Robert Owens — The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Robert Owens needs no introduction. He’s simply the voice of House Music.

From his early days as part of Fingers Inc with Larry Heard to his countless contemporary collaborations, Robert just won’t stop giving. I was lucky to meet him late last year before the pandemic and we recorded the track “I’ll Take You In” (to be released on December 4th, 2020) before our night at Fondation Phi in Montreal for Phil Collins’s Bring Down The Walls project. A kind and generous soul, I recently spoke to Robert for over an hour on Zoom from his home in Berlin. Here’s our conversation.

Fred Everything: Hi Robert! How’ve you been lately? 

Robert Owens: Hello Fred. I’ve been up and down but I can’t complain. I have to be grateful I’m still here existing. Because I’ve been through a lot in my life and I survived, I can be down for a minute and then brush myself off and get back up. As long as you live another day, you fight another day!

F.E: This notion of gratitude seems very important to you

R.O: It’s a pentacle part of my existence. There are so many people around me that have been a casualty. People and artists I grew up with are either no longer with us or just gave up but I always had a will and determination to succeed no matter what and even at my lowest points, something positive happened that gave me hope. That’s where gratitude and gratefulness comes back around. It’s about counting your blessings.

When did you discover the importance of gratitude in your life?

R.O: If you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to look but up[laugh]. I’ve been up at the top and went down to rock bottom and then back up to the top again. I know what it’s like to be happy and I know what it’s like to be sad. Alone with not a friend in sight, then on top of the world, flowing with money and friends. When you know those different extremes, you learn to really appreciate and respect what you have. 

You live by yourself in Berlin. You seem to enjoy your time alone?

R.O: Yeah, I’m fine living alone. I’ve lived with others at points in my life, and it was nice. But it’s about finding individuals who are on the same wavelength as you and treat you with an equal sense of respect. I’m a real giver and sometimes that can turn to a one sided scenario. Why go through that, you know?

Just like that Tony Allen song : “Don’t take my kindness for weakness”.

R.O: Yes, and often some people will.

While you’re content living alone, you seem love to be around people. When we performed together, you gave a lot during your performance but also before and after your set. You engaged with people a lot. Do you miss that connection?

R.O: I think I miss entertaining and being around people but I have a lot friends here and people try to get me to come out to do little things. We have little parties with 4 or 5 people. There are a lot of DJs here and they want me to play different things. So I’m constantly listening to music and updating information and ideas with them. Also, people keep sending me new music or ideas on social medias. The only change is just not doing it on huge platforms like we did before.

As a reference for people, the song we wrote together is called “I’ll Take You In”.

R.O: Yes, and it stems from that same idea. We meet people and if we get a good connection from them, we just automatically take them in. (Starts singing) I’ll Take You In, I’ll Take You In. We become family.

I think the message is a much needed universal theme. House Music has lost its way in terms of carrying a message. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget where this music actually comes from and its initial purpose.

R.O: One of the main things back then was the unification of the artists working together. When you’re hearing something, you’re hearing a moment in time. You’re hearing that experience of those individuals connecting with each other and giving a respectful side of each otherfor that particular project. I think that was the beautiful thing.

Following this sentiment, would you say that it’s better for people to record and write together in the same space?

R.O: Us together was indeed what created that special sentiment, but I could’ve also had a conversation with you and just off the energy and the vibe from that conversation, I would’ve still wrote something to whatever music you sent me. So again, it’s about the connection of the artists and the respectability of the artists. A lot of artists these days lost their way with respect. I’ve never been like that. I don’t care, old or new, when we walk through the door, we’re walking through the door equally together.

The theme of friendship and family is obviously a big one for you. Going back to your classic “I’ll Be Your Friend” for and more recently with our song. What is your relationship with your family. Are you trying to find family through the music world?

R.O: The music world has naturally been my family. I’ve never had a real close relationship with normal family. They’re there and every blue moon, we might speak to each other. There’s a sense of love and stuff but we don’t really know each other that well. There’s no grudge or anything. I’ve just made family in the streets because that’s where I grew up. Gay, straight, all kinds of people. This is why I’ve never judged someone for who they are, what they are or where they’re coming from. I just take in people, I take in energies. And there’s a natural desire and will for me to want to give and to love. 

I was really grateful to have access to this really rare photo of you and your family for the release. You’re at the center of the photo with that huge smile. Very radiant. 

R.O: My brother found it. I was shocked! I haven’t seen him since he was probably as young as he is in the photo! Looking at the photo, I could already see the energy burning in me to want to give and entertain.

Did your musical background come from your family?

R.O: At family gatherings, I would be there selecting the music, back and forth between helping in the kitchen. It was just, something naturally inside of me. I was always trying to put people in the neighbourhood together and form bands : “Man can you sing? Are you playing an instrument? Let’s make a band!”. 

So it was more a natural instinct? You don’t come from a family of musicians?

R.O: I had one sister that was musical and used to travel. After she got married and got kids, it kinda collapsed. She had a piano in her basement and I always wanted to sing along with her. As I got older, we used to ask people in the neighbourhood that had a building with an empty basement. We would clean out the basements to make parties. I had one turntable, put one colour light up in the room. In between records, people were talking, I put on another record, they start dancing. And we charged them like 5$ to get in. We drew homemade flyers that we passed around in different places along the neighbourhood. And these basement parties would be full. I was the main DJ. I even did parties where I brought different gangs who might have been rivals together. And they were cool with each other in the party. They used to tell me : Man, you bring some love to the party. And I could see how people could get together and change through music.  This is also where selection comes in. It’s not always about the mix. I try to tell a story, and take people on a musical journey. And this is where lyrics have always been important to me. I sometimes had had one lyric in and another lyric from the next song saying something else that matched almost like it was a written sentence. And when things like that happened, the crowd just snapped! When you can do that, that’s where it really becomes fascinating and interesting for people. 

So would you say you were a DJ first then?

R.O: Yeah, from a young age. But because I got more success first on the mainstream of things through the vocals, people associate me more with singing.

You mentioned getting the rival gangs together, and it reminded me of an episode in W. Kamau Bell’s show [United Shades of America, CNN], where he gets different rival gangs from the South Side of Chicago together. They sat down together and were able to enjoy each other’s company. It makes you wonder what actually creates these rivalries. 

R.O: I saw this on the internet. If you put black ants and red ants all in a jar together, they will be fine. But if you shake the jar, and pour them on the table, then they all come off fighting and killing each other. And it’s like that in society. There’s always somebody up above shaking things up and throwing people into a chaos. And the automatic reaction is to attack. But what are you attacking for, when it’s forces up above you creating these scenarios? Let’s research historically where a lot of separations and boundaries came from. What hierarchies of society wanted to remain in control for creating these different things. The key thing is to reach back and study.

We met because my wife was curating an exhibition with artist Phil Collins. The event was related to his art installation Bring Down The Walls, which examined racial injustice and the prison industrial complex in the US and Canada, through the unconventional lens of house music.  You leant your voice to the narration in the film accompanying the installation and collaborated with him before. Can you tell us how you two met?

R.O: Phil got in touch with me online. And I said of course I’d love to be involved! They told me the concept of what was going on with the different prisoners and injustices and I could totally relate to it. He asked me which track would be interesting for this project and I instantly thought of “Bring Down The Walls” and that’s how the whole title of the track became involved.

Phil Collins, Bring Down The Walls, 2019. Photo: Marc-Olivier Bécotte. Courtesy of the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art.

While working on the project, did you get new information about the racial injustices and systematic racism, or was this all old news to you?

R.O:  I think it just reinforced things I already knew. Even today, if I walk in a store, security guards will start following me. That’s something that never goes away. When I first came here [Berlin], Clubs would instantly reject me, and I knew it was because I was black. It wasn’t until they realized who I was as an artist and they were like, “man, I have some of your records!” So can I come in the club now? Oh sure [laugh]! The name Robert Owens is just wonderful to some people and it has nothing to do with me as a person. It’s an entity that’s done things in society that people have loved and enjoyed. It’s a blessing. I now have keys to enter certain clubs here because they kept turning me away and the owners start finding out, so they gave me a special key! Eventually, I started playing at almost every club here and security would start coming in and listening to my sets. That’s beautiful when you just turn things around!

I’ve also been declined entries to clubs in Berlin for different reasons, until you tell them you’re on the guest list. That’s a thing I have a hard time with in Berlin. I understand why they do it but to me, it goes against what this music and movement is about. The party we played together had no guest list that night and was free all night. It’s about accepting everyone in.

R.O:  Back in the day, there was a system. You had memberships and you could bring 3 or 4 people in with you. There was also a door personality that went up and down the lines and made sure certain people got in without any problem. A lot of these things, made the difference in “super clubs” like Paradise Garage, Studio 54, Warehouse… And people knew it, so they felt special coming in. And they didn’t feel left out. Security shouldn’t be able to override the door personality.

Considering the current social climate in the US right now, do you believe that change is possible and would you ever consider living there again? 

R.O: I do believe change is possible and it would be beautiful to live in the United States again! I’m comfortable here in Berlin, but lots of time I miss the US. I would love to come and visit. But with the current situation, I’m just content where I’m at and content to just keep creating. 

Lets’ go back in time a little. How did you and Larry [Heard] meet? Looking back at those sessions, did you know back then that you were making history?

R.O: No! We were like kids in the candy store! I was on the scene and I knew Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy. I was doing small parties in clubs, colleges and even in our apartments that we arranged like a club. When we weren’t having our parties, I was going down to The Warehouse and The Music Box. And through that circuit, a young protégé of mine, Tony Harris, introduced me to Larry who gave me some of his music, and the next day, I went over to his house and he started playing me some things and I instantly said, “I got some words to match that!” We recorded some demos and I started playing stuff out at The Music Box where Robert Williams, the owner who hired Ron Hardy, asked me to fill in for him. I played some of those early instrumentals like Can You Feel It and Washing MachineMystery Of Love…Just seeing how people went into a kind of hypnotic trance made me think, this guy has something!  And we just kept getting together and Frankie and Ron stuff started playing our music. I was even doing little basic edits things and Frankie would take my edit and extended it. And it’s just evolved from that. He [Larry] got in touch recently to say hi. It thought that was a beautiful thing. So you just never know, there might be something there in the future…

So there was never a moment where you knew that something you did at that time would change the fabric of what would be music?

R.O: Never. This is again a scenario of being grateful. We’ve given our basic productions to profile DJs like Ron and Frankie, and next thing you know, they’re playing your minimalistic material against some high profile Sounds of Philadelphia full orchestral things. You’re just like, “Wow! That’s us there, can you believe it?”  So you’re not even thinking, “oh this is something that’s going somewhere”. You’re just lost in the euphoria of moment. It’s other people that took things to the next level. And this is why you should never forget your roots and where you come from. Whatever position that you’ve achieved, always remember the people who put you in that position!

Let’s talk about a common friend of ours, Martin Iveson aka Atjazz, one of my oldest friends in the music world. It was an obvious choice for me to ask him to remix this song about friendship and family. I know you guys worked together in the past. How was your experience and how’s the relationship with him?

R.O: He’s another wonderful and amazing artist. His remix is beautiful and complement the originals well.I’ve been up there [Derby] with him and his wife. We just get in the studio and shoot ideas off each other and it just naturally worked and flowed. And I think those are the best things. Just like when we went down in your basement studio, you played something and I said ok I got something and it just gelled! Those are the most magical and most beautiful experiences that you can have.

When we first spoke, you didn’t know that I previously remixed one of your tracks [East River Ritual feat Robert Owens – I Can’t Fight It]. With all the collaborations you release, do you keep track of all of them?

R.O: It’s a beautiful mix. I don’t keep track of everything I do. Often people have played me things and It takes me a moment and then…oh yeah, I remember that [laugh]. There’s got to be a thousand things out there floating. I’ve been at people’s house and they played things that I completely forgot about. I accumulate and learn to give back to humanity. You can’t take it with you, but you can pass it on and people. I look at myself as a fountain. It’s constantly flowing and pouring. Everybody can come and take a drink from it! Just don’t turn the fountain off! 

Phil Collins, Bring Down The Walls, 2019. Photo: Marc-Olivier Bécotte. Courtesy of the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art.

Preview Clips from the upcoming Robert Owens & Fred Everything “I’ll Take You In” EP