Featured Interview – Jarekus Singleton

Jarekus Singleton is not a multi-tasker.

That’s not meant as a put-down, because he’s quick to admit he’d rather deal with one thing at a time instead of trying to concentrate on a handful of issues.

That being the case, when he turns his laser-like focus on one thing at a time, the results are nothing less than astounding.

Once, Singleton was a fast-rising basketball player and was named the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Player of the Year in 2007, leading the nation in scoring and coming in fifth in assists that season.

Now, Singleton is a fast-rising blues singer, songwriter and guitarist, whose newest album, Refuse to Lose (Alligator Records), has made some huge waves on the scene and quickly found a home at the top of most blues charts since its early May release.

It’s hard enough to find a way to beat the odds once, but somehow the engaging and vibrant Singleton has managed to do it twice. The title to Refuse to Lose is auto-biographical, telling the tale of where he’s been, while also serving as a rallying cry he bases his life around.

“There’s a lot of significance to the title; that’s been my whole life story. You feel like going one way and people are trying to hold you back, or you feel like you’ve been slighted at something. I feel like I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder when it comes to being an artist or being a basketball player. It seems like everywhere I went, I’ve had to claw my way to the top of the ranks. And when I say claw, I mean claw in every sense of the word. I always want to feel like I belong. I want to be a part of this community of blues musicians so bad and having an opportunity to have my voice heard is an unbelievable feeling.”

With his custom-built Clevenger Guitar (crafted by Bert Clevenger in Hot Springs, Arkansas; emblazoned with ‘Reak Doggin’ It!’ on the body) slung low, Singleton has been a constant blur of activity and has spent the majority of his recent time on the road supporting his new compact disc. His first album, Heartfelt (Reakdogmusic), was independently released in 2011. The way he sees it, comparisons are hard to find between it and Refuse to Lose.

“It is hard to compare the two, because Heartfelt was my first CD. I had some vocal coaching between the two (CDs) to get them in shape, so my vocals are stronger on Refuse to Lose,” he said. “And I feel like I’m a better bandleader now, too. In retrospect, there’s a big difference between the two and I can really feel the growth.”

Alligator Records head honcho Bruce Iglauer co-produced Refuse to Lose along with Singleton.

“I learned a lot from Bruce on this one. Things like how to work in the studio and how to be more efficient with my time. It was all a big learning process and I’m glad I went through it. It was fun working with Bruce. He had a lot of good ideas that he brought to the table. We objectively agreed and objectively disagreed about a lot of things.”

The give-and-take between artist and producer (and record label owner) is nothing new. That’s been going on almost as long as the earth has been here and Singleton knows that is all part of the process and seems to enjoy the back-and-forth. However, he does draw the line when major reconstruction of his songs becomes the main issue.

“Well, I wasn’t budging on my material or the songs that I had written. I have to be sensitive to every word, that’s why I like writing my own songs,” he said. “My tunes are auto-biographical at times and the words and their placements are really sensitive. That’s extremely important and the messages in the songs are the main things. I want to approach my writing responsibly.”

Singleton was raised in Clinton, Mississippi and the origin of his first name came courtesy of his mom, Jacquerline Shearry, who kind of morphed together the names of a couple of Jarekus’ siblings.

“My oldest brother is Jackirus and then my middle brother’s name is Jarez and my momma got my name from putting their names together. She trickled it on down … kept it rolling,” he said.

His mother did a lot more than just craft Jarekus’ unique name; she busted her butt providing for her family through some hard and trying times. She also managed to impart life lessons on the young Jarekus, lessons that he still carries with him to this very day. And for that, he is eternally grateful and more than ready to show his appreciation for all his mother went through.

“I’m from a single-parent home and my mom worked so hard to take care of me and my brothers, and one of my main goals was to make sure my momma didn’t have to work anymore,” he said. “And I think that’s one reason that I went so hard with the basketball. Me, coming up as a youngster, I always used to say to myself, ‘It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than me. Everything that I’m trying to do is bigger than me.’ I always want to make my momma proud of who I am. She always tells me that as long as I’m doing what I feel in my heart to do, she’ll support me, regardless of what is was (that he does for a living).”

As a schoolboy, Singleton became a prodigious basketball talent – through a ton of hard work, along with the tutelage of his uncle Tim – and soon became the top-ranked high school player in the Magnolia State. Singleton signed with the University of Southern Mississippi out of high school and played there a couple of years before transferring to William Carey College, located just across Hattiesburg from Southern Miss.

Although he was the NAIA Player of the Year at William Carey, his dreams of being drafted by an NBA team never materialized.

“My agent quit on me and left me out there by myself and there were not a lot of other agents out there at the time that wanted to pick me up, so I had to kind of do it on my own,” he said. “So I went about trying to get a basketball gig – get on a team – on my own and it was rough and hard.”

Despite some purported interest from the Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers, Singleton was not invited to a training camp and ultimately headed overseas, where he played for a team in Lebanon.

But before he could give it another whirl at the NBA, he suffered a devastating ankle injury, resulting in badly-damaged cartilage, forcing him to be on crutches for a year-and-a-half. That pretty much permanently derailed his prospects for ever playing the game he loved as a professional (the hard-rocking song “Keep Pushin” off Refuse to Lose looks back on his hoop-playing days and injury). After that, it was back to the drawing board, which at the time, was mostly blank.

“I didn’t have a career path in mind. When I was coming up, I always rapped and wrote my own lyrics, but basketball was Plan A. And Plan B was reinforcing Plan A, so I never did look at music like that (as a possible vocation),” he said. “Growing up, I played music in church and my granddaddy was pastor, so my job was to help the family out with that music. I never looked at it as a job (down the road).”

That much was reflected by some of the jobs that Singleton worked at after it became crystal clear that his days of domination on the hardwood were probably behind him.

“I was a janitor at Camp Shelby (military post in Hattiesburg) for awhile; I worked at a car dealership cleaning out the oil pit; I worked at Hudson’s Salvage Center unloading trucks from eight in the morning until five in the evening,” he said. “And I would go home in the summertime and my best friend’s dad was a bricklayer, so I used to be the brick boy. We would put the bricks in a barrel and bring them to him, so when he got ready to lay them, he would have fresh bricks right beside him. I changed skin-tones about three or four times that summer. So to be honest, I was kind of lost. I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I was just thrown off by the injury. But in life, you’ve got to be able to adjust. If you’re a person that can’t adjust, you’re going to struggle. And I knew that, so I said, ‘Whatever I’m going to do, I have to adjust and adjust fast.’”

Singleton’s nudge towards becoming a professional musician may very well have been delivered by one of our generation’s preeminent comedian/entertainers.

“I was watching the Steve Harvey Show one day and he had a young 18-yard-old on there who didn’t have a job. Steve asked him, ‘What’s the one thing that you do the best with the least amount of effort?’ For Steve to ask that question … I mean, a lot of people say they don’t know what their talent is,” Singleton said. “And Steve said whatever it is you do best with the least amount of effort is what your talent is. That hit home with me. I thought, I play music pretty good and can learn it by ear, even though I never had any formal training. So I decided to change my mindset and go with music. I had always been a fan of blues music and always wrote my own music.”

A good portion of the music that Singleton wrote back in the day was rap and hip-hop. But instead of abandoning that genre when he chose to play the blues, he simply incorporated it into his new style.

“Yeah, a lot of the music that came out on Refuse to Lose was stuff from some of my rap songs I had back in the day. I never really thought about doing this stuff or that stuff, I just write music,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m just writing the music that’s in my heart … it’s uncompromising. I’m not ever going to get into a war about what kind of music I create and about if this should fit here or this should fit there. I like the whole spontaneity of it all. I like to be free-spirited and let it flow freely. You can see that at our shows, too. A lot of the stuff we do on stage is totally improvised. It’s just beautiful being able to convey what you’re trying to say through music.”

Even though he may never get the chance to guard Lebron James, or match jumpers with Kevin Durant, Singleton does not seem to let that cause him one second of pause. Instead, he’s rolled both sleeves up and attacked playing the blues like he attacked the backboard seven or eight years ago. And polar-opposites that they may seem to be, there are some similarities between being a high-caliber bluesmen and a high-caliber athlete, Singleton says.

“I think the common ground is being humble. When you’re humble, you challenge yourself everyday to make sure you’re approaching things responsibly. But you can look at basketball and music as both being entertainment. I always looked at them both as something that I love to do. I mean, I’ve always loved to play music, regardless of the reason that I was playing. And I always loved playing basketball and just being around the sport. Being able to take the work ethic I had for basketball and transferring it to the musical aspect of my life has been important.”

That humbleness is readily apparent when speaking with Singleton, who – despite the resume he’s created in both the hoops’ world and the world of the blues – says he’s been figuring things out as he goes about his business.

“With basketball, I really didn’t know what I was doing and I don’t even know if I know what I’m doing now. I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said. “But I do know who I am as a person. My thing is, I’ve always stuck to who I was as a person … you know, from 1984 to this day and until the day that God decides to come and get me. I’m always going to be that same person and have that same strong foundation that my momma made sure I had.”

Much the same can also be said about the way Singleton will never forget just where it was that he comes from and some of the struggles he’s had to endure to get to where he is today.

“Even though things may not have been what a typical family in America goes through, we made it. I learned a lot from that and built a lot of character from the situation I was in. I’m glad of the way that I grew up, because I think it has a lot to do with the way that I approach things today,” he said. “One of my college teammates pulled me aside and said, “Reak, I got a lot of respect for you, man, with all the adversity you had coming up.’ I’m not saying that I had it any worse than anyone else, but there were a lot of points in my life where I didn’t know what I was going to do, because I felt stuck. To be able to come up and accomplish some of the things that I’ve accomplished with the duress that we were in some times … it’s just a beautiful thing, man. There’s really no way to put it into words. I just thank God for where I’m at and for what I’m doing.”

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