Chance of a lifetime
Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
"I'm really excited, man. The product is so
good, I'm just so happy," she says of her new album, speaking by phone to
The Daily Yomiuri from a recording studio in Los Angeles.
Blige, whose New York accent remains strong enough
even for this British-born interviewer to recognize, releases Growing Pains,
her eighth studio album, on Nov. 21 and will cross the Pacific as part of the
"3 Great American Voices" tour.
But the 36-year-old reveals that she shares a
hobby with many of her Japanese fans.
"Every time I come to Japan I have a good
time. I love to shop...and I just love to see what different things they have
from [what you can buy in] the [United] States," she says.
In between visits to department stores, she will be
sharing the stage with legendary singer/songwriter King and Black Eyed Peas
vocalist Fergie, a mouthwatering lineup that covers all age groups and several
A cynic might be forgiven for thinking that the
trio are heading for a mighty clash of egos, but she is looking forward to the
"You know, I love Carole King and I love
Fergie...so it should be fun, a lot of fun," she says.
Like many singers, Blige is a fan of King and
recorded one of her songs, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,"
"She's got a whole album that I listen to. I
think a couple of months ago, I was like, 'OK, these songs are great, maybe one
day I'll probably try something.'
"She has a song called...well I don't wanna
say it because then somebody else might beat me to it--I hate that--so I'm not
even gonna say it. It's a beautiful and incredible record," she teased,
leaving me searching for a thread to which album she could be referring to.
So how are they going to decide who opens and
closes the concerts? According to Blige, it's not an issue.
"It doesn't matter to me. I don't have a huge
ego, I'm really not the diva that everybody says I am, not in that sense. I'm a
diva when it comes to the hard work that I do and standing up for what I believe.
If you wanna call me a diva for that, that's cool.
"As long as I don't go on at 2 o'clock in the
morning, I'm cool," she says.
Time was, though, when Blige would not have
considered the early hours of the morning such an uncivilized hour to do anything,
never mind going on stage.
Blige grew up in one of New York's toughest
housing projects and has admitted in the past to experimenting with drugs and
dropping out of high school.
But it was as a primary school student that she
would get her initial break.
"I did a talent show. I was 7 years old and I
sang 'Reunited' in my school talent show and it was received so well and
everybody just loved it. From that point on, I had to perform in school talent
shows from elementary to junior high to high school," she recalls.
As a teenager, her interest in R&B and hip-hop
grew and grew.
"When I was 14 it was really all about
serious hip-hop and R&B. I think of songs...that really saved my life...Roy
Ayers and "Everybody Loves the Sunshine"...That's the song that
really helped me, that song, [Soul II Soul's] 'Keep on Movin'' and 'Be
Optimistic' by the Sounds of Blackness. Those three records, man, those three
records really helped me," she reveals.
Within five years Blige had a recording contract
with Uptown Records and released her multimillion-selling debut album, What's
the 411, in 1992.
Her next release, My Life, was acclaimed by fans
and critics alike, though she has since admitted that her private life at the
time was in a chaotic state, as she fought a battle against drugs and alcohol,
among other things.
Through the '90s and into the new millennium Blige
released albums at regular intervals, with 2005's The Breakthrough earning
global sales of more than 7 million copies as well three Grammy Awards, one for
best R&B album and two for the single "Be Without You" (best
female R&B vocal performance and best R&B song).
Yet her biggest hit from the record was a cover
version of one of U2's most popular tunes.
"I always loved the song 'One.' I was a fan
of that record, and I was sitting at Jimmy Iovine's house, who's the CEO of
Interscope Records [and producer of U2's Rattle and Hum]... and the song came
on and I was like, 'Jimmy, there's something about this record, I have to
record this record,'" she says.
The Irish foursome are not the only rock act to
have collaborated with Blige, and one flamboyant Englishman has become a good
"I knew who Elton John was and I've been a
fan of his since I was a little girl--and he was on television one night saying
that he loved Mary J. Blige, he loves what I do. And I was like, 'Wow, Elton
John likes me?'
"I'd recorded a song called 'Deep Inside'
over one of his tracks, 'Benny and the Jets.' And I said, 'Wow, it would be a
great idea if I can get Elton John to play live piano on this and when I met
him he was so nice I just fell straight in love with him," she says.
Her partnership with rapper Ludacris on his 1996
single, "Runaway Love" touched on the problems of women who are
victims of abusive, a subject close to Blige's heart.
"It's very important to me because I've been
that girl, you know, running away from the things that happened to me when I
was a kid, and all my life I've been running from that stuff, and I've seen so
many girls running away from that stuff so it was only right for me to be on
it," she explains.
Blige's stance on women's rights and gender
equality has made her a role model for many women. Some female pop stars might
balk at the responsibility, but not her.
"I feel really good about it, for one because
when I was a child I never seen any woman treated right, ever. Never, ever,
ever, and I always wanted to help them, even when I was a kid.
"But I ended up being [one of] them, so I
couldn't help anybody so...when I decided to call out for help everyone was
like, 'Oh Mary, you're right, we need help, too,' [and] my life started to turn
around," she says.
And it was Blige's determination that would offer
hope to others.
"I learned that you can't help people by
telling them what to do, you gotta help people by walking the walk that you're
talking and that's what I've been trying to do," she explains.
Growing Pains finds Blige in a positive mood yet
still aware of the need to progress.
"I'm at a point in my life where I have to
sustain. The last album was called The Breakthrough and I literally, you know,
mentally, spiritually and physically, in every way made a breakthrough.
"I'm in a place right now where I've always
wanted to be but in order to stay and maintain this position, mentally,
spiritually and physically, I'm forced to grow up very, very quickly," she
The title of the album, Growing Pains, was not
chosen lightly by Blige.
"I've accepted the pain that comes with
growth. I don't look forward to it but when it comes it's like, 'OK, this is
gonna hurt but I have to do it.'...So I went to the Webster's dictionary and I
looked up the word growing pains and it says, when rapid growth occurs; when
you're rapidly growing," she says.
One song, "Work That," on the new album
might strike a chord with some of Blige's fans who are approaching middle age.
"That song is based on how...we're not always
happy with...our weight or our hair. What I'm saying to people is, 'You know
what I've done with my weight and my hair and my body, I'm learning to work
with it," she says.
Not that Blige has too many worries about these
things, if her latest promotional photographs are anything to go by.
And it would appear that this latest batch of
songs are aimed at a more mature audience.
"Another title of one of the songs on the
album is called 'Grown Woman.' I've accepted that I'm an adult, I'm enjoying
this. I've never been clearer in my life and I've never been so sure about what
I wanna look like and what I wanna wear, who I wanna be around," she says.
Her approach to relationships seems to reflect her
age on Growing Pains, as she explained the story behind "Roses."
"I'm married but some days it's just not all
happy on those days so I said, 'It ain't all roses, flowers and poses,' you
know, 'It ain't all candy, this love stuff is demanding,' that's what the
chorus is. There's so much fun stuff on here, man, people are gonna have a
ball," she says with gusto.
Though the new album has yet to be released, Blige
is already thinking about her next project, though her teasing answer to my
question about it left more questions than answers.
"I'm already planning my next album and where
I'm gonna end up. I can't tell you right now because it's something that I know
that other people will be like, 'Oh let me do it first,' and they're gonna be
shocked, they're gonna be totally shocked."
"3 Great American Voices," featuring
Carole King, Mary J. Blige and Fergie will play Nov. 5-6, 7 p.m. at Osaka-jo
Hall in Osaka, (06) 6362-7301; Nov. 10, 5 p.m. at Saitama Super Arena in
Saitama, (03) 3475-9999; Nov. 12-13, 7 p.m. at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo,(03)
(Oct. 26, 2007 )