Ruben Studdard, aka the Velvet Teddy Bear, formally returned to the music scene this month with a new album, new single and new label. Released Feb. 4 by Verve Records, “Unconditional Love” marks Studdard’s sixth album since claiming the “American Idol” crown in 2003.
The romance-themed “Unconditional Love” is comprised of nine covers (including the Beatles’ “My Love” and “Close to You” with Stevie Wonder on harmonica) and two original songs. Producers include Verve chairman David Foster, Jaymes Foster, Eric Benét and longtime Studdard collaborators John Jackson and Warryn Campbell. Studdard performed one of the original tunes—lead single “Meant to Be” — on the Feb. 4 finale of television’s “The Biggest Loser.” An alumnus of the show’s recent season, Studdard has lost 120 pounds.
Studdard’s newly trim physique and new music will be showcased during various TV appearances, including upcoming stints on NBC’s “Today,” “Dr. Phil” and BET’s “Being.” On Monday (Feb. 10), the Birmingham, Ala. native appeared on “Live! With Kelly & Michael” and performed several songs during a Livestream session. This spring, Studdard and recent Grammy Award winner Lalah Hathaway (who duet on the album’s “If This World Were Mine”) will launch a string of concert dates beginning April 5 at Detroit’s Garden Theatre with subsequent stops in Minneapolis, Seattle and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Last heard on the 2012 Shanachie album “Letters From Birmingham,” Studdard is also working on a Christmas album for Verve and has a theater project in development. Dropping by Billboard’s Los Angeles office a day after the “Biggest Loser” finale, the singer/songwriter shared insights about “Unconditional Love” and lessons learned during his 10-year career.
This project marks your first time recording with David Foster?
Yes. I feel this album is five years’ worth of faith. David and I had talked about working together when he was at Warner Bros. And I’d accompanied him on various “Foster & Friends” tours. But it just never was the right time [to do an album]. Finally getting the opportunity to work with a friend and mentor—someone who helped shaped my musical tastes while cleaning house with my parents on Saturdays— has been cool. Also because David knows how to produce great vocals. He knows what to say and how to suggest what to do when you’re not singing well or feeling well.
How were the songs selected?
By myself, David and his sister/producer Jaymes Foster. But it was kind of a funny situation. I was on the “Biggest Loser” ranch and couldn’t communicate with anyone on the outside. So producer assistants would download songs suggested by David and Jaymes and put them on my iPad. It was old-school cool because I got a chance to live with the music with no distractions. Then once I was off the ranch, we went through a list of 25-30 songs to single out which ones sounded good with my voice. With the exception of the two original songs [“Unconditional,” “Meant to Be”], these are just classic love songs. I tended to pick songs that weren’t as recognizable so I could introduce people to them like “The Nearness of You” and Donny Hathaway’s “Love, Love, Love.”
But how do you put your own spin on a peerless classic like Teddy Pendergrass’ “Close the Door?”
That was the only song I didn’t want to do. I was adamant about not recording it because people do have a strong attachment to his music. For some reason, fans have grown accustomed to me singing Luther Vandross songs. He had a brilliant way of caressing a song and making people actually forget someone else ever sang that song. I hope one day that people will respond to me in the way they responded to him. But there are still certain songs I feel should be left alone, and “Close” was one of them. But David and Jaymes were equally adamant about me recording it. I was tense and nervous on the day we recorded this. Eric Benét, who arranged and co-produced the song, told me to just make it my own; to be smooth and laid back. Honestly, I surprised myself with the outcome.
In light of your backstory, which includes divorce and financial issues, your passionate delivery on “Meant to Be” feels like an aural autobiography.
Being on the “Biggest Loser” was definitely a time and place for a lot of self-reflection. To think about your accomplishments, mistakes, all the things that have made you who you are; about being on a reality show to get your life together. When David and I wrote “Meant,” I was thinking about where I’m trying to get to and that’s what came out. Starting out, I was this wide-eyed, immature 23-year-old with a slight direction as to where I wanted to go. Now I’m grown up with full direction and scope as to where I want to be in the next five-10 years: musical supremacy [laughs].
Ten years after winning, are you tired of still being referenced by the “American Idol” moniker?
No. For a boy from Alabama who had no idea of how to enter the music industry after getting no responses to the demos I was sending in, it was a great blessing. It’s a six-month music industry crash course. But what you learn quickly after leaving the show is that the industry is and isn’t “American Idol.” AI is a huge pop show, but the urban market is completely different. Still, the show was first class from the time I stepped off the plane.
Do you feel constrained by the urban AC tag frequently affixed to R&B acts?
I do sometimes feel like it puts you in a box. It’s hard for an urban AC record to go top 40.
So now that you’ve lost 120 pounds, do you feel sexier?
I most definitely feel better than I did before. I have much more energy. But I’ve always felt I was sexy [laughs]. Maybe that’s just the conceited side of me.
And what else is your biggest takeaway from “The Biggest Loser” as you move forward?
My earlier weight loss in 2008 was for other people. This time it’s for me. I was fighting so hard to figure out how to get on top musically that I neglected to take care of myself. It was unfortunate, but the truth. And now I’m finding a way to fix that balance.