en vogue discuss creating girl group history
From "My Lovin'" to "Free Your Mind," En Vogue sang some of R&B’s most innovative tracks. Ahead of the girl group's US tour this summer (with the likes of Brandy, Erykah Badu, and Mary J. Blige), founding member Cindy Herron recalls its runaway success.
Back in 1990, no one was more surprised by En Vogue's success than the group itself. "I was amazed how it all took off," remembers Cindy Herron, who along with Dawn Robinson, Terry Ellis, and Maxine Jones formed the original quartet of harmonizing heaven — En Vogue. When the group came out with the drop-dead-awesome "Hold On" in 1990, R&B was theirs for their taking. There were plenty of male acts — Guy, New Edition, Tony! Toni! Toné and Keith Sweat held it down for the sweatier side of soul — and although females like Janet and Whitney stayed slaying, there was a real lack of R&B girl groups. TLC were still being formed, Sisters With Voices had yet to meet, Jade were but a twinkle in the eye. En Vogue's hip-hop influenced R&B pre-dated New Jack Swing and with it the likes of TLC, SWV, Mary J, Blackstreet, Brownstone et al.
In 1989, Herron was an actor living in LA, but made her way back to her hometown of San Francisco to audition for a new group being formed by producer-writers Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy. Figuring she had nothing to lose, Herron turned up and sang. "When the other ladies of En Vogue came to the audition, they had amazing voices, so I thought there was no way I was making it into this group," she laughs. "I figured I'd go back home and continue acting. I was amazed that I even made it into the group." Not only did Herron make it, she became one of its most popular members, later putting her acting to good use in films like Juice and cameos in Tank Girl and Batman Forever. Though the group later underwent more line-up changes than the Sugababes (no mean feat), one thing endured: the music.
To this day En Vogue has hits: many, many hits, with sales of over ten million from their two wildly popular albums Born To Sing and Funky Divas and EP Runaway Love. Ahead of a US tour this summer, we asked Cindy to talk us through the highs — and lows — of being in one of the most successful groups of all time.
"'Hold On 'started off with an a cappella piece, which was completely unusual, you didn't hear that on the radio back then. A record always started with the beat. Our record label didn't want to put it on the beginning, they said it would never work for radio, but our producers really pushed hard to keep the a cappella. So we took a chance and it paid off. I think that really grabbed people's attention and then the bassline — that became a really signature sound for En Vogue — really drew attention. Then I guess you pair that with the image of four young women wearing skintight dresses [laughs] it really cemented the whole thing in your mind."
"Our producers — Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy — had a really great, unusual, hot sound and style with their writing and producing. I think all of those elements caught everyone's attention. 'Hold On' came out and took off, it took off overnight. It was so surprising. 'Lies' followed and for that first whole year we were playing catch-up; hair and make-up and stylists and photo-shoots, travel and hotels. We couldn't catch our breath. I have fond memories of those times. We were so surprised by how well we were received."
'You Don't Have to Worry'
"It was so big so quick, and not just in the US. We were so well received in England, too. When 'Hold On' first came out, we went to a radio convention in Prestatyn? Yeah, Prestatyn in Wales, that was one of our first performances. To see people there enjoy our music was mind-blowing."
"At the time we came out, there weren't many female groups and especially female groups were each member sang lead. We all took it in turns to sing lead. I think that was one thing people liked. We all got our moment."
"Free Your Mind"
"For us to continue to have the success with the second album, I think again it was this very definitive style — what we were wearing, our hair, those videos, those visuals. We also had that female empowerment element that came along with our music and our image. I think a lot of young ladies identified with us and appreciated that."
"Giving Him Something He Can Feel"
"New R&B, I like some of it, but music has definitely changed and it has evolved. For a while R&B got lost. The sound of whatever it was changed and then it seemed like R&B artists — certainly in the US — weren't getting as much play as the pop artists. So a lot of artists here started to redirect their music to have that really pop sound. And that did work, but for the true R&B performer, it kind of got lost for a bit. I like to think that the good R&B is making its way back though. And I feel as an artist you can always still learn new things. I don't listen to new artists like, 'Ah what do they know.' If they're good, I'm gonna give them props. I love Tori Kelly, I think she's so talented. I love that she doesn't try to sound like a lot of other artists at the moment. I like Alessia Cara; she's so young but there's something about her delivery that sounds like she's an older character. I think she's great."
"We had a great time with En Vogue, that track remains a fan favorite. I had actually worked with Sandy, from Salt N' Pepa, when I did the film Juice. It's funny because it was a low-budget film and I just couldn't know, walking into it, the magnitude of what was to come. You had a lot of great talent in it, from Tupac to Queen Latifah, Treach from Naughty By Nature and Sandy. It was amazing to see that movie take off and also really to see what an amazing actor Tupac was. He just blew everyone away. I'm so proud, looking back, to have been a part of that film. It's become a sort of cult movie; so many people still talk about it and to this day people stop me in the street to tell me they just watched it again."
"Don't Let Go (Love)"
"Well, everybody knows Dawn Robinson was the first to leave. The three of us — Maxine, Terri and myself — decided to keep it going. We knew it might be difficult without Dawn Robinson because, you know, everybody loves her and loved her vocals. But we decided to keep it moving without Dawn and then eventually Maxine decided she wanted to take a break for a few years. But then she did come back, but then she left again. Actually both Dawn and Maxine came back for a little while, we had a sort of reunion, and then Dawn left again and then Maxine left again. But Terri and I decide to continue to keep it moving, to keep the name of the brand out there. We still had a lot of fans out there asking when we would play and when we would release new music. We still love what we do so we decided to keep it moving. If people want to come and see us perform and do the old hits and they're willing to hear some new music, then let's do it. So we decided to keep it moving and so far, so good."
"It's still the signature En Vogue sound, but we're not trying to duplicate what we've done in the past. We've evolved. We write about our current life experiences or issues in the world or with women. It's an eclectic mix of songs but we think it has a bit of a global feel to it."
En Vogue's US tour begins in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 19.
Text Hattie Collins