INDIA.AIRE: Sweet, Sweet Soul Music
Grammy-winning singer/songwriter India.Aire reveals to Pete Lewis why she feels her latest album - ‘Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics’ - represents her finest work to date and the truth behind her leaving Motown.
Universally acclaimed as one of contemporary music’s most honest and inspirational singer/songwriters, India.Aire once more combines her soulfully acoustic vibe with typically searching and insightful lyrics on her aforementioned fourth studio album ‘Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics’; the eagerly-anticipated follow-up to her 2006 US chart-topping ‘Testimony: Vol. 1, Love & Relationship’.
Her first release away from Motown and released via Universal Republic Records, her new album’s championing of collective worldwide dialogue - while stressing the interconnectedness of everyone - is interestingly reflected in its uniquely-varied list of guest artists. Which ranges from chart-topping Philadelphia neo-soul man Musiq Soulchild and New York female rap pioneer MC Lyte; to roots-level musicians like modern-day bluesman Keb Mo and Jamaican reggae vocalist Gramps Morgan; while ultimately extending to the world music contributions of Turkish icon Sezan Aksu and African Ivory Coast songstress Dobet Gnahore.
Meanwhile musically, a subtle shift away from India’s previous leanings as an offbeat neo-soul goddess towards more of a folky singer/songwriter vibe is reflected in the difference between the sexy R&B shuffle of the single ‘Chocolate High’ or rousingly funky beats of ‘Ghetto; and the singalong, acoustic drive of ‘Therapy’ or the soothingly rural feel of the guitar-strummed ‘He Heals Me’.
All of which results in a significant release for the artist-of-substance, who first emerged on the international scene back in 2001 with her Double-Platinum debut LP ‘Acoustic Soul’. Whose pivotal moment arrived with its offshoot single ‘Video’; an anthem of natural female self-acceptance praised by women the world over for defining lines like “I may not be built like supermodel; But I’ve learned to love myself unconditionally”.
Having since prestigiously collaborated with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and John Legend while selling over eight million albums worldwide, India (who also serves as a US ambassador for UNICEF) now reacquaints herself with ‘Blues & Soul’’s Pete Lewis, to discuss her latest LP; her leaving Motown in 2008; plus the recent launch of her own new label-imprint Soulbird with Atlanta singer/writer Anthony David‘s album Acey Deucy’.
The different stages in which her latest LP ‘Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics’ came together
“Between my second album ‘Voyage To India’ and my third album ‘Testimony: VoI. 1’, I was going through a lotta different things and WRITING about all those things. And, when I started recording ‘Testimony: Vol. 1’ and choosing which songs I wanted to use, I decided to separate them into two volumes - though I had no idea when ‘Volume 2’ would come… But then, when I DID finally get into the writing process of ‘Testimony: Vol. 2’, I realised that I didn’t wanna use a lot of those songs any more, because I was thinking about other THINGS. You know, there‘d been things I’d always wanted to say that I’d previously shied away from because they were too political, or too whatever... And I now realised that I had to let go of all those concerns and do exactly what I WANTED to do. Which is why a lot of the songs changed, and why ‘Testimony: Vol. 2’ sounds like it’s exploring new territory to anyone who’s familiar with my previous albums. Whereas all I’m actually doing is being more MYSELF than people have ever heard me be before.”
Whether India agrees with the critics that her new album is taking her away from soul/R&B and closer to a folk feel
“Like I just said, what this album represents is me finally being my REAL SELF. So it’s funny when people say ‘It’s taking you out of the urban box and more into singer-songwriter/folk territory’ - because that’s actually how I always SAW myself! It’s just that I previously made records that said otherwise, because I felt that was the appropriate thing to do at the time. Whereas anybody that actually saw me in concert always did see the folky singer-songwriter that was the real me! You know, even if you look at the way that I dress, my image really matches a folk singer way more than it matches any R&B stereotype. It’s just that on record previously it all got lost in translation, because back then I was still learning how to communicate in the studio. Whereas today it’s more about me learning how to release my fear of what’s gonna happen if I don’t fit into this ‘urban/soul’ box. So, though I didn’t INTEND for people to use particular words like ‘folky’ or ‘singer-songwriter’, when they DO say them, to me they’re actually hitting it on the HEAD!”
How a trip to Hawaii helped get India in the right headspace to write and record much of her new album
“Hawaii is my favourite place. It’s so mystical, so very spiritual - and I just feel very in touch with nature while I’m there. So, because I‘d had a pretty rough couple of years, my intention was to go to Hawaii for a month, to just think things through and decide whether I was gonna stay in the music industry. And, in the last few days I was there, I finally reached the point where I was completely relaxed. So that I was able to start writing songs - something I was HOPING I could do while I was there - with none of the weight or fear of ‘What kind of radio station will play this?’, or ‘Is it too preachy?’, or ‘Are people gonna like it?’ being existent in my body... And just getting to that point, period, was HUGE for me - because all those considerations had been a weight on my head for the last 10 YEARS! You know, just having even a MOMENT where I was just breathing and writing songs without all that on my mind was liberating! And it’s that freedom - and the ongoing knowledge that I can now re-access that feeling in my heart at any time - that you hear on the album.”
The unique, world-encompassing nature of some of her musical guests on ‘Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics’
“All the guest appearances you hear all happened very organically. You know, I didn’t CONSCIOUSLY go into this album thinking that I have to prove to people that any kind of music in the world is accessible to me. For example, I literally met Sezen Aksu one day while walking down the street in New York! And I just felt the fact that we’ve lived two very, very different lives but could still make music together, was a very powerful, spiritual testament. To me the sound of her voice brings a very high, spiritual energy. So putting her on the last song on the album - ‘The Cure’ - made a lotta sense. While with Dobet Gnahore, I was walking through a store one day, heard this song, and almost stopped in my tracks wondering who the singer was! Then, when I discovered it was Dobet, I looked her up on the internet. And, because she reminded me so much of myself, straightaway there was like a sister energy there. So I decided to do a remake of the Sade song ‘Pearls’ with her. Because I felt that, on an album called ‘Love & Politics’, I had to have something on there about the violence against women that’s happening in the world. Then Gramps Morgan and Keb Mo are on there because they’re both friends of mine. And - like I say in the album liner-notes - I do feel, by bringing all these people together on one record, a political statement is actually being made just through the diversity of the guest appearances alone. You know, as I say in the song ‘Ghetto’, we are all just one race - the HUMAN race!”
Why India left Motown and signed with Universal Republic between her last album and her new one
“It’s just that the business side of things with Motown wasn’t right. Normally, in my experience, you expect a little bit of red tape and disappointment on the business front. `Cause, like they say, art and commerce don’t mix! You know, there’s always a little bit of that tension and that’s OK. But, in the last few years I was with Motown, there was TOO MUCH! I felt insulted, to the point where I actually made the decision that - if I couldn’t be off of Motown - then I wasn’t gonna record anything else! That’s how bad it WAS for me! But luckily, the parent company that’s over Motown (Universal Music) cared enough about wanting me to remain with them that they asked me which of their OTHER labels I wanted to go to. And I chose Universal Republic... And actually the song ‘Psalm 23’ on this album is very much about that whole experience! I chose (legendary female rapper) MC Lyte to guest on it, `cause she and I share those same experiences in common and know how just the politics of the music industry can really hurt your feelings.”
Launching her own new label imprint - Soulbird - through her new record-deal with Universal Republic
“Well, as you already know, Soulbird’s first artist is Anthony David. And Soulbird for me is more than just a label imprint. It’s a container that’s gonna hold a lot of different ideas that I have which fall within my mission statement - which is to spread love through words and music. So, on the music side, I wanna do projects with people who are making music that is meaningful, with a lot of integrity and a lot of sonic diversity. Like anybody who’s on my new album could definitely be on Soulbird - Dobet, Sezen Aksu… You know, all kinds of different singer-songwriters or people who have strong ideas and whose music is conceptually intelligent. Basically I wanna work with people who have very strong INTENTIONS behind their music, as opposed to just a SOUND.”
How India feels - as a former chart-topping Motown artist - about Motown’s current 50th Anniversary, and whether she’ll be playing a part in it
“I assume that, along the way, someone will ask me to do SOMETHING... And my answer will be ‘Yes, I’d LOVE to!’!... I mean, when I look at the small picture, yes, being with Motown was disappointing for me in a lotta ways. But at the same time, when I look at the big picture, Motown is an important part of my heritage as an African-American musician, period. And so, in that context, I’m very proud to have played a role as a second-generation Motown artist. I mean, to me what made Motown back in the day so great was the way the music somehow spoke so much to the hearts of people - not necessarily lyrically, but just with its ENERGY… Which is something it still DOES. I also think it was very original, and it remains to this day a paragon of what black music should be. In that we’ve yet to revisit a time in the history of black music where it’s reached that high ideal of excellence - whether it be in the way the artists looked; how they moved onstage; how the songs were put together... You know, Motown back then had ALL those elements all rolled into one.”
Her current and future plans in general
“After producing this latest album alongside my co-producer Dru Castro, I feel that I’ve learnt so much about that particular aspect of my work that I’m now definitely interested in continuing to explore it by producing OTHER artists. You know, there’s a lot of musicians that I’ve met around the world that I’d be interested in working with. For example, Dobet Gnahore and I haven’t had a chance to be in a studio together yet. So I’d love to go to France - where she lives - to work with her. Plus there’s a Broadway project that’s been in the pipeline for a few years now; while - more immediately - I’m also starting out on tour this spring. Plus there’s also a lot of things I’d like to do outside of just music. Like at some point I wanna do a jewellery line, a clothing line, an accessory line... You know, all those different ways of expressing myself creatively seemed to be just far-off ideals earlier on in my career - whereas now they seem to be much closer to actually HAPPENING! So I’m definitely interested in digging my heels into ALL of them!”
The single 'Chocolate High (Featuring Musiq Soulchild)' and album 'Testimony: Vol 2, Love & Politics' are both out now through Universal Records/Universal Republic Records
Words PETE LEWIS