When last we checked on Cleveland singer/songwriter Antoine Dunn, he seemed to be on the verge of having a breakout 2013.
Dunn, who will perform on Sunday at Brothers Lounge in Cleveland, had a record contract with Elite Music Group and a 2012 debut album — Truth of the Matter — that he wrote, recorded and produced. It was filled with smooth R&B/urban Adult Contemporary songs.
Dunn’s singles Can’t Forget and Miss My Love both made the Billboard Top 15 and his delicate, emotional ballad I Am — inspired by losing his mother to breast cancer in 2011 — garnered the Cleveland Heights High School graduate a lot of fans and helped him get tours as an opener for established acts, including Anthony Hamilton, Kem and Estelle.
But the music business is a pool of hungry, greedy sharks and Dunn, 25, found himself in an untenable situation with the label. Now, Dunn has gone independent, starting his own label that will release his upcoming eponymous sophomore album, the bulk of which was recorded in his home studio and in Hudson at DeMarcos Studio with engineering assistance from Freddie DeMarco himself.
On the national tours, Dunn sang to a track. That helped him focus on the art of performing and working a crowd, but the multi-instrumentalist, who has been performing with a band that includes a horn section, said being on stage with live musicians gets him back to doing what he loves the way he loves to do it.
“It’s the ultimate. At this point that’s a big focus of mine, kind of getting back to my roots which is being a musician,” Dunn said shortly after a band rehearsal earlier this week. “I’m a musician first, I’ve always said that. But a lot of times when you have to get out there, you have to do what you have to do to get in front of an audience.
“And sometimes you can’t bring that instrument with you and you got to go and make it happen and get in front of those thousands of people. It’s give and take, man.”
It was also plenty of give and take with his former label, which wanted him to be a smooth R&B/urban AC crooner cranking out nothing but smooth R&B/urban AC songs.
“I was already kind of already out of that. But when the label situation came around, that’s what they were looking for and it was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that, I’ve done that before,’ ” he said.
Not easy to categorize
But the label balked at the prolific songwriter’s newer not-so-easy-to-categorize songs.
“I said well, that’s kind of where I have grown to, and they said ‘Yeah, good for you. We don’t care, we want these types of songs because these are where our resources are. … so, either these type of songs or no songs,’ ” he said.
Dunn said the experience was a real-world master class in the music business, and he sought sage advice from some of his former touring partners, including Kem and Anthony Hamilton, who essentially told him everybody gets screwed by someone in the industry at some point: ‘‘Keep your head, keep moving forward and you’ll be fine.”
Now that he’s gone indie, Dunn has no record company telling him the kind of music he should make to ensure mass marketability and he has the freedom to be the artist he has always wanted to be and not be put in the smooth R&B crooner box his former label was cultivating. The split caused Dunn to take a bit of a step back in his career, but one that he believes will ultimately be more creatively and, ideally, commercially satisfying.
“I’ve been in transition. I had to change directions … so that I could share a stage with a horn section and a full band of guys and background singers, all that stuff. I had to get back to that. It wasn’t an easy decision but it was something that I needed to do and I felt it was time to move on from the label situation,” Dunn said.
“I’ve been putting a lot of focus on writing within the piano and the guitar and things that are just a bit broader,” Dunn said of his more recent songs.
Dunn said he has piles of songs written and many recorded and is currently in the process of figuring out which ones will make the album. But fans who haven’t caught any of Dunn and his band’s recent shows will likely be surprised by some of the new colors in his music.
“I wouldn’t say they are R&B, I would say they are more classic sounding soul, some with a little bit of rock and strong singer/songwriter influences. I’m just trying to make a transition without losing anybody,” he said chuckling.
So far he doesn’t seem to be losing any fans. Back in August Dunn and his band performed new and old songs and afterward he said fans told him they couldn’t settle on a genre for his new music, something he took as a compliment.
“That’s what I’m going for. For the marketing people, they have to put you in some kind of box. But for me, it’s great,” Dunn said.
“I’m on to something because I just love anything of culture whether its music, art, anything with a lot of different flavors, textures, tastes. I think that’s the best place to be,”