B/Soul Single, Male category for the album's hit, "Separated" (RealAudio excerpt) — said he listened to old-school music growing up in Cleveland, and he always appreciated that music's raw passion.

"Sam Cooke was one of my influences," the 23-year-old singer said. "My mom had me listen to a lot of different old-school artists: Donny Hathaway, the O'Jays, the Isley Brothers, people like that. When you turn one of those tapes on you can feel the song, you feel the lyrics, not only the music, but you can feel deep down in their hearts; it's like they're crying out to you."

Avant said he thinks he revives that spirit on My Thoughts, which also spawned his and Ketara Wyatt's remake of René and Angela's 1983 hit "My First Love" now at #8 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart and at #52 on the magazine's Hot 100.

"I think right now music is coming back to that, because before, it was kinda trapped behind the beat ... but now I think people are feeling music. It's like when someone is in love, and someone cheats on them, you can feel the pain through someone else's music that you felt in your relationship. That's where we are, and that's what I'm trying to bring back."

Avant said "Separated" and "My First Love" draw on personal experiences. "I would have to say 'Separated' was personal for me. I was like 18 years old, the girl was 22, and she broke my heart, so I came up with this song." A mere child when "My First Love" was released, Avant said he heard it for the first time when he was about 15. "The words were so deep, it almost knocked me down," he recalled.

Reflecting on his early years in music, Avant said his big break didn't come easy. "It was hard travels for me. It took me like six years just to get noticed," he said. "A lot of people in my 'hood would say, 'You sound great, you sound good,' but it was hard to break away from Cleveland. I didn't have the money to travel and everybody was saying, 'You need to go to New York, you need to go to L.A.' I did the best I could do and headed to Chicago."

It was there that Avant met Eric Payton, who later became his manager, and producer Steve Huff, who helped him shape his musical vision. Avant soon found himself in Los Angeles meeting with basketball great and fledgling label owner Earvin "Magic" Johnson. "I'm sitting around the table with Magic Johnson ... and he told me all the things he could do, so he made it happen, MCA Records [which distributes Johnson's label] made it happen and here I am right now."

My Thoughts was the first release on Magic Johnson Music, and the ingredients for its success were already intact by the time Avant met with Johnson, according to the singer.

"We came with a plan," he said. "We already had seven songs done. ... We had the direction of the album. ... It was talking about different relationships, so when we came to him, we basically had his job done. All he had to do was bring a little money to the table and make it happen for us."

Avant wrote all but two of the songs on the album, which he said is for anyone who has been involved in a relationship — good or bad. "If you heard my album, you'll understand that I have all different angles, all different types of relationships."

He's already working on his sophomore project and says he knows "the direction I'm going in with it."

"I just want my people to understand that I'm bringing them great music one more time, and I love them for supporting me the way they do," he said. "I do work for them and I do understand that."

According to Lance Panton, FM program director of Radio One Cleveland (stations WENZ and WZAK), Avant is true to his word. "Avant is definitely a hometown artist," Panton said. "He did a promotional concert for one of our radio stations just a couple of weeks ago. He headlined the concert, had his entire family there, threw his own after-party at the club and, rather than being tucked away in a VIP section, he kinda just wandered around the club and shook as many hands as his hand could stand; he took pictures, signed autographs. He's a great guy."