Oyster #96: Solange Knowles
"I've never been more happy with where I'm headed as an artist."
For Oyster #96, we caught up with Solange Knowles to talk about her latest album and the many artists who have influenced her style and music over the years, from Fiona Apple to Aaliyah.
Solange Knowles is many things: singer, songwriter, dancer, devoted mother and yes, sister of Beyonce. Most of all, she is incredibly outspoken and fiercely independent, but you only need to spend two minutes reading her Twitter to find that out. Solange's third album will be released in early 2012, and she called me from her new home in NYC to talk about the recording process, her love for Janet Jackson, and the difficult decisions she's had to make during her career.
Ariane Halls: You've mentioned that the recording process for your new album was kind of like a big party, do you want to tell me a little bit more about that?
Solange Knowles: I rented this amazing house in Santa Barbara which was beautiful, Dev [Hynes, aka Lightspeed Champion aka Blood Orange] would lay down a chord and I'd start singing a melody and Chris [Egan] would hop on the drums and Vincent [Vendetta, of Midnight Juggernauts] would get on the synths and we'd just start jamming out, and we'd sort of make the song right there. That's how all the songs were done, we'd just have these, like, party jams. And we'd have wine and dessert, and all the wine in Santa Barbara is pretty good, not to mention that Chris is actually a working sommelier, so we had all this really good wine and we'd drink it and play. It was such an amazing process, the songs were so organically evolved, but when it came time to actually re-record the songs and polish them it was really, really difficult.
How did you come to work with Vincent from the Juggernauts?
We actually randomly met at a fashion show in Paris. I have been a big fan of the band for a while and so I immediately recognised him and went over and, you know, told him that I love their records and he said, "If you're ever in Australia you should link up with us and write something." And so, about a year later, some friends of mine were all going there to play festivals and I really needed a vacation, so I hit Vincent up and said, "Hey, I think I'm gonna come now, we should totally work on some music." And then not only was he like, "Yeah!" but he also has that amazing Australian hospitality, so he was like, "I'm gonna come get you from the airport," and he took me to all the best restaurants and I met their whole crew, which is the nicest group of people that you'll ever meet. And the one thing that people say whenever they listen to my album now is, "Where the hell did your chords come from on some of these songs?"
Have there been any collaborations that haven't gone as well as you might have hoped?
No, no, no. I've actually had really amazing experiences collaborating, but what I will say is that there is always that sense of vulnerability, where you have to feel open. It's just such a strange dynamic when you're making music with people you don't know. I'll never forget, I was working with Cee Lo on my last album and we had about a week working together scheduled on the calendar, and the first day we just talked and just got to know each other better. And then the second day I came in really excited to work on music, and he's like, "Why don't we go to eat?" And we go to eat and then later on he's like, "Well, why don't we go out? This party's going on." And I'm like, "OK, the clock is ticking, this isn't cheap. When are we going to make this music?" And I remember on the third day getting there and he's like, "I have to say something." I was really nervous and he told me, "I'm not an assembly line. I don't know you, you don't know me, blah blah blah." And I often forget how honest and true and real that is. That day we spent so much time talking about relationships and my life and feelings, and two days later he said to me, "You're like a sandcastle," and we were literally like, "Oh my God, that's the song ['Sandcastle Disco']."\
You said on Twitter recently that the one piece of advice you would give to your younger self would be to never sign a record deal. Do you think that record labels are still relevant?
I do. I do think that labels are still relevant for artists that need development. For an artist who may have a good voice, but doesn't know exactly where they are in their musicianship, they don't know what to sing, they don't know what they are yet. I think labels are very resourceful for artists like that. That's originally what A&R did, they developed the artist. There are still artists that need that, and I think it's pretty obvious who those people are, you can see, it's just evident! That decision was a very, very difficult one, because I'm a young artist, but my situation is different. I have a child that I have to support, to feed and to house. I can't just float through the world hoping that I'll have enough money for him to go on his field trip, or whatever. So, it was a very scary thing for me to walk away from, but it felt like that was one thing that really started to change for me as an artist and the way that people perceived me as an artist when I had the freedom to just do what I wanted to do. I've never been more happy with where I'm headed as an artist.
I know Janet Jackson was a huge role model for you when you were growing up, what was it that you admired most about her?
Well, when I was about five I was in a dance troupe, and that was the height of Janet in the eighties, and so everything we danced to was Michael and Janet. I remember I had a solo dance for a song of hers called 'Black Cat', and that was the start of my Janet love affair. I remember going to The Velvet Rope tour, although I was probably way too young, because there was a lot of sexual energy in the show, but I begged and begged and begged my dad to let me go. I remember actually calling scalpers for tickets, because tickets were sold out. I couldn't have been more than eight or nine, but I was calling every ticket scalper, negotiating ticket prices, and I found some and my father took me. I think one of the things that I love about her is that she has such versatility as an artist, but also an ability to always stay consistent with her sound, if that's possible! It always sounds like a Janet song. I think she's also really underappreciated for her visual artistry. When she's done videos she's got really amazing, iconic photographers to shoot for her and has all of these really great references. She's just freaking amazing.
You just made me remember! I did a dance to 'Black Cat' when I was young, too. We wore black unitards and cat ears.
No way! Me too! Oh my God! Was that happening in Australia?
That is so crazy.
You gave up your career as a ballet dancer to become a backup dancer for Destiny's Child. Was that a difficult decision to make?
You know what, I actually didn't know what I was getting myself into! They were supposed to go on tour with Christina Aguilera, and one of the dancers just popped up and said, two weeks before the tour, "I'm pregnant"! I had been in ballet since I was two and a half, and at 13, the year that I starting dancing for them, I had just become part of a [ballet] company and I was the youngest girl; it was a huge deal. And then my sister asked if I could fill in for a couple of weeks while they found another dancer, and I thought, "OK, this will be fun, because I will be able to travel with my family over the summer," but I had no idea the transition from ballet to hip hop would be the way it was! I remember the choreographer, he's this pretty tough guy Frank Gatson, who has choreographed for everyone and danced for everyone from Michael Jackson to Usher. And he was pretty militant, he was like, "This is not fucking ballet! Stop pointing your toes like that, this is fucking hip hop!" And I was, like, 13, and everyone else was 25, so I had to toughen up a lot as a dancer.
You've had a lot of different looks, were there any phases you didn't go through?
No, actually I think I did them all! For my first record I was pretty heavily influenced by Rasta culture and fashion, and that album had a lot of reggae influences. I had gone to Jamaica dancing for Destiny's Child, and I just came back with everything. But even before that I remember being in sixth grade, and Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette were all that I cared about and wanted to listen to, and not that either of them was goth, but my interpretation of them was all about Doc Martens and black leather [laughs]. And in sixth or seventh grade I was really obsessed with Aaliyah, so I had all my nineties Tommy Hilfiger, I even dressed as her for my twelfth birthday! I had a really brief rave phase as well. So, yeah, I think I've been through a wide variety of phases [laughs].
I know you're a big Frank Ocean fan. How do you feel about Odd Future?
You know what? I think that they're really, really talented, and I've met them before and they were really nice guys. I have a young son that I cannot listen to their music around so, you know, that's a challenge! But I think what they're doing is really interesting and exciting, it's great for them to be part of a new school of artists, they're really setting a tone that says, "Hey, you can do things your way and you can still have success with that." So, I'm really excited for them and for what they've done for the music industry, they've really shaken things up.
Words: Ariane Halls
Photography: Dominic Haydn Rawle
Fashion: Emilie Kareh