If you ask an artist from where he or she draw inspiration, most of the time they will point toward life experience. If you need to write about something, prose or poetry, the best place to find inspiration is life itself. The majority of artists, and those who enjoy art, feel art imitates life. However, Oscar Wilde, opined in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. To go further, he stated “what is found in life and nature is not what is really there, but is that which artists have taught people to find there, through art”. As in an example posited by Wilde, although there has been fog in London for centuries, one notices the beauty and wonder of the fog because “poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects…They did not exist till Art had invented them.” Such philosophical debates may be a little too much for a discussion about music, but I wonder where does the premise of Life imitates Art fit in the life of the songwriter? Could it be that we are living our lives in imitation of the songs we hear? I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.
There are certainly many examples of music inspired by other art forms. “The Great Gate at Kiev from pictures at an exhibition” by Mussorgsky was inspired by Hartman’s “Plan for a City Gate in Kiev”. This is a wonderful and well-known classical piece. Also Rachmaninov’s “Isle of the Dead” which was inspired by the painting of the same name by Bὅcklin. Of course there have also been paintings inspired by great pieces of music. Nonetheless the technology of today has brought about additional avenues of artistic expression. A great example recently has come from this week’s featured artist Syleena Johnson.
Syleena Johnson born September 2, 1976 in Harvey, Illinois is an American Grammy Award nominated R&B and soul singer-songwriter and actress. Johnson is well-known currently as one of the stars in TV One reality series R&B Divas. She has enjoyed a very successful recording career which has included eight studio albums, a duet album with Music Soulchild, and a compilation album I Am Your Woman: The Best of Syleena Johnson. Her musical background also includes being the daughter of legendary blues and soul singer Syl Johnson.
Johnson’s road to music was hardly easy. Her father, Syl, was not encouraging, as he grew to think little of the music industry. On top of that, Johnson suffered from vocal nodules and had to go through speech therapy. And when Johnson was fifteen, her parents split up. Despite these setbacks, Johnson’s relationship with both her parents and her music remained strong: she contributed as a singer and songwriter on her father’s 1994 album Back in the Game.
I have always admired Syleena Johnson’s music. Even at a young age she seemed to have a feel for what many call “grown-up” music. Syleena approached music like a veteran even early in her career. Her official début recording album Love Hangover was released on January 26, 1999. The album featured Johnson singing classic R&B songs such as “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross and “Baby I’m Scared Of You” by Womack & Womack. Not long after Love Hangover, Syleena Johnson signed a record deal with major record label Jive Records, and began writing the chapters of her life.
Syleena Johnson would go on to record six albums, each representing a life chapter. Chapter 1: Love, Pain & Forgiveness (2001) Chapter 2: The Voice (2002) Chapter 3: The Flesh (2005) Chapter 4: Labor Pains (2009) Chapter 5: Underrated (2011). On October 3, 2014, Chapter 6: Couples Therapy was released on the Blackbyrd label. Syleena’s bio states, “Couples Therapy is the sixth chapter in her collection of blues and soul-inspired concept albums. This powerful new recording takes us back to the Chicago natives’ roots and caters to a more traditional R&B style. Couples Therapy deals with love and relationships. As with all of her projects Syleena gives us a heartfelt glimpse into where she is within her own journey and her private life. This project embodies Syleena’s relentless passion for songwriting. Johnson, wrote / co-wrote all the tracks”.
Of course the songwriting is that not-so-secret ingredient that makes all of Syleena Johnson’s music connect with her fans well. All of this takes us back to the question at the beginning of the post: Does art imitate life or life imitate art? On the surface, it appears that Syleena Johnson experienced life and then wrote songs about it. However, if you think about it from ‘Oscar Wilde’s premise, the songs are what shed light on her life events. The life events did not become apparent until the songs helped us see them. Nevertheless, vocally critics agree that this is one of Syleena’s strongest overall projects in years. It has been dubbed, “The best R&B album of her career.”
Chapter 6: Couples Therapy has been made into a film that stars Johnson, directed by Tangie Black Moore of Tier2Films and the other collaborators from the album. The film premiered on BET March 30, 2015. Syleena called it a modern-day musical drama, which I thought was an excellent description. Of course the music video has become a normal way that art imitates another art form today. The two go hand-in-hand. The entire film being inspired by an album is not new, but somewhat rare today. No doubt, Syleena Johnson’s music eloquently inspires the motion picture art form.