Grammy Award-winning, Georgian-born soul singer India.Arie has taken a fair bit of time off lately, and although onlookers mightn’t know it, we’re lucky to have her back. The emotional strain of having been churned through the music industry from a young age eventually took its toll on Arie, both physically and mentally.
Her star was always bound to rise early, with a natural gift for her craft honed by her mother, Joyce Simpson – herself a former Motown session singer – and her father Ralph, who’s an ex-NBA basketball player. Lauded as the next soul music superstar from her 20s, Arie has always come across both angelic and mystical while managing to never isolate her audience – she is as at home accompanying a hip hop artist as she is producing truly spine-tingling soul music. But as her career progressed, it was as though the machine around her failed to see she was growing. Arie was no longer in her 20s, not ready to be forced into an industry-friendly mould, and more than willing to walk away from it all for the sake of her happiness. Perhaps she still is.
But for now, Arie is back, with her new album Songversation in hand along with a revamped stage show. “Creatively, things are completely different; it’s all different,” Arie says with a burst of enthusiasm. “I feel different, my show is different. I feel a change onstage. The show isn’t just different because I wanted to create a different show but also because I am different, so I’m bringing such a changed energy to things.
“I’m taking more chances, I feel free to be more courageous and to be free in my creativity. The performance concept is inspired from the album Songversation, so I’m incorporating conversation and text with the music and songs. I don’t know exactly what version I’m bring down [to Australia, where she’ll play Bluesfest], because when I’m doing the festival circuit I can’t have my whole production down there, but it will be an evolved show. Now, the business stuff – well, I’m reacting differently because I’ve been able to really come to terms with a lot of things I needed to but, no, it’s the same. The [industry] people are all the same and they’re occasionally trying to pull the same stuff.”
Arie’s audiences have often held her in high esteem, thinking of her as a kind of spiritual guide, but it’s a concept that is somewhat peculiar to her. “I never really noticed that at first,” she says. “When I did, I found it quite strange. I like to write songs because I like to feel that spirit come through me and to feel that creative experience, but there were so many times that I felt like people were looking at me like I should’ve been happy and I just wasn’t happy. That much I did notice. People were like, ‘If I was your age, doing what you’re doing, I’d be so happy’; people were trying to get me to move off my sadness by somehow reprimanding me. I didn’t realise until recently, until coming out of my spiritual transformation, that I really feel like I have things that I want to share with people – and not because I’m above anyone spiritually or more together than anyone, but because I’ve been through things and have a story to tell. I don’t see myself as a teacher, though.”
There can be a certain romance to songwriting and performing, and often the storyteller can get elevated to a lofty status – some sort of ‘chosen one’, or an ideal they can never quite live up to. “I asked for that, though,” Arie admits. “When I was 16, I asked. I was like, ‘If I can do anything, I wanna write songs. Tell me things.’ I wanted to be like how I thought Stevie Wonder was. I didn’t want to sing like him or perform like him, but I wanted to do the thing that he could do that made me feel how he made me feel. I would pray for songs even when I didn’t know what I was asking for, and I romanticised it too, I guess, but I’ve learned after 20 years of praying that same prayer that on the inside, it’s not romantic.
“There are things that you have to be responsible for in that whole spiritual transposition thing that you’d be happier without. Part of me is tested by others – like, I’m challenged as to whether I guide my life based on my spiritual message, like I need to be allowed to keep doing it. I don’t know that I would’ve asked for this if I had’ve known how hard it would’ve been. But I’m still happy with who I am. Mind you, I just paid off my house, because if this does all fall apart I want a house to live in, you know?”
There must be a real frustration, a burden of sorts, when you’re dealing with this pure desire to tell stories and convey truth and you know you’re surround by people that just want to make money and sell a product. “It’s beyond those words; I need a much stronger word,” says Arie. “Every human being has to change, that’s the truth, and whatever you did to gain your success, you’re never going to be able to just keep doing that. Asking the person not to change is just not real. When people see you as a thing – not as a person or an artist – but as a thing that will make them money, they treat you like a thing and that’s more than a burden; it’s almost inhumane. It’s almost cruel. It makes you feel like you’re not human and yet all the while they’re saying, ‘Oh, I love you and I love your music, but can you just make that other album again?’”
The question begs, is Arie happy to keep trekking along this musical path for the right reasons?
“You know, it’s actually really cool and the answer is yes,” she says. “I’m really honouring this time … I’m honouring the fact that I’m genuinely asking myself if this is what I want to do. It’s all I’ve ever done, and so I would just jump in and do another year in the past [if I could], but now it’s different. Even at the end of last year, when I took a break in December, I stopped and I recounted the year and realised it was a really hard year – but the tour made it all worth it and despite the difficulty it was all worth it. I took several weeks to, again, ensure I want to do this and the answer was ‘yes’. And it was ‘yes’ not because of what my mother said or because I was scared I couldn’t pay for my house or because of anyone else.
“I’m still refining things, I’m refining my business and how I allow people to deal with me, but I’m no longer stuck. I’m not being controlled and I’m the highest power in my business for once. But you’d have to ask me again next year about [what’s next], because I’m celebrating the fact that I can now choose.”
Songversation out now through Motown/Universal