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Natural Woman

India.Arie's Acoustic Soul Power

By John Duffy | Posted 4/4/2001

With her first single, "Video," making noise on urban radio, India.Arie offers hope that the soulful sounds of Erykah Badu, Maxwell, and Jill Scott are more than isolated outposts in a hip-hop-heavy R&B climate. Her newly released debut album, Acoustic Soul (Motown), blends neo-classic soul with a modern hip-hop production stamp. That her songs encourage a strong sense of self-worth, personal integrity, and nonviolence makes her success all the more pleasing.

Success means sitting in the nightclub's funky dressing room and--after a night of little sleep, a rushed set at a WERQ event at the Convention Center, dinner with industry types, and a listening party at Fletcher's--answering a reporter's questions. The 25-year-old Arie is clearly exhausted--"I'm so tired, you'll have to forgive me," she says with sincerity. But she is focused enough to talk about her music and the journey she took in making it.

Music surrounded India Arie Simpson throughout her childhood in Denver. (A family friend suggested the name "India" because her birthday fell one day after Mahatma Gandhi's.) Her father, who played for the National Basketball Association's Denver Nuggets, and her mother, a housewife, came from Memphis and Detroit respectively, and their record collections instilled in young India a love of those cities' sounds. Her grandfather played blues piano; several aunts sang professionally. A relentlessly curious India eventually found a seat in the school band playing tenor saxophone.

Music later took a backseat to jewelry-making, which Arie studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design, but didn't disappear altogether. While at school (inspired, she says, by the music of James Taylor, Bill Withers, and George Benson) Arie started playing guitar seriously. Finally, her mother encouraged her to drop jewelry for music full time. "She has been my rock through all this," Arie says of her mother. "She's made me clothes, given me money, wisdom, so much."

Arie moved to Atlanta, made the rounds at coffeehouse open mics, and helped found Groovement, a progressive musicians' collective. The Groovement record label, Earthseed, released a compilation EP in 1998 featuring local artists, including an impressive Arie original called "India's Song," in which the narrator sits under an old oak tree idly strumming her guitar, wondering if this was the spot "where my brother was hung/ where his body was burned." The song's soul underpinnings and its depiction of the past sufferings of the artist's African-American ancestors pointed out the direction in which she would soon be heading.

"I don't see myself or any of these other newer artists as bringing back the old soul music," she says. "I just see us as a continuation of it."

"India's Song" and its fresh folk-soul sound garnered Arie early attention from major labels, as did high praise for several second-stage appearances at Lilith Fair in the summer of '98. Arie says she really wasn't looking for a record deal at the time: "I was approached by a lot of labels, but I just didn't feel comfortable with what they offered." Still, Motown chief Kedar Massenburg made a convincing promise, saying that she would never have to sacrifice her artistic integrity at his label. Massenburg got her song "In My Head" on last year's soundtrack to Spike Lee's Bamboozled (Motown), and helmed the sessions of Acoustic Soul as executive producer.

The making of the elegantly crafted album dragged on for nearly two years nonetheless. The difficulty, Arie says, was the songs themselves: "They were all written on acoustic guitar, and translating them to full album arrangements took a long time. And it had to be done right." But she doesn't regret taking her time. "I am very happy with the way it turned out," she says with a satisfied grin. "I learned so much about myself and what I could do. I learned many lessons that, had I learned them later in my career, would have been more difficult."

Despite Acoustic Soul's prolonged gestation and no less than four credited producers, the finished album is seamless and lean: no filler sounds, no overwrought percussion, and very little to diminish Arie's effective hooks, commanding voice, and alarmingly mature lyrics. She sings of militant self-esteem on "Video" and the power of hard-won personal conviction on "Strength, Courage and Wisdom." "Brown Skin," a tune she says would not have come about without the long hibernation in the studio, is a sophisticated celebration of African-American sexuality. "I never would have written a song like that before," she says. "But after working so long and hard on the album, I had the confidence to say what I wanted to."

In other songs, she admonishes those who stray too far from their true paths in life, espouses a vague hybrid Christian/ Rasta/Zen spirituality, and implores a higher power to bring an honest love her way. In fact, Acoustic Soul could use a few fun, unambitious pop songs, but India.Arie says the seriousness of the tunes reflects her own personality. "My mother says I've always been like this," she says. "She always says I'm middle-aged inside, that I was smarter than a lot her own friends."

Prematurely middle-aged or not, Arie was unprepared for the impact "Video" has had. "We've been playing a lot of these radio-station events, and every time there are a hundred 12- to 15-year-old girls up front singing the line 'because I am a queen' right along with me," she marvels. When Arie sings "I'm not the average girl from your video/ my worth is not determined by the price of my clothes" over the funky three-chord chorus riff and people respond, she says, it provides more than enough reward for spending 20 months in the studio. "If young girls listen to that and it gives them confidence to be themselves," she says, "that just blows me away."

The new album is more than just neo-classic soul, though. In addition to songs based on catchy guitar chords, the album's final stretch features decidedly modern tracks that betray little of their acoustic origins. The pulsing love declaration "Simple," for one, is built on little more than a tight beat, a few mellotron strokes, and an insistent bass line. The blending of soul's organic vibe with modern urban pop is so perfect that the three interludes on Acoustic Soul that invoke the blessings of no-longer-with-us artists (Ma Rainey, Miles Davis, Tammi Terrell, Stevie Ray Vaughan, etc.) seem superfluous. On the first of these interludes, Arie riffs on Sam Cooke: "Because of you, a change is gonna come," she sings, as if to announce, "I am here to make that change, if I am lucky enough." The album-closing ode to Stevie Wonder, using his song titles and characteristic chord changes, sinks to the depths of abject fandom.

If Acoustic Soul is any indication, Arie's music is strong enough to stand on its own, without all the fawning over her influences. But she offers no apologies for the name-dropping tributes . "I did it more than just to pay tribute to the people I love or who influenced me," she says. "It's also a way for me to offer my music to them, to their spirits." In effect, if 2001 proves a good year for Arie, she already has her acceptance speech thank-you list for the awards she's bound to receive.

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