About 13 years ago, India.Arie was on top of the music world. Her unique singing voice and the earthy grooves found on her debut album, Acoustic Soul, led to seven Grammy nominations in 2001. Famously, she didn’t win a single award that year. Still, she was on a roll. She had arrived.
Arie would go on to win four Grammys and sell 10 million albums over the next eight years. Yet throughout that journey, her artistic soul was unsettled and she basically dropped out of the music business in 2009. It was a classic battle between artistic expectations, demands by others and the need to find her true creative self.
This year, Arie has bounced back with a deluxe-edition 20-cut album called SongVersation. The new songs sound fresh, confident and positive, ranging from modern Soul to World music stylings to a Reggae romp. Now, more than ever, her lyrics are nothing short of poetic. “I believe in open doors/I’ve taken off the screen,” Arie sings in the song “SoulBird Rise.” “I’m ready to let the world inside and touch my life/I will no longer be defined by/What someone else believes that I am/And now that I have dropped the weight/ I am light as a feather/It’s time to elevate.”
In the years before Arie was “discovered,” she managed to avoid the rough moments experienced by many up-and-coming musicians — like long road trips to play for six people in a small club for gas money — because she went communal. She chose a collaborative path, joining an arts collective in Atlanta called Groovement EarthShare, which hosted concerts on a regular basis.
Ironically, however, Arie’s loneliest and most brutal times onstage came after being a Grammy darling and a commercial success. In 2009, the singer/songwriter was “paying her dues” on the road, opening for another artist and playing to people who mostly just came for the headliner. The disinterest was what she calls “the final straw” that led to her hiatus.
“There would be a lot of people in the audience, but they would not be interested in me,” Arie says.
“I was just (the) opening act and I realized that they didn’t know who I was. After winning Grammys and all of that, and this was in 2009, I would come out onstage and I would have to say, ‘My name is India.Arie. The songs you are going to hear tonight are about fundamental spiritual ideals. They are about love. Most of all, just listen to the words. Take a chance and listen to the words we’re singing.’
Every night, I’d have to humble myself and that really was the biggest empty room that I’ve ever played to, just having to humble myself in front of people and being embarrassed like that.”
Very early on that tour, Arie came on stage to a grand pre-recorded introduction, but the tepid response to the fanfare (“I walked out and it was like, ‘Clap, clap, clap, barely clap, clap, clap,’ ” she says) made her rethink her whole approach to performing.
“I took the intro out and started introducing myself,” Arie says. “Now, as long as the people are listening, I don’t really play for an empty room. The emptiest room that I played for was full of people who just didn’t care. I don’t ever want to go through that again.”
“Now, I am happy that people come because they want to,” she continues, “which is why I call my performance a SongVersation, because I wanted to explain to people what it is before they came. There is not going to be dance moves. There is not going to be choreographed lights. It’s a SongVersation and people come and that feels good.”
Somewhere during her time away, Arie found her groove again. The first single off of SongVersation is the positive and soulful cut “Cocoa Butter,” which features the playful chorus refrain, “Your love is like cocoa butter on my heart.”
“My songwriting partner Shannon Sanders, I love him and he is one of the biggest blessings in my career because he is super mentally active,” Arie says. “He said, ‘I have an idea,’ and he said the words, ‘Cocoa butter on my heart.’ ”
Arie had just spent three years recording the album Open Door, a World music effort with Israeli artist Idan Raichel that features lyrics in English and Hebrew and was funded with Arie’s own money. The collaborative album was ultimately shelved because, she told Billboard, “We could not agree on the business part.” She called the whole process “super emotional,” leaving her “exhausted emotionally.” Arie immediately shifted her attention to her next project and was ready for some uplift. “Cocoa butter on my heart” hit the spot.
“I wanted to write things that were simple and groovy and accessible, that felt good,” Arie says. “When he said the words ‘Cocoa butter on my heart,’ I was like, ‘That’s what I need!’ It became the first song we wrote for SongVersation and I loved it because it was simple. I was wringing my heart out and it was for me, because I needed that cocoa butter on my own heart after spending much of my savings on the (Open Door) album that never came out.”
Another wonderful cut from SongVersation is “SoulBird Rise,” which represents Arie’s renewal as an artist. The creative process that brought that song forth was much more fun.
“I woke up one morning and had the idea while lying in bed and I recorded it on my laptop,” Arie says. “I wrote it, then got out of bed and I played it all day. That was on the water in one of my favorite places in the country where I like to go, in the mountains. I was out there writing the song and then it started raining. I have never told anybody this, but it started raining and I took all of my clothes off and went outside and was just dancing to ‘SoulBird Rise’ naked in the rain. I forgot about that until just now. It felt good then, to be able to be yourself. Being able to say that, I think, is a sign that I know myself better.”
A SONGVERSATION WITH INDIA.ARIE takes place Tuesday at Taft Theatre. Tickets and more info: tafttheatre.org.