So this is not something that started with something that was already finished. This is just on-the-spot, organic creativity.
On the spot. We created — wrote this one.
And was there an idea? "OK, we want this to be uptempo. We know this is going to be a dance track." Or did that matter so much? Was it just whatever comes, comes?
Well, it didn't — nobody came in and said, "We want a dance track." We knew we wanted a uptempo, though. Right? So Guy came in, jumped right in on the beat, 'cause he has all the beats, and everybody — Guy was on the keys — and everybody just started chiming in. Like I said before. Same thing.
And how about "My Loving"? How about that track?
All right. OK, that is a Rodney Jerkins production. And that's a Sam Romans and Mary J. Blige write. We sat around and we wrote that song — how can I explain it? We didn't even start like that. We started on something else. We were just sitting around. What happened — the session wasn't going the way I wanted it to go, and so — and Rodney will tell you the same thing — so I made everybody just stop. And I said, "Let's listen to some Stevie Wonder. Let's listen to 'Golden Lady.' " We started listening to "Golden Lady," and listening to the colors of the keys and everything. And Rodney started playing all these amazing keys and colors, and Sam started writing. I started writing with, [singing] "tonight ... ." I started writing like that. And then Sam started, and right there, on the spot, "My Loving" was birthed — written and produced by all of us.
What's your songwriting process? I mean, how do you come up with the ideas? How do you come up with hooks? And do you also think you've become a better songwriter over the years?
I think I'm better than what I was, yeah. And the process — I mean, it could be anywhere. Like, we can come up — OK. The music tells you what to do. The music tells me what to do. How can I say this? The music tells you what to do. The music tells you what to write. Like, how dramatic it is, or how undramatic it is, tells you what to do. And that's my process. And if I have words I just write 'em down. Like if I don't have any music and I think of some words, I just write it down. If I have a song, without words, I just write it down.
And how interested are you in the hook, the chorus, making sure that's something that's memorable? Do you have all of those kinds of ideas? Or you just write whatever comes to mind?
Yeah. Absolutely. You gotta make sure the hook is catchy and memorable.
Of course. So let's talk about London, obviously, 'cause this is where you did the record. And I have to ask — since you have spent so much time in New York but then you transplanted yourself to London to make this record — London vs. New York? What are your thoughts about London as a place to make music, to make art, in 2014?
Well, right now, London is the place to do it.
Because it feels like you can be free, like you can just do — how can I say it? It just feels good out there. It feels good for anybody that's creative, anyone that's in fashion, singing, whatever you're doing. It just feels great out there, man. It feels — I can't even describe it, what it feels like.
One of the things we were talking about before the microphone started rolling is that you felt that London had the feeling of New York in the '80s. And I think for so many of your fans, including myself, we think of as a child of the '90s, that you just, like, came out of nowhere in the '90s. But you obviously had — you were raised on music of the '70s and the '80s. Can you just talk about that a little bit? In what ways London now in 2014 feels like New York in the '80s?
New York felt like a place of possibilities. It just gave, gave, gave to you. It didn't feel so selfish. Now it just feels so selfish and so mean here. And it never, like — it just always felt like, you know, those commercials where you see that big apple, "I Love New York." It felt so good.
Is part of that because — I mean, in the '80s, there was a mixing of so many different cultures. You had hip-hop, which was only a decade old. You had clubs likeDanceteria and Sound Factory and all these places where there was a lot of really innovative and fresh music being made. Is that gone for you?
Yeah, I think here everything is caged and genre-driven. Everything is in a box. This goes here. This goes here. This goes here. And it wasn't like that back in the days when we were growing up. We would hear Luther Vandross, then hear KRS-One. We would hear everything. And now it's like, "OK. You singing soul music? You go to urban/AC. You singing soul music, too? You go to urban." You know what I mean? "You singing pop? You go to pop." When, over there, you could be 13. You could be 30. If your music is great, they're playing it on the radio. On the same station as Ariana Grande. You can have a No. 1 record over there. Right now, my song "Right Now" is playing on the Z-100 of London. And it's like, "Wow. Really? All it takes is a smash?" When over here it takes: "Oh, you gotta do call out. Oh, you gotta do — " All that. You know what I mean? And everything is kinda tight.
So it's bigger than a New York issue. Do you think it's a U.S. vs. U.K. issue? That right now making music in the U.S. is not — it doesn't give you the same creative potential or opportunity that you feel is there in the U.K.?
I think, as a soul artist, they have embraced soul music more — way more — than we have. I mean, we used to. But right now everything that we're throwing down the toilet, they're picking it up.
And there's a long history to that, right? The Northern soul movement in London in the late '60s and early '70s was huge. There is the, of course, the new wave of British music in the early '80s, groups like Duran Duran and Human League and so on. In the '80s also Wham! and Sade and —
George Michael. And of course, the most recent wave with Adele and Duffy and —
Amy Winehouse and so on. So there's this long history to that, which explains why there's such a love for the music. But historically there's always been a love for black music, too, in the U.K.
And in Europe that sometimes hasn't been matched in the U.S. I was talking to a number of my R&B historian friends, and we were thinking that — and anybody out there correct us if we're wrong but — I don't think there's ever another historical example of an American R&B artist packing her bags, getting on a plane, to record an entire album of original material in London with the top producers and songwriters. I mean, I don't think there's any precedent to that. Chaka Khan had moved to London for a long time. Jocelyn Brown moved to London. Edwin Starr moved to London. But I don't think anybody has done quite what you did. Have you ever thought about yourself in that — like, what you've done as a kind of — almost like a radical act? Or did you just think, "This is the natural progression for me and my career"?
I knew it was the natural progression for me and my career. Was it radical? I thought about that later. I mean, it was something that has never been done for an artist like me before. But while I was doing it I wasn't thinking, you know, that I was being reckless, radical — that never crossed my mind. I just knew I needed to do it.
Or at least innovative. Doing something that no one had — was that part of it? The fact that nobody had done it?
OK. And also, now is an interesting time in popular music. All you have to do is look at the newspaper, go on the Internet, and you'll see so many debates about authenticity and appropriation in popular music. "Who has the right to sing what?" "Do white artists have the right to sing black music?" There're these debates about Robin Thicke —
— and Marvin Gaye, about Miley Cyrus and twerking, about Iggy Azalea and Macklemore, who some people have called the queen and king of hip-hop. So there's this whole racial issue, too, of white artists and black artists. Have you, again, thought of your album in terms of that sort of history? The fact that as a black woman and a black artist you're working with a number of white artists in the U.K. in Europe at a particular moment. Did you ever think about that even in the process of doing it?
'Cause it's a kind of fusion album.
Not at all. I don't even — I never think like that. I'm thinking about great music and who can deliver. That is it.
Outside of race.
I really don't care.
Has it always been that way for you careerwise?
Always. That's why — that's good you said that. That's why, in my 20-years career — when I got a call from Bono, when I got a call from Eric Clapton, when I got a call from George Michael, when I got a call from Sting, it didn't matter. I grew up — and my house was soul music, but my dad was a funk band musician. And the albums that he left behind when he left, he left rock 'n' roll. I was a soft-rock little kid. I would go to the radio — that's how I knew who Elton John and Ambrosia and all these people — and Stevie Nicks — were. So I have a real, a wide variety of a musical history. And so I've never been a person like, "Oh, I need to work with black people. I need to — " I just never been that small-minded.
Absolutely. So a few other questions here. I saw you performing recently at the Converse Rubber Tracks Studio here in New York for their Fader Fort event. And you were performing and you looked like you were having a great time and we were all having a great time in the audience. Have you thought about the difference between working with a live band and then working with electronic musicians, particularly DJs and so on? Does it make any difference to you in terms of singing over tracks or singing with synthesized music vs. —
There is a difference. When you put it on a grid, it kinda takes it and puts it in a little box and holds it there. But when you do it with a band — when you sing with a band — anything you do with live instruments, it's living. It's growing. It's breathing. It's walking. It's talking. So I prefer to sing with, make music with a band, but I will not reject anything that's hot from a track. If it's amazing, I'll take it.
I also wanted to ask you about the fact that you've been doing this for 25 years. And very often you're called a veteran. I don't know how you feel about that term.
You've paid your dues. You've earned that. But certainly these days the shelf life of an artist tends to be very short. We live in a kind of attention deficit disorder culture where everybody's just moving on to the next star, next star. Why do you think you've remained relevant for so many decades, and how do you go about making the right moves, saying, "Now it's time to go to London to make an album," or, "Now I'm gonna do this or do that"?
Well, because for one I've never been afraid to be myself and to continue to fight for my identity. While everybody's on to the next thing, and the record label is saying, "You gotta do what she's doing," I'm fighting, saying, "I can't. If you don't want me, then I'm just gonna sit this one out." And that goes back to the point where I said I started feeling — getting stale. Because I started to feel like, "OK, I'ma have to sit this one out. " The record label needs "this." But I can't give them my full creativity if they want that. You know? The next new thing, which is not what I'm gonna do. You understand what I'm saying?
Absolutely. Yeah. And there's always been this debate about women in popular music, especially as they get older. Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane always used to say she would never go out there like Mick Jagger and get older in the public eye. She wanted to sort of retreat from the spotlight. But there are many women who have continued to be very, very successful into their later years, like Aretha Franklin has a new album out, Barbra Streisand, and so on.
So we know there's a limited role sometimes for women in the performing arts as they get older, but yet at the same time the envelope is being pushed all over the spectrum. You've got Viola Davis with a new show that Shonda Rhimes has produced, and she's pushing the envelope in terms of what's possible for black women at a certain stage in popular culture. And I think in some ways you have done the same. I think you have pushed the envelope for what's possible, the idea of going to London and recording in Europe and doing something very different at a much later stage in your career. Have you thought about that? Where do you see yourself in 20 years or 25 years, or are you just kind of in the now moment, just making it up as you go along?
Well, right now I am in this new place that I'm excited to be in, and I'm just gonna have a lot of fun. Far as what's to come? Would I be 60 and still singing if I'm healthy enough to do it? Just for fun. It'll just be strictly for fun. Like Aretha — she's still doing it, but she's doing it because she's Aretha Franklin. She just loves to do it as an artist. Just as an artist, I would love to still be able to do it. But as an older woman, I'd be like, I can't do it as much as I used to. You know what I mean? You need more rest than normal.
Can you ever retire from the artist, you think?
Nah. I don't think so.
It's the thing that — it's in here.
Yeah. As long as I can get it out, and be happy to hear how it sounds when it comes out, I need to do it.
Gotcha. Do you find that making music has become harder at a time in which record sales are globally in decline and so on? A lot of people are kind of frustrated with the idea of making music. The kind of middle class in music is not there anymore in the way that it used to be. You've got the superstars, but it's become a lot harder for a lot of people to make music in this day and age. Do you think about this? Does this enter your —
I mean, it's nothing to think about. It's real. It's the truth. If you have a platform, or an opportunity to continue to do what you're doing, and it's not what it used to be and your budget is not what it used to be and you love to do what you do? Make it work. Sing. Do what you do. Things will turn around for you if you start doing it for the reason that we supposed to do it. We love it, you know? Don't worry about the budget. Don't worry about the records selling like they used to. You're reaching the people that you need to reach. That's it.
So it comes from passion.
It has to.
Which is exactly what you seem to have connected with on The London Sessions.
You've gone back to the passion of it, and the joy of making music.
Yes. Or else it's a job. Or else you're gonna be worried about: "Oh, my God, I don't have the budget I used to have. Oh, I don't have the billboard." I mean, were you doing it for the billboard? Were you doing it for the budget? Or were you doing it for the people? I've been doing this for the people, so. Lot of artists are doing it for other reasons but, you know, that's them.
All right, on that note, I think it's a wrap. Mary, thank you so much.
Thank you so much. It was nice talking to you.
Absolutely. Great talking with you, too. Be well.