While many underappreciated acts are said to be “before their time,” Ann Nesby is, in a sense, after her time. Though the 40-something singer debuted in the 1990s, her big, gospel-schooled voice evokes the great rhythm-and-blues queens of the 1960s and ’70s, such as Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight.
Even her current Grammy nomination speaks to the retro nature of Nesby’s sound. It’s in the “traditional R&B” category. And it’s for the song “Put It on Paper,” a duet with legendary soulman Al Green. While recording the tune, Green summed up Nesby’s artistry when he told her, “You are a real soul sista.”
But instead of receiving the attention her talent deserves, the full-figured Nesby struggles in an industry that’s often more concerned with waist size than vocal range. The Peachtree City singer recently parted ways with her record label, Universal, because they didn’t want to continue promoting her latest album, also titled “Put It on Paper.” They told her husband and manager, Timothy Lee, that they weren’t interested in “building artists’ careers,” the couple says. (A Universal representative said the split with Nesby was mutual.)
What made this doubly stinging is that Universal is the second record company to let her go. Previously she recorded for Interscope, home of rappers Eminem, Dr. Dre and Eve.
But in many ways, Nesby’s music-industry troubles are nothing compared with the other challenges she has faced. She was an unwed mother at 16, married to an emotionally abusive husband at 19 and later divorced. For years, she worked as a cosmetologist and beauty store clerk, singing mostly in church on Sundays.
“In my heart, I felt that I had ruined my chances,” Nesby says from her home. “When people see artists, they think that everything has been great in their past. But when I sing, you can feel the pain and the passion.”
She caught a break when she hooked up with the Minneapolis-based gospel group Sounds of Blackness. She was the lead voice on their smashes “Optimistic,” “The Pressure” and “I Believe.” That led to a solo album, “I’m Here for You,” which yielded the hit ballad “I’m Still Wearing Your Name.”
That tune, about a disintegrating marriage, exemplifies the kind of mature relationship songs that Nesby masters. But far from being a one-note balladeer, she also packs her albums with a range of styles, including midtempo finger-snapping grooves and house-music throwdowns. “I try to make the kind of music that you can put on when you have friends over to play spades, eat and do your thing,” she says. “I like to make Friday-night-fish-fry music. It’s music for living.”
Nesby and her husband continue to believe there’s a market for her contemporary brand of classic soul, even if the major record companies don’t support it. One day, he asked her whether she was ready to start her own record label. And her answer provided the name for the new company: “It’s Time, Child.” The label will release her new album, “Make Me Better,” later this year.
As she reflects on her career, Nesby says she has made peace with her place in the industry. Because she has written most of her own material, she lives more comfortably than many acts with bigger sales. And, although she acknowledges that the heyday of her style of music has passed, she trusts that this was the right timeline for her.
“When I was younger, I was fast,” she says. “And I don’t know where I would’ve been with all the drugs and the loose sex that was around back then. So when I look back, I think I’m where I’m supposed to be. Every man has a season, and when it’s your season, can’t nobody stop you.”