WHEN INDIA.ARIE sings, “I’m not the average girl from your video,” it has got to be the understatement of the year. Charismatic, emotional, and impossible to pigeonhole, her Motown debut ACOUSTIC SOUL is more than a breath of fresh air: with it, she steps right into the artistic whirlwind of the new R&B.
In India.Arie’s first single, “Video,” we’re discovering not only an extraordinarily gifted and affecting young singer: we’re also meeting a fellow traveler. From local coffee houses like the Ying Yang Café in Atlanta to Black Lily in Philadelphia, and the stages of Lilith Fair, India.Arie, 25, has already left deep impressions, with her richly textured voice and some of the most eloquent and inspiring songs we’ve heard on love and life since our first encounters with Roberta Flack, Tracy Chapman and Bill Withers.
“Songwriting has had an effect on me that I would never have predicted,” India.Arie says. “In ‘Back to the Middle,’ the girl who was ‘afraid to speak her mind,’ is me. I was in a shell. When I tapped into my own sensitivity, I started to understand people better — understand a person’s motives; see on someone’s face when they’re not feeling good, or when a person is touched. This deeper understanding of myself and others was a direct result of writing songs.” And that may be just what makes India.Arie’s many talents — singing, writing, playing, arranging, producing — feel at first impressive, and then truly inspired.
With equal parts of gorgeous melodicism and honest, rootsy blues, India.Arie’s voice was made to communicate directly to the heart. Her insights are wonderfully warm and reassuring in “Strength, Courage and Wisdom,” and “Video.” In life stories like “Promises” and “Beautiful,” India.Arie provides the kind of encouragement we treasure from our best friends. Fusing romance and the everyday pleasures of life, “Nature,” “Simple” and “Part of My Life” convey both deep faith and the grace of our higher selves. And in her love songs “I See God in You,” “Brown Skin,” “Ready For Love” and “Always in My Head,” India.Arie writes and sings with such originality and intimacy that she immediately joins singular talents like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Lucinda Williams. The album is an absolute embarrassment of riches: a balm to the soul, a mightily inspirational wake-up call for those of us seeking real substance in our pop music, and a sensual, melodic tonic for every listener. Stevie Wonder, for whom India.Arie wrote her joyful tribute “Wonderful,” recently said of her: “A gentle genius lives in the mind, voice and hands of this woman.”
ACOUSTIC SOUL was over a year and a half in the making. Experimenting at both the demo and production stage, India.Arie emerged with a spare, yet enveloping sound of her own: a balanced, intuitive and highly personal melding of textures and beats chosen from both the old and new. “I’m trying to blend acoustic and hip-hop elements,” India.Arie explains. “I used the most acoustic-sounding drum samples, to have something loud enough to compete with other records, but to keep the realistic, softer feel.” Track co-producers Blue Miller, Mark Batson, Carlos “Six July” Broady, and Bob Powers all co-wrote with her, resulting in a vibe that’s unmistakably collaborative, consistent and creatively whole.
Both India.Arie’s overflowing generosity of spirit and breadth of background are rooted in a supportive and musical family. Her mother, called Simpson by the family, and her father, basketball player Ralph Simpson, named India.Arie in tribute to Mahatma Gandhi because her due date matched his birthday. “Arie was something my mom made up, but I was told later that it means ‘lion.'” After picking up a recorder when she was too young to join the school band in her hometown Denver, India.Arie eventually took up sax, baritone clarinet, “a little” French horn, soprano, alto and tenor recorders, and trumpet as she was drawn by each instrument’s unique qualities. All the while, she sang in school choir.
“Both my mom and dad’s side encouraged me, but once I started singing, my mom was my mentor,” India.Arie says. “She grew up in Detroit when Motown was new, and taught me everything about singing and songwriting. My ‘formal training’ was my mom saying, ‘Try this.'” Admiring the full-length bright orange coat – with matching handbag – handmade and overnighted by her mother, India.Arie adds, “My whole family is helping me, setting up my website, sending me clothes, praying for me. In fact, my mother, a professional designer, is my stylist.”
Taking up the guitar while studying jewelry making at Savannah College of Art and Design transformed her life. “It was the first instrument I played that I could sing with. At a party, I was playing a song that I wrote about my mother, and at some point, I wasn’t even thinking about what the next word or note was going to sound like. The room got really bright, like someone had turned up the lights. At that moment, I knew that a dream was coming true.”
But India.Arie also set high standards for herself. “I always loved Stevie Wonder; when I was a kid, his music would touch me so much that I would have to take it off the record player for a little bit. Donny Hathaway had that effect on me too. I love James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Oleta Adams, Vince Gill and George Benson. Basically, I love singer-songwriters. That’s what kept me from taking my music seriously at an earlier age. I didn’t write songs; I just sang, and that wasn’t enough for me. So when I started playing guitar, I jumped on it right away and I was out playing my first two songs within a month.”
Soon, India.Arie co-founded an Atlanta artist’s collective, Groovement/Earthseed, and their independently-released compilation led directly to a call to play Lilith Fair stops in St. Louis and Nashville, to crowds of 10,000. “That’s the day I met Bonnie Raitt,” says India.Arie. “I really admire her social work and musicianship. There were way more people than I thought were going to be at the ‘B’ stage: there were lots of different colors, the sun was shining and people were just open to hear me. That was a perfect day.” Not long afterward, Divine, a young vocal group with a No. 1 pop single, sought out not only India.Arie’s songwriting, but her production, too. “It was beautiful to see a song I had written in my bedroom go to the next level for the first time.”
Amid this activity, India.Arie says, “I was never searching for a deal. I knew that I wanted as many people as possible to hear my music, but I made a decision early not to compromise myself or my music.” Her Nashville Lilith Fair appearance led her to two key people. “Meeting Reen Nalli (a talent scout for Universal Music Group), and trusting her, I knew she was going to help me do it right. Then I met Motown President, Kedar Massenburg, and he told me he’d never make me compromise my artistic integrity.”
Like many of the young artists who’ve now remade R&B, India.Arie embraces hip-hop, but isn’t subject to its stereotypes. “I don’t define hip-hop the way a record company would. The thread that runs though both my music and hip-hop is that it’s a very precise expression of my way of life. It’s like blues; it’s very real and honest output of emotion into a song. Because of that legacy, my generation now has an opportunity to candidly state our opinions. That’s what my album is about. I just wanna be me.” India.Arie’s deeply personal understanding of the physical, spiritual and emotional aspects of music pervade the album. “I think certain instruments and sounds correspond to certain parts of your body and energy centers, says India.Arie. “That’s what those chills are when you hear something you like. I’ve been told that my voice is healing.”
To test India.Arie’s philosophy, look no further than your own reaction. “I had a dream that someone said: ‘Artists help people stay in touch with their feelings.’ I think music has the ability to heal, the ability to destroy, to teach. It’s a very tangible/non-tangible thing.it just goes. It’s like pure energy that lives forever.” Here, then, is a blessing on top of a joy, and a powerful positive impulse entering the world. Very soon, India.Arie will prove that her music is everyone’s gift.