India.Arie talks about reading, writing and stoking her creative fires

The soul of a songwriter: India.Arie talks about reading, writing and stoking her creative fires

Joy Duckett Cain

Like writing a novel or a short story or a poem, songwriting is the art of telling a story. The story is told to music–but otherwise, the bare bones remain the same. And like the novelist or poet, the songwriter wants her audience to think, react or be affected, in some way, by the message she imparts. To get that sort of response from other souls, the songwriter first has to mine her own–and that is not an overnight process.

In 2001, the debut CD Acoustic Soul, which sold over 2.5 million units worldwide, turned India.Arie into a household name. And with these lyrics: “I know my creator didn’t make no mistakes on me–my feet, my thighs, my lips, my eyes, I’m loving what I see,” her single “Not Another Girl in the Video” quickly became the anthem for everyday women everywhere. Oprah Winfrey even gushed, “We needed that song.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that it took India.Arie more than a year to write “Video” in part, she says, because the message was so important to her that she was determined to gel it right. That song became her declaration of independence, a singular statement that, after years of never quite fitting in, she was finally comfortable in her own skin.

Though still shy of 30 (she turns 29 in October), India.Arie has already earned the right to wear the crown previously worn by Odetta, Nina Simone, Tracy Chapman and Lauryn Hill. She is rap’s anti-dote–a contemporary chronicler unafraid to call things as she sees them while simultaneously urging us to reach for higher ground.

“I heard Stevie Wonder say that he appreciated my songwriting because I had a way of being able to tell the truth without being offensive–and that’s the Libra in me; I can do that real good,” India.Arie reveals. “Yet underneath, I’m real, real strong and very, very opinionated. But the way I express it in my music–God worked with me in a way that I could make it beautiful.”

When India.Arie spoke with Black Issues Book Review, she was deep into the creative process for her third album, following Journey to India (2002). Almost every day she was going into a studio to work on the yet untitled CD. Melody after melody, lyric after lyric, song after song emerged, far more than she either needed or knew what to do with. Her creation had no beginning or end, no theme, no anticipated release date. It simply was. And is.

“The music industry is so strange–so not me–I don’t even know how all this happened,” India says. “Those are the things that let you know that God is real. It’s like, wow–somebody can sing about what women are like in the music industry–and they play it on the radio! Who would have thought that? Not me. Everything I write–all those songs–are for me.”

Although India.Arie’s songs may be written, first and foremost, for herself, they are sometimes inspired by others. In the morning, after she wakes up and says her prayers, India told BIBR that she usually spends a few quiet moments reading. Sometimes she’ll delve into spiritual books by Deepak Chopra of Neale Donald Walsch; other times she’ll pick up a science fiction read by Octavia Butler or an astrology book by Susan Miller. India was deeply touched by Paulo Coelho’s table The Alchemist, but she also loves reading biographies. Two of her most recent reads comprised rather an odd couple: biographies of early 20th century evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and of contemporary comedian Bernie Mac. Still, the softest spot of all in India.Arie’s heart is reserved for a certain legendary Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize–winner.

“Somebody who has always inspired my songwriting is Toni Morrison,” India says. “I love her books, and I love her. She is a queen. The Bluest Eye is my favorite book by her because it inspired one of my favorite, favorite songs that I have yet to record. It’s called ‘Not Afraid of the Dark.'” India doesn’t let anyone hear the songs that mean the most to her, preferring to guard them closely as if they were precious jewels, so it’s up in the air whether or not that song will ever be released for public consumption.

What will eventually be released for our enjoyment is her third CD, one she describes as her most vulnerable and personal yet. “On this album, I got to know a lot of things about myself–and accepting them was the precursor to being able to write about it at an,” she says. “I wrote the songs, recorded them, and a lot of them made me cry when I sang them. I was just, like, living. It was a totally different experience than the other albums.”

Born India Arie Simpson (years later, she added the period between her first two names because she liked how it looked when she de signed her logo), she spent her early years in Denver, Colorado. For a while her mother, Joyce Simpson, sang professionally (she once opened for Stevie Wonder and Al Green), and her father, Ralph Simpson, played in the NBA. But after her parents divorced, India and older brother, J’On, moved with their mom to Atlanta.

By her own admission, India was a “bad student,”–someone who kept wrinkled notes in her bookbag and whose locker usually looked like it should be condemned. In hindsight, she says that it wasn’t so much that she didn’t like school–India simply hated getting up in the morning and seeing the same people and doing the same things, day in and day out.

Still, despite her less-than-stellar academic efforts, some things–like writing–came effortlessly to her. From the time she was seven, she can recall writing and illustrating stories and giving them to a favorite aunt. India also recalls winning a schoolwide writing contest, sponsored by Bell South, while in junior high school. “We had to write an essay on where we thought we’d be in the year 2000, and I don’t remember what I wrote, but I remember the energy of it being real strong and sassy,” she says. “That’s when I started to realize that I didn’t have to try so hard–that words lived in me. It was a gift that I had.”

India didn’t begin writing songs until she was 21, right after she learned how to play the guitar. Originally, she attended the Savannah College of Art and Design with the intent of becoming a jewelry maker, but as the music became more important in her life, jewelry-making became less so. Eventually, she dropped out of college altogether. In 1999, a scout for Motown Records discovered India on the Atlanta club circuit, and two years later Acoustic Soul was released.

And someday india also expects that she will write her own book, although she doesn’t know when, where or what it will be about. All she knows is that it will be another form of creation for her–another way for India.Arie to reintroduce herself to the world.

“I consider myself an artist, maybe even a poet” she says. “And what I mean by that is that it’s not more about the words, it’s not more about the music, it’s not more about my presence nor more about my clothes, it’s not about how I wear my hair–all of it is an expression of me. These are my ideals, these are my ideas, and these are the things I feel strongly about, the things I love, the things I can’t stand m everything I do, I’m expressing me.” Unique. An original. And still unlike any oTher girl you’ll see in a video.

Joy DuCkett Cain, who frequently writes about musicians and celebrities for various national magazines, lives with her husband and three children in Westchester, N.Y.

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