India.arie Remains Unapologetically Upbeat

April 30, 2009|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

Like countless other artists recording for major labels, India.Arie found herself at odds with the demands of the pop machine. How much of her art - or herself - was she willing to compromise for a hit? Why couldn't the suits at the label just let her deliver her music without the artificial additives?

In the nine years since her lauded debut, Acoustic Soul, the urban-pop star has sold millions of albums, won two Grammys and collaborated with some of the biggest names in pop: Stevie Wonder and John Mellencamp are just a few.

But in the 2 1/2 years between the release of her last two albums, 2006's Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship and this year's Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics, Arie had had it with the artistic alterations.

"I got to the point where I wanted to say what I wanted to say, and it's going to sound like I want it to sound, or I'm going to quit," says Arie, who headlines Rams Head Live on Sunday. "My manager had to talk me out of quitting. She said just make the album you want to make and however it's received is how it's received."

Testimony: Vol. 2, released in February, is the album the singer-songwriter always wanted to make. The introspective, irrepressibly upbeat lyrics and Arie's sandy, sensitive vocals remain mostly the same. But the arrangements enfolding the songs are warmer and more vivid than what was heard on her previous albums.

"Mostly the production, the way the music sounds around the songs, is something I've always wanted to do: an album that was live, just musicians playing," Arie says.

Programmed instrumentation is minimal, as layers of live percussion, acoustic guitars, keyboards and Philly soul-style strings dominate the production. Lyrically, Arie finds rays of sunshine in even the darkest aspects of love and politics.

"The criticism that I get is that sometimes people say my music is too positive," says the artist, 33, who last week was calling from her Atlanta home. "With the last record, some critics said, 'If this is a break-up record, why is it so positive?' Because of the kind of person that I want to be in the world, it's important for me to be aware of the energy I put out. In the lyrical content, I express my truth. But I say it in a way that's more diplomatic, because I like to make pretty music. ... It's not as much of a conscious choice as it is just my nature."

Her vocals sound more assured throughout Testimony: Vol. 2 with Arie exploring the upper reaches of her range. But as was the case with her previous two albums, none of the cuts sounds like an obvious hit - something Arie stopped chasing after her 2001 double-platinum debut.

"With Acoustic Soul, I saw my music as sparse. But I didn't do that because I was making a commitment to be commercial," she says. "That's what made Acoustic Soul so difficult to produce. It took 2 1/2 years, because I couldn't figure out what I wanted and still be commercial."

That album spawned Arie's best-known single, "Video." But still, it wasn't much of pop hit. In a singles-driven age, the Denver native is an album artist. Although she hasn't repeated the sales of Acoustic Soul, subsequent albums have at least gone gold. Each effort has been a musical culmination of Arie's personal evolution.

But Testimony: Vol. 2 is the first CD to pointedly address her political views on such topics as poverty ("Ghetto") and ineffective government ("Better Way").

"People keep asking me if the album had something to do with Barack Obama and the state of the economy," Arie says, "but I've been working on this album longer than all of this has been in our collective mind. So I just think it's God that made it all on time."

if you go

See India.Arie at 8 p.m. Sunday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place. Tickets are $32.50. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com

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