The Queen of Soul shows no signs of slowing down. Here, the icon riffs on why she’s going electronic, her fake ID – and how to stay on top
Mary J. Blige is taking people’s breath away. She’s headlining the iTunes festival at London’s Roundhouse, and everyone in the room is singing along – eyes closed, bums out of seats, and hands in the air. As she dips and whines onstage in stilettos and leather, the room is electric as they chant along with as much energy for the Disclosure cuts as the classics. (This is, after all, her presenting the new-world Mary, where her vocal has been lent to dance tracks just as much as the ballads). This is the kind of performance that you might call ‘a moment’ – backed up by the fact that the show is streamed online and the twitter traffic becomes almost blanket coverage of her, with everyone from Jada Pinkett Smith to home-grown superfans calling her the greatest of all time.
The next day, I follow her to London’s Corinthia Hotel, where she sits across from me. Legs crossed, she’s smiling as I tell her that after the show, fans on my tube carriage sang her songs all the way down the Northern Line. Dressed in skin-tight jeans and leopard print skyscraper heels, Mary looks more regal than fatigued, despite the fact that she was onstage the night before and has been doing back-to-back press all day. Then again, regal posturing is perhaps to be expected, considering the bona fide Queen of Soul has been musical royalty for the best part of two decades.
We’re here to talk about The London Sessions – the forthcoming album from Mary that is inspired by UK talent, and features the likes of Emeli Sande, Disclosure and Sam Smith. While dance music is seemingly new territory for the star who has made her name singing the gut-wrenching vocal of “No More Drama” and “Real Love”, Mary has now lent her vocals to electro bedroom producers, making the point that if anyone can switch it up, it’s Mary. Today, she spends the interview singing along to radio songs she’s heard since she’s been on UK soil (it seems as if she’s consumed a lot of Radio 1) and clicks along to Jess Glynne, and MNEK. On the subject of reinvention, it’s clear that Blige’s motivation to work with different sounds isn’t a cynical plot to stay relevant and cash in on a pop market, but a way of reconnecting with the halcyon party days of her youth in New York. Today, we talk about some of the tracks that have inspired her life, and she sighs as she recalls everything from partying to CeCe Peniston, to working out to Pharell. Exquisite vocal, maternal nature and star presence aside, most refreshing thing about spending time with an artist like Mary is the security that comes from reaching a stage in your career where you can pick passion projects, take risks, and still make journalists squeal in lobbies. Hail Mary, Hail Mary.
What was it about London that inspired your album, The London Sessions?
Mary J. Blige: Well, I did a song with Disclosure – “For You”. It was a remix that we put out over here and it just blew up, and then it started trickling back over in the States and was doing well. After all the success, the idea was to do an EP with Disclosure. I started talking to Steve Barnett who is head of Capitol Records, where I’m signed now. I was telling him about the Disclosure idea, and he said, “Wow that’s an amazing idea Mary, but why don’t we take the whole idea and not just put you with Disclosure but put you in London, and surround you with all the producers in London who are up and coming and hot, and all the writers, and different London talent, and call it the London Sessions?” So we did.
Were you inspired by London’s club culture?
Mary J. Blige: I was inspired by London’s radio, period. The club culture I was not that familiar with, but I loved listening to club music on the radio. I love that track at the moment, “Right Here” when I heard it , I was like, “Man! This sounds like the radio in the 80s when I was growing up in the States,” so that was very inspirational. In terms of the last dance track that I liked before that, I think I gotta say “Hopeless Place”. It’s just so hopeful. It’s an uplifting song that makes everybody jump up and go crazy, and because of the message “We found love in a hopeless place,” that’s just the world.
Does it remind you of going out when you were younger?
Mary J. Blige: Yes! When I was little, I was too young to club, so during that time when club music was heavy I wasn’t in clubs. But when I became a teenager I did. You know, club music never died, it just kept going and going and going. So by the time I was able to go to Bentleys and the Red Zone it was in there.
Did you have a fake ID?
Mary J. Blige: When I was about 16, 17. I was hanging with a lot of older women. I was hanging with like 30-year-old women when I was young, so I didn’t need any. They were like, the chicks who had all the pull, they had everything so I was hanging with them. I got in anywhere for free with no I.D!
What was some of the most iconic dance racks at that time that take you back?
Mary J. Blige: “Everybody, Everybody” by Martha Wash – damn, that beat! Everything about that track was crazy. Then you had anything by CeCe Peniston, and Inner City’s “Good”. And I didn’t do heels when I was younger; it was sneakers and jeans a lot. I didn’t start doing heels until I’d been in the music business a while. I was a sneakers and jeans in the club girl!
Have you ever had that experience of euphoria on the dance floor when you’re singing about heartbreak?
Mary J. Blige: Yeh, a lot of my songs are like that! Like “Everyday it Rains”. My God, that was one of the most depressing songs ever, but people were singing it and smiling. Even me, I was dancing and crying all at the same time! When the music is great it can be about something really bad, if you can relate to it you’re like “yes, this is the best song in the world.” Even if it makes you cry. Therapy is not just sitting in front of a Doctor. It is listening to a great album, listening to a song you could cry to, going to the show and watching Mary J. Blige doing “No More Drama”. “No More Drama” is therapy.
Has it been strange working with people with a completely different reference point to you? Artists like Disclosure are from the world of producing tracks in their bedrooms on their laptop, for instance...
Mary J. Blige: That’s cool though, I don’t mind. Everything doesn’t have to be a big production. If the music is there then the music is there. We can get the lyric down, get it done. We ended up with songs that showcased my voice, which is good. The process, like making/creating a record is the same. It’s just a shift of music.
Is dance music on your workout playlist?
Mary J. Blige: Yeah, everyday. Every time I run. There is something about that song, “Gust of Wind” by Pharell. I don’t know, I think it’s the violence in the words. “Like a gust of wind you help me out sometimes, like a gust of wind you push me every once in a while.” Every time it comes up it feels like a gust of wind is blowing. Every time. I just listen to it over and over again like a crazy person. But it really helps me in my workout, it helps me when I run. It’s good because I still need to lose a layer.
But big booty culture is King at the moment! Is that strange to you, when you see how women’s bodies are championed in different ways thanks to songs like Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” and J-Lo and Iggy’s “Booty”?
Mary J. Blige: No, it’s a beautiful thing. J-Lo is the originator of it, and now Nicki is like, “Don’t be ashamed of it”. It’s a beautiful thing and you know, if you can do it, do it.
Are we going to see you in the little shorts doing some twerking?
Mary J. Blige: No, no! No, no…
Are you sure?
Mary J. Blige: No, no! I’m positive! I’m passed my experimental stage. I’ve tried. You know, I did it in “Love At First Sight”, I had on my little shorts and I was like “heeeyyyyy.” You know, but…
What about when “Anaconda” comes on?
Mary J. Blige: What about it? We’re just “Hey! Go Nicki, go Nicki!” We're cheering for Nicki! We’re not out there twerking!
Mary J. Blige’s new album The London Sessions is dropping into stores from November 24th, 2014.