With "Love Or Physical", a splendid new album for Capitol Records, that perennial love duo Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson are definitely back in gear. After a couple of years absence, during which time the couple (who have been married now for over fourteen years) gave birth to a daughter, Asia, Nick and Val are feeling great about their new product, especially since the first single, I'll Be There For You" is giving them one of their biggest U.S. hits in years.
"We definitely approached this album with the idea of giving people something fresh and slightly different," smiles Nick, in between nursing a runny nose. "We wanted to retain what we've always done musically whilst, at the same time, incorporating some of the new."
Valerie adds that, in line with that approach, "we used outside producers — David Frank and Mic Murphy of The System
— for one track, "Comes With The Package," and we also did "In Your Arms", a song that we didn't write. It was certainly different for us to make both of those moves and," Val laughs, "being produced by someone else was almost a relief.
For once, it wasn't on us and since we're both used to criticizing each other when we produce ourselves, we had the benefit of other opinions to work with this time.
"Both David and Mic are very easy in the studio and since it was one of our own songs, we had a pretty good idea of how we were going to approach it vocally especially since our songs become almost like arms and legs for us."
And what arms and legs Nick and Val have produced through the years: aside from their well-known body of work for Motown (the classics like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", "You're All I Need To Get By" and "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing"), there's all the material the duo wrote and performed during their Warners years as well as the five albums' worth of material for Capitol that proceeded their current outing — and that's not to mention the songs like "I'm Every Woman" (for Chaka Khan) and "The Boss" (for Diana Ross). Clearly, they don't seem to run out of inspiration too easily!
"Basically, it's something we feel inside," says Nick. "We did inspired by our own lives, what we're up to, what we're doing, how we grow. Naturally, we draw a lot from our relationship, although people do have a particular impression of what our relationship is!"
Valerie explains: "Well, because we do work together as well as being husband and wife, people want to believe we have this ideal situation — like we never quarrel! We don't really want to disappoint them and we know that people want to believe that we're lovey-dovey all the time but we think that, deep down, people do know that we fight and stick it out."
Says Nick: "The truth is we have music as our common interest, it's our life and it means so much to both of us — Music is part of our relationship."
WITH the amazing body of work that they've created through the years, the couple say that they tend to be "very cautious about our own records. We took our time with this new album and, how I know it's alright is that I don't mind playing it to my friends," says Val.
The material on "Love Or Physical" is indeed some of the best Ashford & Simpson have come up with in a while "we didn't plan the title cut to have the kind of meaning it does now, where people really do have to consider the difference between having a relationship or just having sex," says Nick.
"Then, the song, "Till We Get It Right", that's not just a love song — it has a broader message to it and we usually put those kind of songs at the end of our albums whereas, this time, we put it in there as the fourth cut on the record so people can get to it right away."And the song with the most interesting title — "Cookies And Cake"? "Well, I just came up with that in the studio one day when someone asked us which we'd like to eat," says Nick. "Now," grins Valerie, "if you listen to the lyrics, it could be taken as a song for the very young or," she laughs, "you could think it has a double-entendre and listen to it a whole other way!"
The couple are very happy with the new project, pointing out that they enlisted the assistance of 14-year old daughter Nicole.
"She's our biggest critic," says Val. "She rated each song on the album and she loves all kinds of music — from Def Leppard to New Edition. She told us to go with the ballad, "I'll Be There For You" and I thought that was kinda strange
because usually a first single is more danceable, uptempo. But I guess she was right when she told us ballads were 'in' right now!"
Valerie adds that with artists like Bobby McFerrin, Anita Baker and Tracy Chapman all offering something original these days, "we feel the music scene is healthier than it's ever been — listeners are a lot hipper than they ever were — and we're hoping that the current openess to good music will result in a great response to our new album."
IN ADDITION to having Nicole's input for the new record, proud parents that they are, Nick and Valerie say that 13-month old Asia is probably going to be just like her mother.
"I bet she's going to play the piano naturually," says Nick. "Every time she hears music, she just rocks to it — obviously, music means a lot to her."
Having a musical child may just have something to do with the fact that Valerie was working in the studio right up
to her last few days of pregnancy.
"Having a new daughter was the best thing that could have happened to us," she says. "You can get so self-absorbed and having a baby definitely takes you out of yourself and puts your attention somewhere else."
Not that the duo's attention is ever going to be that far away from music. "We really do feel that there's still a whole lot of people who don't know our music. Yes, our visibility is higher than it's been before —
people recognise us in the streets now more than ever and they don't ask if we're Peaches & Herb!
"We reached a certain crossroads with "Solid" (file duo's hit of a few years back) which was even bigger than we thought it would be but we don't feel as if we've reached the kind of peak we want to until we've sold four times platinum!"
Although they may not hve reached quite the size of audience they'd like, there's no
doubt that during the years, Nick and Valerie have created a strong, loyal following.
"It's still amazing to me that people know so many of our songs," says Valerie. "I mean, I'm blown away away that there are folks who remember the solo album for Motown I did back in 1972 which sold all of two copies! People will come up to me and talk about songs like "Can't It Wait Until Tomorrow" and "Silly, Wasn't I?" and I'm amazed."
Add to that some of their Warners classics like "Gimme Something Real", "Nobody Knows The Inside" and "Send It" and you have just a clue as to how much Ashford & Simpson have contributed through the years.
"You know, we had no idea that the songs we did like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" would become classics — we just wrote them and we had no idea they'd survive the test of time. The one thing that was important to us during those years was the we never repeated ourselves musically — we wouldn't do one song that was a copy of another one we'd written. Maybe that has something to do with how the songs have lasted."
"It's true to say if Nick and Valerie never wrote another tune, they'd have already guaranteed their place in the annals of music history." (DN B&S 1989)