Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds ruled the airwaves in the ’90s as the soulful crooner of pop and R&B hits like “Whip Appeal” and “When Can I See You” and as the producer of monster tracks for other artists, such as Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” and Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You.” Fans will see a new side of Edmonds when he takes the stage at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra on Friday and Saturday in his first-ever collaboration with a full orchestra, performing his most recognizable songs in a way they haven’t been heard before. The 11-time Grammy winner talked to Express about this new symphonic experience.
How did this come about?
It [collaborating with an orchestra in this way] was something I’ve been called on to do for a number of years, but I just hadn’t done it. It’s something I’ve always loved; I just never thought so much of doing it to my music. When this came up again and there was the question of doing it at the Kennedy Center, then there’s this prestige in just being at the Kennedy Center, period. This was the time it made sense.
Why is the National Symphony Orchestra a good partner for your first-ever collaboration with a full orchestra?
I had seen a couple of things on video of other artists who had done it. There’s a great reputation that comes with certain homes, with certain houses. There’s a reputation that comes with the orchestra there in D.C., so I thought if I’m going to do it, I want to do it right the first time out.
What has the process been like of creating symphonic arrangements of some your biggest hits?
You have to go into it with an open mind of not thinking it has to be a particular kind of way. I have band members who will be there as well, so we have to work with them as much as the orchestra has to work with us so it all blends in together and makes sense. There’s a fine line many times for an audience that comes to see a show like this. You have those that come to see an orchestra play, and that’s exactly what they’re expecting. And you have those coming to see the artist. You do have to walk the line and try to give everyone what they want at the same time.
But you can do all the pre-arranging you want, but it doesn’t really come together until you get on that stage and you kind of go for it. There may be last-minute changes; that’s what rehearsals are for. You’re thinking fast on your feet for the benefit of everyone so that it feels good.
What do you think will be some of the most interesting differences between how your songs sound when played by a symphony orchestra versus when they’re played on the radio?
It’s not so much a question of making it feel different. My approach is to make it feel even better and to be even more emotional. Because that’s what you want from an orchestra — you want emotion. So we’re going to use the orchestra to kind of milk those emotional chords and try to get there.
Do you think this will impact in any way your songwriting, producing or performing in the future?
It’s hard to say. Every experience that I’ve gone through in my life, it always affects me in some way and stays in your DNA no matter what. Whether you think you’re using it or not, you usually are and it reappears at some point in your life. This is a brand-new experience for me with my music. I have to just kind of make sure I stay focused and don’t just listen to the orchestra myself and forget that I’ve got to perform too.