Music Interviews


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. When MUSICIAN India.Arie emerged in 2001, her debut album "Acoustic Soul" went double-platinum. Her music and her influence continued to gain momentum over the next decade. Since her debut, she's earned 21 Grammy nominations, won four, sold 10 million albums worldwide. Many regard her as one of the most inspiring artists of her generation.

But four years ago, she says she confronted herself. Feeling boxed in by expectations of the music industry, India.Arie decided to take a self-imposed hiatus. She's now reemerged, and she joins us in just a moment to perform a few songs from her new album and talk about the tension between the act and the artist.

If you have a question for India.Arie, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, the best movie farewell scenes of all time. Email us your nomination: Murray Horowitz will join us.

But first, India.Arie is here with us in Studio 42, along with her guitarist Blue Miller and backup singers Chantae Cann? Cann? Cann. OK. And Ametria Dock. Her latest album, "SoulVersations," will be available June 25th. And India.Arie, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

INDIA.ARIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And we've got you all set up here. Why don't we start with a song?


CONAN: What have you got for us?

INDIA.ARIE: Speaking of song is songversation.

CONAN: Songversation.



INDIA.ARIE: This one is inspired by Cicely Tyson. This is called "Break the Shell."


INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) I met a prophet dark as the night. She could see into my soul, said she'd been watching and had some advice. She said shadows make you whole, a life without a pain is a wolf in sheep's clothes, 'cause if you listen to the lessons that it holds, you'll find the gold. Child, it's time to break the shell. Life's gonna hurt, but it's meant to be felt. You cannot touch the sky from inside yourself. You cannot fly until you break the shell.

(Singing) I can remember when I was a child, how the grown folks seemed so crazy. Why are they so angry? Why are they so loud? And when I grow up, that's never, ever gonna be me. That was the moment that I decided that I would build a wall just shy of six feet tall, too strong to fall. Child, it's time to break the shell. Life's gonna hurt, but it's meant to be felt. You cannot touch the sky from inside yourself. You cannot fly until you break the shell.

(Singing) Courage is not being hard. It's time to peel back all of the layers you put between who you're meant to be and who you are, and go be who you are. So much disappointment to finally understand that there is no such thing as perfect. We're all simply doing the best that we can. And we have a choice to live or truly be life. This is your life. Child, it's time to break the shell. Life's gonna hurt, but it's meant to be felt. You cannot touch the sky from inside yourself. The bird cannot fly until it breaks the shell.

(Singing) Do with these words what you will. It's time for us to be for real. You'll be stuck on the ground until you finally break the shell.

CONAN: "Break the Shell" from India.Arie's new album "SongVersations," available on June 25th. She's here with us in Studio 42. You also heard Blue Miller, guitarist, and backup singers Chantae Cann and Ametria Dock. I can't tell you how that felt to be sitting at this, what, 25-foot table, all of you surrounding me, I'm sort of in the middle of this four-part harmony. That was fantastic.


INDIA.ARIE: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Inspired by Cicely Tyson. How so?

INDIA.ARIE: Yes. I went to South Africa for the opening of Oprah's Leadership Academy, and among a slew of other amazing people, Cicely Tyson was there, and she pulled me to the side, and it was like a fantasy, like I want to talk to you, because I love her. And she imparted wisdom to me, like, very intentionally, like you, come here.

And it changed the way I see myself. It changed the way I see myself as a performer, and it changed the way that I understand just how life goes. Like, things hurt, and it's meant to. It's part of the human condition. You know, you live your life trying to avoid being hurt and avoid feeling pain, and it's not really - you don't want to run into it, but avoiding it is useless. But she made me really see. She really opened my eyes.

CONAN: And so this new person, is this what you've been trying to arrive at these past several years?

INDIA.ARIE: It is. I've been trying to arrive at a person who is self-defined and able to make my own mistakes instead of having other people make them for me, you know.


CONAN: Yeah. You're going to make enough on your own, anyway.

INDIA.ARIE: Anyway. So why don't they just be yours?

CONAN: When was the moment you realized you needed to step back?

INDIA.ARIE: I realized it long before I did it. It was at the end of 2006. I had a breakdown in a dressing room. I just lost it. And I don't remember everything that happened, really. Like, I really just had a breakdown. And I was OK a few minutes later, but it was like I needed to go home and rest. And I rested for a couple days.

But then finally, somewhere in 2009, things just weren't right. Things just kept happening. My finger popped out of place onstage, and yeah, I ended up in the hospital in D.C. It was crazy. We had a show at Rams Head Live, and you know, my hand was in a sling, and things just kept happening. And I knew that I needed to take a break.

But, you know, there's that thing where people - the drive and the competition of the music industry. So...

CONAN: Yeah, you've got contracts, too. You're scheduled to be somewhere.

INDIA.ARIE: Scheduled to be somewhere.

CONAN: And you're scheduled to deliver a product.

INDIA.ARIE: Yeah, and pretend like you're happy and be - you know, it's not pretend you're happy, but you're scheduled to be who they think you are.

CONAN: Yeah, all the time.

INDIA.ARIE: Yeah, all the time, without a hair of place, or without a tear in your eye or without anything. I just - I couldn't do it anymore.

CONAN: But there's a lot of people who were relying on you to keep delivering that act.

INDIA.ARIE: Yeah. Yeah. And I realized I don't mind - you know, it's business. You go into business with someone, you rely on them to deliver so that you can get your part delivered to you, and I get it. But what I didn't - what I refused to do any further and what I refuse to ever do again is to not be on the same page with the people who want me to deliver. We need to be on the same page and have the same plan so I'm not just spending my life trying to deliver what you need.

CONAN: We want to hear from some people who have questions...

INDIA.ARIE: I just vented. Sorry, Neal.


CONAN: No, that's all right. People have been known to do that on this program from time to time. It's one of the parts of live radio that we enjoy, as a matter of fact. We want to give people a chance to talk with India.Arie and find out about, well, people wondering where you've been these past few years, 800-989-8255. Email: We'll start with Bebe(ph), and Bebe's on the line with us from Tucson.

BEBE: Hi. I am so excited you have India.Arie on the show today. I read the article in Essence magazine on India, and I just wanted to ask her: I was a little confused, because it sounded as if you were saying that your music didn't necessarily reflect who are as a person and as an artist. And I wanted to say so many of your songs inspired me.

Your song "Brown Skin," I would play it over and over and over again. And so were you saying that that's not really the type of music you wanted to make, because that doesn't reflect you? Or if you could just bring some clarity to what you were saying in that article.

INDIA.ARIE: OK. Hi, Bebe. I'm glad to...


INDIA.ARIE: Hi. I'm glad you asked that, because I've been asked that a few times from some people in my family, and I would love to clarify. So when, you know, musicians - there are technical things about music that we use different words to describe, and sometimes the reader doesn't understand the technical words.

So what I said - and I don't know that they ended up using this in that magazine, because I'm not sure the writer understood the technical words. So but what I told the writer was that where things were a bit distorted was the actual production - production meaning how the bass sounds, the keys, the drums, the way the music is arranged around the song.

I always stand behind the subject matter of my songs, because, I mean, that - really, the subject matter is my mission and the music is my passion. And so the production, the music around the songs was not my taste. I still feel like - in hindsight, I feel like I made the right decision to choose production that would get played on black radio, because, I mean, I decidedly speak - commercially, the label decided to market me to a black audience, solely.

So I needed to have production that would get played on black radio. But the production of those records was not what made my heart soar. It didn't make me want to dance when I got on stage. It didn't give me chills. But the subject matter, the songs and the lyrics and the things I sing about is all me.

BEBE: Well, that's so nice to hear. You are just wonderful. We're so glad you're back. I'm excited to order in advance this new CD on Amazon, so excited, and I'm so glad.

INDIA.ARIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And I'm going to miss TALK OF THE NATION. I wanted to say that, too. I already called my local Tucson radio station, NPR, to say let them keep TALK OF THE NATION on the air.

Well, Bebe, thank you very much for that. We appreciate the comment.

BEBE: OK. All right, all the best to you, India.

INDIA.ARIE: Thank you. Thanks for asking me that.

CONAN: We're talking with India.Arie. More with her after a short break. If you have questions for us: 800-989-8255. You can also send us an email: Again, the new album, if you're going to pre-order it on Amazon, "SongVersations." Did I get it right that time? OK, good. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Today, we're talking with India.Arie, back on TALK OF THE NATION nine years later. She's performing selections from her new album, "SongVersations." The record comes out later this month. In a moment, well, I'll shut up, she can sing some more. 800-989-8255 if you have a question for India.Arie. Email us: So how about another song?

INDIA.ARIE: Yes. I would love to. This is called "Cocoa Butter."


INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Your love is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, your touch is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, your kiss is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, boy, you are like cocoa butter on my heart. My heart was bruised. That's what happens when you use it. I ran into someone that turned it all black and blue. It's been that way for so long, the sight became familiar, and then your love came in just like a natural healer.

(Singing) You've got a way of making it all OK. You make it OK. Your love is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, your touch is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, your kiss is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, boy, you are like cocoa butter on my heart.

(Singing) I show you my burns, you show me lessons learned. I show you my scars, you show me works of art. I show you a blemish, you show me God's not finished. With everything imperfection, you show me a blessing. You've got a way of making it all OK. You make it OK. Cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, your love is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, your kiss is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, boy, you are like cocoa butter on my heart.

(Singing) Oh, you rub it in when you listen. Oh, you rub it in with your wisdom. Oh, you rub it in with a kind word. When you rub it in, nothing hurts. Your love is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, your touch is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, your kiss is like cocoa butter on my heart. Oh, boy, you are like cocoa butter on my heart. Ooh, yeah.

CONAN: Nice. "Cocoa Butter," from the new album "SongVersation." And also on that performance with India.Arie, Chantae Cann and Ametria Dock as backup singers, Blue Miller on guitar and vocals, as well. Here's an email we have from Kemit(ph) in Cincinnati: Greetings, as a longtime fan of socially-politically conscious R&B and hip-hop, I'd love to hear India's perspective on why this sort of music is sorely lacking in today's pop music landscape and what emerging artists can to do to bring more positivity to music.

INDIA.ARIE: Oh, that's a big question. I think it's twofold. I think one, sad to say, but I feel like the popular culture of young people, I don't know that they think this way. And I don't know if is - what comes first, the chicken or the egg, if it's because this is popular culture, so young kids think that way, or if it's because just it's what their generation is doing, and so the music reflects it. I don't know.

I have an opinion. I'm not sure. I don't know if I want to say that. I'm not as clear enough - I'm not clear enough on that opinion about the chicken or the egg to say on TALK OF THE NATION. But I know that those two elements exist, of course.

CONAN: There was a time, not so long ago - and you were part of it - music would lead, as well.

INDIA.ARIE: Yes, music would lead. It would lead the culture. And I wonder - you might be right. It might be the music leading the culture, because then people emulate what they see on TV, and they want to look like their favorite artists. And - but then - but it's a shame, too, because the other aspect is that commercially, just what makes money, you know, all the big companies are followers. They're followers.

So whatever is the hot thing, then they want another thing like that. And then it ends up being this self-multiplying thing, you know, self-multiplying. And so I think the way that people can bring more positivity, to answer the end of Kemit's question, in my opinion you just have to make the music, make the music and work as hard as you can to get it out there. I don't know what else to say, really.

But, you know, with the social network, there's always a way to get your music out. And I also feel like - and I think Stevie Wonder is the master of this - making the message catchy and make it jam and make people want to dance to it, and so the message gets into their subconscious. I think that's an important element of it, too, today.

I mean, I make much more gentle music. I'm kind of like a folk singer mixed with soul. But I feel like if you really are a lover of hip-hop music, make the beat banging as possible, and then put the message in so that people get the honey with the medicine. But I'm not a big - I'm kind of sad about the state of music right now, kind of sad. And some of it I find a bit embarrassing.

CONAN: Like what?

INDIA.ARIE: Just the way that our young - black America in particular, the way we talk about sex, the way we talk about it. Because, I mean, you know, it's a fine subject matter. But the way that we're doing it right now and the way that we're dressing it right now and the way that we're holding our faces on TV and things that we - I mean, I say in our, because I'm young black America. I'm not trying to, you know, distance myself from it, but it makes me - some of it is embarrassing.

Because there was some stuff that was like kind of on the edge, you know, maybe 10 years ago, and it was like oh, edgy, you know, like "The Thong Song" or something like that. It was, like, whoa. And now it's just like everything laid out, and, I mean, this...

CONAN: No rules. Yeah.

INDIA.ARIE: No rules - well, yeah, no rules. I was going to say, well, nobody's been naked yet, but they've done that, too.

CONAN: No, I think they've done that, yeah.

INDIA.ARIE: Yeah, I think we've done that. But I - yeah.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Let's see if we can go to Donna. Donna's on the line with us from Birmingham.

DONNA: Well, hello. I'm so glad to be able to talk to you, Neal, and especially to you, India. Girl, I've been a fan forever.


INDIA.ARIE: Thank you.

DONNA: I'm a dancer, choreographer. I've choreographed to your music. And I'm just - and I think you already answered my question, because my question is what - how - what direction you're going in in the future, and after what you just answered, I'm sure it's going to be great.


INDIA.ARIE: Is that all? I thought you were going to say something else.

DONNA: Yes. Oh, well, you know, anything else I say would just be, like, platitudes to you, because you have - you really capture things that we want to say, that, you know, probably because we're taking kids to school and all that other stuff we do, it just kind of slips over us. And then here you come with a song that says it, and then we're, like, yeah, we're jamming to it.

And, you know, the whole thing that you just told us about Cicely Tyson, and, you know, I am not my hair.


DONNA: I am just - I'm so glad that you're coming back. I was wondering, about a week ago, I said: I wonder what India.Arie is doing? So it just warms my heart for you to be on. So thanks, Neal.

CONAN: You're welcome. Thanks very much for the phone call, Donna.

DONNA: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you about a project that you undertook in these years away, "Open Door."

INDIA.ARIE: Yes. "Open Door," yeah.

CONAN: And this was a project - eventually, you decided - was not leading where you wanted to go.

INDIA.ARIE: Yeah. It was leading where I wanted to go musically. Everything else was not leading where I wanted to go. And I - it got worse and worse, and I woke up one day and realized that - so when I decided to take a break from the music industry, it was in late 2009. And this was - this lesson was reflecting that same lesson again: Can you say no? Do you know how to let go of something, even when you're afraid, but you know it's the right thing to let go of? You know, that.

And as soon as I had that clarity, I just knew I had to shelve it. And it hurt, because I loved the music. But...

CONAN: And you had invested a lot of time, a lot of effort, your collaboration with an Israeli musician. You were on tour, getting ready to promote this, and all of a sudden bip, that was that. There were protests, in fact.

INDIA.ARIE: There were a little bit. It wasn't that much. But, I mean, you know, people protest any time - there's always somebody who's going to protest an Israeli person or an artist when they see them there. You know, for me, he was my friend, and I didn't think about the - I mean, I thought about the political part. I knew I was going to have to answer to that if the album came out.

But I didn't think of it that way. I just thought this is my friend, and I stand behind him, and I'm going to let the love speak for itself when they see us onstage and hear our music. But then our friendship started to really deteriorate, and I was like, well, what's left? There is nothing left to do because, you know, we were going to be on tour together, be working together for years, because you promote an album for a couple of years.

CONAN: Yeah.

INDIA.ARIE: So I shelved it. And November 1 I started working on "SongVersation" and completed it in seven months, and "Open Door" took three years.

CONAN: My goodness.

INDIA.ARIE: I did this one in seven months. And a lot of my own money was invested in "Open Door" too, I have to say, and that's probably what I was most afraid of, like, am I going to get my money back? But nothing's worth your peace of mind, you know?

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Let's go to Emerald(ph), and Emerald's with us from San Leandro.



EMERALD: I just wanted to say, you know, thank you for keeping this great radio station. (Unintelligible) thank you, India.Arie, for your song about "I'm Not My Hair" again.

INDIA.ARIE: Thank you.

EMERALD: I was expressing to the woman who answered the phone that me and my sister, we grew up in Oakland, and we're black and Mexican, and we came out very opposite-looking. And when your song came out, it really inspired us to live in our own skin, accept the fact that she was darker and had different hair and that I was whiter and had different hair as well. In spite of what other people thought, it emboldened us to just say, you know what, this is me. Accept it, move on, because I have.

And moving forward, I did have a question about that song because you said earlier that you weren't - you felt certain parts of your song were more marketing as opposed to your feelings, your true meaning. Exactly what about my - that song particularly do you feel was marketing and less you?

INDIA.ARIE: I'm glad you asked that. So the subject matter - I want to make sure I am more clear this time - the story, the subject matter of "I'm Not My Hair," the message in that song is all me.


INDIA.ARIE: The part that was more commercially driven was the version I did with Akon. It was not my choice.

EMERALD: Yes, yes, yes.

INDIA.ARIE: And also just, you know, some of the drum sounds, the way that the bass was, the way that it was mixed, the way that it was marketed on a commercial level. But I'm happy that - in hindsight, I'm happy I did it because it reached more people, you know?

And you said something that I just want to address because I love when people really get it. It is about hair, you know, on a certain level, but on a deeper level, like what you and your sister found out, it's about dogmatic self-definition and on the other hand self-definition and not allowing anyone to define you based on their parameters, you know? And so that message is all me. I've never said anything that I didn't want to say on a record ever. There are some things...


INDIA.ARIE: ...that I wanted to say on records that I didn't say, and a lot of that - kind of all of that - is on "SongVersation." So...

EMERALD: Right. Me and my sister, being multicultural, we were able to straighten or wear our hair curly, and we would get flak for having it straight. Oh, you think you're white. Or we would get flak for having it curly. Oh, that doesn't look good. And we're like, well, you know what, it grew out of my head, and God, my parents, made it this way. So that's how it's going to be.

INDIA.ARIE: Right. How about that? It's not what's on your head. It's what's underneath.

EMERALD: And when you went bald, you were still beautiful. I just wanted to say that. You have a beautiful face.

INDIA.ARIE: Thank you.


EMERALD: I'm the fairer one, but I love that dark skin. Beautiful.

INDIA.ARIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Emerald, thank you so much for the phone call.

EMERALD: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with India.Arie today. She's with us here with Chantae Cann and Ametria Dock, the backup singers. Blue Miller, guitarist and vocalist, also with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I think we have time for one more song.

INDIA.ARIE: Oh, yay. Right now?

CONAN: Right now.


CONAN: This would be good.

INDIA.ARIE: I would love to. This is one of the themes of "SongVersation." This is called "Just Do You."


INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) I heard a voice that told me I'm essential, how all my fears are limiting my potential, said it's time to step into the light and use every bit of the power I have inside.

CHANTAE CANN: (Singing) What are you waiting on? Who are you waiting for?

AMETRIA DOCK: (Singing) What are you waiting on? Who are you waiting for?

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) If you don't take a chance, you'll never know what's in store.

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Somebody's got to be a star.

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Somebody's got to raise the bar.

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Somebody's got to change the game...

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Every mountain needs someone to climb it. Every ocean needs someone to dive it. Every dream needs someone to wish it. Every event needs someone to live it. So what are you waiting on? Who are you waiting for? If you don't take a chance, you'll never know what's in store.

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Somebody's got to be a star.

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Somebody's got to raise the bar.

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Somebody's got to change the game...

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) If you create the game, then you create the rules. And if you just be you, there's no way you can lose. There's a story waiting for you to write it. There's a treasure waiting for you to find it. There's a picture waiting for you to paint it. There's a dollar waiting for you to make it. So what are you waiting on? Who are you waiting for? If you don't take a chance, you'll never know what's in store.

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Somebody's got to be a star.

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Somebody's got to raise the bar.

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) Somebody's got to change the game...

CANN: (Singing) Just do you.

DOCK: (Singing) Just do you.

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing)

CONAN: Another of the selections from the forthcoming "SongVersation" by India.Arie. We'd like to thank Blue Miller and backup singers Chantae Cann and Ametria Dock, who are here all with us in Studio 42. Of course we have to thank our fly by the seat of the pants production crew Cal Southworth and Melissa Marquis, our technical director for getting all this set up and making it sound so good. And where do you go from here, India.Arie?

INDIA.ARIE: Oh, my. Where do I go? I go home, I do some more interviews on the radio on June 23 and June 30, I'm going to be on Oprah's "Super Soul Sunday."

CONAN: Congratulations.

INDIA.ARIE: So I'll have a lot of stuff that's in between the lines of what we talked about today. I tell a lot more of that story. And, you know, I'll be on "The Tonight Show" and different stuff like that.

CONAN: Well, you're going to have to come down somewhere. You have to go somewhere after TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks...


INDIA.ARIE: TALK OF THE NATION is the pinnacle. I'm happy to see you again.

CONAN: Thank you. Good to see you too.

INDIA.ARIE: Thank you.

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