Grammy-Winning Artist India.Arie Talks About Her Album SongVersation, And Writing Her Songs

India.Arie 2013

For India.Arie, the title of her upcoming fifth album, SongVersation (on Soulbird/Motown Records), is more than just clever hybrid wordplay. Another groundbreaking concept in a decade plus career full of many, it’s an unique performance style the four-time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter has developed, where she enjoys a ‘talkback’ session with the audience and she shares personal stories with them as much as she sings. A true comeback after a career and stress-related physical, mental and emotional breakdown, Arie, who is performing for the first time at the renowned Playboy Jazz Festival prior to the June 25th release of SongVersation, calls the making of the collection ‘one of the most important experiences of my career.’ She released its sultry lead single ‘Cocoa Butter’ to radio and retail last month.

Since the release of her first album Acoustic Soul in 2001, Arie has received 21 Grammy nominations (starting with a Best New Artist nod and multiple nominations for her breakout single ‘Video’), and other accolades from the NAACP, BET, Billboard, MTV, and VH1. In 2009, she received the DC Branch NAACP Centennial Award and was featured in the acclaimed documentary Leading Women. In September 2010, she was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.

In addition to performing with legendary artists like Stevie Wonder, Sting, Elton John, Adele, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Bette Midler and Michael McDonald, she has sung on the Kennedy Center Honors, the NAACP Awards and the Grammy Awards. She has performed for President Obama, Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama and at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Arie also formed SoulBird, a new media & lifestyle company with the mission to spread love, healing, peace and joy through the power of words and music.

Testament to her enduring success over the past decade, Arie’s last studio album, 2009’s Testimony Vol. 2; Love & Politics, hit # 1 on Billboard R&B Chart and #3 on the Billboard Top 200 Chart. She then experienced a series of difficult health-related issues stemming from the cumulative stress of building, supporting and maintaining her whirlwind career nonstop for over 10 years. Getting through this trying period makes the creation of SongVersation a personal triumph because there was a point where she thought she might never record another album. Another interesting aspect of the back story of the new album is the fact that she had completed a whole different follow up to Testimony Vol. 2 called Open Door that she ultimately scrapped for personal and business reasons.

‘There was a lot of angst about tearing my old life apart on that original album, and after I decided to shelve it I gave myself six months to complete the new project that became SongVersation,’ says Arie. ‘The emotions are live and in the moment and show a lot of growth. These songs aren’t telling the story of 2009 and the aftermath but about where I am today. It is a picture of a person who is not afraid to speak her mind. In the past, I would be afraid to say certain things and worried about what others might say about what I chose to sing about. In the past, for example, I could not have been so open with my opinions about spirituality and religion. Some songs are about love, but I’m always about the deeper spiritual philosophy and presence. SongVersation is very truthful, a good picture of where my life is today. I’m taking more responsibility for myself, and navigating the big picture on my terms, rather than allowing myself to be pushed around.

India. Arie 2013
India. Arie

‘Every time I make an album,’ she adds, ‘it’s an important and tumultuous and nuanced and complex and dynamic process of going into the woods and coming out with the Holy Grail ‘the Holy Grail being the internal growth that becomes fertile ground for new songs. This album was a process of many journeys all happening at once, culminating in not just a fertile ground, but a fertile ground on a different land. When I was younger, before I made all these important changes in my life, I would not have had enough faith to work on an album for three years, then pick right up to record another. The experience would have torn me apart like heartbreak and I would probably have been hurting and paralyzed from the pain. This time, I was able to go into prayer and ask what I was supposed to do. I felt a private celebration just communing with the Spirit, doing what felt right and seeing it turn out so well.’

Recorded in Atlanta and Los Angeles, SongVersation was produced by Arie and longtime collaborator, Grammy winning songwriter Shannon Sanders (John Legend, Anthony David, Jonny Lang), with additional production from singer-songwriter/guitarist David Ryan Harris (John Mayer, Alicia Keys, Guy Sebastian) and songwriter Michael Ruff. Sanders has been a producer and songwriting collaborator since Arie’s Voyage to India (2002) and Ruff also contributed as a keyboardist, producer and songwriter to Testimony Vol. 2. ‘I had never worked with David Harris before but always wanted to because he’s the best at what he does,’ Arie says. ‘When I see him play, I think, Who does this better than he does? The songs he and I did together, ‘One,’ ‘Break The Shell’ and ‘Life I Know’ are the emotional centerpiece of the album.’

Having been through so many successes and stresses, extreme highs and depressing lows over the years, Arie believes she’s finally come to understand the keys to becoming a great artist’and she’s not shy about offering her wisdom to up and comers who ask. ‘It’s twofold,’ she says. ‘First it’s about being technically trained and achieving a level of musical mastery where you don’t have to think about it. And second, what I consider the most important thing is having a clear point of view and being sure of what you want to say and how you want to say it. That can be about musical detail, say just playing the bottom four strings of your acoustic guitar, or doing all your vocals falsetto. Or it can be all that as well as begin clear about how you want to look and sound overall as you walk towards your intention.

‘Those who want to be successful in this business should also know that the industry will see you as a commodity as well as a creative force, and being a product is part of what you sign up for,’ Arie adds. ‘A lot of it is like chasing a carrot on a stick, like you almost won this many Grammys, so let’s aim for this or that next time. And if you barely miss, that might upset some people. But I finally woke up one day and realized that all that was someone else’s definition of success. Certainly I want to have commercial viability, but the whole idea behind this SongVersation is the real reason I am making music: the fellowship from the stage and sharing my songs and myself with the audience. My personal definition of success is reaching that intention. I may not always be the biggest star, but in being able to touch more people, I am doing what I was put here to do. I’m so thrilled to be back and still love making music so much.’

Jonathan Widran is a free-lance music/entertainment journalist who contributes regularly to Music Connection, Jazziz and All Music Guide. He can be reached at [email protected].