When Jill Scott was growing up she had no idea she had a beautiful voice. It seems baffling that there was a time when the woman responsible for neo-soul classics like ‘A Long Walk’ or ‘Cross My Mind’ (for which she won a Grammy, one of three she’s been awarded) didn’t realise she could sing, but there it is. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in North Philadelphia, she didn’t grow up with church choirs, or opera. She was influenced by listening to Marvin Gaye and The Manhattan Transfer and Ella Fitzgerald, but none of her friends had heard of them and she had no idea that kind of powerful soul voice was such a rare gift. “I thought, what if I sang somewhere and somebody says, ‘Ew, I don’t like it’ or ‘You suck!’? I would be devastated, so I kept it to myself. I didn’t want anyone to tarnish it or destroy it and I didn’t sing publicly until I felt confident enough about it.”
The first time Scott felt that confidence was when she was a teenager, but she found the experience of performing so troubling that it almost put her off completely. “The very first time was when I was 14, it was something called Freshmen Day. They selected a few freshmen to perform, and I was selected and I sang ‘Theme From Mahogany’. And it was my very first standing ovation and it was wonderful, but I noticed that people changed after I sang; in a positive way, but I felt like I had hangers-on for some reason. I’m an only child, I didn’t like the way it felt, so I stopped singing at that point.”
She briefly tried to learn an instrument, but that didn’t take either. “I played violin as a kid but my instructor made me cut my nails and I hated that, which is so silly because now I could care less.” Hindsight is 20/20. “It’s like that for most people, they give up on something that they could have been great at. There’s a piano downstairs that I don’t play and I always consider it. I have great friends who are [like], ‘I’ll teach you, I’ll teach you.’ One day.”
Scott spent years focused on poetry and acting instead, only using her voice when she landed a role that required it. By her mid-20s she was performing in a Broadway musical, and although she could have made a career of it, she realised that if she was going to be singing she’d rather be doing it on her own terms, with her own songs. “[Theatre is] a great job but it’s a little restricting. You have to be in the same light, in the same clothes, singing the same songs, acting with the same people every night – and I knew that I need to be more free than that, so I decided that I would go ahead and try to make a record.”
Her musical career received a surprise boost right at its start when Questlove caught one of her spoken word poetry readings and was so impressed with her work that he invited her to co-write a song with The Roots. The result, ‘You Got Me’, featured Erykah Badu at the label’s insistence – but the band had liked Scott’s take so much that when they toured she joined them to perform it onstage. They returned the favour by appearing on her 2000 debut album, Who Is Jill Scott? Words And Sounds Vol. 1.
As well as helping forge the Roots connection, Scott’s live poetry readings taught her performance skills that remain with her today: her shows have a reputation for feeling intimate even when she’s backed by a nine-piece band and playing a huge room. What she learned is how to look people in the eye and connect with them. “You look at people’s faces and see if the thought is connecting and, I don’t know… how does it feel? It feels like I’m on the right track. If I’m not moving the crowd in some way, shape or form then I’m not doing my job, so it feels like I’m on the right path. It’s like a pat on the back: ‘OK, keep going.’ Confirmation.”
After eight years of albums and tours, Scott returned to acting after being offered a particularly special role, the lead in the HBO/BBC co-production of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, based on the books by Alexander McCall-Smith. That meant filming in Botswana – a revelation for Scott, who had never travelled to Africa before. “It was extraordinary, because every stereotype I’d read or heard about Africa was wrong. Everything was wrong, and it gave me a sense of home and it just broadened my horizons about other places. When you grow up in North Philadelphia, you never think that you’re going to – I mean, I figured one day I would get to New York and never imagined that I would be living in Africa and sleeping in tents and sleeping in people’s backyards in metal huts. I never imagined any of it, and it was literally the best experience I’ve ever had in this life thus far.”
BY JODY MACGREGOR