India.Arie believes in music's power to heal, transform and transcend. And though the grooving, funky and bluesy moments might disguise it, this notion serves as a spiritual underpinning for much of her Motown debut, Acoustic Soul.
"We've all heard of someone being woken up from a coma by a song or certain songs that make people cry or be happy," Arie says. "Sound has power and words have power, and I think when you put them together, you have somebody like Stevie Wonder. He is the first person I knew that made me feel that way."
As a child discovering music through Wonder, a young Arie often took his records off the stereo so that the beauty of the songs could sink in. With her own music, Arie has struck a similarly emotional chord for listeners: Her songs work as remedies for her and for her audiences.
Sade, with India.Arie
Pepsi Center, 1000 Chopper Place
6:30 p.m. Thursday, September 13. $37.25-$75.25, 303-830-8497.
Acoustic Soul finds the R&B artist -- a Denver transplant now based in Atlanta -- at a place in her life where she is confident about who she is and the direction her life has taken. She comes across as self-assured and bold, but not vain or egotistical -- qualities that collide with much of the me-centered fare of her female pop contemporaries. Arie exudes a healthy self-image on her hit single, "Video," in which she uses her name in the chorus as a lyrical hook: "No matter what I'm wearing, I will always be India.Arie... /I'm not the average girl from your video, and I ain't built like a supermodel/But I learned to love myself unconditionally because I am a queen." And in its critique of the common sexist depictions of women in contemporary media, the single's video is an antidote to much of the skin-revealing fodder on MTV or BET. Rather than puff up for the camera, Arie proudly states that she "don't need your silicone, I prefer my own, what God gave me is just fine." Whether she meant to or not, the 25-year-old songwriter has created a modern-day empowerment anthem for her female fans.
Yet despite the self-assured stylings that run throughout "Video" (and all of Acoustic Soul), the track's success has taken the singer somewhat by surprise. She wrote the song for herself, she says, and had no idea that so many people would relate to its lyrical content.
"I didn't feel like I was writing something that was going to be important to people," she says. "I was writing something that was important to me. I had to get it out. All my life I've been different -- like, I had a deeper voice than everybody, I'm more muscular than everybody, more shy. I never fit in -- in school or church or anywhere I ever went. It has less to deal with growth than how I feel about myself."
For too long, the singer felt troubled by what she perceived to be physical inadequacies. The size of her nose, for one, tugged at her feelings of worth. "For hundreds of years, it's almost in your blood not to love the way you are, but we all know that it is our goal and job to get better generation after generation and to heal certain things. We can either let it stay or work on healing it. I want to be someone who accepts my nose. In my family, especially the women, we all have the same nose. My mom and her five sisters all grew up in Memphis -- you can imagine what kind of self-image they had. But I don't have to be that way. I choose not to. It's not like saving the whales, but it's important to me."
Since Acoustic Soul's release, Arie has become a sort of self-styled champion of the feel-good movement: In concert, she often appears on stage with a T-shirt (designed by her mother, Simpson) with the words "Love Yourself" emblazoned across her chest. Though she says she didn't set out to be a role model of personal fulfillment, she is now a beacon for those seeking to counter the negativity of popular music and media.
"I hear stuff every day," she says. "I've had people who cry -- people who talk about how they use it in their workshops for girls. I see a lot of people with tears in their eyes -- not because of me, but because of the song and how they feel like it speaks to them."
Arie recently received the blessing of the grande dame of self-improvement via an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the program that has raised the profile of many recording artists (and authors) by injecting them into the living rooms of millions of women. On a recent episode titled "Women Who Sing," Arie joined Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, Mary Mary and Yolanda Adams in a showcase of female artists. When Arie finished, Winfrey had this to say: "We love that song. Not only do we love that song, we love you for writing that song. We needed that song."
Apparently, the Chicago talk-show host isn't the only one who thinks so: The album has charted gold (500,000 copies sold) since its release last April. Arie has also been nominated for three Billboard Music Video Awards and two Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, for Best R&B Soul Album and Best New R&B or Rap Solo Artist. She was also nominated for an MTV2 award at this year's MTV Video Music Awards.
Prior to Arie's "discovery" by the major-label world, she had built a word-of-mouth following from her shows throughout the southeast United States and in London. When she first picked up the guitar, she was attending the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she planned to study for a career in jewelry-making. Over time, she began to focus on live performance rather than academics, becoming a regular at well-known music spots such as the Yin-Yang Coffeeshop in Atlanta. In 1997, Arie independently released a compilation CD as part of the Atlanta-based artists' collective/ label, Groovement/Earthseed, which she helped co-found. Arie first drew the attention of Motown Records through Universal Music Group talent scout Reen Nalli, who saw her perform in 1998 at the Lilith Fair in Nashville. Shortly after those shows, Nalli introduced her to Motown president Kedar Massenberg. The label head recognized the promise of Arie's raw talent and signed her to a deal that granted artistic autonomy.
Arie didn't squander that opportunity. Acoustic Soul is an impressive debut effort that allows her soulful voice to shine over a tasteful blend of her acoustic guitar playing, live instrumentation and hip-hop production techniques. The stripped-down nature of the record's sound gives the disc a feel that's more organic than that of most of the processed cheese passing for R&B today. To get this down-home rootsy blues feel, Arie chose to work with longtime friends rather than use people suggested to her by industry folk. She co-produced and co-wrote the album with Blue Miller, Mark Batson, Bob Powers and Carlos "Six July" Broady, who is known for his production work on the Ghostface Killah classic Supreme Clientele.
"A lot of the people I used are people that I knew. I co-produced everything," Arie says. "Carlos mostly does hip-hop stuff, but he is also a musician, a keyboard player. A lot of people I met, they didn't understand what I was about musically. A lot of producers said, 'We'll get her somebody to come in and play guitar.' I don't play guitar great or perfect, but I played the style that the song called for because I wrote the song. So when they would say things like that, I knew that they didn't understand where I was coming from at all. I just ended up picking my friends, and they helped me to execute my ideas."
The collaborations give the record a fuller sound; they also turn tracks like the inspiring "Strength, Courage, and Wisdom," the celebratory "Brown Skin" and the wah-wah-heavy "Promises" into songs that will make you want to dance, even if you aren't down with the message-oriented lyrics.
Deeply personal in nature -- Arie describes her most autobiographical song, "Back to the Middle," as "the struggle of a young Libra woman trying to find the middle ground" -- Acoustic Soul is the work of a woman who sees herself as both coming out of the singer-songwriter tradition and continuing the legacy of soul music. She makes folk music that falls somewhere between the two. This embrace of both styles is evident on "Interlude," in which Arie name-checks everyone from Karen Carpenter and Donnie Hathaway to Minnie Riperton and Miles Davis in a freestyle, Hall-of-Fame-type list of artists who have inspired her. Those freestyles, along with a tribute to her idol, "Wonderful (Stevie Wonder Dedication)," were some of the last tracks she recorded for Acoustic Soul. The production process, which took over a year and a half, gave her some perspective on what her favorite artists went through in creating their art.
"After recording my album, I learned a lesson about humility and what it means to be grateful. After everything I've been through and everything that I have, I think it is important to remember where I come from."
Although she respects her musical mentors, the singer bristles when writers try to conveniently place her in the category that is often used to describe such artists as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and D'Angelo. She feels what she is doing not just a rehash of '70s soul music.
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"Everybody is using that 'neo-soul' term," she says. "I disagree with it, because I think it carries a certain connotation that it is like a reinterpretation of something. I don't think that's what I do. I hear things that sound like Al Green -- to me, that's neo-soul -- but I feel like in my heart, I come from a more authentic place. My mother is from Detroit, and she had a band at the same time as Stevie Wonder. They were the same age; they knew each other. Motown knew my mother, they wanted to sign her, so I truly feel I'm a child of that legacy. I don't feel like I'm copying; I feel like I am a part of it. My whole family sings and plays instruments, so I don't feel like I have to copy the blues to know what it is. I think it is in my blood."
In addition to a bloodline to the Motor City and the musical South, the singer also has Denver roots. She attended Rangeview High School in Aurora, and her father, Ralph Simpson -- who used to play for the Denver Nuggets -- and her sisters still live in the area. It was her father who gave her the name India, in homage to Mahatma Gandhi, because of the proximity of her birthdate to that of the renowned leader. Arie's performance at the Pepsi Center this week will mark the first time she has performed in Denver in front of family and friends with whom she grew up.
The chance to renew old ties is just part of what Aria views as a life coming full circle. The other involves the fact that she has found a happy home on Motown, the same label that gave Stevie Wonder his start. "On a personal level, it means a lot," she says. "On the business level, for me it's the best label, and it's the best between me and my mom, karma-wise. I think a lot of the things that I have been blessed to do have added up to the same place, and this is not even the end."