Interview: Queen Latifah
Fri, 28 Sep 2007 13:46:09
On her new album, Trav'lin' Light, the incredibly talented rapper, singer and actress Queen Latifah turns to jazz and R&B standards once again, bringing her own, smooth interpretation to classics made famous by artists like Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Phoebe Snow and Roberta Flack.
But for those not in the know, this isn't Queen Latifah's first foray into jazz vocals, she cut her teeth with the 2004 record The Dana Owens Album, which was nominated for a Grammy. Since then she's moved over to jazz heavy-hitter Verve Records for the release of Trav'lin' Light and honed her delivery.
We caught up with the Queen, a true class act, to talk about how far she's come, choosing tracks for the new record, what's on her iPod and if she'll dive into doing Broadway next.
I wanted to ask you in particular about "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl" from the new album. It's a personal favorite of mine from the Nina Simone version—what was your inspiration for choosing that?
I wanted to do something a little bluesy, you know, something sassy. The song is actually edited, because there's some different lyrics to it as well. One of the versions says, "I want a little hot dog in my bun," and I'm like, "I don't think they need to say all that, I think they get it." They get that I want a little somethin' somethin'. But I like that song because, to me, it's the kind of song that would be fun to perform live because the music is so open. There's just space in the track for some vocals—you can just interpret it and have fun with it, make it kinda sexy.
When you came out with your first jazz record, The Dana Owens Album, you used your given name in the title. Did doing this kind of music, vocal jazz, feel like coming home in way?
Yeah, I felt like this music was in me for so long, it was just part of who I am, you know? I was waiting a long time for the opportunity to just sing. I felt like this is who I was before Queen Latifah came along—it was Dana Owens. When the rap took off, hey that was a live shot, but when it came time to sing, it was time to take it back to the essence, to Dana, you know? It's like everyone has different personas and that kinda felt like this is who I am really am.
What do you think you've learned in the interval between this new record and that first foray into the genre on Dana Owens?
I think that, if anything, it's just more confidence vocally. Warming the voice up a little better and really just letting it go a little more. If it's not perfect, it's okay.
You've been in a couple very well-received musicals recently, Hairspray and Chicago before that. Is doing Broadway musicals something that you are exploring?
I would definitely be interested in doing something designed for me. It's a lot of work, though, and it takes a lot of dedication—I won't do Broadway and half do it. It's either I commit to it and I'm ready to do it, or I'm not going to do it all…You know, to do the same thing everyday, to do it 110% and make it special for every new audience that comes in there, it's gotta be the right project. And I don't take that lightly. I could have done Broadway years ago. I respect the people who can do it everyday and make it special, you know?
Do you have any favorite musicals from back in the day when you were growing up?
The Wiz…that was like my favorite musical. Sparkle was a favorite as well. There's a movie called Sparkle with Irene Cara. Aretha Franklin did the entire soundtrack and Curtis Mayfield produced it. Irene Cara and Lonette McKee and gosh, there was another girl, who played these three sisters who became this group, a musical group. And they're singing all these songs through the movie but then when you hear the soundtrack, Aretha Franklin sings every song from the movie. I don't think that's ever been done before.
And they're rocking in the movie, they're really singing their asses off, doing a great job but then the soundtrack is all Aretha Franklin, which went on to become a hit record. So it's pretty unusual, but it was very dramatic—a really good story about these girls trying to make it and make it through love, life and that kind of stuff, drugs and everything, it was good.
What are you listening to these days?
I always keep a healthy batch of neo-soul ready to go. So you know, there's always my Erykah Badu, Van Hunt, Raphael Saadiq, Jill Scott, D'Angelo, Musiq (Soulchild). I'm listening to a bunch of alternative music as well: Bloc Party and Interpol and Raconteurs and . And since I'm from Jersey I always have some house music on deck.
Some Clark Sisters gospel. In jazz, I always keep the classics, I mean, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday and some John Coltrane, some Thelonious Monk. I just kinda keep my station on Jazz 88. I just go to Jazz 88 and whatever is playing is working for me.
How do you manage to constantly reinvent yourself? You're probably the only beat boxer turned jazz singer that I can think of. Plus the acting plus and the talk show…
I am one of these people who constantly has to do new things whether it's reading books, writing poetry, trying to play the drums. I'm about to get off the phone with you and walk through Central Park because I'm bored, I get bored with the gym, so I got to get out, then I'll get bored with the park and get on the treadmill. That's just kinda who I am. When something touches me I speak on it, you know?
—Jocelyn K. Glei