The younger Knowles on isolation, wildin’ out and living vicariously through Dev Hynes
In October, Solange released her single “Losing You” – an infectious, mid-tempo break-up anthem evocative of early 80’s R&B. The song became an instant viral success, sparking online discussion about whether “Losing You” suggests a shift away from the trance-infused R&B currently dominating the mainstream. The song was co-written and produced by Dev Hynes (Blood Orange, Lightspeed Champion), whose recent work with Theophilus London and Sky Ferreira has made him one of the most talked about new production minds.
Solange’s success has been a long time in the making. It’s been nearly a decade since the singer/songwriter released her 2003 debut album, Solo Star, at the age of just 16. At that point she was making easily palatable pop/R&B, working with the likes of the Neptunes and Lil’ Romeo. In 2008, she released the Motown-inspired Sol-Angel And The Hadley St. Dreams, after which she began her transformation into an indie darling, earning underground cred by covering the Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness is the Move” and appearing on Of Montreal’s False Priest (2010). Last month came the seven-track EP True, headed by “Losing You” and entirely co-written and produced by Hynes. If there’s one thing she shares with big sister Beyoncé (apart from a mononymous moniker), it’s an unbelievable voice. But True has further set Solange apart, and solidified her place as an R&B indie icon.
Lyrically, a lot of the songs on True deal with heartbreak and obsession in a very vulnerable way. It 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!’
Solange: 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 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 writer’s 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. He recently tweeted, ‘Solange Knowles is my muse.’ But does this work both ways?
Solange: 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 talk for two hours about who he’s dating.
You moved to New York a year ago. You’ve got a very grown-up apartment. Is that a refection of your lifestyle?
Solange: 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 17, I had my son Julez when I was 18, then we moved out to the middle of nowhere in Idaho...
Why did you move there?
Solange: 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?
Solange: 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 16, I wrote for Kelly Rowland 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?
Solange: Sometimes I get the fear, like, ‘Am I going to be in my 40s 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 13 until 20 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 credited 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?
Solange: It’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 becomes unoriginal.
So when you sat down to write True, did you and Hynes have specific influences in mind?
Solange: Weirdly, when Dev and I met we had almost the exact same playlists on our computers, which featured lots of (producers) Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who turned out to be major influences. They worked with the SOS Band and Janet Jackson, who were traditionally very funk-oriented artists, but when they worked with Jam and Lewis they made these amazing pop records while still maintaining their artist identities. Like when you hear Chaka Khan’s ‘I Feel for You’ (produced by David Foster and Arif Mardin) 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 favourite memory from making the record?
Solange: We got Verdine White, the bassist from Earth, Wind & Fire, to play 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?
Solange: Oh yeah, Dev and I were literally practising 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 coloured power-suits. It’s so sexy, but not in a risqué or ostentatious way.
Solange: 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?
Solange: Yeah. It was fun!
What female performers do you look up to?
Solange: In junior high school Björk totally changed my life. I totally was enamoured 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.