Heart So Timeless: The Soulful Message Of Ari Lennox
In person and on record Ari Lennox is an irrepressible, irresistible force.
Sheer chance brought the performer into the path of J. Cole, with her soulful approach becoming a key aspect of his label Dreamville's identity. 2016's outstanding EP 'Pho' put her on the map, while a flurry of collaborations and guest spots underlined her incredible dexterity.
But a full solo debut remained out of reach for fans. Taking her time in the studio, the fastidious talent set about re-tooling neo-soul for a new generation, crafting a series of highly personal R&B bumpers.
Out now, her long-awaited LP 'Shea Butter Baby' is outstanding, the work of a true individualist who blends her own life within those impeccable influences.
Citing Erykah Badu, Floetry, and D'Angelo as key influences, she fuses her incredible voice to starkly honest material that covers her Tinder mis-adventures, the need for independence, and the understanding the self-care is the only care that truly matters.
Clash spoke to Ari Lennox on the phone as her debut headline tour unfurled its path across North America...
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How has the tour been going? Are fans loving the new material?
Oh my God! They are amazing! They seem to be loving it a lot. I’ve seen very few negative comments – it’s just been a blessing. I’m shocked that people like it.
It took you three years to complete the new album, is that right?
Mm-hmm. It’s been a long time coming.
Why did it take so long? Are you a perfectionist?
Yes, I’m definitely a perfectionist. I always felt like I needed one more record. But I learned over time that we have so many gems – we’ve been sitting on gems for years, like a lot of the songs I made three years ago, and then there’s a few songs I made early 2018. I feel like everything needs to happen in a certain way, because some songs wouldn’t have made the album if we’d dropped it any sooner.
Was the album a learning process for you?
Oh my goodness! I feel like I was fairly ignorant to what it’s like to really finish an album. I’ve seen Cole finish his album, and he’s asked me to come through to record background on his songs before, so I’ve kind of gotten a taste of what it’s like to finish an album.
I’ve read articles about Kanye West, and how he finishes an album, and all the musicians that he gets. It was really, really cool to actually have my own musicians to be a part of this, and my own friends basically elevating the songs to the next level not just musically but also emotionally.
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J. Cole has been pivotal to all this, how did you first meet?
We meet through friends of the Dreamville camp. He flew me out because he heard some of my music – a whole bunch of people had been passing it round. He flew me out to LA and we worked together in the studio, and it’s just been cool ever since.
What the atmosphere like during the making of ‘Shea Butter Baby’?
The atmosphere was really fun and exciting. I was working with one of my best friends – Ibrahim – who is an incredible producer, working together in the studio.
As for the song itself, I was playing around, putting shea butter in my hair, and basically twisting at my hair using shea butter – which is a great healing product, it really moisturises natural hair. So I think shea butter happened to be on my mind. Ibrahim put down this beat and it came out really beautifully. Cole, when he heard it, he loved it. We were sitting on that song for a year before Cole was like: yo, I wanna get on this joint! And he did… he got on it way later.
You’re very honest as a songwriter – just look at the Tinder stories on ‘I Been’! Is music a process of sharing for you?
Most definitely. Everything that it’s my records is just what I’m going through that day. That came from a time in my life when I was kind of desperate, so I looked into online dating. I wouldn’t say everyone is desperate if they’re choosing online dating but for me, it was necessary. And it just kind of brought a lot of different kinds of drama in my life. I met the strangest people through online dating! I’m always talking about whatever I’m going through on my records – I’m not ashamed of my truth, y’know?
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Do you ever keep a diary or a journal? Or do you think music occupies that role in your life?
I don’t have a diary but I would say my album, or my discography, is somewhat of a diary. I guess it’s really… that’s definitely my diary. The world hears everything that’s going on, pretty much.
The album feels incredibly fresh, do you aim to get as close to the first take as possible?
Everything is definitely one take, for sure. Usually, for ad lib purposes I’ll go back and add ad libs sometimes as late as a year later to a record. For instance, ‘Break Me Off’ - there are some ad libs on that track that I didn’t add until literally a month ago. Before it came out, I added some ad libs. Sometimes I’ll be sitting on my record, and I’ll be like: it sounds pretty done, but then I’ll realise I can add some more. A lot of these records the lead vocal is just one take, and we’re shot. I like it better that way because it’s a lot more believable.
It’s an extremely personal record, but how important was it for you to build a team around you to make that vision happen?
It’s really important to have certain musicians around. Honestly, what’s most important to me is good energy. So with Ibrahim, it’s good energy, we’re gonna make a good beat every time. What’s cool about working with him is that he hears what I’m looking for, he really hears me, and he’s able to build off of that.
Sometimes he pushes me – if I’m not really feeling a beat sometimes he’ll push me and something good will come out of it anyway. But a lot of times he’s just like, OK, what are you trying to create today? What type of vibe? And he’ll follow me, and it helps me so much.
And then later on we’ll have musicians come in and bless the track. A lot of legendary people will come and bless the track with their amazing musicianship. A live sound is so important to me.
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‘Speak To Me’ is a real highlight – what inspired that song?
Honestly, dealing with guys that have terrible communication issues. I had to write the record. Why don’t you speak to me about whatever it is that you’re going through? If you’re not interested that’s fine, just talk to me and I’ll fall back. But don’t have me wondering… I’m a human being just like you are. I know it may be hard but tell me. It is what it is. Let’s just keep it moving. You know what I mean? I’m just hoping that in the world whoever hears it can just communicate and say what’s going on instead of shutting down, running away, or being trifling.
The song ‘Up Late’ features Masego, how was he to work with?
Oh my God! It was just really beautiful. He’s just got this awesome, sweet energy, and my memories of it are just having a lot of fun in the studio, just cracking up. It was a beautiful time. He’s hilarious. Not only is he incredibly talented, he’s also really funny. Those are my memories of it.
The different producers on it – Kojo really pushed me to give it a little bit more, with ad libs and things like that. ‘Up Late’ was just a snippet originally, and it was something that I kind of took my time to finish, but after we sat with it for a while we were like: this is a good song, I think we should finish it.
So when I returned to the studio they really pushed me, and it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever made because I’m a big fan of neo-soul, and I feel like a lot of people today aren’t aware of neo-soul and how incredible it is. A lot of young people maybe don’t know, and maybe other people have forgotten about it. But I’m here to glamorise it and put it back to another level. I’m just proud because it has East Coast vibes all over it, DC vibes all over it, Floetry vibes all over it. It’s just all inspired by neo-soul.
How do you twist those classic influences and make it into something fresh?
Honestly, I don’t really think about it. It just all depends on the producers and musicians – where they lead, I will follow. I’m very humble in that way, so I will follow. They can guide me, and I respond.
If a beat moves me, if I hear the vibe, the words and melodies will just flow. Once we’ve created the art piece it’s like… oh my God – there’s Jill Scott there, there’s Floetry there, there’s Erykah Badu there. You know what I mean? It’s something I realise afterwards.
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The album ends with ‘Static’ which is a superb closer – what inspired that track?
Originally it was about anxiety, and it was me telling myself that I’m in control, and no matter how difficult the panic attack I’m experiencing I am in control of it. I’ll get through it, I’ll be fine. That is one side of what ‘Static’ means to me, it’s like a letter to myself about my anxiety disorder. And the other side is what is probably seems like to most people – a love letter to a guy that I’m in love with. So no matter how difficult these issues are… I don’t care, I just need you around. You’re still my peace, even if you’re imperfect. I don’t mind – you’re perfectly imperfect.
What comes next? Will you be doing a lot of touring around this record?
Yes, I would love to tour some more. I’m on my first tour right now, which is a blessing. It’s been so much fun. I’m so excited about touring Europe. I really, really want to see what a show in London would look like now.
I realise I’ve been blessed with having a lot of supporters in London over the years, but I want to see what it would look like now. London, I’m excited for, Paris… Barcelona! I want to see what a tour in Europe would look like, and I want to see what a tour in Africa would look like. That is most important to me – to see faces that look like me in the crowd. I really want to experience that.
But other that, I just want to chill at home with my dog, my nephew… and just have a relaxing time!
‘Shea Butter Baby’ took three years to make, do we wait three years for your second album?
The beautiful thing about taking three years to make this album is that I’ve made 100s of songs in those three years, so we definitely have more than enough music for another album. But I’ll know when it’s right. I’m learning the beauty and the reward of taking my time with it. It could be three years… hopefully not! But we’ll see.
I’m going to take my time with it. Honestly, I’m looking forward to going back into the studio, because it would be really great to drop another one next year and keep it going. But… we’ll see!
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'Shea Butter Baby' is out now.
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