After 15 years lending his distinct vocals to tracks by the world’s top house-music producers, Peyton is moving from the club scene to the mainstream.
His new album, Sinners Got Soul Too, is a contemporary pop offering heavily influenced by the sounds of his youth spent in the Pentecostal churches of Virginia.
He spoke to iSing’s Line Hilton about 2am gigs, reality television and ageism in the music industry.
iSing: How did you get started as a pro singer?
Peyton: I come from a religious family – my father’s a preacher – so I sang gospel throughout my childhood, my teens and my college years. I stopped when I graduated from college as, by then, I had philosophically emancipated myself from what I saw as the shackles of Christianity and, for me, singing was about lifting up God. I went off and did other things: I went to graduate school and waited on tables and wrote poetry, and then, after a long break, I performed at a friend’s wedding.
Somebody heard me and hooked me up with top producer Nellee Hooper and a band who were signed to Virgin Records. It was big. We were in LA shooting music videos and then, at the last minute, it all went tits up. And I went back to waiting tables.
In 2003 I wrote a song called A Higher Place and a producer suggested it would make a good dance track. He was right. The song was signed by a British dance-music label called Hed Kandi and remixed by a famous producer called Eric Kupper. It shot to the top of the charts all over the world. That was the beginning of my 16-year career.
iSing: What are the challenges of being a house singer?
Peyton: It’s an odd little niche that requires a special skill set. Most singers perform to a relatively sober audience at a normal time in the evening. With house music, you’re in a club with a bad sound system at 2am, singing to a crowd of people who are drunk or high and who aren’t there to see you. You need the presence and the vocal power to get up in front of people who are dancing and don’t want to be interrupted. Instead of breaking their mood, you want to take them higher.
The club environment is similar to the church environment: people are there to let go, to be released. My gospel background means I know how to sing to lift people higher rather than drawing attention to myself. Now when I do a regular gig at a regular hour, with a sound system that works, it’s so different. I don’t have to scream to get everyone’s attention. I’m having to retrain so I have the power without the force.
iSing: Do you have a vocal care regime?
Peyton: I used to say “scotch and a cigarette” but that was me just being funny. When I started out as a house singer, I didn’t do a lot of warming up as I was performing so late at night. But I have since had training. In some ways, I regret that I haven’t been more serious about technique. I wonder how good my voice would be now if I had devoted more time and attention to my vocal technique. As it is, if I take a week or two and focus on it, it makes an incredible difference.
iSing: Have you ever had a serious vocal problem?
Peyton: I had nodules on my vocal cords early on in my career. Funnily enough, it was at a point in my career when I wasn’t even singing all the time. I had no money but scraped together to pay for a few sessions with a well-known vocal coach. What he taught me was how to speak; I think I was talking in a higher register. I wasn’t aware of the fact that a lot of your vocal health comes from learning how to support your breath when you’re talking. It’s as important, if not more important, because you’re talking more often than you’re singing. These days, I do a lot of yoga and steaming, and I eat well and take care of myself. At the end of the day, your body is your instrument.
iSing: You appeared on The X Factor in 2016. How has that experience impacted you as a performer?
Peyton: It wasn’t a decision I made lightly. Over the years, many people have suggested I go on a show like The X Factor but I was like: “Why? I have this amazing career”. But over time, the trends in dance music changed and I felt disillusioned. It’s not about songs or lyrics any more: it’s about production and beats.
My manager (Barry Amphlett), to his credit, could see that I was growing disillusioned and suggested I start writing – not necessarily dance songs, just songs I loved. I got five songs together but the major labels were very honest and said they couldn’t imagine taking on an artist at my age – I’m 48. I was advised to go on something like The X Factor to build a following. My manager thought I had nothing to lose but I kicked and screamed against the idea. Then I started to wonder if I was allowing fear to dictate my life. What if it was an opportunity that could change things for me?
I faced that fear and I did it. And the reaction from the public was amazing. I was the bookies’ favourite to win and then I went out on this hugely controversial decision (Sharon Osbourne chose to keep Honey G instead). Sharon got the blame but I’m certain the decision came from the top. They didn’t want an artist my age to win. I got it, and I’m fine with it. I got a huge amount of exposure from going on the show, but I didn’t have to sign my soul to the devil. I could carry on finishing the album I wanted to make: a soulful, bluesy, gospel kind of pop album.
iSing: How did your label, Peyton Music, come about?
Peyton: I secured private investment and did it through a label management company. That’s how to do it these days as major labels aren’t signing albums and they’re not developing artists.
The good thing about going with a label management company is that they don’t own the music, but they help you navigate your way through the process. You give them a budget and then they tell you what they can do and how. It wasn’t easy for me to secure private investment. I was raised to never ask for money or borrow it, but I felt so strongly about the project. I asked people who I knew had the resources to help. I feel so blessed that they believed in me.
iSing: Why did you get involved with Bullying UK?
Peyton: I wrote a song When They Go Low, inspired by a Michelle Obama speech. Her words took me back to the fact that I had been bullied in school (for singing) and I had never talked about it. At the time I was embarrassed; I never went to my parents or the teachers to tell them what was happening. We created an amazing animated video for the song and I put it on all my social media platforms. One day, I opened my Facebook and there was a video of these kids at Eureka Primary School in Byron Bay, Australia, singing all the words to the song. I was in tears, it moved me so much.
It made me realise I needed to do something for the world, instead of being a self-absorbed artist. I hooked up with Bullying UK and I made a video where I spoke very openly about my experience. There are more things in the pipeline; we want to do some workshops about empathy and to encourage children to choose kindness.
iSing: What advice would you give an emerging artist?
Peyton: If you love singing, if you have that burning passion, then keep going. So many contestants on The X Factor succumbed to the notion that being on the show was their one and only shot and that, if they didn’t win, they would have to give up their dreams. I sat down with so many of them and explained that artists have been achieving success and building careers without reality television or Simon Cowell for many, many years.
iSing: How do you deal with ageism in this industry?
Peyton: I want to be a poster boy for people who think they have to give up their dreams if they haven’t achieved them by 30: you need to keep going and striving. I’ve made a decent living but I’ve always been trying to evolve and hone my craft. It hasn’t made me rich but I’ve had one hell of a rich life; I’ve travelled the world and made some very good friends. If you really want to be a musician, if it burns passionately in your soul, then it’s worth struggling for. It’s not for the fainthearted; this is the road less travelled for a reason.