With her wild tresses and model-esque posturing, Watley was never Janet, with the tough-girl appeal and mesmerizing choreography. She wasn’t Whitney, the bubbly cover girl with a voice that could melt snow, either.
But when the frenetic figure with the big hoop earrings sang “You know, I had to have you / now I’m going to find somebody new,” from “Looking for a New Love,” its effect was undeniable. It was precisely the kind of ambivalent kiss-off that moves the dance floor. In 1988, Watley won one of the music industry’s most significant honors, the Grammy Award for best new artist, a title that has also has gone to Sade, Mariah Carey and Amy Winehouse.
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles before her performance at the Howard Theatre on Friday, Watley is freely critical of the industry that once anointed her a promising young star. “I’m proud of my history and legacy so far,” she says. “You just have to make yourself happy first, be true to your vision, and at the same time not be chewed up by the industry, as we’ve seen with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. With phenomenal pop commercial success, you can fall under the pressure of trying to repeat it.”
The singer recognizes that among her contemporaries from the 1980s, she might have been the lucky one.
“Maybe it was their personalities, or they were battling more demons than I might have had. But it was incredibly sad to me,” she says of the deaths of Jackson and Houston. “I have always tried to just not get caught up in what the industry can pressure you to do or be.”
After four albums with struggling record label MCA, Watley parted with the company. By 2003, she had begun to write dance tracks, which didn’t have the same mainstream appeal but kept her out of the pop pressure cooker.
The singer made good use of the downtime, too, moving to Los Angeles to be near her mother and raising a son and a daughter, both of whom are now in college.
In recent years, electronic acts have rediscovered Watley, whose voice — softer, more cooing than your average diva — has a way of balancing the genre’s razored beats. These days, she’s more likely to be remixed, reworked and rethought than to hammer out her own records. (Watley’s most recent album, a collection of covers called “The Makeover,” came out seven years ago.) But her guest vocal on the single “Dancing Out,” by the young Brooklyn act French Horn Rebellion, feels fresh again amid modern beats.
There’s no doubt the singer is plotting a comeback. She is a prodigious tweeter and blogs regularly on her Web site. Last year, Watley leaked a few droplets from a forthcoming single, “Nightlife,” which frequently opens her live shows. The instrumentals are pure disco, a fact that makes it hard not to compare the track to the Saturday Night Fever dream of such recent hits as Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” or Robin Thicke’s clubby come-on “Blurred Lines.”
Watley is warmed by the thought. “I think it shows I was on to something,” she says. “Electro-pop, Euro-pop, has been dominating the commercial scene. I was thinking when writing ‘Nightlife’ that it was time for authentic funk, soul and disco to have its renaissance.” (It’s not an entirely surprising position: Watley got her start as a dancer on “Soul Train.”)
Watley hasn’t performed in Washington in years, but when an offer came to play the restored Howard Theatre, she leapt. “Knowing about the renovation, it’s very exciting and an honor for me to perform in a venue with such history,” she says.
But Watley has a curious tie to the city, too. The daughter of a gospel radio DJ who frequently moved the family, she spent the third grade in the District. That year was 1968. “We lived there when Dr. King was assassinated,” she recalls of the eventful year. “I have a very vivid memory of that. We were out. We were in the middle of the vortex when the riots broke out.”
Watley is eager to return to explore the city, maybe even look for her old home. She will be toting a band and backup dancers, and she promises her fans this: “It’s a high-energy show. It’s funky — they’re going to hear all their favorites and then some.”