‘Pivotal time’ for musical muse Joi (interview)

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If the three-strikes rule is as applicable to the music business as it is to baseball, Joi Gilliam Gipp is about to make her last stand. This week, the local funk-rock singer/songwriter releases her third album, “Star Kitty’s Revenge,” in hopes that it will be the commercial success that her past efforts haven’t been.

For nearly a decade, the 31-year-old artist, who performs simply as Joi, has been one of Atlanta’s most quietly influential acts, a wildflower muse for the city’s award-winning, multimillion-dollar-generating hip-hop and R&B music scene.

She’s the former protegee of producer Dallas Austin, who has crafted multiplatinum hits for Boyz II Men, TLC and Madonna. And she has deep ties to the Dungeon Family camp, whose ranks include Grammy winners OutKast and the Goodie Mob. (She’s married to Mob member Big Gipp.)

You sense Joi influence in the outrageous dress and musical daring of OutKast, the rockier side of R&B trio TLC, and Goodie Mob member Cee-Lo’s bold forthcoming solo effort, already the subject of enormous industry buzz.

“She is the truth and the most famous person I know,” OutKast’s Andre “Dre” Benjamin says of Joi’s artistry and influence. Attendees at recent Atlanta shows included Erykah Badu, OutKast, TLC’s Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, teen pop queen Christina Aguilera and singer Tweet, who has the No. 1 R&B song in the country.

The Nashville-bred Georgia transplant also impressed Madonna when she was in town recording her 1994 album “Bedtime Stories.” Madonna befriended Joi and introduced her to fashion photographer Steven Meisel, who later used her in a Calvin Klein ad.

By conventional wisdom, Joi should be a star. But success has been soul-crushingly elusive, largely due to problems with record labels that have found it difficult to market her genre-defying vanguard charms. Her debut “The Pendulum Vibe,” on EMI Records, failed to make the charts, although its thumping first single, “Sunshine and the Rain,” is now considered a hip-hop classic.

Joi was dumped by EMI before the follow-up, “The Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome,” was even released. (Nevertheless, bootleg copies of the album remain hot contraband among urban music hipsters.)

If “Star Kitty’s Revenge” tanks, Joi will likely pack away her signature thigh-high boots, foot-tall hats, chain-mail vests, and patent-leather bikinis.

“This is a pivotal time for me,” says Joi. “It will [determine] the difference between me being in the forefront and me being the wind beneath somebody else’s wings.”

Joi debuted in 1994 on what was then called Limp Records, a joint venture between EMI and producer Austin. But from the beginning, Joi’s mix of rock guitars, throaty wails, and lyrics touching on social activism and bisexuality was too avant-garde for an urban scene dominated by macho rappers and lovelorn homegirls-next-door. “I remember EMI specifically saying, ‘Can you make her more like Mary J. Blige?’ ” says Austin.

The albums, particularly “Amoeba,” were influenced by a number of rock-influenced black female trailblazers from the ’70s: the spacey, hard-driving trio Labelle; Chaka Khan, then of the mixed-race band Rufus; and Betty Davis, former wife of jazz legend Miles Davis, who recorded three blisteringly raw sets of bottom heavy rock.

Crushed by the lack of success, Joi took a few years to focus on raising her now-6-year-old daughter, Keypsiia. But slowly she was pulled back into the spotlight. In February 2000, executive Charles Suitt signed her to Crazy World Entertainment, a Universal subsidiary. Then, in October 2000, her national profile was boosted when she toured with the neo-soul outfit Lucy Pearl as a replacement for former En Vogue member Dawn Robinson.

And in the post-Macy Gray era, Joi’s music may no longer be too urban for rock fans, too guitar-heavy for hip-hop and R&B fans. The title of “Star Kitty’s Revenge” refers to her return from so many career setbacks.

Joi faced a new round of label problems with Universal, which wanted to tame her brash, often Grace Jones-esque image. (At a February show, the beanstalk stunner sported blue mascara flying wildly from each eye and long disheveled hair.) Joi disowns the album cover (“It’s ugly”) and the inside photo of her, awkwardly posed, in a cat suit. “[Universal] told me, ‘That’s “Star Kitty’s Revenge,” ‘ ” she explains of the photos. “And I said, ‘How are you gonna tell me what “Star Kitty’s Revenge” is? I coined the phrase!’ ”

The label at first declined to fund a concert tour, which would have allowed her dynamic stage show to win converts. But Joi won over the corporate honchos at a New York showcase performance, and the label is even ponying up for a full backing band. “To put me on the road is to get your money back,” says Joi.

She hopes the tour will bring attention to the eclectic album. Highlights range from the swampy, Austin-produced “Missing You,” which sounds like Al Green’s “Still in Love With You” updated with a gentle house-music shuffle beat, to the bawdy electro-thumper “Lick.”

Throughout the accomplished set, Joi croons more soulfully than ever before. And the lyrics are deeply introspective, with two songs dealing with her father, Joe Gilliam, one of the NFL’s first black starting quarterbacks, who struggled with drugs and died on Christmas Day 2000.

The memory of her barrier-breaking dad motivates Joi to remain on her influential idiosyncratic path. “I see my influence on a whole lot of my peers who are doing well, and that inspires me,” she says. “It makes it OK that it hasn’t happened for me just yet. Maybe [success] is meant in a whole ‘nother way for me.”

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