BlackBook Interview: Dance Music Icon Judy Torres on Fame, Forgiveness and Her Glorious Comeback in ‘No Reason to Cry’

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Let’s face it – we’re endlessly fascinated by stories like those of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, they who attain stardom, and simply cannot withstand it…leading to their ultimate and tragic downfall.

But what of those who face the same, or even greater, struggles, and soldier on to survival?

Such was the case with Judy Torres, who rose up from an abusive Bronx childhood, and at just 17 years old shot to fame as one of the key figures of a then new, late ’80s urban dance music phenomenon called Freestyle. It was a raw but exuberant sound that came straight out of the – at that time – impossibly electrifying NYC club scene. Her single “No Reason to Cry” was one of its absolute hallmarks.

As happens, maintaining stardom, or even a stable existence in the wake of it, proved painfully, but enlighteningly elusive. Industry indifference, malign relationships, and a terrifying medical diagnosis marked out her epic struggles.

But after nearly 30 years of personal and professional peaks and valleys, she has triumphantly returned in 2018 with a startlingly visceral, starkly confessional one-woman theater production, appropriately titled No Reason to Cry. Directed by Emmanuel E. Hernandez (who has worked with John Leguizamo), and produced by Jay Manuel, David Miskin and Raquel Bruno, it has startled with sold-out performances at NYC’s Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, leading to speculation about taking it bigger.

We caught up for a chat with Ms. Torres as No Reason to Cry was being extended into the fall season. Unsurprisingly, she was as candid and soul-baring as the production itself.

 

 

You achieved success quite quickly?

I think the phrase, “overnight success” is deceiving. People don’t see all the hard work, and arguments, and sleepless nights you had before it all happened.

What was the New York dance/club scene like at that time?

In the late ’80s the club scene was it!  It was vivacious and absolutely instrumental to dance music of any kind. At that time, if you didn’t get your recordings on the radio, the only way your music survived was in the nightclubs. I remember the huge crowds, the bass pumping so much that you felt your heartbeat matched it. The clubs were so crowded that the walls used to literally sweat, just as much as the people did; and I’ve since never seen anything like it. At times when I performed, it felt as if the audience made one collective decision while you were on that stage: they loved you or they hated you, and there was no in between.

Was it difficult navigating success at such a young age?

It was hard at 17; it took almost two years to get my first song, “No Reason to Cry,” on the radio. But when it happened, it happened so quickly. I was a kid, I didn’t even know how to do my hair or makeup.  As a plus sized girl, I couldn’t wear what all the other kids were wearing, so I felt lost a lot of the time, like a fashion outcast. And doing three to four shows a night was exhausting, and very hard on my voice. I came from very humble beginnings, so I didn’t have the funds to get the proper wardrobe, and I couldn’t afford an attorney. As a result, I trusted people and got hurt. It was the most expensive lesson I ever learned. However, I wanted it so bad, I would do it again.

Did you find that the music industry was mostly unsympathetic once you’re not riding as high?

When the Freestyle movement began to decline, it felt like the music industry was very unsympathetic. When you are on top, everyone wants to be part of it. But it is a business, and if you’re not going to help them profit, they are looking for the next best thing. It felt confusing; these people tell you how great you are, and the very next day they won’t even acknowledge you when you see them…it was hard to not take it personally. But now I get it, and I know who I am, and always look to reinvent myself – while always staying true to who I am.

What happened in your life between the years of 1992 and 2001? Was it a difficult period for you?

They were some of the greatest and worst years. I made the grave mistake of allowing a boyfriend to manage my career – I had no idea that he was a narcissistic sociopath. I had a stalker on my hands and didn’t know how to get away from him. I landed in a serious depression and  [there was] a suicide attempt.  I got a lot of therapy, a restraining order, and I realized I had to stop blaming other people for my failure. In 1999 I was offered a job at WKTU as a radio personality, and I’ve been there ever since! I gained a respect from the fans that was deeper than I could have ever hoped for.

You were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005. What was your first reaction to the news?

I woke up one morning with an annoying pain in my eye. A few days later, I was blind. I landed in the hospital, and by the end of the week, the doctor told me about the diagnosis. I was absolutely shocked, how could this happen to me? I contemplated suicide again – right there in the hospital. I read all the books about multiple sclerosis and none had happy endings. An ex-boyfriend came to visit me in the hospital and didn’t feel sorry for me at all. He told me to get up – that as long as I could still sing, I had no right to be upset.  I wanted to punch him in the throat; but something resonated. And I took it as a sign from God: you can take anything from me, but as long as I could still sing, I could get through it.  Little by little, I grew stronger.

 

 

What challenges did it introduce into your life?

The idea of having to possibly learn to function with just one eye was terrifying; I couldn’t even park my car correctly. My depth perception was off, I became clumsier, and I kept underestimating where the stage ended, because I couldn’t see stairs properly. I began falling a lot, bumping into things a lot. Then when I was told I had to go on medication to keep the disease from progressing, it was very depressing. After awhile, I put my big girl panties on, and did what I had to do. And finally, I began to rewrite my own story.

What inspired you to do No Reason to Cry

I’m a huge fan of John Leguizamo’s one man shows. I watched him in his latest one, Latin History for Morons, and kept thinking, “I want to do that.” And finally, my best friend of over 20 years, David Miskin, told me, “My friend, I know you can do this! Write it, and I’ll produce it.” I thought he was joking, and today he’s the Executive Producer of the show. But deep down, I felt it was time to tell my story.

Why did you choose to do it solo?

It takes a village to do a one woman show – no one makes it alone. But I chose to perform it alone, I guess because I’m letting people into a very personal place. I feel it needed to be told from me directly. And I also enjoy the challenge of being on stage for two hours knowing I have to hold people’s attention.

Has the show acted as a kind of emotional catharsis for you? Have you been able to sort out any personal matters by doing it?

Performing No Reason to Cry has absolutely been an emotional catharsis for me. It allows me to give a voice to those early childhood experiences – when back then I had no voice. I was too busy trying to survive the trauma of watching my mom being beaten by my father and stepfather; trying to protect her, trying to figure out if it was going to be a good day or not. I had no power back then; but on stage, I do! It has allowed me to tell my truth as I saw it. And every time I perform it, I feel stronger and more complete and more at peace with all of it. Doing this show has helped me realize that the people who hurt me have a story too, and if I knew their story I could understand the horrors better.  It has also shown me that it doesn’t excuse them for hurting me.

What do you hope people will take away from No Reason to Cry?

I hope people walk away feeling inspired – that you can have an idea in your mind and make it happen. I hope they see that as terrifying as this was for me, on the other side of that wall of fear is your greatest victory. I want people to walk away knowing that it is never too late to forgive and it’s never too late to resolve things.

Would you consider making it into a bigger production?

I’d love to see where No Reason to Cry goes from here. I chose the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater because of its intimacy. I think connecting with the audience on an intimate level is important for this show. But, if it has the opportunity to go bigger, and reach more people…I’m open to that too.

What are your plans for the near future?

I’d love to take the show on the road, as I have fans in other states who cannot make it to NYC. I also plan to write a book based on the show, that will include more details and stories I was not able to include on stage…because of time constraints.

 

Hwaban Brings Efflorescent Korean to NYC’s Flatiron

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Traditionally centered around W. 32nd Street, Eater recently lamented how NYC’s Koreatown has slowly lost its mom-and-pop authenticity to an encroachment of chain restaurants. As happens these days.

But just 13 blocks to the south (in the Flatiron), Hwaban is undertaking to reinvigorate the Korean dining experience, with the sort of rarefied elegance usually reserved for upscale French establishments. Indeed, working with interior designers Super Paprika, chef Mihyun Han and her restaurateur husband Key Kim have cultivated a space that decidedly lives up to the restaurant’s name – which translates to “as beautiful as a flower.”

 

 

The stark but exquisite sophistication of the white brick walls, white marble tables and sleek, seductively grey banquettes still allow the gaze to focus on the stunning floral arrangements adorning the dining room, which are switched up at regular intervals. Although it must be said that the plates being delivered to those marble tabletops are equally artistically realized. Indeed, from the scallop crudo to the lotus root salad, the kimchi stew to the poached lemon sole, the presentation is nothing shy of ethereal.

For the most transcendent epicurean experience, bring some worthy friends and opt for the Hwaban Table (similar to the Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel), which offers an impressive assortment of specialties from the all-around superlative menu.

Hwaban is open seven days a week.

 

 

BlackBook Interview: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Star Fiona Xie on Respect, Cultural Nuance & the Inimitable Charms of Singapore

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Images Courtesy of Warner Bros

 

It’s not hard to imagine why, with Hollywood in full ownership of the concept of “blockbuster” cinema, films spotlighting other cultures continue to find mainstream U.S. success fairly elusive. But the lead up to the release this weekend of the Singapore-based Crazy Rich Asians has all the buzz of a massive superhero sequel.

Based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel about wedding-focused extravagance amongst the Singaporean one-percenters, it also happens to be coming at a particularly socio-politically charged moment – with journalist Sarah Jeong’s hiring at the New York Times setting off a heated debate on the context and boundaries of racism in America. Interestingly, the film actually kind of pokes fun at the strict class delineations in Singapore, something pretty much anyone anywhere can relate to. But perhaps most importantly, it features bold, memorable female characters.

But what you should really come to CRA with, is the anticipation of seeing a riotously funny film, through the exotic lens of Singaporean culture, with tradition butting up against contemporary life – as it tends to do. And much like so many English costume dramas, it also plays as something of a Singapore travelogue, showing off the city’s sultry, dynamic charms. (It’s currently on so many “hottest destination” lists.)

We caught up with one of those particularly awesome women, actress Fiona Xie, who plays social-climbing actress Kitty Pong – a character viewed with suspicion by her rich boyfriend’s family…providing some of the comic tension that is at the heart of the film’s universal appeal.

 

 

Asian stories are often told in film through Western perspectives here in the West. What do you think has been missing in that point of view?

Integrity and a diversity in terms of culture, as Asian and Western cultures alike are nuanced in many ways.

What attracted you to the film version of Crazy Rich Asians? Had you read the book?

I was actually introduced to Kevin Kwan’s New York Times bestseller by a CEO of a respectable watch company. I didn’t expect him to be reading something with that title. I was intrigued by everyone’s interest and the wide spectrum of audience that it actually reached. It was such a buzz, everyone loved and raved about it. I was [generally] not one for such trends. I did however, pick it up and to my surprise, devoured Kwan’s wicked humor gleefully, chuckling away at how close to home it was.  In the U.S. alone, there have been over 1.8 million copies in print. Genius.

Why do you think there is so much advance hype in the U.S. for this film in particular?

Goldrush. Everyone wants in on what’s good. For the Asian community, it’s also a movement to have a platform to share their real stories and to be heard equally. Ultimately, we are all humans that want to be understood, loved and accepted and to transcend all boundaries for great opportunities.

 

 

What will a Western audience take away from the film about the differences in our relationship issues and traditions?

Curiosity and respect. The same way you would want an Asian audience to appreciate and celebrate the Western culture.

How does Singapore as a place figure into the story in Crazy Rich Asians?

Location, location, location. The ultimate wedding of the year! Technicolor avatars like Super Trees at Gardens by the Bay, synchronized swimming atop the world’s only floating pool above the three-joined towers on the rooftop of Marina Bay Sands, and a glorious assortment of street food at the Newton Circus Hawker Centre.

Are there cultural references that are specific to Singapore?

The entire movie is interwoven with Singapore culture and you will also see a lot of cultural touch points referenced in the movie – and how multicultural Singaporeans live their life.

Ultimately, how do you think Western audiences will connect with the film version of Crazy Rich Asians?

With laughter, tears and a newfound interest in all stories that are ultimately well told.

 

The Real Singapore Locales Featured in Crazy Rich Asians

Images from top: Marina Bay Sands Skywalk; Newton Circus Hawker; Gardens by the Bay

 

BLACKBOOK PREMIERE: PublicART’s Ethereal New Single ‘Montreux’

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You may not yet have heard of PublicART just yet, but the Silverlake duo of Stevvi and Jan (no last names, please) have individually played musical sidekick to the considerable likes of Frank Ocean, Macy Gray, Shakira…even Fleetwood Mac. He is also the touring guitarist for Charlie Puth; she is with the touring production for the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience (yes, that’s a thing).

And while their own music has shown the influence of Americana and R&B, there has been an apparent deepening of interest in electronics – something that will surely be front and center on their upcoming Modernika EP…which is set for release September 21.

 

 

In the lead up, BlackBook premieres here the new single “Montreux,” named for the ethereal Swiss town in which Freddie Mercury spent so much of his final years. The track is a paradigm of romantic, gossamer synth-pop, with Stevvi’s transcendental vocal performance lyrically pondering impermanence and otherworldliness.

“‘Montreux’ is the kind of song you can get lost in,” she says. “It’s transportive, visual and almost feels meditative. It always seems to take me out of the moment I’m in and deliver me to a much cooler, melodic landscape. The track sounds simple because space is built into it, but it’s actually quite complex and crafty.”

As if it need be said, there are few things we need more right now than being transported to somewhere cooler…and more melodic.

 

Going Modern in the Ancient Metropolis: Hotel Perianth Opens in Athens

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Before the turning of the Millennium, most travelers to Greece touched down in Athens, and then headed straight for the islands of Santorini, Mykonos, and the like. But the Greek capital has been undergoing a transformation over the last decade and a half – especially in regards to its vibrant street art scene – making it more than just a place to stop and gawk at the Parthenon for a couple of hours.

It’s also at last getting better hotels – to wit, the Perianth, which just opened in the non-touristy area of Monastiraki, known for its historic architecture and lively flea market. It’s actually specifically located on the comely Agia Eirini square, with its buzzy pavement tables and beautiful Byzantine-style church.

 

 

A member of Design Hotels, the Perianth is indeed something of a stylistic masterpiece (interiors by K-STUDIO), with its striking, almost museum-quality modernist public spaces, and its 38 clean-lined, but warmly turned out rooms. Local artworks by the likes of Antonakis, Yiannis Varelas, and Margarita Myrogianni appear throughout the hotel.

There’s also a comely, light-flooded Italian restaurant, Il Baretto, whose bar is a scene for early evening aperitivo. And the Zen Center, for meditation, yoga and martial arts, is located in the same building.

A recent Euro Zone report also shows Greece to have finally left its financial crisis behind – so the mood is much better amongst the people these days.

 

BLACKBOOK PREMIERE: People Museum’s Captivating New Single ‘Eye 2 Eye’

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As songwriter-vocalist Claire Givens’ dad is an operatic Baptist minister, and partner Jeremy Phipps (producer/trombonist) grew up playing in jazz bands before going on to tour with the likes of Solange and Rubblebucket, they’re exactly the sort of pair you’d expect to emerge from New Orleans’ storied Treme neighborhood.

The duo now operate under the intriguing moniker People Museum. A notable Sofar Sounds session earlier this year shot them to greater prominence, and they’re currently prepping their debut album, I Dreamt You in Technicolor, for a fall release. In the meantime, BlackBook premieres here the advance single “Eye 2 Eye,” which perfectly exhibits their enchanting, multifarious style.

 

 

Keenly referencing post-punk icons like The Slits and Rip Rig + Panic (Neneh Cherry), they mix jagged rhythms, Caribbean-style horns, and seductive synths, as Givens ethereally intones captivating lines like, “Lost in translation / Found in hiding / What could come if we just try?”

“Eye 2 Eye is about a one-sided relationship,” she explains, “where one person is transparent with their feelings, and the other person hides away, restricting their emotions. The relationship could bloom if only the other person could open up and help to create an environment for true understanding of each other.”

No fall tour dates have been announced, but People Museum will throw a record release party at New Orleans’ Saturn Bar on September 28.

 

Vienna Overtakes Melbourne as the World’s Most Livable City

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Vienna

 

As American and British cities crumble under the weight of the decline of once great empires, the capital city of what, until 1917, was actually the world’s greatest empire, has taken the top spot in the Economist Intelligence Unit‘s 2018 Global Livability Index.

Indeed, once the seat of the 600-years-strong Hapsburg Empire, most of Europe was ruled from the palaces of Vienna. Alas, after being on the wrong side of World War I, that Empire was permanently broken up, and Austria has spent a century in (mostly) peaceful political insignificance. And, as of now, very high living standards.

The survey is conducted each year by the EIU, and takes into consideration such factors as stability, healthcare, education and infrastructure, as well as culture and environment. Hardly surprisingly, no U.S. city cracks the top ten, which is in the overall dominated by Canada, Japan and Australia, whose Melbourne lost the top spot to the Austrian capital this year.

 

Melbourne 

 

Suffering through seven years of civil war, Syria’s Damascus turns out to be the world’s least livable major city, lagging far behind Dhaka, Lagos and Karachi. The biggest decliners were Kiev, post-hurricane San Juan and Damascus; the greatest improvers were Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Hanoi and Belgrade.

Paris came in at a respectable 19th, but the West’s other major urban financial/culture centers did not fare very well, with London ranking 48th, New York City 57th – proving that a bleeding edge art scene, an endless supply of trendy restaurants, unrivaled cultural institutions, and a concentration of celebrity and power do not a livable city make.

Though, we pretty much knew that already.

 

Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 World’s Most Livable Cities

  1. Vienna, Austria – Rating: 99.1
  2. Melbourne, Australia – Rating: 98.4
  3. Osaka, Japan – Rating 97.7
  4. Calgary, Canada – Rating 97.5
  5. Sydney, Australia – Rating 97.4
  6. Vancouver, Canada – Rating 97.3
  7. Toronto, Canada – Rating 97.2
  8. Tokyo, Japan – Rating 97.2
  9. Copenhagen, Denmark – Rating 96.8
  10. Adelaide, Australia – Rating 96.6

 

 

Controversial R&B Songstress Sabrina Claudio Releases New Project, ‘No Rain, No Flowers’

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Image by Daria Kobayashi Ritch

 

Back in April, rising star R&B singer Sabrina Claudio was publicly and roundly castigated for what were seemingly racially insensitive tweets from her past – despite the fact that she herself is of Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage.

Now surely seeking a contritional moment, she has today released the new eight song project, No Rain, No Flowers – which is rife with emotional soul-baring. Just witness some of the song titles: “Naked,” “Numb,” and “Did We Lose Our Minds.” With Newsweek having declared her one of the most exciting acts at this year’s Lollapalooza (“Her charisma was obvious, as was her talent”), one hopes she can put all the controversy behind her.

Autumn tour dates will be announced soon.

 

 

Listen: The Kooks’ Brit-Poppy New Single ‘Chicken Bone’

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Nostalgic artistic referencing used to come at serviceable intervals; but as culture has lapped itself several times over, it now arrives seemingly randomly.

And so with no particular context, The Kooks – who first popped up in Brighton in 2004, during the well-documented post-punk revival – have a new single, the curiously titled “Chicken Bone.” It inarguably has Britpop’s aesthetic stamp all over it.

Taken from their upcoming album Let’s Go Sunshine (which is kind of a Britpoppy title, it must be said), it’s got all the cheek of Parklife-era Blur, and the riffage of Elastica, while also sort of sounding like a slowed down version of the Oasis classic “Morning Glory.” Like all great Britpop, it’s equal parts weird but hooky psychedelia, and honest emotional soul-baring – “Hard times in the city / I get over, I get under” goes the opening lyrical salvo. Isn’t it always the way?

The new album will arrive August 31 via Lonely Cat/AWAL Recordings – but North American tour dates still elude. So you’ll have make plans to catch them live in London, Belfast or Mexico City, until that particular situation is resolved.