Nikki Giovanni Offers 'One Ounce Of Truth' The new CD, One Ounce of Truth, puts the vivid words of poet and writer Nikki Giovanni to music, using a wide range of musical styles like bossa nova, jazz and soul. NPR's Tony Cox talks with Giovanni and singer Capathia Jenkins about the project.
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Nikki Giovanni Offers 'One Ounce Of Truth'

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Nikki Giovanni Offers 'One Ounce Of Truth'

Nikki Giovanni Offers 'One Ounce Of Truth'

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I'm Tony Cox, and this is News & Notes. Here's another treat from our listener favorite file. Last year, poet Nikki Giovanni put her words to music with the help of singer and actress, Capathia Jenkins. I spoke with them both about their project, "One Ounce of Truth."

(Soundbite of song "The World Is Not A Pleasant Place to Be")

Ms. CAPATHIA JENKINS (Singer; Actress): (Singing) The world is not a pleasant place to be Without someone to hold and be held by…

COX: Capathia, let's start with you because you are known for your work on Broadway and shows like "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me" and "Caroline, or Change," just to name a few, as well as acting in numerous television shows. Why did you decide to make a CD of songs based on poems by Nikki Giovanni?

Ms. JENKINS: Well, I've been working with Louis Rosen, who's the composer, and it was actually his idea, and I was on board right away. I mean, she writes so beautifully about love, love lost, love gained, falling in love. And for me, the opportunity to work with Louis and to do my own thing, so to speak - you know, when you're doing Broadway and theater, you're playing characters and all that, and this gave me an opportunity to really show what I do.

COX: Well, Nikki, when you were approached about the project, what did you think? I mean, how did you feel about your work being interpreted in this way?

Ms. NIKKI GIOVANNI (Poet): I have no ear. I mean, I get to sing in the shower if nobody is around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: But it was just wonderful when this project was brought to me. I thought, yes, let the singers do it. Louis is always surprised. If he would say - he'd say, Nikki didn't try to give us directions, but I hate people that give you directions when they don't know what they're talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Well, let's talk about some of the songs on the CD. For one, let's talk about "Telephone Song." Now the chorus, that almost sounds like a 1960s sock hop to me, a little bit, Capathia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: What's this tune about, and how did you capture it musically? Because it seems like a conversation between two old friends.

(Soundbite of song "Telephone song")

Ms. JENKINS: (Singing) Cans and strings and backyard trees, Giggles coming through the wire, Summer mud pies, lemonade stands Hang up, no, you hang up, No, you hang up, no, you hang up first…

Ms. JENKINS: You know, when I was growing up, I had a best friend, and we'd be on the phone after school. And my mom would be telling me to put the phone down, and her mom would be telling her to put the phone down. So, we'd say, OK, I'll see you tomorrow. OK, meet me at first period. OK, all right, bye. And then we'd go, did you hang up? No, you hang up first, No, you hang up. No, you hang up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JENKINS: And I think Nikki's writing is just so dead on, and it reminds me of my best friend, who's still my best friend to this day.

COX: Really? Well, Nikki, was there a special friend that you were writing about?

Ms. GIOVANNI: Absolutely. Her name was Janita Fletcher(ph), and we'd be on the phone, and we would talk, and it'd be, hang up, no, you hang up first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: I know many a night - that was when the phones...

COX: That is so funny. Yeah, one phone per household.

Ms. GIOVANNI: You could fall asleep on the phone.

Ms. JENKINS: That's right.

COX: That's really funny. What's the story behind another one of the songs? This one is called "You Were Gone." There's a line that caught my ear when I first heard it, and it's when you say, you were gone like the years between 25 and 30. Now, and I'm old enough to know just what that feels like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: I got to tell you, my favorite line is, you were gone like last week's paycheck for this week's bills.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JENKINS: That's really gone.

COX: I mean, that's being gone. That's gone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song "You Were Gone")

JENKINS: (Singing) You were gone, Like last week's paycheck For this week's bills. You were gone, You were gone, Like the years between 25 and 30…

COX: Let me ask you, Capathia, how you and Louis Rosen managed to come up with the sound and the tenor to fit these lovely poems.

Ms. JENKINS: Well, I'll tell you, Louis is absolutely brilliant that way. He just has a knack for, you know, reading a certain poem and feeling like immediately, he can set it. With Nikki's stuff, it was so easy for him because I think the writing is so strong in terms of the imagery and just how we sort of talk in conversationally everyday. And then coming up, you know, the actual arrangements and the bass, I love the violin, and so the songs are just really strong. We had a ball doing this project.

COX: Obviously, you did. It sounds like you did. A couple of more questions, one for you Nikki, is this. As the music evolved for the words that you'd already written, did it change the feel of your poetry to you?

Ms. GIOVANNI: I think it brought it out. You know, it's sort of like cleaning up an old photo. And I don't mean that my poetry was not, I just mean that it brought out something else. One of my favorite that they do is "Careful Baby, Don't Prick Your Finger."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: And it really - I had heard it on the tone of, careful baby, don't prick your finger. But Capathia took it to (skatting) pap pap pa dup paw.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: And it stayed with me. I walked out of the club the other day, and I'm just like, yeah! You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: And I love it. And I so regret - and this poem I wrote for Nina Simone, and I so regret that Nina is not here to hear it. Because again, she did such wonderful work with Warren Kinney, you know, with no images.

Ms. JENKINS: Oh, yeah.

Ms. GIOVANNI: You know, she did a lot of tone poems, as did Roberta Flack. And Roberta also was a friend. And she said to me one day, you know, girl, I wish I knew the music in your head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: I just thought it was the nicest thing because I don't really do music as Louis and Capathia do music. But you do hear these sort of rhythms. And I think that they brought it out. It was wonderful.

COX: Well, you do music. It's just not on a chart. You definitely do music.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Right.

COX: You have another song on here that I heard it, and I was like, wait a minute. Am I hearing what I think I'm hearing? You know what song it is? "That Day."

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: I'm like…

Ms. GIOVANNI: I knew you would say that.

COX: I don't know if it's because I'm a man or what. But my ears just perked right up on "That Day." How did you put that together?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI: I know you're not asking me.

COX: No, I'm not asking you that…

Ms. JENKINS: This is a family show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIOVANNI. Well, we just love that, you know, this song is - it's seemingly about everything. But really, it's about sex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Yeah, and - yeah.

Ms. GIOVANNI: And so, you know, Louis just came up with this catchy tune. And I just thought, you know, I'm just going to sing this like it's about everything else and then, you know, people are going to realize what it's really about.

Ms CAPATHIA JENKINS: (Singing) If we do it once a month We can do it in time. If we do it once a week, We can do it in rhyme. If we do it every day, We can do it every way. We can do it like we did When we did that day Oh, I know I'm bold Coming on like this But the good things in life Are too good to be missed Now time is money…

COX: Are you going to do this again, the two of you? Do you think?

Ms. JENKINS: Oh gosh, I would certainly hope so. I'll tell you, Louis has already written, I think, six or seven more Nikki songs. And I was over his place a couple of weeks ago, and he was like, I got to play it for you. He's still so excited about her poetry. So, you know, and he's got some really good ones coming down the pike. So, I'm sure we will do this again.

COX: Nikki Giovanni, Capathia Jenkins, thank you so much, and I really enjoyed talking to both of you.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Thank you, Tony.

Ms. JENKINS: Thank you, Tony.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Nikki Giovanni, with singer-actress Capathia Jenkins. I spoke with them about their CD, "One Ounce of Truth: The Nikki Giovanni Song."

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