Vivian Green seems to think she's doing something that nobody else has ever done before.
Most new pop vocalists go on about their influences - how they absorbed Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, Carole King's Tapestry or somebody else's record and it sparked something within. But Green, the latest singing-songwriting darling in the crowded urban-pop field, says she has always done her own thing, followed her own instincts, shaped her own sound. The comparisons to Alicia Keys, Minnie Riperton and Jill Scott really grate on her nerves, you know.
Calling from her apartment in Philadelphia, Green says, "I mean, nobody really influenced me. I have my gifts. They have their gifts. I don't wanna sound mean. Do I sound mean? It's true. I can't think of anybody I really sound like."
The singer, who performs tonight at Artscape, possesses an expressive, crystal voice. She can belt, sing high, sing low. Her timing is subtle, her touch light and always tasteful. She has the kind of sound that's perfect for divalicious pop. But in her music, you can't help but hear shades of the aforementioned artists.
Green's debut, A Love Story, went gold last spring, selling more than 500,000 copies. And radio has worn out the first single, the dramatic "Emotional Rollercoaster." Because she once sang backup for Jill Scott and the arrangements on her album often recall the one-stroke, smooth-jazz-flavored ones rippling through her old boss' 2000 debut, critics quickly tagged Green as a "neo-soul" artist.
She resents that.
"That doesn't apply to me," says Green, 23. "Neo-soul? I didn't think soul was old. I'm not a soul singer, anyway, or an Afrocentric artist. I'm just a singer. Soul has never been anything somebody called me. My mama used to say that I sang like a white girl and not with enough soul."
Last month down in Portsmouth, Va., Green opened for the undisputed Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. A wispy woman, she strolled the stage - confident and charming - as her Gypsy-like black skirt trailed her.
Green's four-piece band (future husband Erik Tribbett, also her musical director, was on drums) and two background singers buoyed her impassioned vocals as she performed re-energized cuts from A Love Story. She didn't chat much, but she was engaging, a consummate professional. Green says she wasn't the least bit intimidated by the Queen.
"It was an honor, of course, to share the stage with her," she says flatly. "I mean, it is Aretha."
Green grew up in the suburbs north of Philly, singing before she could make complete sentences. Her mother used to play Ella Fitzgerald records, and Green would sing along. At 13, she thought she was ready for the "big time." With her mother's support, the ambitious teen recorded demos and shopped them around. Nothing happened. But Green's determination didn't waver. She finished high school in three years so that she could pursue music full-time. After graduation, she performed her first stint of professional gigs - singing in a local hotel ballroom. Backed by musicians in tuxedos, Green, wearing "a fancy dress," crooned "Misty" and other standards.
Around this time, she garnered the attention of Ruffhouse Records, but the pending deal fell through. Green played small clubs in and around Philadelphia. She also sang at weddings. Her luck changed, though, when she was offered a spot as a background singer on Jill Scott's first international tour. But halfway through the string of dates, Green quit because her new manager, Chauncy Childs, had secured a deal for her with Columbia Records.
Unlike your average ingenue, Green wrote the lyrics on her debut CD. Although her stories of love's ups and downs are, at times, painfully trite ("I'm fanatically addicted, see, the way that he be loving me/It's like a drug or some bad habit."), Green coats every line with from-the-heart sentiment. If she doesn't believe what she writes, she certainly doesn't expect you to.
"My life inspired my album," Green says. "I went through all those things I sing about, falling in love, falling out of love. People tell me that I'm singing about something they've gone through."
Last summer, before her debut dropped, Green opened 11 shows for platinum-selling labelmate Maxwell. Columbia chose not to invest in a splashy promotional campaign before A Love Story hit stores last November. Instead, the company went with a grass-roots approach, relying heavily on carefully chosen live dates around Manhattan to generate buzz. The label, which targeted Green's campaign toward women ages 18 to 34, produced five-song samplers, which were sent to industry folks, who were then invited to check Green out at posh 30-minute showcases in Manhattan.
Key television appearances on The Tonight Show, The Wayne Brady Show and The Today Show also boosted Green's profile. And on the same night she portrayed underrated Motown singer Brenda Holloway on the ABC show American Dreams, Dateline NBC spotlighted her in a 10-minute segment.
The promotional push resulted in a gold album without a Top 10 single, an impressive feat given the steady drop in CD sales.
Although Green has been on the road consistently for more than a year, she has managed to squeeze a movie role into her hectic schedule. In Just One of Those Things, a coming film based on the life of Cole Porter, Green plays - what else? - a singer. The pop star croons "Love for Sale," a song she used to perform under chandeliers in opulent hotel ballrooms.
"What do I want the most in my career?" Green asks. "Well, I want longevity. I want to be around for a while. I want to tour with an album or not. Of course, I want many more albums to come."
And she will do them her way. Thank you very much.
Where: Artscape, The Sun/LIVE! Stage
When: Tonight at 7
More information: www.artscape.org