As Mary J. Blige drops a brilliant new album recorded with London’s finest, Oliver Keens meets the R&B queen.
In a grand, luxurious room in Whitehall, London Mary J. Blige is holding court. The 43-year-old R&B pioneer was in town to talk about The London Sessions, a gem of an album recorded with some of the world’s best songwriters – many of whom are half her age. Take a bow, London: legends like Blige are willing to come halfway across the world to work with Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé and Surrey-born brothers, Disclosure, to name but a few.
Like the actual Queen, she’s shorter than you’d expect. Unlike Her Majesty, she has tattoos and a thick Bronx accent. Loved by fans for her realness and emotional honesty, Blige has also earned a reputation for being feisty. There are hints of that at the session: a question about feminism gets shot down, a favourable comparison to Beyoncé is a no-go and discussing the word diva gets a glacial response. But ever the loyal and humble subject, I’m unfazed – even when she regally starts talking about herself in the third person.
Why did you want to do something different with your sound for the new album? Well, Mary was in a place where her fans were comfortable with what she was doing. I’d been feeding everybody else’s souls for years. Now, I feel like I need to feed my own soul. I really hope my fans come with me, because this is going to be amazing.
How would you describe the record to your fans? Just Mary evolving. This is its own book in the history of Mary J. Blige. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I love house music, but I was too young to go clubbing in the ’80s. Then I got involved with singing over hip-hop beats, and then straight to R&B songs. But I always wanted to get back to that house sound.
London isn’t exactly Memphis. Is it an unlikely soul city? No. I remember seeing Elton John on Soul Train years ago, then bands such as Soul II Soul, The Brand New Heavies and Jamiroquai breaking through in the US. British music has been intertwined with American music forever. The radio here sounds just like the radio I used to listen to when I was growing up. It’s beautiful that there’s a new generation of artists that sounds like what we grew up on.
You’ve worked with Jay Z, Dr Dre, and now Disclosure. Is it strange to record with two boys from the UK, one of whom wasn’t even born when your debut album came out? It is strange. But the beautiful thing is that as far as soul music is concerned, they know what I know. I wouldn’t be working with them if they didn’t.
Another collaborator, Sam Smith, comes across as the loveliest man on the planet. Is he? He’s one of the nicest, most down-to-earth guys I’ve ever met, but he has so much in him. He has healing power in his voice. To hear that from someone whose life is imperfect, who goes through the same things we go through – man, oh man.
Therapy, a song you wrote with Smith, claims you go to therapy two times a day. Do you? Well, let me be clear: therapy for me isn’t about sitting in front of a doctor. It’s about working out, running, maybe a bowl of ice cream. Listening to Mary J. Blige might be therapy for a whole lot of people. Having a good cry to a song you love and relate to – just getting stuff out, so you can see everything clearly. That’s what I mean by therapy.
You’re famous for being open about your emotions in your songs. Does that have a cost? Yeah: the cost is that you have to live right by yourself and have a private life. You have to take it, because the world isn’t going to let you. Say you see me with my family and you take pictures, fine: you can have that. But you can’t come into my house, you know what I mean? That’s none of your business.
Have you seen any singers get that wrong? Michael Jackson. He literally gave his life, until he died at 50. He gave everything to his fans and kept nothing for himself.
The word diva is often used as a diss. What does it mean to you? Nothing. I don’t get it. You tell me.
Well, it’s often used to mean a successful female singer who maybe has a high opinion of herself. I’ll take that. There’s nothing wrong with having a high opinion of yourself. If you don’t, nobody else will. The London Sessions, Dhs37, is available now on Amazon.com.