Not so long ago, I enjoyed an incredibly exciting and very personal conversation with R&B singer/songwriter India.Arie. But before I share Part 1 of my interview with India.Arie, I’ll give you some more background information about her journey and the creation of her latest album.
Sometimes you have to step back to move forward. Coming to that realization—let alone taking that crucial first step—can be a daunting endeavor. Now on the other side of a self-imposed four-year hiatus, India.Arie returns with the most illuminating album of her career: SongVersation.
“This is where I’ve been for the last four years,” reflects the singer. “I’ve struggled most of my career to feel comfortable with how things were, how I was treated, the politics of the music industry. I needed to pull back from the public eye to ground myself and rebuild my life and career. It’s a process many of us go through: spiritual maturation, spiritual awakening, clearing out the old and starting anew.”
Her inner renewal pulsates throughout SongVersation, starting with lead single “Cocoa Butter.” The mid-tempo groove and image-rich verses mirror the soothing balm that is the song’s namesake. “Your love is like cocoa butter on my heart … I show you my burns you show me lessons learned,” sings a re-energized India.Arie.
The singer exudes quiet power on the non-apologetic “Life I Know” as well as the empowerment-themed “Just Do You.” With its spare instrumentation, honest and engaging lyrics framed by melodic R&B, SongVersation finds India.Arie coming back full circle to the basics that captivated a global legion of fans on debut albumAcoustic Soul.
But underscoring those basics now is a fervent spirit born out of epiphanies, health imbalances and hard decisions that occurred over the past four years.
“On my last two albums, I felt like I was fighting to grow,” says India.Arie. “And that was dehumanizing. Everything became and sounded more complex, instead of me just being.”
No more. As India.Arie sings on the album’s centerpiece “Break the Shell”: “Child, it’s time to break the shell Life’s gonna hurt but it’s meant to be felt You cannot touch the sky from inside yourself You cannot fly until you break the shell.”
“Putting spiritual and empowerment ideals into music concepts … that’s always been the core message of my music—and it seemed I was talking to others …” says India.Arie. “But the truth is that it was my message to myself because I was yearning to know the peace of a self-defined life.”
Interview with India.Arie
Dirk Terpstra: The spiritual message in your music shines so much light on humanity ‘Angel India’. Where does your spiritual inspiration come from?
India.Arie: First of all, thank you for calling me an angel [laughing out loud…]. It’s funny because when I do my shows, I tell the audience: “This is not called a concert, this is called a SongVersation, because I say the things that I want to say and sing about the things I want to sing” and I tell the audience that I believe that the way human beings are angels for each other, is when someone shows up for you and says or does exactly what you need, exactly at that right moment and so I think that one of my favourite things about my career is when meet people who tell me: “I don’t know how you knew that about me but it’s exactly how I felt or that expresses exactly how I felt about someone or what I’ve been through”. That always makes me smile.
It’s truly my mission to give people a voice to my music because I always pray the intention, I literally pray the intention into my music that people will see themselves in it. But your question about where my inspiration comes from…
[India is quiet now and thinking about it.] I am not exactly sure. First of all, my spiritual inspiration comes from all the things that happen in life, but the reason why I’m a person who’s spiritual life is often the centre of others’ lives I don’t exactly know, I think I’ve always been like that. Now that I’ve been in the public eye for almost 15 years and I meet people who know me from middle school and high school, they often say: “I knew you were always like that”.
I do remember in my early 20’s though, I’m having a turning point because I felt like I was just getting ready to turn into the music industry, I was just getting ready to start living my life outside of being a kid and I remember saying the words: “I’m flying blind” and that’s exactly how it felt, I was just flying blind and I wanted to know how to be connected to a greater wisdom. I grew up going to church but I didn’t see that as a religious thing, I saw it as just another language or something, like learning how to tap into something that’s there.
I remember the first time I ever really, really got down and really prayed, not the way you are doing in church, but to Spirit and you know that you are in the flow with something — I remember crying really hard because I felt this profound something, I didn’t even know what that was, but it was a very profound feeling. I remember being on the floor, like literally on my face and just in pain and I don’t even remember what I was in pain about. I think it was the general feeling of being lost and I remember that being the day that I really asked to understand to be into fellowship with the spiritual world around me. I remember that I was saying a prayer that I didn’t have to suffer to grow anymore. I don’t mind having hard times but I don’t want to suffer, we’ll see if that prayer gets answered.
I was probably 22 at that time and I’ve just worked towards a relationship with Spirit and that’s where my music comes from, that’s why I see the world like I do, that’s why I make the kind of statements I’m making in my music. I guess that the inspiration just comes from life itself.
Dirk: When I watch you perform ‘Break the shell’ for Oprah or during the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam with Raul Midon, I can feel your emotions so clearly and beautifully. How has your spiritual journey affected those emotions in you?
India.Arie: I used to be really controlled by my emotions. When I felt something, I could be completely immersed in my emotions and just as I mature spiritually, I understand that there’s more of a message and less of the reason for life. It helps you to understand how you feel, where you are and what kind of changes you need to make. I’ve read things like that in the different spiritual books and I understood it intellectually but to me it was like “What do you mean, how you feel is how you feel, there’s no way to get over how you feel”. But then I began to understand that my own journey has taught me that your feelings are a guide, they’re not the destination.
About 4 years ago I took a hiatus and I had set a lot of intentions, but the main thing was that I wanted to have a baseline feeling of wellbeing because I always felt like I was under the bar and I would peak up some times and then just go back down to this place of feeling low. It was always something — I was always hurt about something or struggling with something and I decided to have a closer look at my life. My main goal for the hiatus was to just look at myself and tell myself the hard truth, because other people can do that for you but they don’t really know you. That’s why I wanted to really look at myself and the most beautiful thing that came out of it was that once I was willing to look at myself I knew that I didn’t want the way I was acting. I was like what people call ‘being the witness’ and now I was willing to look at how bad it hurt and how much pain I was in.
I didn’t have a profound ‘Eckhart Tolle moment’, I’ve had a shift as profound and I felt just like being a whole different person by seeing clearly how I was feeling. I am now less afraid of showing my emotions, I am not afraid of hurting sometimes, I find myself crying with people more often and telling things to people I wasn’t used to, because I’m not afraid of the pain anymore. It’s hard to explain but I have a much different relationship with my emotions now.
Even when you saw me singing Break the shell on Super Soul Sunday, I was really excited to be with Oprah and to be singing one of my new songs and excited to be back on television, but I forgot about all that when I was singing this song. Oprah was sitting there too and that made me nervous initially, but as soon as I started singing I forgot whoever was in the room. What I really cared about was how it felt and I wanted to live in that moment, fully and feel and sing.
Dirk: You have this beautiful capacity to both show the bright and angelic part in you: “My life is full in some of the most important ways…”, but also the darker and more insecure side of you at the same time: “…but empty in the core at the end of every day”. Is this your story? Where does the emptiness come from?
India.Arie: All of my songs are my story and the emptiness comes from, I guess what we just talked about. When you live a life like that for so long it takes a while for the big ship of your life to turn and so a lot of the things in my life feel much more like a real grounded real life, but there are also certain sacrifices that I made — I’ve been travelling around the world and singing and sacrificing a lot of the regular things already since I was 22, most my adult life, so the emptiness comes from the parts in my life where I haven’t caught up yet: Wanting to have children, wanting to be married, wanting to have a grounded family home life. It’s not like the biological clock thing, I always wanted to have children and to have a family. That’s also a part of my life and I feel like that with this song because I realize it’s happening a lot later than I ever expected. Not that I’ve been waiting for it all these years – I just looked up one day and it was like “Oh I could have done that a long time ago” [laughing now].
Dirk: How cool is that, that you can express those feelings in your songs!
India.Arie: Yes it is, but it was also the hardest song that I’ve ever written. Not because I thought that people would hear this at some point, it was hard because it took me a long time to get to a place where I could see that in myself, like the first line of the song says: “I’ve kept the secret for myself for far too long”. I just didn’t know that I felt that way and I didn’t know that that was feeling empty. I just didn’t know. I kept thinking of musician Joni Mitchell and how much she tells in her songs, and then I thought “If she can do that, then I can do it.” But it hurt so bad, writing this song and I was hurting for a good three to five days after that. But then, what they say: “When you shine a light on your fears they dissipate” — I didn’t understand that until I started shining a light on my own stuff and after I wrote it I thought: “Okay”, I was still watching those things, but it didn’t hurt and I don’t have this unidentified empty thing inside me anymore. It is so cool that I have music to help me understand myself like that. So cool!
You can find PART 2 of our conversation with India.Arie HERE.
For more information, please visit India.Arie’s website: soulbird.com
INTERVIEW BY: DIRK TERPSTRA [APPEARED ON OMTIMES AND SOUL LOVE FIRST]