IF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE‘S STUART Smalley—the hyper-earnest 12-step addict who struggles to look on the bright side—had to pick a favorite performer, the winner would have to be Des’ree, the reigning queen of New Age cheer. Having completed her first U.S. tour as a headliner March 29, the 26-year-old Londoner played to packed houses in 17 cities with her distinctive brand of musical positive thinking.
Her upbeat album I Ain’t Movin‘, released last July, has gone gold, and her Top 5 hit “You Gotta Be” (“You gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together”) is a mantra for the self-help set (its accompanying video has been on VH1 longer than any clip ever). Says VH1 exec Wayne Isaak: ” ‘You Gotta Be’ is almost like somebody giving a pep talk. And there aren’t a lot of pep-talk songs out there.”
For her part, Des’ree (born Desiree Weekes) is more interested in self-realization than in success. “I’m doing what I feel I’m supposed to do,” she says. “I provoke people spiritually with music that has an inspiring message.”
A vegetarian who embraces, yes, astrology and alternative medicine, Des’ree (pronounced Des-REE) spends time between tours in London, where she shares a home with her mother, Annette Norma, who helps manage her career, and her sister Esther, 24, a motivational speaker. Their lives, she says, are guided by the teachings of Shakti Gawain, author of Creative Visualization, a self-help guide to attaining goals. Lent to Des’ree by a friend, the manifesto, she says, has helped make her dreams come true. Take her March appearance on British TV with idol Stevie Wonder. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m going to meet him,’ ” she says. “I kept seeing us together, and next thing I knew, I’m there and so is Stevie.”
Des’ree’s creative powers early on were equally spontaneous. As a child she wrote poetry and sang, and encouraged by her father, Samuel (a retired insurance company director who now lives in Canada), and her mother, she began playing the piano at 3 and later took up the viola. A fascination with jazz segued into an interest in Bob Marley after the family moved to Samuel’s native Barbados in 1980 “to give us a sense of our roots,” she says.
Back in England after her parents’ divorce, Des’ree began turning her poems into songs. At 16, she took a tape to a major record company “just to see if it was any good.” Before she got home, someone from the label had already called to set up a meeting. Des’ree concluded that “the time wasn’t right,” but six years later, while working at a health-food store, she decided it was. “I woke up one morning and said [to her then boyfriend-manager], ‘You have to take this tape to Sony Music,’ ” she recalls. He did, and three days later Sony called to offer a deal. Twelve weeks later her first single, “Feel So High,” hit the charts in England. Her debut album, Mind Adventures, was released the following year.
The critical response to Des’ree has been as positive as the singer herself. Last March the Philadelphia Inquirer pronounced her “Sade for the ’90s—without the Billie Holiday complex.” Colleagues have been similarly enthusiastic. She has toured with Simply Red and Seal, and Spike Lee asked her to write a song for his next movie. Says Terence Trent D’Arby, who recorded a duet with Des’ree for his 1993 album, Symphony or Damn: “She is a perfectionist and very concerned about getting it absolutely right.”
Not that Des’ree doesn’t have a whimsical side: Along with brussels sprouts, she loves blue nail polish, platform sandals and spur-of-the-moment trips to places such as Paris to see her boyfriend (a lawyer she declines to identify). “People think I’m an intense, serious person,” she says. “I am serious about what I do, but at the end of the day, I have a good time.”
Like most optimists, Des’ree can’t wait for what’s next. At work on a third album, she hopes to publish a book of her poetry and is savoring her soaring career. Already her work has taken her from Australia to Ethiopia (where a video for her song “Little Child,” about starvation in Africa, was shot last August). “I’m a restless person—I need stimulation,” she explains. “And now my world is the universe.”
JENIFER MENDELSOHN in Washington