If you’ve ever la-da-dee-la-da-da-ed in the crowded darkness, you might be surprised to learn that Crystal Waters doesn’t sing her songs the way we sing along to them. On a recent Saturday afternoon in the uncrowded darkness of a recording studio in Takoma Park, Md., Waters is all alone behind the microphone, finessing her lines as if applying brushstrokes to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — meticulously, purposefully, loaded with color, rich with feeling. As one of the most indelible voices house music has ever known, she’s still cutting songs for big-room euphoria, yes, but they’re each assembled with precision. And in relative solitude, too.
Her career-defining 1991 hit, “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless),” was the result of an instantaneous, sparks-flying chemistry with Baltimore production team the Basement Boys, but as a recording artist, Waters works remotely now. Producers from around the planet submit their tracks, she writes and records her vocals, then she sends everything back to be edited and mixed — with the caveat that she gets to sign off on the final cut before anything ships to clubland. This afternoon, she’s working on a track for Milk & Sugar, a German production duo that Waters has never met in real life. Is that typical? “I’d say I’ve never met …” — she squints at an invisible abacus — “ … 80 percent of my producers.”
Anonymous or otherwise, those submissions are likely to spike this summer with the success of “Break My Soul,” the neo-house single off Beyoncé’s new album, “Renaissance.” Waters says she was “ecstatic” when she first heard the song — and as someone whose ’90s hits sound like the blueprint for it, she deserves to be. On its journey from radio gem to stone classic, “Gypsy Woman” made the connection between politics and pleasure explicit in house music, reminding citizens of the nightlife to carry the love they’ve found on the dance floor back out into this cold, hard world.
But in the summer of 1991, the song baffled many who weren’t able to square its mesmerizing “la-da-dee” hook with its adjacent verses about poverty, homelessness and the fortitude of human dignity. The Washington Post originally described “Gypsy Woman” as “ambiant.” The New York Times called it “quirky.”
“Looking back, I just don’t think people knew what it was,” Waters says over lunch a few days after the studio session. “House music was too new. But the one thing that always made me happy is that I liked being different, and the club scene accepted me. I was a shy person and I found a place where I could just be myself. And I knew the underground wasn’t going anywhere.”
Waters first found her way into the dance music underground by sneaking into an industry conference in Washington where she floated her demo to a crew of guys wearing jackets with “Basement Boys” emblazoned on the back — a demo she had made in an R&B duo called Modern Art. (“I wanted to be a Sade,” she says.) Before that, Waters had recorded some backing vocals at a few local studios while studying business and computer science at Howard University, but when the Basement Boys rang her up mere hours after the conference, her future transformed.
“My philosophy is that as soon as you hear a voice you [should] know who it is,” says Basement Boy Teddy Douglas. “Her voice was just so unique.”
The Basement Boys immediately invited Waters to help them write songs, so she scrounged up enough cash to rent a four-track recorder from Chuck Levin’s music store and got to work. “I remember having the hook first — la-da-dee-la-da-da — and I was trying to put lyrics around it,” she says. “So I tried to imagine somebody singing this, and I remembered the woman. You know the story?”
Waters is referring to a well-dressed singer she used to spot on the sidewalk outside the Mayflower Hotel in the late ’80s — the subject of a Washington City Paper article Waters had read that recounted how the woman, who had recently lost her job, chose to wear her finest clothes while busking for spare change. Waters says it changed the way she saw poverty in D.C.’s streets — especially while walking to and from her car during her days working downtown at the D.C. Parole Board. “AIDS was hitting hard,” Waters says. “I remember reading in the City Paper about how ambulances were coming and not taking people because they had AIDS. So all of that stuff was really hitting me.”
For all of its poise and sophistication, the most surprising thing about “Gypsy Woman” is that it’s a demo. Waters says it was her first time singing a lead-vocal alone, and while the Basement Boys had originally intended it as a song for Baltimore house singer Ultra Naté, they knew what they were hearing and quickly started shopping it around. Before long, Waters was signed to Mercury Records, and with the song instantly scaling the charts, the label needed a debut album fast. “So they just took all my [other] demos and put an album together,” Waters says. “I wasn’t even in the studio.” Fittingly, the album was titled “Surprise.”
“I took a leave of absence [from the Parole Board] thinking this was gonna be a Baltimore-D.C. hit,” Waters says, but by the fall of 1991, “Gypsy Woman” had gotten big enough to be spoofed on the comedy show “In Living Color” in an exceedingly harsh sketch titled “My Songs Are Mindless.” Waters says that one still stings. “My lawyer called to congratulate me, to say I’m famous now,” she says, rolling her eyes. “We got beat up really bad. Even from family members, I got, ‘When are you gonna do some real music?’ ”
Born in 1961, Waters grew up the youngest of three in leafy Deptford, N.J. Her family was deeply musical. She never got to meet her great aunt, the legendary singer-actor Ethel Waters, but her uncle played in the Philadelphia symphonic soul band MFSB, and her brother “claims he wrote a bass line for Kool & the Gang,” Waters says half-teasingly. Her main familial influence was her father, Junior Waters, a jazz pianist and singer who would take her on tour every summer. “Back then, Holiday Inns had piano lounges, and there was a whole restaurant circuit, too,” Waters says. “So he’d play two sets, 6 and 8, and sing old Nat King Cole songs, and I’d go and have dinner, and watch him, drink Shirley Temples.”
At home, she was quiet and shy. “I was always in my bedroom with my headphones,” Waters says — but being an introverted, jazz-literate kid clearly helped her become a studio savant with a gift for bending beautiful blue notes around the cleanest corners of a house beat. Many of the European producers that Waters currently works with “just assume all Black women grew up in the church. I tell them, ‘I never went to church. I was in the jazz clubs with my father,’ ” she says. “Sometimes I’ll try to write a song the way a gospel person would sing it and I have to stop myself.”
Her music has range, though, and you can probably hear it best on her second album, 1994’s “Storyteller,” its title positing Waters as a songwriter as well as a dance diva. And on “100% Pure Love” — another signature hit that proved itself as danceable as “Gypsy Woman” while becoming nearly as popular — Waters was both, delivering the song’s “from the back to the middle and around again” hook as a poetic evocation of the infinity symbol.
“When I first wrote that, the hook was, ‘The beat goes boom,’ ” Waters says. “The Basement Boys laughed at me and sent me home. So I had the TV on, and I saw a commercial for ‘100 percent pure orange juice.’ And that ‘hundred-percent pure’ stuck with me, and I went from there.” So pure love is something that spans the cosmic chasm between an orange juice commercial and infinity? Sure. But Waters loves deploying double-entendre in her lyrics, and she insists that the song is ultimately “totally about sex.”
Her self-titled third album landed in the summer of 1997 featuring a bubbly R&B collaboration with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but it would be her last album for Mercury. Waters slowed things down to spend more time with her two daughters and eventually settled into her current practice, making club anthems remotely.
She’s been recording at Tonal Park studios in Takoma Park for more than a few years now, and during her most recent session, Waters seems highly focused, yet as spontaneous as any moment might demand. At one point, she decides to toy around with a background vocal idea, plunging to the bottom of her voice with her lips sealed. “I call that the grandma hum,” she says, then explains later, “It’s like when you’re home with your grandma, and your parents are arguing in the back, and your grandma starts humming — mmm-mmm-mmm.” She laughs, then reconsiders. “Or maybe it’s like the humming at the beginning of ‘Grandma’s Hands’ by Bill Withers.”
Withers is one of her songwriting lodestars, along with Michael Jackson, Prince and her favorite lyricist, Gil Scott-Heron, who she once spotted at a 7-Eleven near Logan Circle but was too nervous to say hello. It seems strange for an interior singer-songwriter to have found her footing in the noisy communion of club music, but Waters says she actually drew songwriting courage from the nightlife. “It’s a fit because you can say what you want to say,” she says. “I always used to look at what people were wearing in the clubs and think, ‘If they can wear that then what am I afraid of?’ ”
She says she feels as comfortable in her voice as she sounds, but she sometimes wishes it could do more. “I always wanted to sing like Chaka Khan, [and] when I finally got to meet her, I asked her how she gets those big notes,” Waters says. “She said, ‘Girl, I just say, ‘f--- it!’ ” Here, her happy laughter has its own kind of melody.
Which is to say Waters sounds satisfied with where she’s at, both in her music and on the fame-legacy matrix. Her songs are enduring and influential, but she can also enjoy lunch in a restaurant without anybody bugging her. She can fly across the country — or the ocean — to perform for adoring crowds nearly every weekend, but she can always return to her quiet home life in the D.C. area where she records not only her songs, but also a monthly radio show on SiriusXM and Apple Podcasts called “I Am House.” Named after a somersaulting club hit she released in 2018, the show is designed to shine a light on the oft-slighted singers of house music. “A lot of it is just announcing the names of who’s singing the songs,” Waters says. “Just giving a little of the history behind it.”
Beyoncé’s embrace of house should help with that, too. “It gives us more validity,” Waters says. “I’m still happy to be here for all these years after we got beat up so much. Robin [S.] is someone who never smiles, so I said to her, ‘Girl, I better see you smiling every day this summer!’ ” Waters says, laughing. “I think it’s great for all of us girls,” she says — adding that “us girls” also includes house music heroes CeCe Peniston, Ultra Naté, Julie McKnight and other friends-slash-tourmates who Waters keeps in touch with. “It’s already been a fun ride.”
How long does she expect her own ride to last? “Every time I thought about stopping, another track showed up,” Waters says. “And there’s more in me, so I’m not gonna stop. I just feel like there’s something in me that still wants to come out, and I’m good at it, and there’s joy in it, so why would I stop? You get to create your own world.”
Then Waters takes a smiling sip, coincidentally, of lemonade. “Thank you, Beyoncé,” she says, “for validating it.”