Songwriter-singer India.Arie

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The multiple Grammy winner explains why the CD, “SongVersation,” is her first in four years.

India.Arie writes, produces and sings, using her voice as an interpretive tool. She received critical acclaim for her multi-platinum 2001 debut CD, "Acoustic Soul," and has earned 21 Grammy nods, winning four times, and sold some 10 million albums. She's also collaborated with the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Stevie Wonder and Sérgio Mendes. The Denver-born artist relocated to Atlanta as a teen and played several instruments before focusing on acoustic guitar. After co-founding an artists' collective, she sealed a Motown deal and now has her own SoulBird imprint, on which she recently released her fifth  studio album—and first in four years—"SongVersation."


Tavis: With her eclectic mix of musical styles that combine R&B, soul, jazz, folk, and even hip-hop, India.Arie has always defied easy classification. After a four -year gap she’s just released her latest CD. It’s called “SongVersation,” love that title. Let’s take a look at India singing a cut from the new CD, called “Cocoa Butter.”


Tavis: (Laughter) – y’all missed that.

India.Arie: Oh, I’m terrible.

Tavis: When the brother started walking at the end, India said, “Hey.”

Arie: “Hey.” (Laughter) Oh.

Tavis: And I was saying, “Hey,” when I saw you at the beginning of the video.

Arie: Thank you.

Tavis: All right. You’re welcome. We were talking while the clip was playing about whether or not it seemed like four years to you, because to your fans, myself included, it felt like four years. Did it feel like four years to you?

Arie: Yeah.

Tavis: That’s a long time.

Arie: Yeah.

Tavis: Why you do that to us?

Arie: (Laughter) I needed to get myself together. I needed time to just – what’s the word? There’s so many – I have like all these words just popped up. I needed time to allow the transformation that was happening to just happen and just be in private.

I needed time to get my health together. I needed time to get my emotional health together. I needed time to catch up with myself, because I’ve been doing this all my adult life, and I didn’t feel right about the way things were.

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: Just, I guess that’s kind of general.

Tavis: To your point about not feeling right about the way things were, how does an artist avoid – this is my word, not yours – avoid that kind of burnout?

Arie: I don’t know. My hope is that I’ve figured it out, and for me now where I’m at, I make decisions based on what I want to do. Everything. Because there are always – artists need people around them to help them just get there. You need your security, you need your people. Your band –

Tavis: Your mother.

Arie: Your mother. You need your mother. But you need your people. You can’t play all the instruments by yourself, and you can’t run all your business. You can’t do your own publicity, you can’t be your own manager, so you need your people, and everyone is always having an opinion, because that’s what human beings do.

That’s what we do. We all have our feelings about things. But when you’re the person that it’s all focused on, you get lost with yourself, so now I just make my own decisions. I hear people’s opinions, and in the end they know that the decision is mine.

I don’t have to go back and forth about stuff, because it was like that. I’ve been doing this all my adult life, like I said, so it’s been – I kind of grew into womanhood with all of these voices and it just got – I started to see that my life was kind of off-path because I was listening to other people.

Every decision you make puts you in this moment right now, so I was in somebody else’s moment, and it just felt 10 years from now, where am I going to be? Is it going to be my choice?

But I didn’t answer your question. I don’t know. I hope that I got it right. I’m just coming back, so things feel good. I’ve been doing a lot of work and I don’t feel tired or burned out, so it’s working so far.

Tavis: I love the title, as I said earlier, “SongVersation.”

Arie: “SongVersation.”

Tavis: Yeah. How’d that come to be?

Arie: Well technically I thought about it for a really long time. It was like months and months. I was like, there’s something. I wasn’t trying to find an album title; I was trying to find a way to, a moniker for my performance style.

Tavis: Got it.

Arie: Because I always have a lot to say, and then I want to sing and I want to share. I want a fellowship with people. So early in my career I always felt like I had to get it out fast and then sing, because this is what they came to see.

I felt like if I created – if you build it, they will come? I felt like if I did that, then people could decide if they want to come and see me speak and sing. So that’s “SongVersation.”

I thought about it for a long time, because in this part of the four years, this whole four years for me was about figuring out how to do this in a way that I love and that feels good to me, because it wasn’t feeling good.

I loved singing, but everything else was just so much of a challenge I was exhausted all the time. So in that regard of looking for ways to be more me inside of my career, then I wanted “SongVersation.”

I’ve been doing songversation performances for two years, and then I decided to name my album “SongVersation.” But I want to tell you this too. I was thinking about it for months, and I was literally standing in my kitchen, because I had been traveling to all these countries by myself, just being in the world.

I was standing in my kitchen at home, and I felt it come out of my stomach. It was almost like (gasps) “SongVersation.” It was like that. So it sounded weird at first, but I feel like now it makes perfect sense.

Then I named my album “SongVersation.” I had another album that I was working on for three years called “Open Door,” which I ended up having to shelve for business reasons, and so I decided to name this one “SongVersation,” because it really encompasses my whole journey, my performance style, and also there’s a songversation happening on the album with the music itself.

I went to Turkey and got all these Middle Eastern strings and percussion, and –

Tavis: I heard that, yeah. Sounds good, sounds good.

Arie: You heard that song? All that stuff you hear is real. Real strings, real people.

Tavis: Did you enjoy Turkey? I loved – Istanbul, I could –

Arie: Istanbul.

Tavis: I could live there, yeah.

Arie: Me too. I say that all the time.

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: I met Turkey’s biggest star walking in the Village in New York. We were just going in and out of the same stores and we started talking, and this beautiful coincidence.

She was talking to me. She said, “You should come to Turkey,” and I was like, I was just talking to her, but I knew she was diva because she had this crazy ring on. I love jewelry. These earrings, they were aquamarine. It was crazy.

She was saying how inspirational it was for art, and she said it’s – I had never even really thought about Istanbul – water and food and culture, all the arts, all the culture.

Tavis: All that.

Arie: I was like, oh, I said, “Are you a musician?” I kind of could tell. She said, “Yes, my name is Sezen Aksu.” Okay. That means nothing to me, I just knew this lady was amazing and she looked gorgeous with her ring.

We started talking about music. I said, “I’m a singer-songwriter too,” and she said, “Do you love Gladys Knight?” and I said, “Mm-hmm.” It turns out she has a voice very similar to Gladys Knight, that depth and the air and the stuff.

I said, “My idol is Stevie Wonder, though,” and she said, “Oh, he has a new song out,” her accent, “He has this new song out (humming),” and she starts singing the song that I wrote with Stevie Wonder, “A Time to Love.”

Tavis: Absolutely. (Laughter)

Arie: She started crying and I started crying and she called her son. He was in school in Paris. “You have to come to Istanbul.” So the next day she came to my show and brought me her box set, and it was just (makes noise). It was like 20 CDs, and it turned out she’s Turkey’s biggest star. Sold 70 million CDs in 30 years.

Tavis: You’re like, “Who knew,” huh?

Arie: Who knew?

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: Then I listened to it. I was like – her voice, it was really like, God, just – because I wanted to make music that encompassed all the things that I love about the world, the rest of the world. I’m African American but that’s not all I am, you know what I mean? I’m a traveler, I’m a musician, I’m an artist.

So in the music industry it’s just you’re either you’re Black or you’re white, and this is the box you get put in. She opened up this whole world for me, and (unintelligible) crashed and I decided to do “SongVersation,” I called her.

It makes me want to cry, thinking about it. I called her and asked her if she would help me with “SongVersation,” and she said, “Anything my India is doing, I’m in.”

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: So it was my second time going to see her, and we just got all this stuff in five days. She was in and out of the studio, we were just eating food and learning how to play Turkish flutes, and she was hugging me all the time, giving me clothes, and she made everything –

Tavis: But I see she didn’t give you that ring.

Arie: She gave me another ring. (Laughter) She gave me a few pieces of jewelry.

Tavis: What you really wanted was that ring (unintelligible).

Arie: I just want – she’s trying to be kind of like my mom.

Tavis: Yeah.

Arie: I was taking these flute lessons, and the guy, (laughter) there was a guy who was in her band, and he would go, “Okay, I’m going to show you how to play this,” (makes noise). Because you know I like to play the flute. Did you know that?

Tavis: I did know that.

Arie: So he would (makes noise) and he would hand it to me. She would take it out of his hand and go, “No, I’m her mom.” She would wash it off and give it.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Arie: Every time. (Laughter) I just love her.

Tavis: Okay. Grab your stick there. The new project from India.Arie, after four years, again – I close where I began. I can’t believe she made us wait this long. (Laughter) But it’s a great project. It’s called “SongVersation.” It is more than worth the wait, I can guarantee you.

Arie: Thank you.

Tavis: Great cover, great stuff on the project.

Arie: Thank you.

Tavis: We’ve been waiting for it and here it is. I’m going to say my closing goodbyes, as I do every night, and I’m going to let India play us out. What you going to play us out with?

Arie: A song inspired by Cicely Tyson.

Tavis: Okay. (Unintelligible)

Arie: It’s called “Break the Shell.”

Tavis: Absolutely. “Break the Shell.”

Arie: “Break the Shell.”

Tavis: “Break the Shell,” a song inspired by Cicely Tyson, who just won her Tony award at 88 years of age.

Arie: Yes. Woo, woo, woo, woo.

Tavis: Go, Cicely Tyson, we love to. “Trip to Bountiful,” and I’m going to see it when I get to New York in a couple of weeks.

Arie: Are you? I need to go see it.

Tavis: So India’s going to play us out with that. That’s our show for tonight. Good night from Los Angeles. As always, keep the faith.

[Live musical performance]


Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: December 5, 2013 at 12:09 am