Singer-songwriter Mary J. Blige

The nine-time Grammy-winning superstar explains why her CD, “The London Sessions,” marks a change in the direction of her music.

Dubbed the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," Mary J. Blige has mixed urban style with soul in a hit-filled career. She sang in her church choir at age 7 and, later, took solace in music during rough times in the Yonkers, NY projects. She cut her first demo in a mall and released her debut album, "What's the 411"—a play on the directory assistance operator job she previously held—to critical acclaim. She went on to amass sales of more than 50 million albums, eight of which were multiplatinum titles, and nine Grammys (in R&B, rap, pop and gospel). Blige has also had acting roles on TV and in films. Her latest release, “The London Sessions,” is her 13th studio album, named for the city where it was recorded.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with nine-time Grammy winner, Mary J. Blige, about her new CD titled “The London Sessions.” The album features some of the U.K.’s best young talent, including Sam Smith, Disclosure and Emeli Sandé. Billboard calls “The London Sessions” superb.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Mary J. coming up right now.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: Mary J. Blige has nine Grammy awards and 31 nominations. She spent part of her summer this summer in London recording her latest CD. It is called, appropriately enough, “The London Sessions.” Before we start our conversation, let’s take a look at the making of “The London Sessions.”

[Clip]

Tavis: The people love you in London and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

Mary J. Blige: I love London. I mean, it’s one of my favorite places, has always been.

Tavis: Why one of your favorite places?

Blige: Well, because, I mean, they embrace the artists. They love the artists. They love the music and they love soul music. And it’s just a beautiful place. I love it. It’s just so much freedom there and good food, so you can get some good food. And it’s just a beautiful place. It’s really beautiful over there.

Tavis: When you say freedom, Mary, you mean freedom artistically?

Blige: Freedom artistically.

Tavis: Tell me more, tell me more.

Blige: Well, exactly what I said to you just now. They appreciate what we throw away, soul music. You know, seems like we been getting away from it here and, you know, letting all the other stuff in when, there, the younger generations, not just the older people, are just gravitating toward soul music.

As you can see, Sam Smith and Amy Winehouse and Adele, you know, they have obviously been inspired by soul music and they’ve always been like that. They’ve always loved soul music over there.

That’s why I felt so much freedom as an artist because, here, I was starting to feel like, okay, well, if I can’t be me, Mary J. Blige, who is, you know, a soul singer, then what am I gonna do?

And that was one of my reasons for just going over there because I was starting to feel so stagnant and just stuck and kind of a little bit not able to do what I wanted to do, you know. So I went over there to just do what I needed to do and express myself as an artist.

Tavis: You mentioned Amy Winehouse a moment ago, obviously a tragic story, the way that ends. But what did you think of her gift, her artistry?

Blige: I thought she was one of the most amazing gifts that God sent to this earth. I mean, because she was honest. She wasn’t afraid to say they tried to make me go to rehab. She wasn’t afraid to express herself and I loved that.

You know, when I heard that “Back to Black” album, I listened to it, I cried, I laughed. It inspired me too. It kind of made me a little like, gosh, I could be doing that, you know [laugh]? Like that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

So she inspired me back and helped me to, you know, that, Mary, you can do this. You don’t have to listen to, you know, when someone says or the label says or this is the hot girl, so we’re gonna get her to write you a song or be like – I can’t do that. You know, I have to be Mary or else I will just artistically die. You understand?

Tavis: Absolutely. When you said rehab, my mind went to…

Blige: Therapy.

Tavis: Therapy. That’s why I love you, Mary [laugh]. That’s why I love you. You’re always in my spirit. I try to get in yours. Man, when I heard that track, good Lord. There’s a track on the project called “Therapy” that you have – well, the whole album is amazing, but this track “Therapy,” just tell me about “Therapy.”

Blige: Well, “Therapy,” Sam Smith wrote “Therapy” completely. He reference vocaled it and everything and I heard it and I lost my mind. The melodies on it, the way he’s singing, he made it sound fun to sing about therapy, and therapy is not something that people take lightly. But there’s all kind of different ways of therapy, you know, for people, not just sitting in front of a doctor all the time.

Tavis: Two times a day.

Blige: Hey, you could listen to Mary J. Blige albums two times a day and, for my fans, I have been to therapy. So that’s why, you know, I was like I have to sing this song because so many people have different ways of therapy. Some people work out. Some people eat ice cream. Some women go shopping for shoes, go shopping for clothes.

Tavis: Or glasses.

Blige: Glasses, or designing a home. You know, whatever is your thing, it can get it out for you and help you be happy.

Tavis: Since you’re always so open and so transparent and so honest, I know what my therapy has been or is. What has been yours? Or has it changed over the years?

Blige: Well, my therapy has been prayer. Prayer, sitting and meditating and taking a real good look at myself and looking at the ugly truth sometimes. A lot of times I’d be like, man, you know, I got to fix it but not killing myself over it or beating myself down over it. Just learn how to, you know, be strong in it and not be so hard on myself. For me, it’s been quiet time, prayer, meditating, a lot of self.

Tavis: I read – before this project even came out, I read that – before I saw it at least or heard it – I read somewhere where you referred to this as the purist project you’d ever done, the purist. I think you may have hit on this a little bit earlier, but I just wanted to make sure I don’t lose that. What did you mean by this being the most pure thing you’ve ever done?

Blige: Well, when I say pure, I mean, people have never heard me this pure without beats and samples and noise all over me. People are getting a chance to hear my voice, my spirit.

Tavis: More stripped down.

Blige: Stripped down, yeah. So that’s what I mean when I say pure. It’s pure Mary J. Blige. You’re not getting distractions.

Tavis: It’s uncut, yeah [laugh].

Blige: It really is uncut, yeah.

Tavis: How does one – and you’re still young, obviously – but how does one find the courage at this age to be so transparent, so pure, with one’s voice, particularly when you have so many other options, auto-tune, etc., etc., etc.? Why even take the risk to put all this out there in such a pure way at this age? You ain’t 22 no more.

Blige: Well, because I’ve accepted my flaws, whatever they are. If I don’t sing pitch-perfect, which I don’t, I’m cool with that now. My fans are cool with that. I’m not just going to run out and, you know, just sing off and do a bad job, but I’m going to warm my vocals up and give everyone the very best I can.

And if my very best is cracking or, you know, it’s flat, then that’s what it is at the moment, you know. So at this age, I should be able to accept what I have.

Tavis: People are loving the project and I love it. But what do you make of your voice at this age? I know you’re comfortable with it, but over the – I’m just trying to get your sense of how you think it’s changed over the years. What do you make of your voice when you hear it on a project like this now?

Blige: Well, what I love about it is that, because I’ve accepted it, I can hear the anointing in it. I never said that before ’cause I never could. But I can literally hear what God has given me and, although it’s not – Jesus – and although it’s not pitch-perfect and it’s not super clean, I can hear what God has given me and that’s how I feel about it right now.

Tavis: I’m gonna follow you on this ’cause I felt that thing, so I’m gonna stay with you. Have you been able to figure out or understand or accept why this gift was given to you?

Blige: Well, I don’t want to guess, but I think it’s to heal. It’s to heal, to go through all of the hell, heal, and speak about it and sing about it and watch other people heal through it. That’s what I believe.

Tavis: I could take that to mean that you’re going to be stuck – my word, not yours – you’re going to be stuck being transparent, telling us your business the rest of your life. Is that what we’re going to get?

Blige: Well, I’m gonna be telling you what I want to tell you, you know [laugh]?

Tavis: High five again. All right, there we go [laugh].

Blige: You know, as you grow, you start to understand what you can give and what you can’t. You’d just be a fool to give everything. You know what people want and people know when you have given too much, you know. So you got to just know your limits and know what you’re strong enough to share.

Tavis: I like that phrase, strong enough to share. I ask that question in part, Mary, because this project is a departure from the Mary that we’ve come to know because it’s not the telling of those kinds of stories. It’s the telling of a different kind of truth. There’s clearly truth in the lyrical content.

There’s truth in your delivery. There’s truth in your message. There’s truth in your mission of healing people. So that truth is still there, but it’s a different kind of truth. I’m just trying to figure out whether or not or why it is you think your fans are ready for this departure from Mary.

Blige: Well, because we’ve had enough of beating ourselves down and being, you know, like – we say we weren’t the victim, but we were consistently the victim, you know. And now it’s like I’m at a place where I love myself for real. Whatever that means, even if look at myself one day and go, oh, but I don’t like the way I look, I accept myself.

That’s what loving yourself is. It is what it is, you know. It is what it is and that’s where I’m at with it right now. And that’s why my fans are able to accept it because I’ve reached a point where I will no longer destroy myself. I will no longer not take a compliment with my head down, you know. When you say, oh, you were great, oh, girl, please, thank you.

Tavis: You look good, Mary.

Blige: Thank you very much.

Tavis: You look good, Mary! You look good.

Blige: Thank you very much. And this is a process and this is a lot too because we’re still learning how to grow and get to a place where we understand the queens and kings that we are. And that takes a lot of courage to just say, you know what? I am more than what I’ve been believing I have been for a very long time, and it’s time.

Tavis: Let’s talk music. Let me go right back to this project. I mentioned that track “Therapy.” I get a project and I get stuck on something, man. Sometimes it’s hard for me to go through the whole thing ’cause I get one or two things and I’m just like kind of stuck there. Let’s talk about the stuff on the project and how you made the choices.

I read somewhere as well where you made the comment that you told somebody, and I could hear you saying it too, “Y’all better not cut none of these ballads.” On PBS, I’m gonna say that, yeah. I’ll be charitable and generous in my delivery of that. But I heard you told someone, “Don’t you cut none of my ballads on this.” Tell me about the making of the project.

Blige: Well, the making of the project was fun. It was 10 days of writing, 10 days of recording.

Tavis: That’s pretty quick, man.

Blige: It was grueling. I had one day of vocal rest and it was fun, you know. Everybody made it fun. All the people that I worked with, they just made – they were really sweet people, down to earth. Everyone was just airing out all their business and we created something great because people were comfortable.

Tavis: There are 12 tracks on the project. Was there tension – maybe tension’s too strong a word. Did these 12 tracks come pretty easily or was there a lot of picking and choosing?

Blige: No. The 12 tracks came really easy. It was two that didn’t make it. One was a complete dud, the one that we…

Tavis: I can’t imagine you’d do a dud, man.

Blige: No, it was, though. I mean, it wasn’t horrible, but it was just like this is not it.

Tavis: Hold up, hold up. Okay, as you know, there are a whole bunch of us – I mean, I’ll fight you on this. I’m Mary’s biggest fan. You said you’re Mary’s biggest fan. We all Mary’s biggest fan. We’ll fight about that. Okay, fine. But when you say that something was a dud, what do you mean that it was a dud?

Blige: I mean, it’s just not a strong enough record. It was like, if I don’t get it, people are not going to get it [laugh]. And it was just like – it went nowhere. When it doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t move you, it’s a dud.

Tavis: Okay. So one was a dud. What happened to the other one?

Blige: One was – you’ll hear it. You know, that’s one of them that didn’t make it, but it’s out there and we don’t want to get rid of it. I wasn’t sure about it. Lyrically, I think I might have said too much and I was like, hold on [laugh]. I don’t want to tell y’all this [laugh].

But when I heard it back again, it’s like you know what? You didn’t, you know, so maybe the world can hear it. It’s called “I Can’t Say.” It’s about the things you don’t want to say.

Tavis: Which you said anyway.

Blige: I didn’t say it.

Tavis: I can’t say it, but I said it.

Blige: I just said I can’t say it [laugh]. You know, I just was saying I can’t say. Every time the words are about to come out my mouth, I can’t say. I can’t tell you all of this. So it’s a strong song. It just didn’t fit with the whole color and concept of the album.

Tavis: I want to talk about your songwriting now. And since you raise this issue, let me start with this. I have learned the hard way – I’m the first to admit, learned this the hard way – about tweeting.

Sometimes things are in my head and they come out on the phone or the device and I used to just type it and push send. Now I type it, I look at it and I look at it again, sometimes I even pray on it [laugh], pray on that thing.

Blige: You better.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. And then sometimes I’ll push send and sometimes I erase. I push cancel because I know what I feel, I know what I mean, but I also know the time that we live. And if I say this, I’m gonna catch all kind of hell for saying this because, in 140 characters, they’re not really gonna understand what I’m trying to say. So sometimes I have to cancel.

But I wonder if songwriting, since you were talking about I can’t say it, is the same way, that you put stuff out sometimes where you’re so transparent, you say you know what? Let me cross that out. I really don’t want to say that.

Blige: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I’m always crossing out. I’m always careful about what I say because, it if makes me feel weird, it’s gonna make somebody else feel weird, and it always does.

Tavis: I mean, I got all your stuff, but I don’t recall – at least I don’t recall feeling that you had written or co-written everything on a project. What project have you done that would compare to the amount of writing or co-writing you did on this one?

Blige: “Breakthrough,” “Growing Pains,” “My Life.” “Mary?” Would it be “Mary,” the “Mary” album? “No More Drama.”

Tavis: You’ve obviously found a comfort then in the writing.

Blige: Well, I found a comfort in the writing when I put out the “My Life” album, when I wrote and co-wrote the “My Life” album. I realized that I’m supposed to write. Even if a song comes fully written, you know, I have to listen to it and change it to see what works for me or make it work for me.

Tavis: Could you do an album of other peoples’ stuff at this point in your career?

Blige: It depends. It depends.

Tavis: You been writing so much, though, yeah.

Blige: You mean like covers?

Tavis: Yeah, covers. Yeah, covers or stuff that somebody wrote and gave to you that you did not have any hand in writing.

Blige: Well, if they’re strong songs and they all relate to me or relate to the world and I agree with, yes, I could.

Tavis: Speaking of covers, everybody’s doing cover stuff now.

Blige: Yeah.

Tavis: You thinking…

Blige: Not right now. I’m just sold out “The London Sessions” right now. No covers.

Tavis: I don’t mean now. I don’t mean like right now today, Mary. I mean, like…

Blige: Oh, later?

Tavis: Yeah, like some…

Blige: Maybe, yeah, absolutely, yes.

Tavis: So I’m gonna put you on the spot right quick, then we’ll come back to this. Are there songs – I don’t want to color the question too much, speaking of covers. Are there songs by other artists that you find yourself going back to time and time again? Songs that you just love?

Blige: Yes [laugh]. I always say the same thing ’cause it doesn’t change.

Tavis: Give me a couple.

Blige: I mean, I always go back to songs that are key to life. I always go back to “Ask Rufus.”

Tavis: Have you seen Stevie on the tour?

Blige: No, I haven’t.

Tavis: I don’t know how much longer this tour is going, but I tell you, it will change your life. Stevie is on tour right now. I know he was just in Chicago last week. He started this tour in L.A.

Blige: I heard about it, yeah.

Tavis: So he’s on tour right now and, for the first time since the album came out probably, he’s doing the entire sequence – the entire show is “Songs in the Key of Life” top to bottom. Stevie started writing that thing – Stevie was 24 or 25 when he wrote “Songs in the Key of Life.”

Blige: And I was five years old when I first heard that album.

Tavis: Good Lord!

Blige: And it means as much as it meant to me then now and I have to go back to that. I have to go back to that “Ask Rufus” album. It’s so strong. Anita Baker’s “Rapture” album, you know.

Tavis: What do you make of – I started the conversation by referencing this, but I’m curious as to your take, Mary. What do you make of this – I think it’s fair to say – explosion – maybe too strong. I don’t think so – explosion of young British talent on the music scene?

Blige: I think it’s amazing. I think it’s great because the British been doing this for a very long time. You know, we could start with Soul II Soul and Loose Ends, how they came and just took over in the 80s, you know. And then we can go to George Michael, how he just exploded over here, you know.

Now we have all this new – you know, they just keep returning. That’s because they’re great, you know. They have that thing that people want to hear when you go to a concert. They have soul. They have feeling. They have, you know, they might not be Marvin Gaye or Otis Redding, but you could feel them.

You could feel George Michael. You could feel Elton John. That’s why he was the first British man on Soul Train, you know. They just have it. I mean, I don’t know if it’s something in the water. I don’t know.

Tavis: In the water, yeah. It’s the fish and chips [laugh].

Blige: It’s probably those fish and chips [laugh].

Tavis: It’s the fish and chips. I see you didn’t eat too many while you were there. You’re still looking good.

Blige: Oh, I ate. I got fat too, yeah. I bust that down [laugh].

Tavis: I was just in this conversation with a guest recently on this program who happened to be a blues artist, white guy, blues artist. And I was in this conversation recently about the fact that, in many ways, Black people have surrendered blues. In many ways, one could make the argument that we have surrendered jazz.

And you haven’t said this yet, but I want to ask you whether or not you are in any way fearful, whether there’s any trepidation you have about whether or not we’re going to surrender soul too.

Blige: Well, at one time, I was worried about it. But I think – and I have to give Sam this credit. I think when you have people loving and singing soul music that are 21 years old like he is and appreciate it, he’s not singing like – you know, he’s singing like soul ballads, songs that I would have sang. You can say wow, okay, there is some hope.

There is some hope and you have all these great singers like Miguel. You know, Miguel is another one that he gave me hope. He made me say wow, okay, these young men, they know something and they know the secret. The secret is that soul music has healing in it. And they gave me hope because I was a little worried about it, yeah.

Tavis: You and I have talked so many times, I’ve lost track over the conversations on radio and TV and in person around the country over the years. But are you starting at all to feel like – you’re still young and fine. Everybody can see that. Are you starting to feel like you’re the professor now? I’m trying to think of a nice word. I don’t want to call you old.

Blige: The veteran?

Tavis: Veteran! Yeah [laugh].

Blige: I don’t want to call you old [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, call you old. Do you feel like a veteran artist now?

Blige: Absolutely.

Tavis: Yeah?

Blige: I am.

Tavis: How are you wearing that garment of veteran artist?

Blige: Very humbly and open-mindedly because the way you stay around and sustain is to keep your mind open to what is new. What is the new generation speaking about? And you have to listen and respect that too.

You don’t have to do what they’re doing, but if something makes sense for you, you can cross your worlds and make something great for you because there’s a lot of people listening.

I have my fans listening and fans’ kids listening that are like, oh, my God, I love you so much because my mother loves you. So you got to respect…

Tavis: You don’t feel old when you hear that?

Blige: Look, I am older than, you know, my fans’ children, but I don’t feel old because – this is gonna sound crazy – I don’t feel old because it just makes me feel good that another generation is listening to me.

Tavis: So you feel grateful.

Blige: I’m very grateful.

Tavis: And you should be, yeah, absolutely. I know that you and Kendu always got like 18 things going on. So “The London Sessions” are out now and people are loving it and I’m loving it, and you’re gonna love it when you get it.

Blige: Thank you.

Tavis: What’s next? You got like – start rattling off stuff you’re working on. I know you’re doing a bunch of other stuff. What else you working on? Movies?

Blige: I mean, it’s some stuff coming.

Tavis: Fashion?

Blige: There’s some stuff coming movie-wise, something really great that I…

Tavis: That you can’t talk about right now.

Blige: I don’t want to speak on it…

Tavis: I can’t say it.

Blige: But when it’s time, I’ll come back and it’s all yours.

Tavis: I’ll hold you to that. You know you’re always welcome to come back…

Blige: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: To talk about that. The new project from Mary J. Blige is called “The London Sessions,” all kinds of folk on here as I mentioned earlier. Just been an explosion over the last few years of these great acts and artists out of the U.K.

Mary went to London this summer and spent a month or so over there hanging out and did this project and I think you will, as I said earlier, love it. Once again, it’s called “The London Sessions.” Mary, I love you. Come back any time you want to.

Blige: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: All right. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

[Clip]

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: December 1, 2014 at 12:27 pm