As befitting of musical royalty, India.Arie sits at the head of a conference room table at EBONY’s office in mid-Manhattan. The songstress dons a shimmery gold head wrap and is adorned with gold jewelry, akin to a queen. She rocks a fitted black dress and black combat boots accented with pink laces. A brilliant crystal pendant hangs from Arie’s neck. Aside from the embellishments, the 40-year-old’s aura of strength, authenticity and self-assuredness fills the room. Her energy is palpable; she moves forth with a strong set intention.
“I have never recorded a word on record that I didn’t mean,” says India.Arie. “The meaning has changed over time because I am maturing. But I mean everything that I say.”
All focus, no fluff. And as a singer-songwriter, she’s always set out to make music that uplifts. Arie understands the power of words, at times noticeably pausing to think before offering a response to questions. Even in conversation her sentences are well crafted, as though composing a masterpiece.
The four-time Grammy-winning artist comes to spread word of her latest album, Christmas with Friends. But with a 15-year career in the music industry and a willingness to speak the truth, our conversation flew off on its own.
Christmas with Friends is Arie’s second studio album since a four-year self-imposed hiatus. Songversation, released two years ago, signified her return to the music industry. It reflected the Arie’s evolution and burgeoning sense of spirituality on tracks like “I Am Light” and “Thy Will Be Done,” amongst others. A step away from the positive “musical affirmations” (as she once described them), she’s now taken on her first holiday album.
“I don’t think of it as a continuation of my message. I just wanted to do a Christmas album,” says Arie. And unless the incomparable Stevie Wonder requests a future holiday-themed collaboration—in which case, the “Wonderful” (a tribute to Wonder) singer would happily oblige—Christmas with Friends will also be her last holiday album.
The album came about with a sense of ease, but it wasn’t easy.
“I don’t go after things with a force. I ask for it to manifest. I’ve been asking to work with Joe Sample since I was 12,” says Arie about the iconic jazz musician. But this opportunity wasn’t afforded to her merely by good fortune, nor was it passive—sitting back, allowing the world to pass her by. Nearly 30 years after Arie’s initial “asking,” her desire came to fruition. “I think that has its own discipline, that you will hold a vision of something for so long.” The multiplatinum artist says she used the very same method to manifest Stevie Wonder into her life.
“Joe Sample was one of my heroes,” Arie continues. “I met him at the Curaçao Jazz festival, and I fanned out like he was the Beatles!” She asked him to collaborate on a future album, and he agreed.
But their music-making process began slowly. Sample sent melodies, to which Arie would write; she would create, then send them back. But when sitting in meditation, it dawned on the soul bird that a Christmas album would best suit their collaboration. “What I love about Christmas music is, it stays around every year and comes back,” she says. Together they gave a soulful take on several holiday tunes.
The album, released last month, features holiday favorites like “Let It Snow,” “Silent Night” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It also includes collaborations with mega-stars Brandy and Kem. But the best duo, according to Arie, was with newcomer Tori Kelly.
“It happened after the BET awards. I tweeted that she was amazing,” says Arie, who was floored by Kelly’s performance of “Who’s Loving You” during the show’s Smokey Robinson tribute. “When I tweeted, her fans blew my Twitter to shreds.” Kelly’s social media enthusiasm helped along the collaboration. “Unbeknownst to me, she was following my music since she was 16.”
As a singer and guitar player, it made sense that an artist like Tori Kelly would be a fan of Arie. But with humility, she found herself taken back. Once Kelly committed to the Christmas album, her showmanship, professionalism and precision shined through. “When she went in the studio, she just did it.”
The themes of grace and fluidity are imbued on this album, and her others. But she wouldn’t wholly call it organic. “It’s more like organic in that I pray that if things are in alignment with me, then they will happen.” This theme isn’t limited to her music career. “I think it’s how I see life. You deal with what comes to you. If it’s something you don’t like, you deal with it the best you can. If it’s something that you love, you rise to the occasion.”
Joe Sample passed away in September 2014, and India.Arie won’t be presumptuous as to how Christmas with Friends will contribute to the late musician’s legacy. But she recognizes the gravity of their collaboration. “It’s an honor to be the gatekeeper to what we believe is his last recorded work.”
On social media, India.Arie defines herself as an “artist and explorer on a mission to spread love healing peace and joy through words and music.” In that respect, Christmas with Friends is no different than any of the artist’s other compositions, and helps to achieve her aims. Arie wants listeners to feel good, but acknowledges that this feeling goes deeper than the realm of physicality. It is spiritual; it is ethereal.
“Sound is energy, and that energy resonates with your energy. And it gives you a certain feeling,” she says. “I hope that this music brings a joyful comforting feeling to a person’s [energy] field. And whoever it’s for, I know that it will do that.”