... At least I think she was laughing at my witty banter. Perhaps she was just deflecting a few uncomfortable moments with her trademark boisterous laugh: the kind of laugh that makes you wonder if she is happy or nervous, but one that’s infectious just the same.
A fellow Long Island native, I felt a kinship towards Ashanti as we spoke about her hometown of Glen Cove and I recounted anecdotes referencing other mutually familiar locales. Conversation turned to the serious and sometimes insidious business of making and selling music, and the shady trappings that a young recording artist can succumb to before getting her sea legs. She is careful to merely skim the surface of what ailed her at her old record label, The Inc. Records. Within seconds she skillfully switches gears and quickly spins her circumstances into more positive happenstance, creating an image of herself as newly re-invented and unsinkable; Ashanti: the sequel.
In Ashanti’s defense, there is much to be positive about. The young acclaimed singer/songwriter is not a manufactured celebrity like many of her peers, but a true artist who collaborates with her producers, and pens the entire lyrical content of her albums. She makes a practice of studying not just her own life, but the lives of those around her, and using all which she has taken in as her artistic fuel. As Ashanti re-counts to me, her process is then to bring the pleasure, pain, and subsequent growth into the recording studio.
She is notoriously skittish about divulging the details of her personal life through conversation, though it is all up for grabs within the lyrical content of her music if one is so inclined to really listen. In short, Ashanti’s fourth studio album, The Declaration, chronicles a life and career temporarily interrupted and then boldly re-claimed by the singer herself.
PR.com (Allison Kugel): Why did you title your latest album The Declaration, and why the four year break in between this album and the last one?
Ashanti: In the four years there were a lot of things going on. I was used to dropping albums consecutively since 2002, and there were a bunch of political things that have happened. I switched labels. Obviously, The Inc. Records (formerly Murder Inc.) was under investigation, so I wouldn’t necessarily say I took a break (laughs). I would say, more so, that stuff was kind of put on pause. I took that time and it was almost like a double edged sword because I had the opportunity to film two movies, John Tucker Must Die and Resident Evil: Extinction. You know, you take the good with all of the other stuff that comes with the music industry. The reason why I named the album The Declaration is because this time around, during that four year gap, I learned so much and I grew up so much. This time around I handled my project completely on my own. I executive produced the entire album from the behind the scenes to the creative process. So, The Declaration just stands for declaring a sense of independence, a sense of freedom and just a sense of growing up.
PR.com: By the way, John Tucker Must Die is a great movie; it’s very funny. So, it was time well spent.
PR.com: I noticed that in the content of your lyrics this time around there’s more of a heaviness and a depth to them. You sound like a woman. In some of your earlier work you sounded like a girl. What was the turning point, other than some of the stuff that went on with your old label? What re-shaped you as a person over the last few years?
Ashanti: I definitely learned a lot of my strengths and a lot of my weaknesses; again, just growing up. I had my first record deal when I was fourteen, but I didn’t have an album come out until I was about twenty or twenty-one (laughs), you know? You learn so many things, and just becoming an adult in your twenties and growing, and being around different people, and learning and networking. On a personal level, what I’ve gone through in my life. My family and friends, and things like that, just molded me into what direction I was headed. Being that I write my own lyrics, my life experiences are what I write about. And other people’s experiences around me, like my friends are going through something, or somebody in [my] camp is going through something. It’s all a reality. I think that’s why a lot of people are able to relate to my music.
PR.com: In the title song, The Declaration, it’s about being misled and manipulated and then coming out on the other side. Where did that song come from?
Ashanti: That’s where I was in my life. It was a point in my life where I felt like a lot of manipulation was being done. In this music industry, it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors and sometimes you have to learn the hard way that you can’t trust everyone.
PR.com: And what about the song The Way That I Love You? What inspired you to write that song, and who came up with the idea for that video?
Ashanti: When I heard the beat, LT Hutton produced it, and me and him had been working together for almost a year by that time. And when I walked in, he just hit the button and when I heard the beat I was like, “Oh My Gosh!” And immediately it just came out. I got a pen and a pad and I just starting writing. I think I started writing the pre-hook first, then the hook and then I came back the next day and wrote the verses. It just p-o-u-r-e-d out! Sometimes when I hear a record, it will penetrate to what I’m gonna write about. I’ll say, “Ooh this sounds like a summertime record!” or “This sounds like a sexy record!” With that [beat] it sounded like… “The Way That I Love You (laughs).” It just sounded like passion and pain and just, I don’t know… real life. As far as the video, being that the record, lyrically, was I think one of my best records, we wanted to do something very different. We wanted to make the video more cinematic as opposed to a regular music video. We got the concept from Snapped, that show that’s on the Oh! channel (The Oxygen Network). Snapped is basically all women that are on death row for murdering their husbands. It kind of just made perfect sense because when your heart gets broken you kind of go to a different place, and it brings a lot of emotion. I’m definitely not an advocate for murder (laughs), but it just shows the reality of what happens when your heart gets broken, you know what I mean? Unfortunately these women went a little too far and carried out that passion, but it just shows that it’s a reality. So, we wanted to do something really big and different with the video.
PR.com: In another life, before I became a journalist I used to work in the Mineola (Long Island, New York) holding [jail] cells at the courthouse. I interviewed women in the holding cells to see if they were eligible for a free attorney. A lot of them were there for crimes of passion. They beat up some girl who stole their boyfriend, or they stabbed their boyfriend. It’s like, how do you get to that place? Why not just walk away (laughs)?
Ashanti: Exactly! And I think in the video we were trying to portray, if you do something like that it’s not a good thing. You will go to jail! It’s not a positive thing, and we show that I walk away from the situation at the end. It shows the fantasy that you may want to do something like that and you may be that upset, but the moral is to walk away from it.
PR.com: You’ve had a lot of critical acclaim and you’ve won a lot of awards so far in your career. What do you think makes the difference between an artist who is popular and hot for a few years versus an artist who remains relevant for many decades?
Ashanti: You know what? I think a lot of it has to do with your team. A lot of people may not get it, but it is so important and so crucial to a person’s career to have the right team players on your side, and people that really genuinely care about you as a person, instead of just as a commodity. You have to look out for longevity and not just what’s hot right this second. Some things, if you turn it down now, it’s going to benefit you later on. Some people don’t choose that route. They may choose to do something now because it’s hot and then later on they regret it, and they understand that it wasn’t worth it. I think those decisions come with time. You have to learn, and you’ve got to surround yourself with people that have been doing this. If they haven’t been doing this that long, at least you know that they’re going out for your best interests as a person, as a human being to elongate your career, as opposed to just trying to make that quick money.
PR.com: I don’t know if this is true, but I heard that at the BET Awards you were star struck by Rihanna and wanted to sit next to her to get her autograph? Is that true?
Ashanti: You heard what!?! (Laughs) Where’d you hear that?
PR.com: Internet rumors.
Ashanti: Be honest Allison. Does that sound true (laughs)?
PR.com: I’ve been doing this a long time. Nothing surprises me anymore.
Ashanti: (Laughs) No.
PR.com: Is there anybody who does make you star struck? Is there anybody you’ve performed with where you did feel nervous, or it did feel surreal to you?
Ashanti: At the pre-dinner for the BET Awards I had the opportunity, it was so spontaneous… Anita Baker, Jill Scott, and Maxwell were up on the stage and they were singing. Jill Scott performed. She did an amazing show and she just did this freestyle at the end of the performance. So she was just singing, singing, singing and it broke down acapella. Nelly was actually hosting the dinner, so he was grabbing all the singers out of the audience and pushing them up onstage. He loves Anita Baker! So he pushed her up onstage, then Maxwell went up onstage and then they pushed me up on the stage and I was on the stage with Anita Baker, Maxwell and Jill Scott. That was amazing for me!
PR.com: You visited The Boys and Girls Club of Glen Cove, Long Island, which is your hometown, earlier this month. You donated a generous amount of money to The Boys and Girls Club of America. Tell me how that experience was for you?
Ashanti: It was an amazing experience, just to go back to The Boys and Girls Club. I actually got my start there. My first talent show that I did, I sang a Mary J. Blige record and that’s kind of what motivated me to go out and get a record deal. So, it was just very full circle how I was able to come back and donate the money, and to instill that we want to keep kids dreaming big and thinking outside the box, and get them off the street. Provide something for them to do. I love, love, love kids! So anything involved with children and the betterment of children, I always want to be a part of. To be able to come back to my very own, and I literally could spit from my yard to The Boys and Girls Club. I lived like two seconds away from it, my old house. It was like, “Oh My Gosh! This is home!” Some of the kids I used to babysit, so when I walked in there it was a really amazing feeling. And they actually named a street after me in Glen Cove, which is really surreal! I was actually crying, and I couldn’t believe it. What’s even crazier than that is they already named a street after my grandfather called “James Davis Way.” So, they have my name and my grandfather’s name on the same street.
PR.com: So you’re, like, the superhero of Glen Cove then.
Ashanti: (Laughs) I’m gonna get a big “G” with a cape!
PR.com: Do you have any film projects coming up right now?
Ashanti: I have my fingers crossed. There are two things that I’m working on right now. Hopefully they come through. One of them involves me being a little more in back of the camera, rather than in front of it, which I’m really excited about. Nothing is signed sealed and delivered yet. You know how Hollywood is, but I definitely have my fingers crossed.
PR.com: Are you going out on tour for The Declaration album?
Ashanti: I definitely want to go out on tour. I want to do something different this time. With me being gone for four years, I definitely want to get a chance to get more intimate with the people again and get out there. I want to do a House of Blues run, which I think we want to start end of August going into September. Then we’re going to do a big one hopefully top of 2009.
Ashanti’s fourth studio album, “The Declaration,” is available in stores and at iTunes through Universal Motown Records.