India.arie: Love Matters More Than Anything

We know how the music world suffers when plastic-wrapped, uberperformers pushing skin-thin notions of beauty and manufactured pop messages on love become the norm. Fortunately, redemption comes by way of the artist whose relentless talent and undefiled individuality naturally buck all the formulae: Their lyrics offer more because they’ve delved deeper with soul and pen. Their songs sing truer because they’ve searched for a higher voice. They defy the most common of trends because their style is purely their own.

And the world does take notice, as it did when Indie.Arie began stepping out last year. Her 2001 Motown debut, Acoustic Soul, excited audiences and critics alike, garnering eight Grammy nominations, including Song and Album of the Year. Remarkable, if you consider she was also a nominee in the New Artist category, but unremarkable if you’ve taken the time to listen to her music. From song to image, India.Arie is a musician of true talent, an artist of definitive beauty and a woman of substance. RELEVANTmagazine.com’s conversation with her went a long way to confirm such claims.

[RELEVANTmagazine.com] When people describe the younger crop of soul singers yourself, D’Angelo your labelmate Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, they often tack on this “neo-soul” label. What are your thoughts on the term “neo-soul?”

[INDIA.ARIE] I think that term is kind of silly. I think it’s not accurate … When someone is themselves through their music, it’s soul music. James Taylor is soul music to me, ’cause it’s just him talking about him. It doesn’t have anything to do with black or growing up in the church, it’s where it comes from. It’s just soul music. It’s the sincerity. It’s someone talking about their experiences. Like Jill Scott, she has a song called ‘Lyzell in E flat’, that’s her husband’s name so she’s talking about her husband, she’s talking about herself. That’s soul music. Neo-soul is to me like that one Tone Toni Tony album that sounded like Al Green — that’s neo-soul. But Jill Scott is soul music. I think there’s a difference. And I consider myself soul music.

[RM] There are definite spiritual tones to your lyrics, what’s your belief in the Divine?

[I.A.] Well … any specific religious practices I study or believe in, I just keep that to myself. But I’m learning — well I think we’re all figuring that out, and that’s that love matters more than anything. And that’s the basis — honesty of thought and love is the basis of any spiritual person, and then to help children. Those are the common threads. Even more than a spiritual tone, I think what people pick up is my morals, like you always remember where you come from, that’s why I have the interludes. And you don’t cuss around adults or children, that’s why I speak the way I do. And words have power, that’s why I say ‘strength, courage and wisdom’ instead of ‘I’m down but I’m gonna get up.’ It’s just morals. I just believe in truth. If it resonates with me then it resonates.

[RM] Romantic love is at the center of many of your songs. Is there a love interest these days?

[I.A] Well … kind of. But you know when you’re our age there’s always kind of somebody, ’cause were all learning lessons about love.

[RM] Do you write with specific people in mind or just the familiarity with those lessons?

[I.A] I write about my experiences, so a lot of times I do write about people. But if you notice on my album, there’s no song saying I found him. That song has yet to be written.

[RM] Is it safe to say Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder are your biggest musical influences?

[I.A] Well, my mom, my whole family, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, of course, and James Taylor and Oleta Adams.

[RM] Talk a bit more about your admiration for Stevie Wonder and how it came out in the song Stevie Wonderful?

[I.A] I’m like the Encyclopedia of Stevie Wonder, like a lot of us. I just wanted to write a song for him and I woke up one day and I prayed, ‘Show me how to write this song.’ And it started that way, with the different song titles and stuff. It started coming up. I was just talking about the power of words and sound. That’s the first music I heard where it was like, ‘He’s powerful with that music. That music — it’s so powerful, but how did he do that?’ He talks about spiritual issues without it being gospel music. And he talks about life issues — a whole different variety of subjects. Everything is not about love, but it’s about his daughter, and the American flag and the water. And that is why I love him so much. Because he used the power of words and sound the right way. He did it. He influenced a whole generation, and then the next one is going to be influenced by him too because of these people that are influenced by him, and it’s gonna keep going. He’s an angel. I love Stevie’s music. I love his music.

[RM] If your songs could only reach an audience of one, is there an identity to that audience speaking in terms of race, gender, ethnicity or do you feel your music trancends all of that?

[I.A] I always pray when I write songs that my spirit guides or whoever is with me, inspiring me would let me speak the truth. ‘Cause like my grandma used to say, ‘The truth ain’t good or bad it just is the truth.’ I don’t think that truth is gender or race specific. I think it just is the truth.

[RM] The song “Video” takes aim at some imposed conventions of beauty, what keeps others from doing the same?

[I.A] I don’t know. I can only say that for me, I couldn’t fit into that other mold if I try. My voice is different. I’m built different. I look different. I think different. I just couldn’t do that even if I wanted to. My only option is to be myself. I think sometimes people just are who they are and think the way they think. A lot of times people don’t realize that success is living well, and they allow themselves to be told what to do. ‘Cause it’s really your choice. You always have the choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ But people forget that sometimes, thinking, ‘Well if I want to be successful, whatever that means, that I have to dress this way, talk this way, and wear this short skirt and this, that and whatever. ‘But if you are comfortable in your clothes and are still doing your music, that’s success to me. When someone looks right then it’s right, whether they have long weave down to their butt or a baldhead. If it’s what they want to do then it’s the right way. I don’t know why people don’t do the things they want to do, I do, everybody does a little bit of that. But as a whole I’ve always been someone who does what they want to do — my whole life.

[RM] How do you maintain your strength of character as you’re increasingly in the limelight?

[I.A] I know that I pray a lot, and I take time for myself. I could do as many or as few interviews as I want, if I took the viewpoint that success was the more albums I sell, the more successful I am. If I took that viewpoint I would be doing 800 interviews a week. But I don’t believe that. Like I said, I feel like success is living well. If I don’t have my health mentally or physically, then I’m not successful, it doesn’t matter how much money I have. So I keep that thought. And I take time for myself, when I’m tired I go home. When I’m on stage I do everything I can do to make it the best show it can be. But then when I’m tired I go home … and I pray. And I keep my friends and my family close to me. My mom travels with me. Both my backup singers are my very best friends in the whole world. One of them I’ve been friends with since I was 15 the other I met when I was 17. We’ve been friends all this time before I even played music we’ve been friends. I just follow my intuition on people and on situations. If I don’t feel I should be here I leave, or I’m just going to keep my distance from him because I don’t feel good about him. You know? I just be human about it. I got caught up a little bit in letting people tell me what to do and all that, that was before my album came out I learned that lesson real quick. And then I just decided that I was going to do what was right and what was going to maintain my health and let the chips fall where they may. ‘Cause when I look at Patti Labelle and Diana Ross. Diana Ross was huge, and she got all her props, and she was in movies and all that. It took Patti Labelle a long time to gain the recognition she deserved, but her life she lives well. And people love her because she treats people right. People love Patti Labelle. I remember when I met her she made me cry. She’s just so kind and openhearted. People don’t say that about Diana Ross. So when I look it at that way, I know who I want to be. I’ve thought a lot about that, I know how I wanna be. And I know how I wanna be perceived. And I know that I’m going to make music no matter what, so if I sell a hundred albums, if I sell a hundred thousand, if I sell a hundred million-it’ll be successful, because I’m doing what I want to do and I’ll always have my health and I’ll be surrounded by love.

[RM] It’s clear you find a release in writing songs. Describe the maturing of your soul and the role music has played.

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[I.A] Music was such a big part of my life from like the age of 0. Because my mom and all my family sings, they all play instruments, they all dance. Everybody’s an artist in my family — I’m talking about my mom’s family. She has 10 brothers and sisters. So I had a lot of that literally in my blood. My grandfather plays piano, my great grandfather plays blues guitar. As I grew up I was always playing music, it’s all I ever did. I had the natural inclination, combined with musical training. So taking that and putting it together, when I turned 20 I got a guitar and it became this immediate, ‘I found it. I found why I did this for the past 20 years.’ ‘Cause it was an adult expression of my music and it was literally a way for me to get my thoughts out of my head and combine my love for writing, and music and singing all in one. Those were all my favorite things and I put it all together. And then I was really honest with myself because I wasn’t writing songs for people to hear, I was writing because I wanted to write a song. I was really honest, and it would surprise me at some of the things I thought. Like how they say, ‘You have secrets you don’t even want to tell yourself.’ All that stuff would come out when I was writing songs, so it not only changed my life because I made a way to make a living and travel and to get my opportunity to speak my opinion, but it also changed my life in that it helped me to say what I wanted to say and it changed my life because it boosted my self esteem, because I found something that I was really good at. And then it brought other people into my life who I love and respect as musicians, and those ended up being my best friends. When I started playing music it changed my whole life.

[RM] Do you personally believe music has a responsibility to uplift, inspire or challenge?

[I.A] Well I never really like to say what I think other people should do. ‘Cause there’s a place for everything. Party music is cool. I don’t agree with everything people say in songs, I’m not saying that. But I don’t feel like I could tell anybody what to do. So I don’t know if I could say music has the responsibility, but I know that it has the power to. And I know that when a person uses it consciously, it’s a great thing. And for me I feel like I have a responsibility to do that with my music. Because I wouldn’t do it any other way. I was raised a certain way. I was raised a moral woman.

[RM] Do you take on added responsibilities as a female artist?

[I.A] It’s funny because it wasn’t until several months after my album was completed, that I looked at it and said, ‘this album is really about women.’ I didn’t know. I was doing interviews and people would pick out songs more than just “Video,” but all the songs and they’d say, ‘It’s so geared towards women.’ I had no idea. I mean, I’m a woman, so of course I’m going to write from a woman’s point of view. Now that I see women are gravitating towards my music and I see I’m being a strong female voice I want to find more ways to use that. Even “Video” I didn’t write it like saying, ‘C’mon sistas let’s get together and love ourselves.’ I was talking about me and the stuff I’ve been through on a personal level, period. I wasn’t thinking about anybody else. I was talking about me. And then it showed me we all go through the same things. I didn’t know. I thought I was the weirdest person in the whole world, I really did. I thought I was so different from everybody, but I’m really more alike. We’re all more alike than we are different. I’ve heard people say that before but now I know what that means.

[RM] Define beauty.

[I.A] Beauty is knowing yourself, accepting your faults and accentuating your good parts. Like I said before, if you have weave down to your butt, but if it’s you and you’re doing what you wanna do then it’s beautiful.

[RM] Last question. Define love.

[I.A] I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. The latest conclusion that I’ve drawn is that it’s a feeling that comes from the heart. I don’t think there are varying degrees — well I don’t know, I’m trying to figure that one out — I don’t think there are varying degrees. I think love is love. So when you say you love your sister, or you say you love your friend or you say you love music, it’s just love and it’s that feeling that comes from your heart, like the actual heart’s center. Have you ever just loved someone so much you feel something right there and it softens, like, ‘Ahh.’ I feel this softness right in the chest and in the stomach and your neck — I don’t know, it’s a feeling. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know how to define love. I know that for me the way that I experience it is that it’s a feeling that comes from the heart. It’s not romance, it’s different. It’s like complete acceptance. It’s funny, someone told me that in Japanese you don’t use the word love for anything other than another person. You don’t say I love Stevie Wonder’s music. There’s no way to say that in Japanese. It’s like ‘I love you,’ and that’s the only way you can say it. I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

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