He was a teen sensation who made it out with sanity intact. So who better than Usher to become a tutor to the young and famous?
At 32, the R&B star is clearly relishing his role as mentor to young artists such as Justin Bieber, whose elastic voice and girl-wowing ways make for easy comparisons to Usher’s early years. Bieber got his mainstream break at the hands of Usher, who has remained a steady guide and sounding board for the young Canadian singer. The two most recently performed together at the Grammys earlier this year.
The father of two is back on the road supporting his album “Raymond v. Raymond” and its companion set, “Versus,” which have provided a raw window into his personal life, including 2009’s much-publicized divorce from stylist Tameka Foster. Album reviews were mixed, but concert reviews have been strong for Usher, who made his name in the mid-’90s with moves as smooth as his voice and sensual songs that made him one of the era’s leading musical heartthrobs.
“I only focus on the positive,” he says. “The negative is only a deterrent from my purpose. My purpose is to make sure people understand that what I’m offering is pure and from my own experiences.”
His return to the touring life has put him in a philosophical mood, happy to impart some hard-earned wisdom to the world.
Question: You’ve been all over the place lately, and you seem pretty happy being back in this sort of groove, back where the action is nonstop.
Usher: Absolutely. It’s the kind of lifestyle that one could grow accustomed to. (Laughs) As a youth, traveling the world, I never really got a chance to enjoy it —I was always moving in circles. I looked at it like: I need to make sure I build relationships, make sure people understood why I’m here, why I’m doing what I’m doing. I was acquiring the success, but not really enjoying it.
This time, I’m actually able to sit back and just enjoy it. It’s the first time I’ve been able to just sit in a room, do my interviews, prepare for my show, do my show, go do an afterparty, get on a bus, go to the next state, then chill out a little bit. And it makes it even better when you have children, because I have that time when I’m just in their rooms, relaxing, just being with my kids.
So I couldn’t ask for a better situation, a better setup. Or really, even just to be fortunate enough to do this again, you know. I’ve been around these parts a few times. I’ve been doing this for 18 years, so I’ve learned how to utilize these moments to the best of my ability, because there was a time when I didn’t.
Q: Has working with Justin Bieber helped you put all that in perspective? It seems like a chance to revisit a pretty familiar place.
Usher: Oh yeah. Having gone through a lot of the things that Justin has experienced — and will — I’m able to speak from firsthand experience. And for those things that I don’t understand, I just try to be supportive and understand that patience and time tell the story. You have to allow yourself to relax and just allow it to be what it’s going to be, and to collect all your experiences as good ones. That’s what I teach Justin. If I had done it any differently I wouldn’t be where I am. So hopefully it will help take him where he needs to go. And thus far, man, it’s been proven to be that — onward and upward.
Q: When you look back on that part of your career — that initial rise to fame — does it just seem now like this big, crazy blur?
Usher: Not a blur, but more of a vivid reality based off a hope and a dream. I always had an idea of what I wanted to do. I didn’t know how big it could be. But as long as I had people who were invested in that same dream, then I knew it would become a reality in time.
To be honest, it really is about taking that first step, that leap of faith that says I can do this, I can be somebody. I’ve been given the talent and I hope I’m using it in the right way. There’s so many talented people out there who get lost, or maybe they get blocked, because of their own fears. And that fear is that first step of getting out there to do it. Do it! Go for it! Maybe there’s no reward in the beginning. The reward hopefully will come later, as long as you are willing to take that step and be a part of the process. I’ve got a mantra that I pass along to all the people I mentor: The journey is the destination. It’s being busy, being active, being open and aware of the moment.