6:30 p.m. Sept. 5
Arts, Beats & Eats
Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort Stage, Royal Oak
People can’t believe that Barbara Payton hasn’t carried her dreams out of Detroit. But the Motown mainstay says there’s good reason for that: Music here rocks.
“I honestly believe we have one of the best music communities in the country,” says Payton, just before her gig at the Arts, Beats & Eats charity preview, Arts du Jour, at the Royal Oak Farmers Market last week. “We have some of the finest musicians, and we’re not as jaded as a lot of the other big cities are.”
That’s kept Payton, 47, firmly planted in Michigan, currently abiding in a Birmingham condo with her partner of six years, a live events producer, and away from the fame so many saw for her. She’ll keep it local again during Arts, Beats & Eats over Labor Day weekend, performing with her band, the Big Boss Trio, at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 5 on the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort Stage. Payton, who’s played all over Michigan for the last 20-plus years, likes it that way.
“I’m not in it to be a star,” she says. “I’m in it because I love music. I love to work with other musicians, and I like to grow as an artist. I never got into music to be famous.
“I talk to a lot of artists who feel robbed if they don’t make it, if they’re not a huge success, and I don’t necessarily feel that way. We should be grateful we were given a gift that some people wish they had.”
Payton never had to hope for it; it was always just … there. Born into a family of music teachers, she sang and played brass instruments as a kid, but she couldn’t decide where to take her inevitable music career – until Bette Midler and a hot rocker chick came into her life. Besides a big Divine Miss M infatuation, a biker bar in her Port Huron hometown at the time led her to voice. Payton was just in high school, getting chummy with a bouncer who let her frequent the joint and check out a local rock band. She was totally into the female front woman.
Payton laughs, “I was just completely infatuated with the lead singer … on many levels! I had a crush on her, and I thought her voice was amazing. She just belted out this straight-on rock ‘n’ roll and I had never heard anything like that live before.”
Now people say that about Payton, who released her first album, “Walk on Water,” too long ago, apparently, since she can’t even recall the year during our chat at the Farmers Market. Days later, when she does remember its 1995 release – noting its follow-up, “Enjoy the View,” followed seven years later – she jibes: “I suppose I’m right on schedule with the start of the next CD!”
For as long as Barbara Payton’s been a Detroit music fixture, it’s hard to believe she’s just now prepping her third album. But she’s finally ready: “I need to do this,” she says, “for myself, if nothing else.”
The hook was thyroid cancer, which threatened her future as a singer, but also brought her closer to the recording studio. “It really just changed my perspective on everything,” says Payton, cancer-free as of June. “It’s not always as if when you have a life-threatening illness you have an epiphany, but I did. I decided to pull back from performing too much and I just reevaluated things that were important to me and how I wanted to approach my career.”
She considered how she could use her talent to help others – but not just with her music (she’s mentoring 14-year-old Taylor Fernandez for her 5 p.m. set), but with massage, too. Payton, who has her own in-home studio, says she wants to apply her 18 years of massage therapy experience to caring for cancer patients because she’s sympathetic to the anxiety associated with the disease.
And Payton has the credentials, no matter how she got them: “My ex was going to school for it and she dropped out. I started reading her books and became fascinated with anatomy and physiology, and then I started to go to school. It pissed her off because I finished and she didn’t” – she laughs, breaking off into a long pause – “but we’re not together anymore anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.”
Payton relishes the seclusion granted by her private massage sanctuary, transformed into a mini India, as it pulls her completely away from the raucous she causes onstage. And she’s there, rocking, a lot. She’s been a mainstay on the live circuit for over 20 years – and singing with raw, in-the-moment emotion that’s tough to translate to record, she’s always been more stage than studio. That’s because albums scare the hell out of her.
“I get very nervous because I know it’s going to be recorded. It’s permanent. Once it’s out there, you have to let it go,” says Payton.
One of her rocking recordings, a cover of Patty Griffin’s suicide lament “Tony,” landed on her sophomore album and, with its graphic imagery, deep into the minds of anyone who’s heard her sing it. The song, personalized because of Payton’s own ordeals (an ex-partner of hers had committed suicide, along with a closeted friend), became a part of the performer’s Pride sets. Not everyone cared to hear it.
“It seemed to offend some people because of the lyrics,” she recalls. “But I’m always looking to rock the boat a little bit – and to challenge people.”
Even herself, as she pulls away from rock and enters uncharted musical territory. At the charity preview, Payton gives “I Smell a Rat” biting conviction and honors its blues roots (even Arts, Beats & Eats bills her as Americana) – and that’s just where she’s heading on her upcoming album. The project’s only in its conceptual stages, but since uniting with the Big Boss Trio her fixed sound’s veered into blues.
“It’s a style of music I’m not used to doing,” Payton says. “Normally I was a straight-up rock singer, but I feel like I’m finally growing as an artist. I got a bit stagnate there for a while.”
Even out of her habitual zone, Payton looks to be at home, swaying and smirking and singing with the unjaded passion of someone doing this for the first time.
This is hardly hers, of course, as she’s made her rounds not only across the state, but around the world, performing with Kid Rock and Bob Seger on their own tours. Locally, she plays bars, restaurants and festivals. She gets Royal Oak all fired up for Arts, Beats & Eats, and Pride loves her so much that she’s as regular as anything rainbow.
“I’ve been out and proud for a long time,” Payton says, “and I love our community. They’ve been very supportive of me over the years – and continue to be.”