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Mary J. Blige: 'I'm Not Worried, Trying To Keep It Real — I Am Real'
NPR Music | NPR Staff
Morning Edition aired a radio story about this interview. You can hear that segment at the audio link above and both hear and read a conversation between Mary J. Blige and NPR Music's Jason King below.
Jason King, host of our R&B channel I'll Take You There, interviewed Mary J. Blige, the beloved singer who's won nine Grammys and sold over 50 million albums in a career that's now more than two decades long, in New York City just before her most recent album, The London Sessions, was released.
"It was starting to feel like work," Blige told King, talking about this time last year, before she heard a song called "F for You" by British duo Disclosure. "I lost my mind over it. It reminded me of something that I grew up on." Mary says she listened to a wide variety of music as a child, and in the early '90s, when we were all listening to her, she was listening to house singers: CeCe Peniston, Robin S, Aly-Us. Two weeks after she came across the Disclosure song, the remix she recorded was exploding in London and then, quickly, in the U.S., too.
The rapturous response to that remix led to a full album of new songs written by Mary and a murderers row of young talent from across the pond. She says they're the sound of her freeing herself. "No one's gonna take me out of the box," she says. "I feel stagnant. Stuck. Stale. I gots to move on. I gotta get out of here. And that's why I went and took the jump to London."
King — a singer, producer and R&B historian — asked Blige about songwriting, the idea of "keeping it real" and what's wrong with the American music industry.
Let me set this up a little bit. Mary is just about to release her 13th studio album, titledMary J. Blige: The London Sessions. It's an album that, in a lot of ways, represents a kind of departure for you, Mary, 'cause it finds you in the studio collaborating for the first time on new material with today's top British songwriters and producers like Disclosure, Naughty Boy, Sam Smith, Emeli Sande. And I should mention Mary is not just singing on the record, she's also a songwriter on all of the album tracks. We're going to talk about that today, and we're really happy to have her in the studio. So welcome, Mary.
I want to start talking a little bit about travel. For a lot of people — a lot of Americans in particular — travel is still a luxury. It costs a lot of money. Lot of Americans have often not traveled. I think there was a statistic that went out years ago saying that only 10 percent of Americans have passports, and of the 10 percent that have passports only 10 percent use them. So travel for some is still, you know, something that's a luxury or seen as something to aspire to. But it's interesting that a lot of artists in popular music, particularly hip-hop artists, became radicalized through travel. I remember reading an interview with Chuck D — also reading an interview with the Sugar Hill Gang — saying that the first time that they ever went on tour to Europe, it changed who they were. Because all of a sudden they realized there was an audience for them outside of America.
People who didn't necessarily even speak English listening to their work, who had heard their recordings. So I wanted to ask when was the first time you traveled out of the U.S. Can you remember that moment?
Yeah. The first time I traveled out of the U.S., I think it was to London. I think — cause I'm trying to remember back that far — but that's all I can remember.
When was that?
This was the What's the 411? album. And I was on tour. We had began the tour over there. I could not believe what I was seeing. I couldn't believe so many people were screaming for me. And they knew my songs. And they knew who I was. It was just a moment — especially where I was at at the time. I was not in the most healthy place. My self-esteem was low. Everything was just low. But it helped me. It was like, "Wow. OK." You know, "People in a whole 'nother part of the world appreciate." But I had to say that to myself, you know? I didn't really want to say it around anybody because people really love taking things away from me, to make me sad. So I just kept it to myself. And it was just — it was surreal. That was crazy for me.
Do you remember what it felt like being out of America for the first time?
Yeah, I felt out of place. I didn't know what to do, where to go. I didn't know what to eat. It seemed like I was ordering the worst things you can order, because I didn't know what to order. And then everyone was like, "Get some Indian food!" I didn't know where the fish-and-chips places were, where Wagamamas was, or where Nando's was. Like, I know where everything is now. But when I first — I was like, "Oh, my God. I don't know where to go. I don't know what to do." I stayed at the worst hotel because I didn't know what hotel. So, yeah, I was just completely out of place. And I kinda was like, "I don't know. This is different. I wanna go home." I wasn't there yet. I just immediately wanted to go home.
So that was in the early '90s. And you've obviously spent about 25 years touring and doing concerts and traveling all over the world. And in that time you've become a global superstar. How has the last 25 years — of touring and doing concerts and live shows and going to places that you probably never dreamed you'd go to — how has that changed you?
It's been enlightening and formative. It's opened my mind and my life to all kinds of different things. I'm doing different things. I'm thinking different. I'm like, "Let's go to London for vacation." Or, "Let's go hang out in Japan." Japan is fun for culture and shopping and style. And, you know, I never thought in a million years I'd be — I never thought like this at all, when I was coming up in Yonkers. I was like, "This is Yonkers. That's 125th. That's Harlem. That's Mount Vernon." And it's just a beautiful thing when you travel. You see things just different.
I was gonna ask you about that. I think one of the things that's interesting about your decision to record across the Atlantic, in London, is that for so many years in your career you've been associated with "the local." Right. You've been associated with the Bronx — where you were born — Richmond Hill in Georgia, spending your formative years in Yonkers. How important were those early years to you and to your development? I mean, are there particular skills or sensibilities that you learned in your childhood in the New York local environment, or in Richmond Hill, that you've taken with you and have been responsible for your success?
Well, yeah. Growing up in New York was all about — especially in the environment that I grew up in — it was about learning how to survive. Learning how to live through tough times. Learning how to be quiet when you're supposed to be quiet. Learning how to speak when you're supposed to speak. That's what New York taught me. It taught me the more rigid side of life.
And then when I would go down South every summer, I was taught the mannerable side. "Yes ma'am." "No ma'am." "Thank you, ma'am." You know, "Go pick those beans." "Go do those chores." "Do this, do that, do that." My mom would do that, too, when I was here, but she was working a lot. And, like I said, the environment was so harsh, we just really learned how to survive. But both sides of, you know, living in the country and living in the city taught me a lot about what my personality is right now.
Was the country an escape for you from the urban?
Yes. Yes. Yes. It was.
Some performers move very far past their roots. Michael Jackson grew up in Gary, Ind., and became a global superstar. Freddie Mercury started his life in a small town in Zanzibar, an island in East Africa, and then became a global superstar. As you go really global with this record, right — that you're exploring the sounds of Europe — how do you remain connected to your roots? Or is that something that you think about?
I am my roots. There is no, "How do you remain connected?" I am it. You cannot disconnect from something that you are, unless you're acting like you're not it anymore. I mean, that's a part of me that's gonna come with me. But we evolve and grow up from the things that we're not supposed to do anymore, and we take with us the things that we need. You know, we take our fashion sense. We take our swag. We take our manners. We take everything that we need. And that's how we grow into more things that are healthy and beneficial to us. So you can't leave that behind. I mean, I haven't.
So much of your career has been, "I'm just Mary." That line. That you're accessible, that you're everyday. When you look at the early records, the way that you dressed was very similar to the way that a lot of young women your age dressed. There wasn't that kind of distance where it's like the pop diva on the pedestal that I have to aspire to. You were a very accessible figure in a lot of ways. Do you ever worry keeping that accessibility aspect? I think gone are the days, maybe, of people selling out, or those kinds of ideas. I think that doesn't really work in the context of pop anymore. But do you ever kind of worry about keeping that everyday accessibility with your fans as you go and make an album in Europe, for instance?
No, I don't worry about that because I am that. I'm very accessible. My clothes game has always been what it is, since What's the 411? I love fashion. I love to look great. But at the same time, my fans can hug me. They can touch me. They can talk to me. When they see me on the street, they can cry and tell me that this song almost saved their lives. And even with this London Sessions and everything that I'm doing right now, once they sit in front of me, or once they hear the life experiences in the song, through my voice, they're like, "Gosh. She's still that." And I'm not worried, trying to keep it real. I am real.
Does that term even have a lot of meaning anymore, the idea of keeping it real? 'Cause it was such a thing that people threw around for so many years to, kind of, police authenticity. Saying "Are you real?" "How are you keeping it real?" "Are you wearing the right clothes?" "Are you talking the right way?" Do you think that is valid anymore?
I really don't care about that, because I really don't care about acting the part. Like, I am me. I don't know how to do anything else. I don't.
Yeah. And that term — that branding term that's surrounded you for such a long time, "The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," is that something that you still adhere to or that you like being associated with or do you think it represents you anymore?
I think it represents a genre of music. And I am the queen of that genre of music. Am I gonna say, "Oh, ixnay, don't call me that"? I can't do that, because for 20 years, a generation, and other generations, have respected me, and known me, and have come with me on this journey because of The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul title. So I can't close that book. I have to leave that book open. Because that is a part of the Mary J. Blige history book, and legacy. But, in evolution right now, as we move forward, I'm more than just that.
And during that whole time of building that legacy, I did songs with Bono. I did songs with Elton John. Eric Clapton. George Michael. And the list keeps going on and on. I was trying to let people know then: I'm more than just that. And on the Mary album, when I invited Elton to play the piano on the Benny & The Jets song — "I'm Just Mary" — I said, you know, when interviewers were like, "What is this album supposed to mean to you? And what is it supposed to mean to your fans?" And I said, "Well, this is the album where I let people know I'm an artist first." So I've been screaming this for a very long time, but nobody got the memo. They just kept me in the box.
I just felt like — for the last couple of years — now it's time for me to do something about it. No one's gonna take me out of the box. And I feel stagnant. Stuck. Stale. I gots to move on. I gotta get out of here. And that's why I went and took the jump to London — you know, the leap of faith to London — because I needed to do it for myself, to free myself, because no one else was gonna free me. Even if the album — the album sold 100 million copies or no copies, I needed to do this, to say, "I could do that." Man. Any artist, anyone that's an artist out there, will understand exactly what I'm talking about. You understand what I'm talking about. Sometimes you just gotta do stuff for — do it for yourself.
At what point did you start to feel stale or stagnant? Like, at what point in terms of where you were artistically?
Last five years I'm starting to feel like this is becoming a routine. And I don't want it to become a routine. I don't want it to become a job, because when I first stepped into the studio on What's the 411? it wasn't a job. It was organic. It was a gift. And then I went to theMy Life album, was able to discuss what was going on with me. It was therapy. Then I went to the Share My World album and it was even more therapy. And this just kept being therapy all the way until The Breakthrough. And then the Growing Pains album. And then it started to become, "OK." It stopped being therapy.
Was it more of a job? It felt like a job?
It was starting to feel like work. And when it starts to feel like work, you might as well not do it. Because that's not why people bought into you. People buy into why you do what you do, not the what. So if I'm all about the what right now, I might as well quit, you know?
And I think also some people felt — or at least some critics felt — that with the last two records — A Mary Christmas and the Think Like A Man Too soundtrack — that in some ways your career had become a little adult contemporary, right, in terms of the R&B market, which itself had changed. That you were appealing maybe to a little bit of an older demographic or at least the people who listened to your records had become older?
It feels like with The London Sessions album that you are almost re-branding yourself and you're also connecting to a different audience, one who listens to Disclosure and Sam Smith and so on, which is not disconnected from your previous audience but it's to say that the album has introduced you to a whole other group of fans who might not otherwise have heard your music. Do you think that's the case?
Yeah, I think that's definitely the case, because what started it all was the "F for You" remix with Disclosure. And that was so organic, the way that happened. It was like — I heard the song on VEVO, and I lost my mind over it. It reminded me of something that I grew up on. And we started calling, you know, looking around for what label they were on. They were on the same label as us. And then we were calling managers and this, that and the third. The night after that, I was in the studio recording the remix. And then they released it the next — they got it together, and I think in two weeks it was released in London. And then it exploded.
So it was just organic that I was supposed to be on that record. I was supposed to try something different.
Let's talk about that remix for a second, because I love the track. And it does remind me of a lot of '90s music, too. And currently there's this whole house and deep house revival that's going on, particularly in the U.K., with acts like Disclosure and Storm Queen and so on. What was that sound that it reminded you of? I mean, what were you listening to? 'Cause we always think of Mary in the '90s, you must've been listening to the exact same stuff that you were recording, but you probably had a much more diverse listening palette.
Well, when I was kid, it was in the '80s. I was too young to go clubbing, so I would listen to the radio all the time. But on the Friday nights, certain radio stations would play club music, like heavy. 92 KTU would play it. WBLS would play it. And I was just sitting in the house with all the grown-ups, just listening to the music. And it just felt like CeCe Peniston, "You Got to Show Me Love," and "Follow Me" and — you know.
Robin S, "Show Me Love." Oh, yeah.
It was just — you know what I mean? So when I heard "F for You," I was like, "What the — ?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I couldn't believe what I was feeling. Like, they nailed the whole thing. So that's what made me want to try it, cause I was already in that mode. You know, I was already trying to figure out something new to do. And there it was, when I heard them.
So the first step was that organic "F For You" remix with Disclosure, and then how did the rest of the album happen? Cause it's a big leap to go from one remix to — let me do an entire album and pack my bags and take my suitcase and go to London to record.
Right. Well, after it exploded — "F For You" exploded in London — it started exploding over here. And we started doing shows together. We did a show at Terminal 5, which was nuts. It was insane. You know, these are club kids going crazy over Mary J. Blige — because of the song! So when I saw that response I was speaking to Steve Barnett, who's the head of Capitol Records. And during that time I was out of my deal with Interscope.
The whole idea was to go to London and do the EP with Disclosure. I told Steve Barnett the whole idea about going to London with Disclosure, and he was like, "Well, Mary, that's a great idea, but we don't want you to go to London to just work with Disclosure. We want to put you in London, have you work with Sam Smith, Emeli Sande, Naughty Boy, Sam Romans. All the amazing talent that's out there. And have you live out there for a month and call the album The London Sessions." So that's how — it was Steve Barnett's brilliant idea to have it all the way it is right now.
It's almost a concept album, in a lot of ways, right? Cause the concept is: Let's take Mary J. Blige, and all that she represents, and let's transplant her in London and have her work with the top producers, the top songwriters and performers. And let's see what comes out of it. So was there a lot of direction from the record label in terms of what kind of sound they wanted? There's a lot of ballads on the record — nothing?
It was all me. It all — 'cause I knew what I wanted to do. So every day was a surprise of what we were gonna get. The first song, when we got out there, it was a dud. That was the first song that we went to record and write. It wasn't good.
What song was that? Do you remember?
Yeah, but I don't want to say what it is. It didn't make it. And then after that, you know, I got a little nervous. Pushed that to the side. Then after that, it was like, "OK. Now. Let's go." And right after that we got "Worth My Time," which is on the album. And then right after that, we got "Nobody But You." And right after that — and every single day was a surprise. Like, it was a surprise of, "What are we gonna get now?" I was looking forward to seeing what was gonna happen that was different everyday. And it was so beautiful and it was so organic working with these people. It was just like it was supposed to happen. Like, all of it.
Can you talk about your process — or can you walk me through your artistic process with a couple of the songs? Like, where did the idea start? Did you write to a track or did you sit at the piano? How did it work? So let's talk about "Therapy," which you co-wrote with Sam Smith, who's currently one of the biggest male artists in popular music, and Eg White, who's a legendary songwriter. Can you talk about the development of "Therapy?"
Well, "Therapy" was already written. Sam Smith had written it for his album. So it was done. It was already reference-vocaled and everything. And when I heard it, it was like, "OK. This is it. This is the first moment. This is the one that says I'm doing something different." Of course I had to change some of the words to make it work for me, but, at the end of the day, I pictured myself singing it. I went and sang the song. And it was perfect, 'cause I just felt like the message was universal. Because I think everybody needs a little bit. And it's not, you know, literally sitting in front of a doctor all the time. It could be whatever your therapy is. What works for you.
How about "Right Now"?
"Right Now," man. There's a documentary that's attached to this whole thing. You gotta see how all this was created. Now, "Right Now" was — we were all in the studio. It was myself, Disclosure, Sam Smith, Jimmy Napes. We were all just — Guy, from Disclosure, is coming up with the beat right there in our face, coming up with — Howard's coming up with the keys. We're all thinking of melodies. Everybody's brainstorming.
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