Real Talk with India.Arie

By Maranda Pleasant

MP: I’ve been singing “Cocoa Butter” all night.

IA: Let me tell you what’s funny. I’ve been on a hiatus for three years— longer conversation. But this is the first thing that I’ve released in that time. You’re the first person who has said, “Cocoa Butter,” to me, and it felt like, how did she know that? My mind just went, how did she know that?

MP: I pulled an all-nighter last night and they sent me your soundtrack and I was listening to it all night. Ok. Let’s jump in: what is it that makes you feel most alive?

IA: I have two answers. I’m a Libra, I always have two sides of everything. The thing that makes me feel most alive is knowing that there’s something that I have to do that I’m afraid of. But I know that

it’s what I’m supposed to do. Jumping in and doing that thing makes me feel most alive. I spent the last three years doing that over and over again, and before that I spent the rest of my whole life before the last three years avoiding that. I’m still afraid of things, obviously—we’re human. But I like that feeling of being afraid. I don’t know how to explain it better than that. I know I have to do it—I love the feeling, the afterglow. That’s what makes me feel most alive, is the afterglow after doing what I know I’m afraid to do. It just feels so powerful.

The thing that makes me feel most alive is knowing that there’s something that I have to do that I’m afraid of.

MP: That’s really beautiful. What is it that makes you feel most vulnerable?

IA: [laughs]

MP: I know, right? And baby, they just get better.

IA: I was laughing to myself like that because I feel like it’s the same thing. Because of what I’ve chosen to do for my work in the world, almost every time that there’s something that I’m afraid to do that I need to do, I have to do it in front of other people. It makes me feel exposed. Those things that I’m afraid to do are always about being afraid of being exposed. Every time, that’s what it’s always about. I also want to say that the thing that makes me most vulnerable is romantic relationship.

MP: Oh!

IA: When they’re new and you’re just really letting the person see you? That is hard. I told someone the other day, “I can’t do this, I don’t have the tools right now to be this vulnerable. You need to stop. I don’t want to hear about you liking me.” It was so terrible and I said it. It was honest but I said it. So terrible. That’s terrible! I can’t believe I’m saying this.

MP: So beautiful. “I don’t have the tools right now to be this vulnerable.” How soul connection is that, though? Raw and naked. How do you deal with emotional pain?

IA: Oh, shoot. That is so funny. I went through this breakdown/ breakthrough, this awakening that started in ’09. Actually, it started in ’06. Between ’06 and ’09, I dealt with pain by eating. AndI was like, oh, crap, eating makes you gain weight! Because I had never even had that issue. After ’09, I started dealing with my emotional pain by writing. I always had been a writer, but just not songs. Saying things on paper that I would never, ever say, and saying things to myself, admitting things to myself, about myself and my personality, just putting it on paper, is how I deal with emotional pain. And—sleep.

MP: I want to do that. I punish myself by no sleep. That’s really honest.

IA: Food and sleep and writing?

MP: It seems nobody really talks about what we do with our emotional pain. Only the ascendant perhaps, who have learned how to fully meditate or do yoga or whatever through their emotional pain. I want to do a whole series and I want to get Oprah and all these people together where we can just talk about real shit that we’re going through, and not just talk about light spiritual stuff, but talk about real issues and how we move through it.

IA: I do those things, too, but they’re more of emotional balance. Because that’s always the issue for me. My life is so tumultuous. I dive into everything. I’m feeling all up and down and sleepy and moody and hormonal—it just gets crazy. Just to keep myself balanced, I do things like yoga and meditation. I recently started doing TM.

I have, my whole life, been healing the girl inside, the part of me that struggles about being a female in the world.

MP: Love David Lynch. David, if you’re listening, call me!

IA: There’s another style of meditation that I’ve been doing since my mid-twenties. Tapping into your higher self to get a glimpse of yourself from the outside and get insight into what’s going on in your life. I learned that from my godfather in my mid-twenties. TM, as you may know, is completely different—it’s about that stillness and allowing yourself to just be still and be in the stillness. Honestly, I can’t believe I just said that, because I don’t really talk that way. But that is what it is—to be in the stillness. The thing about TM: there are rules but there’s really no wrong way. When you start to thinking,just bring yourself back. Or if you fall asleep or you need to fall asleep, just wake yourself up. I like the looseness inside of the structure. You know how you have that moment in your day when you really get hungry or sleepy or irritable, it’s almost the same time every day? When I have my three o’clock time, I’m like, “Okay, I gotta go do my TM.” It’s respected. People will let you go take your space. Really taking the space inside your head to give yourself space? It’s more doable for me inside of my work day. I need twenty minutes—everybody get out! It’s so cool.

MP: I’m going to start doing that! I haven’t taken a fucking shower in five days, get out!

IA: That’s a whole other column.

MP: I’m going to write a column on mastering self-neglect.

IA: You know what? That’s how I deal with my emotional pain. I isolate myself. I do whatever I do inside that time but it’s always alone. I isolate myself to the extreme. I’ll write or do yoga or sleep. Eating is not one of the things that I do now to deal with pain, because I don’t ever want to do that again. But I isolate myself, that’s what I do. As a matter of fact, when all my friends and family read that, they’ll be like, Yep. That’s India.

MP: You just made me realize that my self-neglect and my excuses for self-neglect, is a negative way of dealing with emotional pain—wow! Oh my god, I’ve got bigger issues now.

IA: Welcome to the human race!

I have a story to tell about everything all the time— I cannot be on stage and have something on my mind without telling the audience. I’m super emotional and expressive and vulnerable in that moment.

MP: That’s our slogan on our t-shirt—“We Have Issues.”

IA: I want a t-shirt! I say that so often. It’s just human.

MP: It’s a conscious lifestyle magazine, but I want it to be real. Let’s just put it all on the table. I saw that you were involved in Half the Sky last year. What causes are you passionate about right now on the planet?

IA: Any time someone is passionate about a cause, it’s because they want to heal something inside of themselves. I have, my whole life, been healing the girl inside, the part of me that struggles about being a female in the world. That’s why I write about the things I write about. My first single, “Video”—that’s why. I’m seeking to heal and to understand and figure out how to navigate the world as a woman. Obviously, there are a lot of other things that I am—I’m African American, I’m a lot of other things, a musician and an artist. But that woman part holds the most pain for me. And therefore, obviously, the most lessons. When I think about the cause I’m most passionate about, it’s all in my music all the time, because I’m always singing about the empowerment of women. Always, even when it’s a little love song—it’s still about the empowerment of women and this high spiritual nature of love. It’s the biggest healer ever. That’s what I’m always singing about. Those two things, always. I enjoy doing things like that. I like when a teenager comes and talks to me on the street. I’ve been through a lot and I have a lot to share. I’m passionate about the empowerment and healing of girls and women. Where I do the most work in that regard is in my songwriting.

MP: I was listening to some of your new work that they sent me—I need more. That’s what I know. Tell me what this process was like for you. What was in you that needed to be born on this album? I love the track—I was rubbing cocoa butter on my heart last night and I was dancing all around my house. What is it that you’re most excited about on this album?

IA: I have another album that I’ve worked on for three years. Literally at the eleventh-and-a-half hour, I shelved it. It was a duet project with someone and the environment between us became incredibly toxic.

I knew that for my own well-being, I had to just stop everything. It was done, the album was done, it was mixed, we were getting ready to master it, album cover photo, everything. It was done. And that was at the end of October, just the other day. I took a week to pull myself together because I was really shaky inside and really scared. What am I going to do? After that week, I went into prayer and I started asking for answers. I was like, Show me what I’m supposed to be doing. And it was very clear. I started understanding that I want to be able to be on stage again, in fellowship with the audience and all the stuff that I love to do. To do that, I need an album, and to stop limiting myself and saying I couldn’t do it in this short period of time—and just do it. Do it. Just go and do the album, and give yourself a finish line. I gave myself a finish line of April 1, but I didn’t make that, obviously. But I am very close to being done. What I love most about this album is how strong it showed me I am. How much I’ve learned about music and producing music and arranging melodies over the last three years. While that other album did not come out, this album is a very clear seed planted by that album. I learned so much about what I’m capable of. And for that, I loved it.

I went through this spiritual awakening period, I decided that instead of apologizing for having a lot to say, I wanted to create a format where people would come to hear me sing and speak.

I went into this album saying I want to write an album. My old school song writing partner who I’ve been writing songs with all these years, he said, “So what’s the message this time?” Because I always have something that I’m dealing with and I want to talk about and it’s the theme of the album. I said, “The message this time is that I’m emotionally exhausted from the last album, and I just want to write songs that are simple and that feel good and that are accessible and inspirational. That’s it.” So the first six or eight were that. “Cocoa Butter” is just that. Then I woke up one night two weeks ago in the middle of the night and was thinking about all these things that I am feeling as a woman, and having a very unconventional lifestyle as a woman. I’ve been owning my own house since I was twenty-four, living alone, traveling the world, never been married, I don’t have kids and all that stuff. I started thinking about those things and this whole other group of songs came out. Now I have this very simple and non-emotional and inspirational side, and this very emotional side. I’m happy about all of that, what I’ve accomplished. I love the songs and the process. It’s been hard, but I love it. I really have loved it.

MP: You are one of us. Do you know the name of the album?

IA: That question’s right on time: Songversation. Over the years, I was doing what I loved to do, which is my music. But it was always a bit distorted, because I was doing the music in the way other people around me were telling me it should be done. The music itself, too, but the navigation of the big picture of my career. How they think it should be done. That’s what I was doing. All of it wasn’t—it wasn’t all something I didn’t want to do, but a lot of it was things I didn’t want to do. Some of it was conventional wisdom that worked for me. I don’t want to make it sound like it was this big thing where I was just a zombie. It wasn’t that; it was growing pains. I was a young kid who had never been anywhere and didn’t know anything, so I was listening to who I thought knew. Anyway, in my performance style, I’m a singer-songwriter. People can call it neo-soul or R&B or whatever. But at the core, when you see me live, I’m a singer-songwriter. I do all the things that singer-songwriters do. I introduce the songs, I have a story to tell about everything all the time—I cannot be on stage and have something on my mind without telling the audience. I’m super emotional and expressive and vulnerable in that moment. I say everything and I do whatever I want to do. I’m just me. The polished version of me, I suppose, because I have on clothes and makeup. But emotionally, I am very on the surface. I spent a bunch of years trying to do performance where I would try to squeeze everything I need to say in and then sing the songs, because they came to hear the songs. This three year period that I referenced earlier, where I went through this spiritual awakening period, I decided that instead of apologizing for having a lot to say, I wanted to create a format where people would come to hear me sing and speak. I made that conversation, so you know what you’re going to get when you come. I’ve been doing that for the last two years. I talk and sing in equal amounts. I named this album Songversation after that. When I go on tour, all of my performances will be songversation.

Photos: Randee St Nicholas