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Interview: The soul Queen Mary J Blige 'Right Now'


Mary J Blige releases The London Sessions this week.

Mary J Blige releases The London Sessions this week.

Mary J Blige releases The London Sessions this week.

Mary J Blige is explaining to INSIDER why her 'diva' label is completely unfounded. She does this while wearing thick-rimmed Chanel sunglasses. Indoors. After leaving me waiting for an hour and a half. I'm all ears.

"I'm not a diva. I'm not at all. As you can see, I'm not," she assures, turning to her perky publicist. They both offer a slightly condescending chuckle.

Nevertheless, surely being branded something you're not is bound to clench the nerves. Especially with a truculent reputation stoked by previous demands of white flowers and a change of toilet seat for every dressing room of each venue she played.

Not to mention the rumour that she once threatened to punch a journalist in a similar interview situation to this.

"A lot of things have been said about me but it doesn't matter. Because that is not me, I know I'm not a diva."

And yet the glasses remain throughout our entire interview.

Moving some fifty million albums worldwide, and collecting nine Grammys along the way for her troubles, the Queen of Hip Hop Soul (a label that sits just fine with the singer, by the way) has admittedly earned her regal status in the music industry.

Fortunes, however, have somewhat slipped for the legendary performer in recent times.

Twelve years ago, the passionate vigour and raw soul of her debut, What's The 411, grabbed the industry by the throat. She provided a gritty contrast to the sleek outputs of Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. It shifted nearly 3.5 million copies in the States alone.

Subsequent releases, My Life, Share My World and Mary all capitalised on her initial success.

A nation reverberated with the gloomy heartache of 'I'm Goin Down' and 'My Life', the soaring hope of 'Everything' and the thumping heart of 'Real Love'.

In 2001, Mary went global. No More Drama, containing the international breakthrough hit, 'Family Affair', resulted in Blige's first world tour, and dates outside of the States. She played all over Europe, including Dublin's RDS, previously admitting her joyous shock at performing to a stadium 'full of white faces'. "Will they even know my music," she asked herself.

And then, albums sales started to slip. Lower and lower. 2005's The Breakthrough barely scratched the international charts. 2011's My Life II…The Journey Continues sold only 800,000 units.

Certain voices credit this slump in success with her 2003 marriage to manager, Kendu Isaacs. The singer was no longer searching for a 'real love'. She'd found happiness. And fans missed the misery.

"That's true," she nods. "A lot of them were upset when I started to like myself, when I started to do things more positively and I didn't give up on love. They wanted me to be miserable and sad because some of them are miserable and sad. They haven't moved on yet.

"So you know, a lot [of the fans], I had to leave behind, and a lot aren't going to where you're going."

But will her loyal followers stick around for the 43-year-old's latest new direction. Following a pretty spot-on collaboration with electronic wunderkinds, Disclosure on their stomping track, 'F for You', Blige got a taste for the explosive British scene.

So she parked herself in London this summer, recording and producing with a selection of UK's hottest acts - Sam Smith, Naughty Boy, the Disclosure boys and Emeli Sande.

The result was the appropriately titled, London Sessions, a spicy, experimental, sometimes muddled melange that still manages to retain the majesty of Blige's vocals, framed by digitised sounds of a younger generation.

Current single, 'Right Now', with its slinking rhythms building to a powering crescendo, is the easy standout. Sande scribed 'Whole Damn Year' retains the angst-ridden memories of What's The 411.

I wonder though, is this simply a seasoned veteran jumping on a bandwagon of current new artists?

"Well I say, why not! The London music scene is happening right now. It's hot, I'm in."

So where did the concept come from? "After seeing the video for 'F For You' on Vevo. I'd never heard the song before and I completely lost my mind. It reminded me of the club music I grew up on. So I just wanted to sing on that record, no matter what it took.

"My manager, who's also my husband, started talks with the label and it happened overnight. The track blew up.

"So then, Steve Barnett, the head of my new label at Capitol suggested putting me in London and surrounding me with the best producers, writers, artists... It was the project I'd been waiting for."

Blige visibly bounces with delight in her chair. The table between us rocks gently. In a suitably ritzy London hotel suite, she's sleek and cosy looking in hugging jeans, knee-high dark boots and a gold V-necked sweater. It matches her vibrant honey-hued thatch. The sunglasses remain.

I ask if this is a reinvention - a way to maintain relevance in a thunderously fickle market. "It's not calculated like that. You have to continue to grow for yourself. If you do it for everyone else, it's not going to work. If you're doing what you're doing for yourself, that's the only way people are going to get into you and believe you."

Blige sang with U2 on a revision of their iconic hit, 'One' for The Breakthrough album in 2005, during which she forged a strong bond with Bono, whom she's repeatedly referred to as her 'brother'. Surely 'The Dublin Sessions' could be next on the cards?

"Why not! Let's do it. Let's bring in Bono? The Script…."

Imelda May, Hozier, I further suggest. "Hozier, yeah, I've heard some nice sounds out of him. I like him. I like this idea more. Why not? Let's make it happen. I'm going to talk to Bono about that."

While Mary speaks so highly about the man himself, I ask about the foundations of the bond. Why are they so close?

"I talk to him about anything. He's my brother. I don't see him much but when I need him, he's there. When he needs me, I'm there.

"And he's such a loving person with a lot of wisdom. If you want it, you sit and talk to him and he'll give it to you. And he's super confident, not cocky, but super confident of who Bono is, how Bono sings, how Bono dresses. He's just amazing to me, he's alluring because he's sure of his being.

"I actually remember," she adds, "he told me one day, we were doing something for the Hurricane Katrina relief, when all that stuff was happening, and I was saying, 'I can't hit that key right'. And he says, 'Don't worry about hitting that key, it's not about hitting the key for you. It's just singing the songs'."

She glances out the window of her suite at the Friday evening traffic grinding along Embankment and up towards Trafalgar Square. "And you know," she says, "that information took my performance to another level."

Mary smiles warmly for the first time. I'm assuming her eyes are cutely creased with affectionate laughter lines. But the glasses unfortunately remain.

Although, if this be the only lingering evidence of a fractious 'divatude', it's certainly a vast difference. And she didn't swing for me once.

"You know what makes me real happy? That there was no social media back when I first started out. People still judge me for stuff that happened in the past and I'm like, 'Really, still?' And most of that stuff was my crew, I wasn't involved a lot of the time."

Are there any regrets? The outbursts. The demands. The toilet seats. "I wish I did a lot of stuff different in the past. But all of the mistakes, all of the things you regret, they give you the strength to go on. Obviously, there were a lot of things I wish I did differently. But you know what? You live and learn from these things. And living and learning is key…"

The London Sessions is released November 27

Irish Independent