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Q&A: Solange Knowles On Why Working With Kevin Barnes "Makes All the Fucking Sense in The World"

"I don't want this façade of me diving into the indie scene - there's not a conscious effort to that at all."

Q&A: Solange Knowles On Why Working With Kevin Barnes "Makes All the Fucking Sense in The World"

Back in '08, when Solange Knowles released her sophomore album, the daffy, Motown-checking Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, she sang "I'm no soul girl equipped with no afro." Now however, in wake of her collaboration with Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes and the myriad "Solange Embraces Indie Rock!" profiles that have emerged in the last year or so, Knowles has had a different assumed identity to content with: "They're like, 'Are you going to be this indie-pop girl and be there with your guitar?' And I'm like, 'Hell to the nah!'" Though she's currently putting the final touches on her upcoming album, Solange sat down with us to explain why, latter day indie influences or no latter day indie influences, she and soul music are inseparable and how, yes, working with Kevin Barnes "makes all the fucking sense in the world."

You had mentioned to me that your new album is going to be a lot different than your 2008 record, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St.

Well, I think that my last record was super influenced by the '60s Motown era. It was a concept record for me and a lot of it was based around relationships and identity. There's a line in "God Given Name," where I say, "I'm no soul girl equipped with no afro." I felt that just by saying "soul music" there was this association of having this afro and carrying around incense and this whole lifestyle that I didn't necessarily live. And when I say "identity," I mean just being completely who you are and not catering to one group of people and their expectations. I talked about it on "Throw this Bird Down," which was over a Boards of Canada song, about the complications of society's expectations--they get really fucking annoying!

But with the new record, I think I'm over that. I really am in a place where I don't give a shit--it is what it is, take it or leave it. And so I'm able to write about things with a different tone. There's a song on the record called "Choirs of Crazy" and, towards the end of my last tour, I started getting these humungous anxiety attacks on the bus or after the show. Just the most awful things you can experience; obviously a lot of people go through it. And this song walks you through how it feels and how it plays out, just being completely honest about it. I'm able to write now from an open and honest point without thinking, "Is this melodic enough? Is this going to resonate with whoever hears it?"

It's interesting that the "soul girl" label was an issue when you released your second album. Two years later, I think people look at your recent endeavors--covering Dirty Projectors' "Stillness is the Move," performing with Of Montreal, and then joining Dirty Projectors onstage this past February-- and want to classify you as an indie artist.

It's a really, really weird thing for me, because I didn't make a conscious effort to be thrown into an indie world; I think people associate that with such a lifestyle. To me, you can classify me as indie, because "indie" means independent. And I've consciously left a major label to become an independent artist. I think that there's such a word association the word "indie." There's a sense of classification and also this sense of entitlement. To me, it's like, I left a major label because I didn't like the way it felt to be on one and now I want to be an independent artist. But I don't want this façade of me diving into the indie scene - there's not a conscious effort to that at all.

So now that you're an independent artist--having left Interscope Records late last year--what are you excited to do on an indie label that you couldn't have done on a major label?

I think that something major labels have a problem doing is classifying a genre and a label--they have to have a clear objective and if they don't, they get really flustered and don't understand where to put you. I mean, I was put on tours with really traditional R&B artists and performed in front of audiences who didn't understand me, didn't identify with me, and who were there to see the artists that performed after me. Then there's this girl opening up and they're just like, "What the fuck is she doing here and what the fuck does she have on? Why isn't she swaying from left to right and singing smooth grooves?" And I just felt a lot of challenges, in that sense, that I know I won't have to face anymore. I don't want to paint this picture that I had no control, that wasn't my story--I had more control than most artists. But having all the control and having a lot of control are two completely different situations.

You were in the process of recording with Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes. How did that session turn out?

It was a really amazing process, because our kids would play during the day and we'd have complete family time--then we'd step into this other word of craziness and forget that we were making music until six in the morning. The process of working with Kevin is a whole other world. I mean, he lives, eats, ad breathes the shit and can completely go into madman mode and work until nine in the morning. It gives him life, and you just see it visibly. I think we have a common thing in that we both really like psychedelic soul music and we both have an understanding--he knew I would understand when he talked about George [Clinton], and I knew he would understand when I talked about Shuggie [Otis]. We completely had the same objective to just make completely sensual, sexy ass soul music.

After listening to Of Montreal for a few years now, I would always hear their songs and just felt like, "If I could work with him, I would just murk this shit!" And so when I would tell people about us working together, they would be like "Hmmm, that's an odd paring." And I'm like, "No, absolutely makes all the fucking sense in the world." This is what he does, and this is what I do. He does it obviously in a way for more avant delivery, but the music is what it is.

I've worked with so many different producers and experienced building in its magnitude, but with him, there's just so many layers to work with. I would go check on my son, tuck him into bed, come back and there'd be like eight more layers. I have nothing but amazing things to say about that experience. He's a musical genius. This month, I'm taking the songs that I've been working on for the last year and completely finishing producing them. I'm having this sort of music commune that I'm calling the California Mission. He and a few other producers are coming for a week at a house that we rented in Santa Barbara area in the mountains. We're just going to live in this house for the month and just make it out loving each other or hating each other. So however we make it out, this shit's going to be good.

 

I think people are going to find the new album's Isley Brothers/Donna Summers quality surprising, given the people you worked with to make it.

Oh absolutely, it's interesting that you say that, because I have gotten that response over and over. They're like, "Are you going to be this indie-pop girl and be there with your guitar?" And I'm like, "Hell to the nah!" There are so many different variations of soul music. To me, soul music is very simple concept - it's music, as cliché as it sounds, that comes from the soul. I grew up listening to Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Shuggie Otis - those variables will never leave me.

Even the stuff I did on my last record, which was a little more downbeat, electronic over the Thievery Corporation and Boards of Canada, was still soul music. When the '90s music scene hit, my mom didn't let us listen to it. She had this attitude very much so like, "This music is the devil. Put my Marvin back on and deal with it." My mother was not playing that shit. She was like, "What is this New Kids on the Block stuff? You better put some Chaka Khan on and call it a day."

Right, like you said, no matter what sound you go for, that soul influence will still come through. I think that's especially true for your "Stillness is the Move" cover.

I think that I can hear it in so many different forms of music and, like you said, the delivery is different and sometimes it affects the way you think of the song. I really enjoyed doing that song, because, to me, the first time I heard the song and I heard the drums...Dave's drums knock! They knock like hip-hop, so I would sing along with it like it was an R&B song. But I'm even confused about what the word "R&B" means, because, to me, the song is a lot more D'Angelo than R&B. When I think of R&B, I think of SWV, En Vogue - a different form of music. With R&B, the timing and pocket is pretty much on the beat, and then with soul, it's always been about where you feel the word placement should be.

I talk extremely slow and I know that everybody who interviews me is like, "If this bitch does not hurry up..." I have a drawl and so, since I've been a kid, I've talked really slow, sang slow, ran slow. I'll never forget during my entire first album, when I was working with a lot of different R&B producers, they'd always tell me is that I was off beat. I didn't think that I was off beat, and it was a really frustrating experience, because they would constantly tell me to do it over and over again, until I was on beat. And I'm like, "But I am on beat! ...I'm on my beat." They were like, "No, one and two and sing and three." But I was always more like, "uh one and uh two and uh three."

You had everyone from Timbaland to Jermaine Dupri producing your debut, Solo Star. Do you look back on that record and go, "Wow, what was I thinking?"

Well, what I will say is, even if you look back on that record, for me to be 14 when I recorded it, you can still see how much I fought. I mean, I have songs on there that are like complete Sade knock-offs, and for me to be that young and write songs like that, I look back it and I'm like, "Hey, I'm proud of myself." I was fresh out of eighth grade. If people knew how many challenges I dealt with, even to get that product, I think people would've had a more respectable outlook on it, because even when I was so young and in a position where I had access to work with all of these producers, I still completely fought to write my own stuff.

I had gone to Jamaica and went through my weird teenage Rasta phase and it super duper influenced the artwork and the album cover. I have on Rasta seashells, beads, beanie - and my label absolutely hated every minute of it. That was during the time when Britney and Christina were superstars and then there's this fourteen-year-old girl saying she wants to wear a Rasta hat. It was still a representation of the major label fight. So I don't look back on it like, "What was I thinking?" I look back on it and reflect on it. Even then, I was proud of myself for being so young and standing up for myself at a label where Tommy Mottola was my president, and I said in my ninth grade independent spirit, "I'm going to wear my Rasta hat!" Now I do look back on that and say, "What the hell was I thinking about that shit?"

Definitely, everyone has that unfortunate, weird teen phase.

Like vegan, Rasta, yeah...

You had a vegan phase when you were fourteen?

Oh yeah, it was hard full on. I was thirteen. And I definitely did the whole vegetarian, cut my hair off, not-wearing-it-if-it's-not-from-the-thrift-store phase.

I bet some people think you've just entered that phase.

Yeah, maybe so. But right now, I definitely would not do that shit--at all!


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