Res had it pretty good, for a while.
A little more than a decade ago, when the music industry was still flush with cash and power, the Philadelphia-born singer-songwriter (whose given name is Shareese Ballard; her stage name is pronounced “Reese”) had a sweet deal with MCA Records. She had a crash pad on a Los Angeles beach that was paid for by the label, which was jetting her around the globe to open for Mary J. Blige and hooking her up with some of the hottest producers in the land.
Most importantly, Res believed at the time, she was with a label that had her back, believed in her artistic vision, and was as excited to watch this early-twentysomething singer steadily blossom into a star as she was.
But in a sadly-too-common turn of events, her 2001 debut album, How I Do–which was mostly written by Res’s childhood friend Santi White (a.k.a. Santigold), who was doing A&R for Epic at the time and helped Res get that MCA deal–didn’t blow up like label overlords hoped. Promising singles like “Golden Boys” and “They-Say Vision” did okay at radio and VH1 but never really caught on, mostly because no one knew how to market Res. She was a black girl from Philly, but no R&B vixen or neo-soul diva. She incorporated rock and alt-pop textures, was drawn to skittering indie-tronica beats, had a glorious voice that was both sassy and earthy yet outside the norm.
Then, while she was making a follow-up album, MCA was absorbed into Geffen Records and Res was de-prioritized. By the mid-2000’s she’d split from the label, which had shelved the sophomore disc but still hung onto the rights. Res still found a way to get the album–Black.Girls.Rock!, an even more eclectic offering than her debut–into the hands of people by giving the songs away for free online. But the web of support, financial and otherwise, and the relatively cushy lifestyle she’d enjoyed were no more.
Res considered quitting music for good. So many of her peers who’d gone through similar label fuckery had done just that. Instead, still believing in her talent and cognizant of the fact that singing and performing made her happier than just about anything in this world, she retreated back to Philly and hammered out a plan to resurrect her career as an entirely indie/DIY artist, managing her own affairs, booking gigs, making music on her own dime. Now in her early 30’s, and after a move to Brooklyn late last year, Res is poised for that second act that F. Scott Fitzgerald insisted doesn’t exist, via both her solo career and Idle Warship–her well-received, genre-busting collab with rapper/producer Talib Kweli.
Res is moving on from that difficult chapter of her life, but not before sharing the story of her rise, fall, and rebirth in the forthcoming The Res Documentary, helmed by filmmaker Steve Zegans. In it, she pulls no punches in detailing the various ways the industry screwed her over and knocked her down, but she also admits to her own culpability in the situation by going along with certain decisions despite personal reservations. Tonight, she’ll get into all of that at Drom during an intimate event called Res: An Industry Diary, where she’ll discuss the ups-and-downs of her career, perform songs old-and-new (while accompanied by a guitarist), and screen segments and outtakes from the documentary (Zegans is still in the process of securing a distribution deal for the film).
“I feel like it’s an important film because it’s about the struggles and successes that come along with an indie artist after being so pampered on a major label,” says Res. “No one else is really showing their story for real for real. You see some stuff on TV but there’s certain things they’re not gonna say. I’m pretty honest, and it’s freeing. I’m lucky I can say what I wanna say and give my side of the story. It’s a way to say, ‘This is what happened, this is why, this is where I’m at now, and this is where I’m going.'”
Given the well-documented collapse of the music industry in recent years, the film is exceptionally timely. Res acknowledges she got a head start on the rough journey that so many other musicians are facing now, and she thinks The Res Documentary can provide hope that there’s a path through the darkness.
“A lot of people can relate to it because they’re going through it right now,” she says. “You know how many great artists right now have no deal and they’re trying to do it on their own, with Kickstarter or something? These are people who should have major label success, but that’s not the way it is anymore. I’ve been on both sides of it, and I’ve learned to do things a different way and take control, so I think my opinion is pretty accurate and pretty relevant.”
The indie life remains a struggle at times for Res. An LP she’d been working on the past couple of years is in limbo because of difficult financial negotiations with the producer. “At the end of the day, money talks,” she sighs. “It’s always a business and you gotta recognize that. It wouldn’t absolutely break my heart if it never gets released, but at the same time I want all my music to come out. I don’t want a bunch of undiscovered records to come out after I’m dead,” she laughs.
But she’s hard at work on a new batch of solo songs, plus a follow-up to Idle Warship’s excellent, late-2011 full-length debut, Habits of the Heart. She recently traveled to Siberia, of all places, to perform with Ringside–the electro-indie-rock outfit fronted by Scott Thomas and actor Balthazar Getty–and hit it off so well with Thomas that the pair plans to collaborate on some fresh material soon. And, she says, every day she’s approached or contacted by fans who tell her how much they love her music and are looking forward to what’s next.
“The most important thing to me is there’s still demand for what I do, that’s what keeps me in it,” says Res, who says that her various trials have made her understand that in the end it’s not all about the big payday. “No one in my family has gone to Russia, so what pushed me to say yes to that gig was, wouldn’t it be great to go and come back and tell them what that’s like? That stuff keeps me going. I like to travel and to sing and to be creative and to speak my mind and have someone pay attention. I like to experience shit. That’s it. And I still get to do that.”
In that sense, she’s still got it pretty good. “I have my down times, like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ But we’re in the worst economic times right now, and I’d rather be broke doing something I love than broke doing something I hate.”
Res: An Industry Diary goes down at DROM tonight at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15.