She Can Only Be Her

The pop music scene caters to kids, so how does a soul singer find an adult audience? For Cleveland schoolteacher Conya Ross, the answer is word of mouth, Internet buzz and faith in her own talent.

Is that Conya Doss?” asks my wife as one of Doss’ background singers takes the open-air stage in Cleveland’s Luke Easter Park before an audience of several thousand. But then out walks another woman in an ochre sundress to answer my wife’s question without a word.

It isn’t just the singer’s comfortable bearing that does it, but her big, glowing Afro, setting off her radiant beauty like a halo and pegging her, as Doss once described herself, as pure “boho, hippie chick.”

“Oh,” says my wife. “That’s Conya Doss.”

Conya Ross looks to break out with her new album, "Love Rain Down."
Photo Courtesy of Helio Public Relations

The crowd might well have been thinking the same thing. This month, Doss releases her third album, the fine “Love Rain Down” (Unique Beat), but the Cleveland soul singer remains unknown except to a small but global community of insiders. The attention includes music press from The Cleveland Free Times (where she garnered a 2002 cover story) to the hip-hop magazine Vibe (where her “hippie chick” comment appeared), plus Internet-savvy soul fans from Detroit (where her music sells well) and London (where she has packed small clubs).

For the throngs seated on lawn chairs and blankets at July’s third annual Family Unity in the Park celebration, however, Conya Doss is just the last opener before the free show’s headliners, ’70s funk legends the Ohio Players. Taking the stage to light applause, Doss leads her multiethnic five-man band and three backup singers into “Here We Go Again,” a track off her second album, “Just Because.” It’s a slow jam, a style that leads from Marvin Gaye in the ’70s to Luther Vandross in the ’80s to Mary J. Blige in the ’90s. Yet for all its smooth-groove warmth, it also subtly belies the concert’s family unity theme, expressing the deep frustration of a back-and-forth romantic relationship with a passion that’s anything but summer-in-the-park fun. “I can’t take this shit no more,” Doss croons, making clear that her music is for those who understand that love and blues often go together — in a word, it’s for adults.

The thing is, popular music today is by and large for kids. Despite her bohemian stage appearance, Conya Doss’ life contradicts that rule as much as her art. At 35, Doss is a suburban homeowner with a close-knit local family and a steady boyfriend in the Air Force Reserves. For more than a dozen years now, she has worked as a Cleveland public school teacher, mostly with special education students at a West Side middle school.

“It’s like they balance me,” says Doss about the two sides of her double life when we meet at a Coventry coffee shop. “When I need a break from the kids, I enjoy my music, and vice versa.”
I almost don’t recognize the day-to-day Doss as she waits outside the coffee shop with schoolteacher punctuality. She looks shorter than she does on stage. With her hair pulled tightly back, she seems more demure than in her glamour-girl publicity photos. In conversation, she’s enthusiastic but thoroughly modest.
She regularly uses music in the classroom; she plays her students songs by other performers and has them rewrite the lyrics to fit their lives. But she rarely sings for her class and almost never tells her students about her night job. And though she has been singing for others since she was 4 years old, performing was partly a practical decision. First, it was to please goading family members, then to escape the hard life that was erupting on Cleveland’s East Side in the mid-’80s as crack cocaine started poisoning the streets.

“When I went to Hamilton Junior High School, that’s when a lot of the drugs were coming in, and a lot of the teenagers were selling — barely teenagers, 12 or 13,” she says. “So I knew I didn’t want to go to a regular high school. I was going to go to Aviation or the School of Arts. That’s how I did it; I kind of stayed out of the way.”

Doss made connections at the School of the Arts that she still uses today, but after high school she temporarily dropped music to concentrate on studying chemistry at The College of Wooster. She almost left singing forever to attend dental school at Case Western Reserve University. She deferred admission, though, and eventually drifted into teaching and back into music, working for years in various local girl groups.

But that urge to stay out of the way still held sway. She always wondered if she wouldn’t be better off behind the scenes.

“I’m not so much a people person,” Doss says. “I don’t like going out to clubs. Never have, even when I was in high school. And you know how some of the guys will try and talk to you? To me that was just a turnoff. They weren’t really trying to look at you as an artist, or look at your talent. So I don’t want to be in that position of compromising what I believe in or how I want to represent myself.”

“Only Be Me,” a song off the new “Love Rain Down,” turns that attitude into an anthem. “I’m not going to compromise this precious gift I’ve been given/Seeing myself through others’ eyes instead of mine just ain’t livin’,” she sings. Then the sweet verse rises into a passionate, instantly catchy chorus: “I can only be me/I’m going to hold on to all of my dreams/I’m going to stay faithful to what I believe.”

The entire album marks something of a departure for Doss. It’s a move into the straightforward, historically rooted RandB that hasn’t been heard much in more than a decade: music that embraces pop hooks and lowdown funk as it plies the smooth, mid-tempo groove of classic RandB pioneered by Gaye.

In contrast, her 2002 debut, “A Poem About Miss Doss” — exemplified by its lead single, “Coffee,” with its bluesy organ vamp and funky vocal — caught insiders’ ears for the neo-soul veneer that many hot young RandB singers of the day were peddling. Doss’ optimistic supporters predicted the disc would propel her into the RandB stratosphere. Instead, its potential fizzled two months after its release, when Doss severed ties with her fledgling Cleveland label, Nu Mecca, over disagreements about payments and other matters.

Doss spent the next two years making new business connections and recording a second album on her own. “I just wanted to see if I could do it myself,” she says, which may explain the CD’s title, “Just Because.” By then, neo-soul wasn’t so “neo” anymore, and she hunkered down with the classic slow-jam style.

Her latest collaborator, producer and co-songwriter Myron Davis, has nudged her into bigger territory.

“I wanted to do more up-tempo songs,” says Davis. “The second album sounded a lot more RandB than I would have liked for her to go. I really wanted to get back to a more eclectic type of sound, something that hadn’t been heard before.”

Doss co-wrote and produced all but two of the CD’s 12 tracks with Davis, a 32-year-old who had his own youthful musical foray in Philadelphia and New York. He released music with Island Records and penned hits for acts such as RandB star Dru Hill. Then he returned to Cleveland to take a job with a local church, buy a house with his wife and raise their three children together. The collaborations range from the near-pop anthem “Only Be Me” to the spare and haunting “Sign” to the funky come-on “Call Me,” a track that features Doss’ first-ever rap.

“That was hilarious,” comments Doss. “My sister was like, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ I’m like ‘I. Don’t. Know.’ It was fun doing that.”

Doss’ willingness to experiment makes for her broadest, most instantly appealing album yet. It also comes at a time when technological changes have opened up the possibilities for both music producers and consumers. By and large, urban radio stations that focus on adult markets stick to oldies, just like their classic rock brethren.

There are exceptions, like WHUR in Washington, D.C., the city’s No. 1 urban adult station. “When we play Conya’s music, we get a big response,” says Traci LaTrelle, WHUR’s music director.

Tellingly, LaTrelle came to the Howard University-owned station from XM satellite radio, where she helped break acts such as the suave neo-soul sensation Anthony Hamilton. A July story in Billboard, which included Doss in a series of photos on the cover, details how satellite radio and Internet sites have supported a burgeoning scene of adult, independent soul artists, including Doss.

Kenny Darnell, Doss’ Atlanta-based manager and the owner of her label, Unique Beat, estimates that her second album sold around 12,000 copies. He expects to more than double that with “Love Rain Down,” a hope reinforced by evidence such as the Billboard story and Doss’ dates last spring in London, where, to her surprise, she packed two nightclubs solely on the power of Internet radio and soul sites. She says about 75 percent of the multiethnic crowd sang along with every number.

Doss, as usual, is cautious about her prospects, but takes strength from the encouragement of like-minded adult musicians around her. “I love this record, but I have sometimes unfortunately a lackadaisical attitude,” she says. “And Myron’s like, ‘You know what? We need to just keep doing it. We’re making history here.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve got these ideas. Let’s just put it together.’ ”

“It’s been an amazing growth process,” says Darnell by phone from Atlanta. “It’s been great to watch. Happily, all I can say is, ‘Wow, this is what I want to be a part of.’ ”

So how far can a 35-year-old soul singer go while still keeping her house, her fulfilling day job and her roots in the city of her birth? Says Darnell, “Just wait and see, man.”

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