In that time, Arie has released two albums, started her own record label (called Soulbird) and transformed from an up-and-coming artist to a bona fide international superstar, playing her music to fans across the globe. Arie's travels have allowed her to witness many of the ills plaguing people beyond the United States -- and much of what she experienced made its way onto her latest CD, Testimony: Vol. 2 Love & Politics.
In lieu of her upcoming show in the Queen City, Creative Loafing tracked Arie down and chatted her up about life, politics and music.
Creative Loafing: Your latest album has an obvious international feel to it -- in subject matter and instrumentation. When did you start adopting this musical and mental global sensibility?
India.Arie: I think that I've always thought that way. In my songs, I would talk about interpersonal relationships or a broader story about the human experience -- like "There's Hope" or "Come Back to the Middle"; those are two examples of songs that are just about being human. So in that way, I was being broad and looking at humanity as one. But with this album, the thing that's a little bit different is, not only was I looking at humanity, but I was going actually more into detail about the things I see in the world as opposed to a broader section of humanity. With this album, Testimony: Vol. 2, really it has more to do with me just being brave enough to say in more detail what I think and also needing to do it because I held myself back from it for so long. I was kinda like saying those things -- kinda -- as in "Come Back to the Middle." But this time I really said those things just because I'm older and more mature and tired of holding myself back and all that stuff. So I was kinda doing it, but now it's on a higher octave.
Musically, this album just turned out [to be] world music. I didn't try. I just did what I wanted to do. Same thing with the lyrical content -- I just did what I wanted to do. But I feel like I've been slowly on that path the whole time. It's been like a toe went in and then an ankle and then the leg; the whole time, from Acoustic Soul [her first album], is how I saw myself. I guess I just didn't have the means of communicating it in the studio and also the courage to say, "I'm gonna do this. It might not work at radio, but I'm gonna do it anyway."
Well you touched on this a little, but what made you hold yourself back? Was it just the fear that an album wouldn't sell or were you afraid of being judged on a personal level?
Well, I find for myself that I create my own parameters for who I can and can't be in my own head. From the beginning, I played acoustic guitar. These songs can be produced any kind of way; they can be produced like black radio, like pop radio, like folk. It's just about the songs for me: the lyrics and the melodies and what it says. And the production is wide open. So I created this parameter for myself, like, I chose to go to a black [record] label -- which was Motown and I'm not there anymore; I chose to produce these songs like black music; I want my music to speak to black people first because I'm young and black and that's important to me. So I created this box and put my own self in it. So when I wanted to have other sounds that are equally, if not more, appropriate production for the actual songs themselves, I still held myself back from doing that because of this box I created for myself. It wasn't that I was afraid it wasn't gonna sell or afraid it was gonna be judged, but it was, like, I made a decision that I want to stick to these certain people. And the way to do that in the business is A-B-C. So I did A-B-C. But this album, I just made the music exactly how I heard it with complete -- 99 percent -- disregard for what kind of radio station is it gonna get played on or whatever.
But the thing that got me to that point was just life. Like, I'm at that place in my life in general -- with my relationships, with my mom, with my home, with my finances and my music and everything -- I'm gonna do what I want to do. But it took me to see myself as an adult to do that, to let myself out of these certain boxes. I don't regret it or anything like that, but this is truly the first album I've made that sounds exactly like what I wanted. I like all my other albums a lot; in particular I like Acoustic Soul, and I thought I didn't like Voyage to India but I do. And I love Testimony Vol. 1, and I love this one, too. But this is the first one that was really what I meant to do. Not holding anything back.
How do you feel like people are responding to the new album? Or are you even concerned?
I am always interested in talking to people who like it. And people who don't like it, it's whatever ... In life in general, I find that the younger I am, the more I care what people think about me; the older I get, the less I care. I mean, I care what people think about my music or I wouldn't put it out at all. But I like the people who like it, and anybody who doesn't, it's not for them. And that's it.
Speaking of the new album, part of its title is Politics. And I know you've been involved with some political action recently, specifically working with Obama during his presidential campaign. So, what are your feelings about him and how the world is reacting to him now that he's in office?
Well, I had a clear idea before he won. I have this feeling, like, because the world is changing so quickly and so drastically on all fronts ... that clearly he's the right person to be the president of the United States of America at this time in history ... I think he's the right person, but I'm curious to see what that's gonna look like. Because him being the right person doesn't necessarily mean everyone is gonna like him. So I'm looking at his popularity, and it makes me a little bit nervous. I've been in the music industry basically all of my adult life, so the lens I look at the world through is through the music industry. I look at race that way; I look at all of it that way. So when I think about somebody being a star and everybody loving a person, all they have to do is make one little slip and then they're burning your CDs or running them over with a truck or whatever they do. And that's the part that I'm not sure about. I know that he's the right person because he wouldn't be there if he wasn't the right person ... but I don't know what right looks like. I don't know if that means everyone is gonna like him, and it makes me nervous. I was talking to someone on the [tour] bus the other day [and said], "This could really be like a Lauryn Hill." Everybody loved her so much, but she did one little thing. It's not like people don't love her, but now they're like, "She's not what we thought." But that's what happens in the music industry. And like I said, that's the way I look at things. But I don't know how a person can be a star -- like on the cover of Rolling Stone -- and be the president and it not be a very dramatic moment and some point. And I don't think we've seen a dramatic moment yet. I don't even know how to put it into words. It seems like a whole lot to carry.
I guess the flip side of that is how much popularity does he need to be an effective president?
There's a whole different popularity that he has. Whenever he puts [legislation] through, it gets cut down party lines anyway. All of us who aren't in Congress, all of us who just support him, all the people who think he's a sex symbol, all the people who think he's the second coming of Jesus, is different from the popularity he needs to get things done. In Congress, if they want to go down party lines that's what they're gonna do.
[Obama] is Michael Jackson in the '80s. He is. That's a lot.
Well, let's hope he doesn't get a nose job!
Let's hope that there's not a nose job energetically. Or that he wouldn't change inside because now he's a star. That's what I'm talking about. The subtle ways that make you change when you feel you have to please the whole world. Seems kind of strange.
Obama's tackling a lot of issues at the moment -- the economy being the main thing -- but what issues are you concerned about these days?
One of the things that I worry about a lot is violence against women in war. Rape as a tool of war. I worry about it a lot. And it's crazy because sometimes I feel like I think about it too much. Because really I'm so far removed from it. But I really worry about it. I can't stand the idea of that happening on such a large scale and people just talking about it like it's another thing. Then if we're talking about AIDS -- the pandemic that is AIDS -- all that's a part of it, too. I think about it in my sleep. It bothers me. A lot. A lot, a lot, a lot.
What made you connect with those issues so much?
I don't know. I don't know what makes my music female-centered ... Looking at my