The distinctive artist defines success—and her music—in her own terms    

“I had no idea I could make an album in six months,” says India.Arie of her fifth studio project, SongVersation. “I’ve never done anything that fast. Ever. I don’t do anything fast. But I told myself that’s what I needed to do—and I did it. I’m still laughing at that one.” That kind of speed hardly sounds like the process of a woman who had been planning retirement only three years earlier. But the four-time Grammy winner has had a lot of practice. For more than a decade, she’s been creating R&B-inflected pop albums, selling 10 million records in the process. Still, she wasn’t happy with the direction her albums had taken. “People I was working with always wanted me to do production that would get played on black radio,” she says. “But that type of production wasn’t what gave me chills or made me want to dance.”

Arie recorded an Israeli-influenced album, Open Door, only to shelve the project. But rather than pack it in, she re-evaluated. “I just wanted to do what I love, and those are my main things,” says Arie, 37. “It’s in me all the time, and not being able to put it in my music is something I never want to have to feel again. To feel unexpressed like that made me sick.” Produced primarily by longtime collaborator Shannon Sanders, SongVersation reflects India.Arie’s life experiences. The artist talked with us from NYC about traveling, growing up, and how—when all else fails—you can always look to Oprah for advice.


What was your goal with this record?

My goal from the beginning—even before I finished my first album—was to bring my life experiences to my music. It’s something I’ve always done lyrically, but have never been given the freedom to do with the production. My goal when I decided to do that was, “I’m going to do this now, but I’m going from here based on the experiences I have.” I was thinking somebody was supposed to give me my freedom, but really I needed to just take it.


What inspired SongVersation?

After deciding to retire and then realizing that I didn’t want to retire, I really wanted to pursue my career on my own terms. I met a Turkish singer, Sezen Aksu, walking downtown in the Village. She always said if I ever needed anything, or if I ever wanted to do music with her, all I had to do was ask. When the album I was working on, Open Door, fell through—and I don’t know if it’s ever going to come out—I called and told her I was working on a new album. Her exact words were, “Anything my India is doing, I’m in.” So I quickly flew to Turkey, and she had all of Turkey’s most sought-after musicians in her studio.


Tell us about the album’s sound.

The record has Middle Eastern–style string arrangements, live Middle Eastern percussion, and Middle Eastern approaches to woodwinds and brass. You’ll hear Turkish elements in particular, but it’s Middle Eastern–style inside a Western musical approach. I hear people say, “What is that? Is that strings?” You can hear it’s a string section, but to our Western way of hearing music, we never hear a whole orchestra of people sliding notes, so it sounds like a new instrument.


Does every song reflect that influence?

What I really love is real simple, quiet, acoustic music. That’s the kind of music that really touches my soul. I have some songs that are just guitar, vocal and a bit of beat—really simple. There are other songs that are piano-driven. I met a pianist in Hawaii named Michael Ruff who has a very special way of working chords—it’s mystical and dreamy.


Did you dust off any older songs?

For me, the most remarkable thing about this album is that I really started a new album. It wasn’t like, “Let me pull some things out of the vault and polish them off.” I wasn’t in that place of healing from heartbreak or struggling with my empowerment. I’m not there anymore, so songs like that didn’t resonate.


What was the writing process like?

My most frequent collaborator, Shannon Sanders, who wrote songs on my first album, ended up producing and writing songs for all my subsequent albums. We went somewhere by the water and just wrote. It was that feeling when you’re not writing songs to any end other than the desire to write songs. We ended up taking those to Turkey, and bringing them back with a whole lot done. We were all shocked by how much we got finished in Turkey in just five days.


What lyrical themes did you cover?

The common thread in all the songs is a very present expression of my spiritual philosophies. Not religious, just how I feel things work. It’s the basic, fundamental, spiritual truth: Be good to each other, love someone for more than what they look like on the outside, feel the energy of the earth—and be happy to be alive, knowing that being alive isn’t easy but it’s a journey.


Were any songs difficult to write?

There’s one I never would have the courage to let myself write. It’s called “Life I Know.” I never had any experience like that. I’ve had songs that made me feel a little throb in my throat or I had to call my mom and have her listen to it, but this song? I cried for three days. Then all my girlfriends I sent it to cried for days. It’s a song about what it feels like to be a 30-something-year-old woman still trying to figure things out. A person who wasn’t really listening would say that it’s about love. And it is, but not the romantic kind that you hear about on the radio.


Was it a struggle to release the album on your terms?

I empowered myself. It doesn’t have anything to do with me pushing it through. I don’t have an attachment to anyone’s acceptance or approval. I know I could have bigger album sales, be a bigger artist if I made certain choices. My vision of success is clarity of my intentions and reaching that intention while being true to myself. Commercial success comes second to what my definition of success in life is. I say what I want and what I don’t want. People have disagreed, so we don’t have to work together—and that’s OK. I don’t feel that crazy, disappointed feeling in my stomach, because I know what it feels like to have what other people deem success and not feel good. I’m willing to walk away from any situation or anyone that’s not right for me, which is why I was able to shelve Open Door. I learned how to let go.


Where did you find the strength?

In the fall of 2009 when I decided I was going to retire, I emailed Oprah and told her I was going through this, and she said—this is paraphrasing—“Set your intentions, and the universe will rise up to meet you wherever you are.” I took a chance on that. “Well, what if I really did just do what I wanted to do?” What I’ve learned by taking that one chance is that the universe rises up to meet you wherever you are. Every time. That’s why I feel free to release the music I want to make. I know now that I can, and that it’s going to be fine.

–Amanda Farah


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