TLC’s Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas talks new album, ’90s tour and remembering Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes

Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas just released the first TLC album in 15 years. They’ll perform in Atlanta in September.

The potency of TLC’s career should not be underestimated.

In the ‘90s, the Atlanta-formed trio of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, stormed radio with lightly funky pop anthems stocked with a message and attitude – “Waterfalls,” “No Scrubs,” “Creep,” “Diggin’ on You” and “Unpretty,” among them.

They sold more than 65 million albums worldwide, placing them second to the Spice Girls, became fashion icons and, in the pre-social media age, role models.

Seven months after the tragic death of Lopes in a car accident in Honduras in 2002, TLC released what many assumed would be their last album, “3D.”

It was…until now.

TLC’s new album.

Last week, Thomas, 46, who still lives in Atlanta, and Watkins, 47, a California resident, unveiled their long-awaited final recording, named, simply, “TLC.” Funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $430,000 – including donations from high-wattage fans Katy Perry and Bette Midler – the album re-ignited devotees’ love for the TLC sound with the head-nodding, Snoop Dogg-starring single “Way Back” and the new empowerment singalong, “Haters.”

The dozen tracks on the album spotlight vintage TLC with songs ranging from the self-affirming “Perfect Girls” to the sassy “Aye Mutha*****.”

Watkins and Thomas will take the new tunes on the road as headliners on the “I Love the ’90s – the Party Continues” tour, also starring other hitmakers from the decade including Naughty by Nature, Color Me Badd and Montell Jordan. The two-month run kicks off Friday on the West Coast and will roll through Infinite Energy Arena Sept. 9.

Calling recently from Los Angeles, where she had just arrived a few hours earlier on a red-eye from Atlanta, a candid, effervescent Thomas talked about TLC’s ambition to secure a residency in Las Vegas, their plans for the ’90s tour and how the spirit of Lopes is incorporated on the new album.

Q: How does it feel to be back on the promotion and performing train?

A: It’s really been a lot of fun. I just think that it’s such a blessing to do what we do anyway, but to have been gone for such a long time…This is our first album in 15 years, and you don’t know what the perception is going to be. All we can do is continue to be who we are and do the things that we do best and hope that that still works. We’ve been getting a lot of love from everybody, and people are excited. We’re just happy that people are gravitating toward “Way Back.” The timing is good. People are kind of wanting that, not necessarily the ‘90s sound, but it was great music, the lyrical content was amazing – it was music that fed you and because people have been wanting that, it’s a good time for it.

Q: Was there a feeling of, “this is it” while you were recording?

A: It was something we said from the beginning – let’s just do it one more time. We always wanted to make another record, but with those 360 (recording/touring) deals, we didn’t want to be involved in anything like that. That’s what kept us from the recording side; we always continued to tour. But when our manager told us about Kickstarter and how we could make what we wanted to make and involve our fans…with it being the last album, to have your fans involved the whole way with this last project was something special.

Q: Was there any sadness while working on the album?

A: Not really. It’s not the last of TLC. We’re hoping we can secure a residency in Vegas. I’m telling you, we would put on the best show; it would be perfect. If that happens, that would be another one off the bucket list. The industry has changed so much. Even though we have sold all of these records, you would think you’d get some kind of respect coming back. It’s not like we’re making songs that aren’t current, but it’s an uphill battle and we’re up for the challenge.

Q: What kind of reaction are you seeing at radio?

A: We have been getting support, but the amount of support we’re getting from radio isn’t quite there. Things come back around. At first, right before we came out, there was a slew of girl groups and now there’s hardly at all. There’s us and Fifth Harmony.

Q: How will Lisa be represented on the album?

A: We have a Left Eye “Interlude.” It’s an interview we chose that is the epitome of Lisa – that high energy with that high voice she had, that crazy attitude she had. We had a producer put a nice beat under it. We wanted that to be on there. Sadly, when we were finishing the “3D” album when she passed away, we went through all of the raps she had done and picked the ones that could match what we were saying and the rhythm. Some of her lyrics that she has, we know they’re out there somewhere, but we can’t get to them. When we perform, we always make sure she’s part of the show. She will always be there. She was our sister.

Q: I love the video – and song – for “Haters.” It seems as if there’s so much anger from everywhere these days and we’ve sort of forgotten how to be kind and accepting of each other.

A: Thank you for saying that. I feel the same way. (Album producer) Ron Fair played it for us (the song was written by Bryan Jarett, Daniel Ullmann, Steve Dresser) and when I heard it, I absolutely loved it. I like when a song feels good. It’s a singalong but what you’re saying is great, too. With all of the cyber bullying, it’s out of control and you need to let people know, this is our new normal and you cannot let it affect you like that, otherwise it consumes you, too.

Q: I imagine that’s an even greater concern for you as a parent.

A: I didn’t let Tron (her son with Dallas Austin) have a Twitter account. He has Instagram and Snapchat and I told him trust me, you don’t want to be dealing with this crazy stuff. I’ve had to shut down fake Twitter pages of him. He just turned 20, and I say at those ages, they’re just grown kids. But he’s back and forth to Full Sail University in Florida and then in Atlanta. He’s doing so well. He was a recording arts major, but now he’s doing music production. It’s in his blood with his mom and dad.

Q: As far as the tour, you’re always in amazing shape, but what are you doing to stay ready for the road?

A: It’s a lifestyle for me. If it becomes a lifestyle then you don’t have to get ready. When I work out at home, I make sure to do enough cardio and weights. Weights are a woman’s best friends – you need them to stay high and tight. I will go in a little extra hard when I know a tour is coming up to build up my endurance. My eating is the same. I probably involve more protein, but I lose weight so easily. I increase my good carbs so I can have the stamina.

Q: Will you guys be on a tour bus or flying?

A: A tour bus and I freakin’ love it! It is the best. You get a cool bus and when we have those long trips, 16-18 hours, it’s like an apartment on wheels, you have everything you need right there. Depending on the bus driver, how cool they are, they’ll let me drive it.

Q: I’m guessing you and T-Boz have separate buses?

A: (Laughs). Oh, yes! The last time we were all on the bus together was the first album and that was the end! The secret of the longevity of this group is we know when to be away from each other.

Q: What is the plan for the set list since you now have a new album to promote?

A: It’s going to be a nice mixture for the tour. I do remember that sometimes you see a band and they perform too many new songs. We always try to choose properly and because we’re performers, it’s a trip and you have to get everybody engaged. People are already familiar with a couple of the (new) songs and we have some really good choreography, which will make it fun.

Q: T-Boz has a book (“A Sick Life”) coming out this fall. Have you thought about doing one?

A: I have. Throughout the years I’ve written down chapter titles. The type of book I’ve always wanted to do was parenting and the importance of good parenting. To talk about parenting and how, when a child grows up and the parents aren’t together, it isn’t about you anymore. As long as the kid feels the love of their parent, then they’re fine. I’m absolutely going to look into it. I love kids.

Q: So aside from maybe Vegas, what IS the plan after the ‘90s tour?

A: We’re planning to go overseas in the fall – I’m so excited. I think it will just be us headlining. The only downside is that we’re going in the fall and it’s going to be cold. I hate the winter.


CONCERT PREVIEW

I Love the ‘90s – The Party Continues

With TLC, Naughty by Nature, Color Me Badd, Montell Jordan, and SNAP! 7:30 p.m. Sept. 9. $19.50-$99.50. Infinite Energy Arena, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. 770-626-2464, www.infiniteenergycenter.com.

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