Tiarra Mukherjee
June 28, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Seven months pregnant and Joi is still working overtime. Specifically, the 25-year-old soul sister is pulling studio all-nighters recording tracks for this summer’s Fled soundtrack and preparing for the first leg of her Stateside tour with funk-noise band Fishbone. You might call her crazy, and it wouldn’t be the first time she’s heard it. In fact, while growing up all gangly in Nashville, Joi (sounds like the emotion) Gilliam was dubbed worse. ”I had a big head, and kids would call me Tweety bird, and say I looked like a golf ball [sitting on] a tee,” drawls the diva. ”That’s when I started not to be concerned with what people say.”

People are still talking and gawking. But it was Atlanta-based superproducer Dallas Austin who got a jump on the competition and signed her in 1991. Soon after, he introduced Joi to one of his former clients, Madonna. ”Even with the power Madonna has to fill a room with her ego and attitude,” remembers Austin, ”when Joi walked in, all of a sudden that attitude and ego space just had to be shared, ain’t no way about it.” That other mom-to-be was impressed enough to introduce Joi to her pal, photographer Steven Meisel, who instantly cast her in a 1994 cK one perfume ad.

These days, you’ll find Joi shaking her pregnant self in a black bra and panties for D’Angelo’s ”Lady” remix video. It’s an audacious turn but that’s nothing new, either. The fiery, funky soul of her critically acclaimed 1994 debut, The Pendulum Vibe, was snubbed by R&B radio and fans expecting Austin’s signature hip-hop pop — the stuff of hit makers TLC and ABC. But Joi kept her bleached-blond head above it all. ”The people who got it, got it, and they became my fans and that’s cool,” says the singer-songwriter, who won’t go the commercial route with her next set either. The Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, due this August, blends the grit of Fishbone’s grinding guitar with Joi’s eclectic, clangy funk and hypnotic soul. ”I know how to make a hit,” says Austin, who has done just that for Boyz II Men and Monica. ”Joi knows it too, but she’d rather hold on to substance than make music just to sell records.”

Joi admits she’d love to reach a larger audience — and, yes, the money would be nice too (especially having just bought her first house with fiance Gip, a rapper with the Goodie Mob and the father of her soon-to-be-born child). But she also embraces her underground status: ”What’s underground is usually what’s hip, and I like being considered one of the hip ones. I think that’s kinda cute.”

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