By Chris Azzopardi | Photos by Mike Ruiz
On her new album, Love & Conflict, Martha Wash is far removed from her disco days, when she became known as half of The Weather Girls. With the late Izora Rhodes-Armstead, the duo began their career as Two Tons O’ Fun. They shot to stardom in the early ’80s as The Weather Girls, after releasing one of the biggest gay anthems, “It’s Raining Men.”
During her solo career in the 1990s, Wash’s booming voice was infamously used without her permission on dance-pop touchstones like Seduction’s “(You’re My One and Only) True Love” and Black Box’s “Strike It Up” and “Fantasy,” as well as C+C Music Factory’s No. 1 hit “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).” In 2014, Rolling Stone called Wash “the most famous unknown singer of the ’90s.”
Released on her own independent record label, Purple Rose Records, Love & Conflict is a fusion of funk, blues and R&B – “another departure from what people are used to hearing me sing,” she says. But, perhaps more importantly, the record represents Wash’s artistic freedom.
The 66-year-old disco queen recently spoke about breaking out of the dance-pop music mold, singing about dating apps but being too leery to use them, and that time she and iconic gay singer Sylvester literally shook the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House.
How have you kept your voice intact all these years? What are your tricks?
I have no tricks! And look, I think over time don’t we all kind of change a bit? (Laughs.) While I am grateful to still be able to sing, you know, the voice changes over time – and I’ve been doing this a long time! (Laughs.)
On “Never Enough Money,” you sing, “Sugar’s waiting in the back, you’re flirting on a dating app…” Are you on dating apps, Martha?
No, I am not!
So you’re not speaking from personal experience?
No, no. But you hear so much about especially young … well, not even young people anymore! Everybody’s doing it. It doesn’t matter the age anymore. People are trying to find love wherever they think they can, and there’s so many different (apps) out there. You see people, their heads just down in their phones with the email, or the dating apps, and things like that. (Sighs.) Hey, technology.
Say hypothetically you did have a Tinder profile.
What would you say about Martha Wash in your Tinder profile?
Goodness. I like flowers. (Laughs.) Confident.
What would you look for in another person’s profile?
Let’s see: A guy that likes to laugh or can make me laugh.
A sense of humor is always good.
Sense of humor’s always good ’cause I don’t always have one. (Laughs.) Sense of humor and can deal with my madness. Also somebody who has a strong spiritual background. I’m a homebody, but I also like to travel. Somebody who’s adventurous.
How about TV shows? What do you binge?
Oh god, there’s too many of ’em to count! I have so many TV shows in my library that I have to keep deleting them because I’m almost at 100 percent. Seriously! And there’s still a whole lot of shows and movies that I have not even seen on Netflix or Hulu at all. You know, I have subscriptions but I haven’t used ’em! So I just have my favorites. I like crime shows, I like medical shows.
So there you have it: We’ve just written your Tinder profile.
I have never thought about doing that.
It’s never gonna happen?
I’m not gonna say never, but I’m kind of leery of all of that. I really am.
How did “Never Enough Money” come about?
It has to do with greed, power, attention and a lot of things we see in the world today, and it’s a right-in-your-face kind of situation; it’s like you wanna turn your head away but can’t. The situations will not let you turn your head away and, for the most part, I want to say it’s negative.
You’re the kind of artist who seems to relish continual artistic evolution. How is Love & Conflict an evolution for you as an artist?
It’s just another avenue of the kind of music that I want to be able to record. I’ve always said I never wanted to be pigeonholed into one particular genre of music. Everybody knows me for the most part as a dance music artist. I came from R&B and disco and that’s what I listened to as a teenager. But also growing up, I listened to all kinds of music, so I was able to appreciate all different genres of music.
So when I didn’t have a record label, I decided to create my own to put out the kind of music that I felt I wanted to put out. That’s grown so much over the years, in fact. I’ll talk to my manager and he’ll say, “What do you think you wanna do this time?” So he reached out to (producer) Sami Basbous and all the music, the musicians and everything are Canadian. And we recorded in Montreal.
So it’s basically a Canadian-based album, and he just had some great songs that we put together. And what we came up with was Love & Conflict because we all have or have been through love and conflict, and sometimes it’s on a daily basis, but it’s about how we decide to deal with things. I firmly believe that love always trumps conflict. Love always wins in the end.
Has that always been your motto?
Yeah, especially more so over the years. I’ve always believed that the higher power was always love, and there’s scripture in the Bible about love covering a multitude of sins, so the bottom line is love encompasses all.
When did you feel like you’d first been embraced by the LGBTQ community? Do you recall a specific moment?
No, because in school I had gay friends and some of my teachers were gay. It was never a big thing to me. And then when I started singing background for Sylvester, it just continued on but just as a larger group of people. The gay community was always behind Sylvester, and with Izora and I singing background for him there was never any problem, and it just continued over the decades. And I’d have to say that the gay community has always been the biggest fan base for me.
And you’re no stranger to the Pride circuit. Is that a special experience for you?
Well, (laughs) I think because I’ve been at this for so long it’s just become a natural thing.
You lost a lot of friends during the AIDS epidemic, including Sylvester. How do you reflect on that period of time?
Sad. So many people were lost because of fear and ignorance, and I want to say putting a death sentence on the gay community during that time, because everybody was pointing fingers. And all the fingers were pointing to the LGBTQ community, you know. And then on the other side of that, people that were winding up HIV positive, some of them didn’t pay attention, some of them did not listen.
Not even the president at the time, Ronald Reagan, would acknowledge that AIDS was an issue.
And information wasn’t being put out correctly. So there became this big stigma regarding that and the gay community, like they weren’t Christians and this was the wrath of God, that whole kind of madness.
I remember a newspaper article about a black woman who wound up with AIDS, and I’m reading the article and I’m saying to myself, “OK, what you’re saying is this is a gay disease but this woman was not gay, so how did she wind up with AIDS?” In the media it was all geared toward the gay community and gay men. That was the frustration.
Were you trying to correct that misconception?
Yeah. I’d have conversations with my friends: “Well, now they’re saying this in the media but this is happening to somebody who’s not gay so it cannot be just a gay disease, I don’t believe it.”
Can you share a story with me of you and Sylvester that illustrates just how close you were then?
Oh god, we would have a lot of fun on the road, between him and Izora and myself and the band. Sometimes we’d all get together and have dinner or just hang out and it would just be madness. (Laughs.) We did have a lot of fun, and then talking and kidding each other and all this other kind of stuff.
Several icons passed on “It’s Raining Men,” including Cher and Diana Ross, and even you and Izora were reluctant to record it. After you did, when did you know the song had become an LGBTQ anthem?
When they snatched it! Absolutely snatched it! (Laughs.)
How did it become apparent that we snatched it?
Well, I think maybe in my mind, in the way back of my mind, when (the song’s writer) Paul Jabara initially said that he wanted us to record the song, I looked at Izora and we said, “You gotta be kidding” and he said, “No, I need to hear you record this song.” I said, “Nobody is going to buy that song.” And I wasn’t particularly thinking at that time of the gay community, I really wasn’t. I was thinking broader. And I said, “Nobody is going to buy that song.” He said, “I need you to record this song.”
He said, “This song is going to be a hit,” and he was right. And I remember sometimes when Izora and I were doing shows he would wind up at the club and he was giving the DJ the acetate of that record. There’s a 12-inch, almost no label on it, and he’d say, “Play this song.” So it became a hit long before radio ever picked up on it.
So it was a hit in the gay clubs first.
And that was instant.
For them. (Laughs.)
In 1990, you famously filed lawsuits against producers and record labels for credit and compensation on hit songs you had sung, which resulted in federal legislation that made vocal credit mandatory. This stemmed from your lead vocal being uncredited on several songs by Black Box, including “Strike It Up” and “Everybody Everybody.” What was the lasting impact of those lawsuits?
Well, just to that end, I’d have to say my attorney, Steven Brown, argued some kind of way that became lawful, that any person that is featured on a project has to have their name credited.
That’s a big deal. I can’t imagine how the industry might take advantage of artists now if he hadn’t gone through with that litigation.
That’s true. And look, I think some of that stuff still goes on today, you know what I’m saying?
Why do you think that?
If there’s a way for people to get around stuff, they’re gonna do it.
Do you know of it happening?
I can’t say that I know of it specifically, but I would not be surprised. I think between the parties involved, anything can be done and anything can be said. In the movies, for decades, Marni Nixon was the voice of a lot of the actresses you heard singing in movies and you thought it was their real voice. Well, Marni Nixon did all the singing for these actresses in movies.
I’m curious if ghost singing still happens.
Well, there’s a lot of Auto-Tuning, so maybe not so much ghosting anymore! (Laughs.)
What do you think of Auto-Tune?
Look: If it makes me sound fabulous, then I’m OK (with it). (Laughs.) But I mean, when your whole show is Auto-Tuned – the true test comes with a piano and a vocalist and that’s it. The thing is, in the previous decades, you had real singers.
Regarding the Black Box controversy: Because fashion model Katrin Quinol was seen in videos lip-syncing to your vocals, it seemed the record label didn’t think your body type would appeal to music consumers. Now, we have artists like Lizzo, a plus-size black woman who’s at the top. What do you think of that shift when it comes to body positivity and the way more people seem to be embracing full-figured women now?
I think it’s a good thing. First of all, we’re all individuals: We’re all not built the same way, we all don’t look the same way, we all don’t act the same way. So I think it’s great that Lizzo has got this platform now, and she’s doing what she’s doing very well, and she’s the kind of person who doesn’t give a shit about what you think of her. She’s doing her thing, whether you like it or not. And everybody has their own preference, but my thing would be: I don’t think size should ever come into play. But we’re such a visual society, especially nowadays with the invention of technology and the internet. Embrace what they do, because everybody’s talent doesn’t come in the same-sized package.
So you do recognize that people are embracing a wider range of body sizes more now than they were in the ’70s during the Black Box controversy?
Oh yes – going all the way back to Two Tons O’ Fun and singing background for Sylvester, I want to say the record label didn’t necessarily know how to market us. We were two large women – and funny thing is, we were two large women who could sing. And up until that time, you never saw a large woman out in the front, a front vocalist, until you saw us. Think about it: The only other person I could think of would’ve been Mama Cass from the Mamas & the Papas. You have to go all the way back to the ’70s and the ’60s. The Mamas and the Papas came out in the ’60s. And Mama Cass Elliott was the only one that I knew of or that I could visually see on TV who was large.
So it sounds like you at least appreciate Lizzo. Who are you listening to these days?
Actually not too many people. (Laughs.) I don’t listen to a whole lot of different people. I’ll hear songs on the radio. I do like H.E.R. But I have to be kind of truthful: I’m an old-school girl. I like old-school R&B, that kind of stuff. And I like old-school disco music too.
A friend wanted me to ask you if your performance of “You Are My Friend” with Sylvester was really the insanely transcendent performance moment it sounds like it was?
Yeah, that place was rockin’. It was so bad that I have to tell you this story: It was the second time, I think, that – I’m not gonna say a rock ’n’ roll band, but a band like Sylvester had performed at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. I think the first one was The Pointer Sisters.
And so when we did it, the place was sold out and people just wore whatever they wanted to wear. I saw so many different outfits (laughs). One guy had both of his ass cheeks out – seriously. I saw another woman who was in a full ball gown. It was just a cross section of people. Everybody was having a great time, and it was (the song) “Dance (Disco Heat)” we were doing and the place was just going up, to the point that the last balcony started shaking because there were so many people up there. The building was moving and, you know, San Francisco is prone to earthquakes, so the people of the opera house were not too pleased (laughs). I don’t think there’s been another act up in there like that ever again.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.