The multifaceted Grammy winner discusses her first-ever holiday CD and her new film, Black Nativity.
Singer-songwriter Mary J. Blige
Tavis: (Laughs) Mary J. Blige released her first album at the age of 21. It immediately went to the top of the charts. A whole bunch of us bought it, including yours truly, catapulting her into the limelight.
Her second CD, “My Life,” was named by “Rolling Stone” magazine as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Since, since has won nine Grammys, sold some 50 million records. Her latest, though, is her first holiday CD, titled “A Mary Christmas.” Ba-dum-bump, I love that. Let’s take a look at Mary singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
Tavis: You sound good, you’re looking good.
Mary J. Blige: Thank you.
Tavis: Happy holidays to you.
Blige: Happy holidays to you, Tavis.
Tavis: When I got this, I couldn’t wait to put it in, and as is my custom, before I put anything in the player I pull out the cover and I want to read the liner notes. I started looking at the people you collaborated with on this.
Tavis: This is like – this is all-star.
Blige: Yeah, I needed it to be a masterpiece and something special. With my first Christmas album, I didn’t want it to just be just anything, just okay, I just did it. I wanted it to be special, and I wanted all my fans to just be involved with it and love it.
Tavis: Tell me – I want to walk through a couple names here, and we’ll talk about some of the tracks. Tell me about your friendship, your relationship, with David Foster.
Blige: Man, I know David; I’ve known David for a while now. I worked with him before on the Andrea Bocelli song and the Rod Stewart song. I’ve worked with David on several things, so I have a relationship with him.
Tavis: Yeah. So I was saying earlier David knows a little bit of everybody.
Blige: David has relationships. Some of those are my relationships too.
Tavis: I know they are. Come on, Mary, I’m not saying nothing about that, now. Just saying David knows a lot of people, and when I looked on here and I saw you and Barbra Streisand hanging out –
Tavis: – that’s serious. First of all, the song sounds great.
Blige: Thank you so much.
Tavis: How did that happen, though?
Blige: Well, David Foster had the relationship, he knows her very well. They’re friends. He asked me did I want to do a duet with her on “Wish Upon a Star,” and why would I say no? (Laughs)
Blige: I met Barbra a while ago at one of her birthday parties, and she was really down-to-Earth and, like, just – we clicked. I’ve never seen her again, but I really liked her. So when David asked me, I was like, why not? Why wouldn’t I do that?
Tavis: Is there anybody that you have been – just between the two of us.
As beautifully as you sing and as soulfully as you sing, anybody that you have been intimidated to sing with? You mentioned – you’ve got Streisand you’ve just mentioned, Andrea Bocelli, don’t get no deeper than that.
Tavis: Anybody that ever intimidated you? Like, I don’t know if I want to do this.
Blige: No one intimidates me because I’m not trying to do what you do, because I can’t do what you do. I can only do what Mary J. Blige can do, so that relaxes me right there, and it gets me out of the competition and that whole thing.
So no, I’m not intimidated by any singers at all, no.
Tavis: Yeah. That’s a beautiful thing. So how did you figure out – this is one of those obligatory questions you have to ask about a Christmas CD, because there’s so many great Christmas songs. How did you figure out what you wanted to do on your project?
Blige: Well, I wanted to sing all my favorite Christmas songs, and on there is mostly all my favorite Christmas songs, songs that I remember from childhood, songs that I even started to get to know while I became – as an adult. Then some of them are David’s choices. Not many, but some of them.
Tavis: How do you approach a project like this? I’m always fascinated by artists who at whatever point in their career decide they want to do a Christmas CD, because if you’re choosing traditional Christmas songs, as you have done for most of this project, how do you put your own thing on a Christmas song?
Blige: You just do. I can’t explain it. When you attack “Wish Upon a Star” and you go for the jazzy kind of vibe, it’s Mary, it’s my voice, and it’s my soul, it’s my spirit.
So that’s what you’re going to get. I’m not trying to do what Barbra did; I’m trying to do what Mary does. So it can bring you to both worlds. Then when you do “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” there’s no other way to do that but the way I do it. So you just – there’s no other way to do it but the way you do it. (Laughter)
Tavis: For you to be here – what is this, November? For you to be here in November, talking about a Christmas project, means that you must have done this sometime in the dead of summer.
Blige: I did it in March.
Tavis: Yeah, in March, so it wasn’t quite summertime then.
Tavis: Yeah, because I was about to ask how you get in the Christmas spirit to do a project when it’s 80 degrees outside.
Blige: Well, when you’re going to do a Christmas album or you’re going to do a French album or you’re going to do whatever you’re going to do, you have to get your, put your mind into it.
So I had to put my mind in Christmas mode. I had to go back to being a child and remembering all of that, and what do I do as a grownup, even, Christmastime now.
So I really, I’m serious. When I go to do a project, I’m serious about it, so I wrap my world around it, and it becomes Christmastime for me and I’m singing songs like it’s Christmas day.
Tavis: Since you referenced it, how do you tend to spend Christmases these days as an adult?
Blige: Kind of the same as I did when I was a child.
Tavis: No, you got a little bit more now than you had as a child.
Blige: Well, I’m the host. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, it wasn’t quite this way in Yonkers when you was a baby.
Blige: No it wasn’t. (Laughter) But you know when I say “as a child,” I mean the family.
Tavis: Right, right, right.
Blige: The food, the neighbors, the love, the fun, and the Christmas music playing. Now it’s just on a whole nother level, but there’s still family, there’s still Christmas music, there’s still great food, there’s still love and reminiscing of the past. So I don’t do too much.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, since you’re playing Christmas music at your house during the holiday season, will you play the Mary J. project during Christmas?
Blige: Yes. Absolutely, we’re going to be running that on Christmas day. (Laughter) Over and over and over again.
Tavis: I only ask that because there’s some – I’ve been fortunate over the years, as you know, and talked to so many artists on this program, and there are some who can listen to themselves, and some, no matter how many records they’ve sold, don’t particularly like the sound of their own voice, so they don’t listen.
They don’t listen to stuff after they record it; there are actors who won’t watch themselves after they do something. But you’re not one of those.
Blige: Well, I just, Tavis, I just started learning how to do that, because I have to. Because if I’m going to be the best in what I do, I have to study what I’m doing, I have to see what I’m doing. I have to see it, I have to hear it.
I’m just starting to appreciate myself – not starting, but appreciating myself in a way where I can look at myself back in a movie or listen to myself as much as I do now.
It’s starting to be like hey, I like myself now. Hey, I like – yeah, you sound good. I have to, because then I can grow that way.
Blige: But if I do what I did back in the days, and I don’t want to hear it and I don’t want to see it, I can’t grow. So I have to keep growing, and that’s why I listen to myself and watch myself now.
Tavis: I’m going to come to your acting. We’ll talk about “Black Nativity” here in a second. Before we get to the acting part, though, let me stay with the music. I’m going to put you on the spot here –
Tavis: – because I know what we think of your music, all of your fans, and I know if you asked me what do you love about Mary, give me one of Mary’s favorite riffs, Tavis, that you really enjoy, what’s your favorite song, if we ask your fans Mary questions, we can answer them.
So let me ask you a question about Mary. When you talk about listening to yourself now, when you hear your voice now, what do you hear? Are there things that you think you can still work on?
Are there things that you’re still trying to perfect? Are you happy with your voice at this point? You’ve been doing this for a few years now.
Blige: I love that question. I see nothing but imperfections. I’m my worst critic, and I like the fact that I can listen to myself now and make fun of myself, listen, make changes – “Oh, man, that’s messed up. Okay, I need to work on that; I need to work on this.”
I like the fact that I’m my worst critic, but I don’t beat myself down. I’m my worst critic because I need to be able to fix and get better so I can be the best me that I can be.
So it doesn’t bother me anymore. It used to bother me like, “Oh, God, I hate the way I sound; I hate the way I look.” Now I’m like, “Gosh, I’ve got to fix that.” I think God has blessed me with that now to be able to grow to the next level that I need to get to if I’m going to still be around.
So I need to be able to say, “I didn’t like – that hair was horrible,” or “That note was terrible.” “Okay, there was emotion in that note, so you’re good on that.” As long as you don’t mind it, they’re not going to mind it. So I’m cool with it.
Tavis: If you were right now to hear whatever the last time was that you heard, say, pick something – “Real Love” – what do you hear about your voice now that you didn’t hear then?
Blige: Wow. I hear that I was a baby. (Laughs) But I also hear that gosh, I was really talented. I was really, there was something. I had something. Whatever it is, it wasn’t always the right note and a lot of it was off-key and even flat, but it’s something God gave me to minister to my generation or whatever anointing he gave me that blesses my people.
It’s not always on-key and it’s not always perfect, just like me. I’m not always perfect and I don’t do everything right, but people are like, “That’s all right, Mary.”
Tavis: See, I’m glad you said that. One of the things – I’ve said this a thousand times over the years of our conversations and hanging out that I always appreciate your transparency.
I appreciate your honesty and I love, like all the rest of your fans, I suspect, appreciate watching you grow over the years. But you’ve always been, from day one in our conversations and our time together, honest whenever I ask you something or whenever we converse.
One of the things that you just said a moment ago is something that a lot of artists would never admit to, and the persons who were critics of yours when you started beat you up over this.
They were like the girl’s got some talent, but she’s flat on too many notes. She sings off-key sometimes. She’ll go over the note, she’ll come under the note, and they gave you props that you had a gift, but people were like, what’s up with this – the note thing drove people crazy.
Tavis: How did you process, knowing that you had a gift, and I like how you phrased it, that God gave you something, and whatever he gave you, it resonated with your audience.
For me, it was that, it was there was so much soul in what you were doing, but there were other critics who saw it differently that had a problem with you missing them notes. How did you process that critique?
Blige: I would hear a lot of things, and it was nothing I could do about it. But I met one of my favorite singers, and she said, “You need to sing on key,” and this was like around “Not Gonna Cry” when I met her.
Tavis: Did she make you cry?
Blige: No, it didn’t make me cry. It didn’t. It didn’t. (Laughter)
Tavis: Okay, all right.
Blige: It really made me think about singing on key. (Laughter) And I was like, well, if she’s saying it and she’s one of my favorite singers and she’s – good God, she’s amazing – let me go check that out.
So I guess for the time that I was, from the “My Life” album to the “What’s the 411” album to the “Share My World” album and on and on, it was, that was the time for that.
I needed to be off-key; I needed to be whatever I was for, to do the ministering or the healing that came through my voice. I guess that’s what that was needed for. So once I got the message from this woman that I was – you need to sing on key, I went to investigate that, and I went to try to fix that.
Once I’m in emotion and I get all emotional, there is no perfect note. Forget about it.
Blige: It’s going to be all over the place, but we’re going to have fun. But I’m working on it. I’ve been working on it, but I don’t really care about being pitch-perfect or being crystal clear.
I really don’t care about that. All I care about is that my fans are being nurtured and being fed with whatever I’m putting out there, and I’m not just doing whatever.
Tavis: See, I’m glad to hear you say that. I asked that not knowing what the answer was going to be, obviously, but I’m glad that that is the answer, because I think that people can get screwed up by other people telling them the way they ought to do something with the gift that God gave them.
Tavis: They thought Thelonious Monk was missing notes back in the day, and now we know he’s an artistic genius.
Tavis: They thought Coltrane played too fast and they couldn’t follow Coltrane. They though Coltrane was wrong, and he’s an artistic genius. So I hope that – and I’m glad to hear that, because critics say one thing – if you understand that – and you got the last laugh. They ain’t sold 50 million records, you have.
Blige: Right. (Laughter)
Tavis: Something is working here. It’s working for somebody, and the audience is getting what you’re giving them, even if it ain’t, to your point, pitch-perfect. So I’m glad that you came to that conclusion.
Blige: Yeah, that’s not my gift, obviously. I’m not those women; I am this woman, with this voice. Whatever that voice is that my fans love so much, that’s all I have.
Tavis: You mentioned French early in this conversation. It turns out that on this project you actually know a little Spanish.
Blige: Yeah, with Marc Anthony.
Tavis: With Marc Anthony.
Tavis: Tell me about this. The song is called –
Blige: “Noche de Paz.”
Tavis: Exactly, yeah. I’m glad you said it, not me. (Laughter) Tell me about that track, yeah.
Blige: I mean, it’s “Silent Night,” and I did it with Marc Anthony because he is Latin American, and my fans, I have a lot of Latino fans out there. Like I said to you earlier, I really wanted my fans to be a part of this Christmas album and play it in their house, everywhere, all over the world.
Tavis: When you travel, to your point about all over the world, how is your gift, how is your gift regarded by fans around the world? Do you notice a distinct difference in how you’re greeted or treated around the world versus the way we treat you here at home?
Blige: It’s the same here. If they love you over there, man, they love you. They really do. So it’s the same. And if they don’t, they don’t. It’s the same over there as over here.
Tavis: Like the Apollo, huh?
Blige: It’s the same thing, “Boo.”
Tavis: They boo. (Laughter)
Blige: Go to (unintelligible) “Boo.”
Tavis: Okay, so when it comes to those persons – okay, so pick a place in the world – I’m just curious. Because you can ask any artist this and they will give you, of course, a different answer.
But name a couple places in the world where the people love you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. They just love you. Outside this country, that you love going there because they just love you.
Blige: Well, London is like here. My fans over there, they love me, they love me. France is definitely another place.
Tavis: Oh, cool.
Blige: That’s just like over here. If they love you, they love you. If they hate you, they’ll be at your show with their middle finger up, (laughter) in the front, like, I don’t want to even put it up but you know.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) On the front row.
Blige: Yes. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, the French are known for that. They’re not terribly shy.
Blige: They don’t play that, no.
Tavis: Yeah, they are not terribly shy. (Laughter) Was there – this is, again, one of those obligatory questions – is there a favorite, like favorite, favorite, Christmas song that you have loved since you were a child?
Blige: “The Christmas Song.”
Tavis: “The Christmas Song.”
Blige: Nat King Cole version.
Tavis: See, you answered my question already. I was about to ask you whose version, because that’s been done, like, a gazillion times.
Blige: Nat King Cole’s version.
Blige: Because he – it just feels like Christmas when he opens his mouth with that “Chestnuts roast -” it just, I can’t describe it, it just reminds me of being a child, and because it was playing on the radio a lot when the radio played (unintelligible) and played KRS-One and then played – it was all – and then during Christmastime they played Christmas music on regular radio stations. That song, they ran that one.
Tavis: It is not Christmas for me until I hear Nat King Cole, but it’s also not Christmas until I hear Donny Hathaway.
Blige: Oh, that’s –
Tavis: “This Christmas,” oh, man.
Blige: – another one. “This Christmas,” you know it’s Christmastime, (makes noise) and his voice – the smooth – oh my God. That’s why I had to cover that one. I’m not going to do Donny Hathaway, because he –
Tavis: Yeah, nobody will. (Laughter) But speaking of people’s voices, putting you on the spot again, are there people’s voices when you were growing up, like Donny Hathaway’s, since you referenced him a moment ago, that the voice just did everything for you?
Blige: Stevie Wonder. That “Songs in the Key of Life,” we were like five years old. We’re listening to “Pastime Paradise,” and “Knocks Me Off My Feet” over and over, listening to that whole album, trying to learn the words, because he just made us feel like we was a part of whatever he was doing. Then his – I can’t even describe what Stevie’s voice is.
Tavis: So how does it feel, then, years later, to grow up to be an artist, to hang out with Stevie, to be a friend of Stevie’s, to perform with Stevie? How do you process that journey in this short life?
Blige: Man, I’m just so grateful. I’m so blessed, because I remember what Stevie made me feel like as a child. He made me feel like I wanted to be a part of his movement.
Where are you going? I need to know what you know; I need to see what you see in your music. Now here I am, I’m so grateful.
Tavis: Stevie does a big Christmas toy drive here in L.A. every holiday season, and they’ve been playing an ad on the radio and I know the tickets, if they aren’t already sold out, they will be, because he hasn’t done this in forever.
But for his concert this year he’s doing, I think, from beginning to end, “Songs in the Key of Life.”
Tavis: The whole album.
Tavis: Here in L.A., at – I suspect it’s – it’s usually downtown at one of our concert halls. But he has a big toy drive every year, and everybody in the city supports it.
He performs every year, but this year he’s doing something a little different. That’s like one of the greatest albums ever made, and he’s doing –
Blige: Wow, both sides.
Tavis: The whole show is top to bottom, I think, “Songs in the Key of Life.”
Tavis: So I know I’m going to be there, and I know everybody else is trying to get there. Because the songs on that record are just – the whole album is classic.
Blige: I mean, I mean, did everybody play every song? Did everybody play “Ordinary Pain?” Do they even know what “Ordinary Pain” is on “Songs in the Key of Life?”
Tavis: You see this? (Laughter) I’m glad you said this now, and I’m pretty certain it’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” but I’m glad you said this, because it used to be when we were growing up that artists would put out records and you really would dig every track on it, top to bottom.
Tavis: That doesn’t happen a whole lot these days. I’m raising this because the last time I saw you, you were here in L.A. for that big – you did that digital concert. Do you remember this concert you did –
Blige: Yeah, yeah, I did “My Life.”
Tavis: You did a whole – you did “My Life.”
Tavis: I was going to say that. You did the whole project, which I thought was really cool. It made me go back – I listen to your stuff all the time. It’s in rotation on my iPod. But it made me go back and appreciate the album in a different way when you hear it, again, done top to bottom.
But there aren’t a lot of people these days who put – a record comes out now, there may be one or two tracks on it that I want to get. I think that’s one of the reasons why iTunes is so popular, because you can avoid the stuff you really don’t care about.
But to put together a project like this one that goes from top to bottom, and everything on it is worth hearing, it seems that those records are not coming out as frequently as they used to.
Blige: You have to care, and you can’t be afraid to make a full body of work like we used to do. You want people to see the movie, so to speak, like Dr. Dre did, like everyone did back in the days.
They made a movie. The “My Life” album was a movie, “What’s the 411” was a movie, and that’s why it still sells the way it does to this day. I think everything is so single-driven, so people are only thinking well, I’m going to put this single out, and I’m going to make an album, but make sure there’s one record on there that people pulls off it.
No, you have to have the courage to make a full body of work that people will listen to.
Tavis: I hear your point.
Tavis: So why aren’t more people seeing it that way and doing it that way, versus dropping a single here and there?
Blige: I think it’s the labels that say okay, this is what’s in now. What’s in now is you’re going to sell 60 million singles instead of 60 million albums, so that’s what’s selling right – that’s the big thing, the singles right now.
But if you are an artist, you’re going to want more than just that. You’re going to want the body of work, and you’re not going to be afraid to lose to give your people a full movie or a full body of work.
You’ve got to be not afraid to lose. You might lose out on, I don’t know, something, but the bottom line is you’ve just got – you can’t be afraid to just make the movie.
Tavis: I’m not asking you to list names here, but since you mentioned labels, how would you grade your experience, A through F, how would you grade your experience as an artist to date, overall, with regard to your relationship with music labels?
Because that’s a treacherous path for a lot of people. It is the music business. But how would you grade your experiences over the years? Do you think you’ve done relatively well, you’ve been disappointed, you –
Blige: I’ve done well, I’ve been disappointed, and I think it all goes back to you. Of course the labels are going to be the labels. It’s the music business. You are a business. That’s what they do.
So you’ve got to protect yourself. So in my case I didn’t have a lot of protection, so I couldn’t protect myself at the beginning. So it was not too good. When you’re responsible, it’s good for you.
It’s good. But when you’re not responsible, it’s bad. So right now it’s good, because I’m responsible. But when I didn’t have any control and I didn’t know what was going on, it was bad, because you don’t know who’s doing what.
Tavis: Before my time is up, let me go to this nativity project that I know you are involved in. So it’s not just records; your acting is jumping off too. Tell me about the nativity project and the role you play.
Blige: All right. You know the movie “Black Nativity.”
Tavis: The angel, yeah.
Blige: I play an angel, a singing angel who’s –
Tavis: Who has a great name.
Blige: Platinum Fro?
Tavis: I love it. (Laughter)
Tavis: An angel called Platinum Fro.
Blige: Now everybody knows what the Fro is. Everyone was like, “Oh, Mary’s got a new hairstyle. Ooh, I love it, I’m going to get my hair,” no.
Tavis: No, it’s for the movie, yeah. There’s a picture on the screen there.
Blige: Yeah. Yeah.
Tavis: So yeah, that’s –
Blige: Yeah, that’s strictly, that’s for her.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. So that was for the movie, huh?
Tavis: Because everybody thought Mary had just done something uniquely different. She’s like, “No, no, no, no, no.”
Tavis: But you do – you’ve changed – you’ve had some hairstyles over the years, though.
Blige: I know. I – I know. (Laughter)
Tavis: I wasn’t even saying that to diss you.
Blige: So that wouldn’t have been a surprise, right? (Laughter)
Tavis: No – I didn’t not say that, Mary, you said that. I know when to get out of a conversation when the subject of a woman’s hair comes up. It’s time for me to exit, so I’m going to do like Snagglepuss and exit stage left, after I tell you that the new project from Mary J. Blige is called “A Mary Christmas.”
Mary’s done Christmas music before, as all of her fans know, but this is the first time that she has done a full-on album of Christmas music, and I can guarantee you that you will love it.
I’m loving it already, and my mother’s a huge Christmas music person. My mother’s the kind of person – I know she’s watching in Indiana right now – she literally listens to Christmas music like in June, July.
Blige: Oh, wow.
Tavis: It’ll be like 95 degrees and she’s listening to Christmas music. So Mom, I know she’s going to call me and say, “Send me the Mary.” It’s on the way.
Blige: I hope that’s one that she’ll listen to in June.
Tavis: Oh, I’m – she will. (Laughter)
Blige: Because it was almost June when we (unintelligible) it. (Laughter)
Tavis: Well I’ll be sending it to her right about now when we get off the air, so she’ll get it and she will call me and tell me what she thinks of it, and I’ll let you know.
Blige: Okay, please do.
Tavis: I’m sure she’ll love it. Good to see you.
Blige: It’s good to see you always.
Tavis: Love you, Mary.
Blige: I love you too.
Tavis: I love you, sweetie.
Blige: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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