As the first single from the project, “I Try” is the perfect gateway to Heroes & Gods 2.0. In giving people a teaser of “I Try”, you posted a video clip on Instagram several months ago of Ashford & Simpson dancing on stage with “I Try” playing underneath the clip. What inspired you to pair them with that music?
Well, I do those mash-ups from time to time with other people’s songs and, creatively, it will just come to me to match a visual of an artist dancing with another artist’s song. I’ve been doing it now for some years and Instagram is a great platform to be able to have short little videos that you put out. On this day, I knew I was going to use a clip of somebody but it just came to me to look for Ashford & Simpson. [laughs] Perhaps it was the nature of their songwriting. I’ve always had much respect for both of them, so with “I Try” I felt, subconsciously, like there was some parallel.
It’s also that I grew up listening to them, like all the other greats, and so I’m forever paying homage to my favorite artists and the people who have taught me to do what I do. Ashford & Simpson have always been, as songwriters first, very influential for me, growing up listening to “High-Rise” and “Is It Still Good to Ya” and tons of other songs. What I always loved about their songwriting was how honest it was, how transparent it was, how reflective it was of their love for one another. Nick’s lyricism and storytelling were so “New York” too, the way he would describe things and set the tone of the story, the atmosphere that was present in what he wrote.
Quentin’s remix of “Sent From Heaven” actually sounds sent from heaven. Vocally, there’s this amazing note you hit on “My days are much brighter because you’re sent from heaven”. Take me back to the studio. What do you pull from to reach those heights with such control and power?
I pull from the individual that inspired that. [laughs] I pull from the awareness of the love I have for him, the love and the support that he has for me, the history of our friendship, and how timely it was that we connected. That’s usually where I pull from — I pull from my truth, my life and what’s happening.
One of the songs that really hits me on the original version of Heroes & Gods is “Oxford Blues”, in terms of the lyrics and overall musical tone. I’d love to know the story behind that particular song.
Oxford Avenue is the street that my ex lived on. [laughs] While we were together, I was in his apartment by myself one day. One of my best friends lives in the same building. Prior to the song being written, I’d begun finding a passion for filmmaking and being a director and just creating art in that genre. I had made this little video of me in his house. I titled it “Oxford Blues” in 2012. The title stayed with me.
When we went our separate ways, I began to write songs for my next album. It was 2013 / 2014 when I started to take all the inspiration and lessons from that relationship and grow from it and have somewhere to put everything that I was feeling. I decided to write a song using the title “Oxford Blues”.
Along that continuum, as an artist who’s admired around the world, how do you navigate personal relationships when there are so many demands on you?
I think the most difficult thing for a lot of people, regardless of career, is trusting. It’s not really about the demands of industry because you take the time you need to live and be in relation with people. We all need that. For me, it’s imperative that I take time to live and experience people and hurt and pain and joy, and all of those things, so that I have something to write about, a new experience to write about from a different angle with a new perspective, rather than writing the same song a thousand times, or singing the same song.
There’s an awesome constellation of talent on “Break it Down”, which you wrote with Joi Gilliam, Rachelle Ferrell, and Craig Brockman. You and Rachelle created the vocal arrangement. Joi sang background with you. Lalah Hathaway plays on it. Describe how all of those forces came together for that song.
D*LOC Walker, who is an excellent drummer and musician and producer as well, and Jairus Mozee, who has worked with me as a musician for many years, is also a phenomenal producer/songwriter/guitar player extraordinaire. Having them in my band over the years made it very easy to decide to go into the studio and see what we could come up with together.
Craig has played live with me also. D*LOC told Craig, “Hey, we’re going to the studio. Come through.” They did and we laid down different instrumental grooves. Craig would start playing stuff and then everybody else would fall in line. We laid down maybe five or six grooves. I went back in another day and chose the ones that I wanted to work on. “Sent from Heaven” was one and “Break It Down” was the other one.
Joi and I had always talked about working together. We’re friends. On this particular day, I was like “Hey do you want to go to the studio?” She was like, “Cool. Let’s go.” We went and while we were in there, Rachelle called me. “Where are you?” “I’m in the studio.” She’s like “What studio?” She was living in LA at the time. She came through and before she got there, Joi started singing the chorus. We got that together and by the time Rachelle came, we had laid down choruses.
Rachelle walks in as it’s playing and she started singing the first verse as soon as she walked through the door. Lyrics and everything! I was standing there, couldn’t even hug her first because she walked in and started singing the verse. She sang it verbatim. We wrote it down and then I went into the room. I sang the first verse so that I could have it there before I went back and did it all over again. Lalah came another day and played synth keyboards over it. That’s how that happened.
It’s like an all-star cast.
Yeah, it was wonderful.
Given that you’re such a prolific songwriter, I know that you don’t just cover any song. There’s a lot of thought that goes into recording a song that’s well-known and giving it your own stamp. Of all the songs Luther Vandross wrote and recorded, why did you cover “Don’t You Know That” on Heroes & Gods?
Because when the album [Never Too Much] came out, it was my favorite off the album, as a child. I loved what he was saying, the confidence in who he knew he was, his capacity to love for that person, his willingness to give it all to that person and asking them if they were aware of that. That resonated with me. It’s my favorite Luther song.
How does “Don’t You Know That” reflect Luther’s uniqueness as a singer, songwriter, and vocal arranger?
Similar to his other songs, he didn’t waste space as a singer or an arranger. Every moment was intentional. You felt it and you heard it. Sometimes you hear songs and there’s space wasted. Time is wasted. [laughs] The intention is constant, and even in the space, you could hear the intention, you could feel it, when it’s done right by the right person. He was marvelous in that way, like most great artists.
When I spoke with Fonzi Thornton, he talked about Luther seeing Dionne Warwick at the Brooklyn Fox as a young boy. Luther felt as if Dionne was singing only to him, and that sealed his destiny as a performer. A few years ago, Dionne herself recorded one of your songs, “Tears Ago” on She’s Back (2019). How did it feel to have someone of Dionne’s stature record that song?
Listen, you just reminded me! I recall when it came out, I didn’t know what else to think but wow. Now, being reminded of it? Dionne Warwick recorded a song that I recorded! It takes on a little more meaning in relation to the conversation we’re having at this point — Luther and his love for her — and who she has been as a singer, as a philanthropist, as a humanitarian. Remarkable career and woman. She’s very particular, so to know that she enjoyed the song enough, thought it was pretty enough, to want to record it and make it a part of her repertoire and her catalog, speaks volumes to me.
When I interviewed her in 2019, I asked her about what she related to in “Tears Ago”. She said it was the lyrics. She can’t sing a song if she can’t relate to the story that’s being told.
Listen, the day that I discovered that she recorded it, I was like, “What? You’re kidding me!” I was really taken aback.
How did Dionne factor into your own musical development growing up?
I remember my mother’s sister, my aunt, was a Dionne Warwick fanatic, and a singer as well, so she had a similar tone and could deliver a song like Dionne and like Nancy Wilson. Those were her two favorites, and she played them all the time, so that would seep into me as well, as a kid — hearing the stuff that she would play also and hearing her sing “Walk on By” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” just around the house.
I further got into the history of Dionne Warwick as a singer and what she represented at that time much later in my adulthood, just her essence and poise and grace — the grace was everything — her diction and how subtle her range was. When she sang, you understood every word. She didn’t come out screaming but every now and again she would hit a note and it would be in a register you didn’t expect. She’s a beautiful singer and I further understood why Luther was who he was as an artist.
I understand the influence and the power of it when you lock into a singer or an artist that changes your life, literally changes your path. The work of spirit that takes place through singing is very powerful. Relating to Luther’s love for Dionne is very much the same for me with Chaka Khan.