n 1997, R&B and dance music vocalist and songwriter/ producer Joi Cardwell garnered attention with her hit singles "Run to You " and "Found Love" in her self titled release in 1997. The Advocate's pop music critic, Barry Walters, wrote, "Neither glamour queen nor earth mamma, Cardwell focuses on her music, which she writes and often produces herself.... Cardwell's definitive approach is to sing meditative ballads set to extroverted, thum-intensive arrangements. "Entertainment Weekly's William Stevenson described Cardwell's music as "infectious dance music, "ebullient, and "propulsive," and described her voice as "R&B-ready".
In the 1980s, before the advent of house music, Cardwell was closely connected to the urban R&B sound. Born in New York City in the mid-1960s and raised in various areas of Queens; her early influences included Billie Holiday, Barbra Streisand, and Minnie Riperton. Cardwell appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall at the age of five in a dance recital, and was used to being on a stage by the time she was a teen-ager. She worked as a back-up session vocalist for Melba Moore, Jermaine Jackson, rap icon LL Cool J, and the Pointer Sisters. After graduating from New York University with degrees in English and Music in the mid- 1980s, she studied voice for a year primarily in order to master control, as she had already developed and retained her own personal style. After her studies, she wrote and published songs for major R&B acts such as Kashif, LA Posse, and Malika Thomas.
Her close affiliation with Kashif led to an album deal with Arista Records in 1988 for her pop R&B girl-group, The Promise. Since the market in the 1980s was already saturated with sweet-sounding, bubbly R&B groups, it was difficult for The Promise to stand. As a result, Cardwell decided to answer an ad in the Village Voice that read, "Epic recording artist looking for a background singer for a live tour. "The recording artist turned out to be house- music innovator Li'l Louis of Li'L Louis and The World, whose 1992 hits "Club Lonely" and "Saved My Life" from the album Journey with the Lonely featured Cardwell on vocals.
Cardwell's experience as a vocalist and songwriter turned out to be exactly what Li'l Louis had been searching for in a singer. He proved to be an early influence for Cardwell's sound, which melds a new dance beat with a thoughtful lyrical twist. Cardwell creates material that sounds as though she's musing quietly about life while a dancing throng gyrates with joy nearby, and her lyrics are soulful, romantic, and thought-provoking. Shortly after meeting Li'l Louis, Cardwell conceived the single "Dancing in My Sleep, "and within a week of penning it, she was in Chicago cutting demos and well on her way to a career as a dance-hall diva and R&B songstress. When "Club Lonely "reached the number one mark, Cardwell distanced herself from the Li'l Louis project and, in 1993, toured Japan for eight months as a background singer for Japanese soul singer Toshinobu Kabot. Cardwell gleaned experience from the large overseas tour returned to the U.S. significantly more focused and ready to tackle a solo singing career. In 1995 Cardwell contributed the single "The Creator Has A Master Plan" to the Brooklyn Funkessentials' album Cool & Steady & Easy, and the single "Luv Connection " to the Towa Tei (of Dee-Lite) album Future Listening.
Walters wrote, "Cardwell focuses on her music, which she writes and often produces herself. Like her peers Kristine W and Billy Ray Martin, this upstart...possesses the kind of depth that demands control over her art. "She instills introspection and authenticity in dance floor music, and retains almost complete control over her material, favoring producers who will give her wide berth. Although Cardwell can belt out roof-rasing, gospel-influenced anthems, her trademark approach is to craft meditative ballads and well-tempered, controlled classics such as "Love and Devotion," "Run to You," "Trouble," and "Soul to Bare ". Cardwell released the single "Trouble" in 1994 on EightBall Records, which was a double-pack single including remixes from Junior Vasquez, Sotoshi Tomiie, and Deep Dish.
Cardwell released an album of house anthems titled The World is Full of Trouble in 1995, followed by Joi Cardwell in 1997. Walters wrote, "On her sophomore solo album, Cardwell refines the rawness of her debt while maintaining its emotional honesty. Whereas her first album sometimes suffered from skeletal arrangements and static sonics, Joi Cardwell is much more lush and club-ready, the songs fully fleshed out, not crying out for further remixing." Stevenson wrote, "Cardwell reemerges as a leading dance diva on her second album. It's hard not to get up and move.... Joy is exactly what Joi brings..." Cardwell's second album combined three of her most successful singles, "You Got to Pray," "Soul to Bare," and "Run to You," with nine original tracks, and it received favorable reviews; What sets Cardwell apart from other dance music vocalists is her offbeat style of fusing classics with house music, intertwining soft vocals with thumping beats, introducing unexpected gospel-like forays in her material, and blurring the line between R&B, house music, and introspective ballads. Her songs reflect a hopeful urgency that embraces the urban community. She tackles the topics of homeless and unemployment with as much ease as discovering a new love or a spiritual quest, and can make traditionally morose topics sound uplifting and joyful. As the underlying message in many of her songs is: "we will survive.:" She champions strength during adversity.
Cardwell's single "Holdin On" was created by producer Kyle "Small" Smith, and Smith let her have free reign with the song. It was originally sung by the teen music sensation Kim Moore and her male counterpart Jay, and Jay sang with Cardwell on the single as well. The single was remixed into jazz versions, and even though Cardwell didn't change it much, it was still impossible not to notice her unique stamp. Along with Cardwell's musical ability and creative approach to house music, the secret to her success was discipline, strength, fortitude, and above all else, a genuine love of music. Cardwell told Kristopher Flowers of Underground News, "All the divas from opera to the disco queens ... to the dance queens of today of whatever genre ... really love music and work hard to put out the best music they can. I want to make my mark. I want to be inspiring to someone like those who inspired me." In an interview with Contemporary Musicians, she was asked what advice she would give to those who want to emulate her success. She said, "Work hard and don't ever give up. "
by B. Kimberly Taylor