Everyone loves Solange and everyone knows “Losing You” is the greatest song we’ve heard in the past year. Could her voice be any more dreamy? Could her clothes and hair be any cooler? Could her dance moves be any more simultaneously sexy and unintimidating? (It’s nice watch her and think, “I could do that,” even though we obviously couldn’t.) GOD, she has everything. Also, “Losing You” was written by Dev “Blood Orange” Hynes, one of my BFFs, who is often featured on this blog. (Oh, you should also check out that song he wrote for Sky Ferreira.)
It’s been nearly a decade since Solange released her debut album, Solo Star, back in 2003. She was just 16 then, making easily palatable pop/R&B and working alongside people like Pharrell and “Lil Bow Wow. In 2008, she released her Motown-inspired LP Sol-Angel And The Hadley St Dreams, after which she became #indie, performing an (amazing) cover of the Dirty Projectors track “Stillness is the Move” and doing a duet with Of Montreal, etc. Her recently released EP True (co-written and produced by Dev Hynes) is the only thing I listen to while running on the treadmill. I recently interviewed Solange about break-ups, working with Dev, and the right speed at which to grow up. Enjoy!
Slutever: Lyrically, a lot of the songs on True deal with heartbreak and obsession, in a very vulnerable way that feels reminiscent of female vocalists in the Motown era–this idea of, “If he doesn’t love me back, I’m just going to die.”
Solange: It’s true, and a big part of that is definitely an extension of Dev–of his heartbreak and his break-up, which he was going through while we were making the record. It’s interesting, because I’ve always written about the issues going on in my life, typically about elements of pain or conflict. But when I started working on True, it was the first time in my life that I was in a happy, healthy, stable relationship, and I was trying to write about it, but I was having a really difficult time drawing inspiration from the good times. Which is kind of fucked up, when you think about it.
Yeah, it’s sort of cheesy to write songs like, “Hey, look how great my life is!”
Exactly, and I think a lot of writers are inspired by conflict. Mary J. Blige is a great example of that; when she was close to rock bottom she was writing these extremely painful love songs, but you feel such a connection when her when you hear them. So it was really interesting when Dev and I started to work together, because we became really, really good friends, and I got to know the entire storyline of this relationship–from the moment that he met her, to their issues, to the fire before the complete devastation–and I was able to draw a lot from that, and it rescued me from my writers block. So it sounds bad, but his break-up worked out really well for us, in terms of a writing partnership.
It’s like you’re living vicariously through his pain. Recently, Dev Hynes Tweeted, “Solange Knowles is my muse.” But does this work both ways?
Totally, which is why this is the most collaborative thing I’ve ever done. Mine and Dev’s one problem is actually getting work done. Like we go into the studio and then just spend the whole time on Rap Genius, or talking for two hours about who he’s dating.
You moved to New York a year ago. Your apartment is a very “grown-up” apartment. Is that a refection of your lifestyle?
I know! I just turned 26 in June, but my life is very grown=up. But my journey has been different than a lot of people’s. I got married when I was seventeen, I had my son Julez when I was eighteen, then we moved out to the middle of nowhere in Idaho…
Why did you move there?
My husband at the time was finishing school there, and I liked the idea of living in isolation, and being able to afford a home and some land and raise my baby. It seemed romantic. But in reality, when it all went down it was kind of like, “Get me out of here.”
How long did you last there?
A year and a half. But I wrote a lot while I was out there. I had written songs before–I had an album out when I was fifteen, I wrote for Kelly Rowland from Destiny’s Child, and some other commercial stuff–but the isolation really allowed me to thrive and find my own voice.
Do you ever worry that you grew up too fast?
Sometimes I get the fear, like, “Am I going to be in my forties chasing my youth because I’m so grown up at 26?” But to be honest I have no regrets. I was with my ex-husband from when I was thirteen until twenty, and I’m in a long term relationship now, but there were some years in between when I was wildin’ out, which was awesome. I think that with each dating experience you go through, you learn more and more about what you won’t accept, and what you’re willing to be patient about. And I feel like I’ve dated enough to have that understanding. But my number one priority now is being a mom. And for a very long time, especially when I was living in LA, I didn’t have help, and it was tough to balance working and raising him–picking him up and dropping him off at school, taking him to basketball games and piano lessons, all the normal mom stuff. So a huge incentive behind me moving to New York was that my mom and sisters are here, and it’s great to have that support system.
Recently, Spin wrote an article that credits your most recent single, “Losing You,” as signifying a much-needed shift away from R&B’s ongoing love affair with electronic dance music. How do you feel about that?
I think that’s really flattering, although I can’t take responsibility for that. That R&B/trance stuff–well, some of it’s good, and some of it’s awful. I think the origin of it was totally innovative and new, and that to merge those two things was really inventive. But the problem is, when a trend becomes really successful, eventually there becomes a format for “guaranteed” success in mainstream radio, like, “I’m going to do this because seven other people did it and have hit records.” And that’s when the music become unoriginal.
So when you sat down to write True, did you and Hynes have specific influences in mind?
Well weirdly, when Dev and I met we had almost the exact same playlists on our computers, which featured lots of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who turned out to be major influences. They worked with SOS Band and Janet Jackson and Chaka Khan, who were traditionally very funk oriented artists, but when they worked with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis they made these amazing pop records, while still maintaining their artist identities. Like when you hear Chaka Khan “I Feel For You,” it still sounds like Chaka Khan, but it doesn’t sound anything like “Tell Me Something Good” or “Sweet Thing.” So that’s the amazing thing about collaborations–maintaining your voice, your sound and your lyrical messages, but with someone else’s personality added. Like it’s really interesting to listen to Dev’s Blood Orange project, and then to my record, and hear the similarities and the differences.
Do you have a favorite memory from making the record?
We got Verdine White, the bassist from Earth, Wind & Fire, to bass on the track “Bad Girls”, which was insane. We had a pretty conservative budget for this record–we recorded a lot of it in my house–so he literally came over and played bass in my living room!
Were you freaking out?
Oh yeah, Dev and I were literally practicing how we were going to open the door. Like, were we just going to be casual like, “What’s up Verdine?” or should we say, ‘Hello Mr. White.” That conversation actually happened.
What you’re wearing in the “Losing You” video is so cool–lots of richly colored power suits. It’s so sexy, but not in a risqué or ostentatious way.
I like the idea of having more refined looks, because my hair is pretty wild, so I like the contrast. And I’m not entirely comfortable with being “all out there”. When I was younger my mom had this rule, “If you’re wearing your legs out, then your arms need to be covered. Or if you have your boobs out, then you shouldn’t show your legs.” Super old fashioned, but I think that stuck with me, and transitioned into my adult life. Although there was a moment when I was wearing some unbelievably short dresses. But that’s when I was freshly divorced, and..
Needed a rebound?
Yeah. It was fun!
What female performers do you look up to?
In junior high school Bjork totally changed my life. I totally was enamored by her, because she was my first introduction to someone so avant-garde. There was just this sense of art, and the dramatic, in everything she did. Even if she just had on a t-shirt and jeans, I saw the art in it. And then I’ve always loved Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, and thought they were just beautiful queens. I really identified with them, especially as a young black girl growing up in Houston.