Music's Diva of Self-Help: @wsj interviews @MaryJBlige

November 25, 2011
Mary J. Blige's early recordings helped reinvigorate R&B by stamping it with the gritty swagger of hip-hop. Though her sound in the '90s would be widely imitated, Ms. Blige claimed a more enduring identity with her message. Songs about the pain of bad love and other afflictions were rooted in the singer's personal experience with abuse, drug and alcohol dependency and depression. As a voice for listeners hoping to surmount struggles of their own, the singer emerged as a symbol of self help, music's equivalent of Oprah Winfrey.

That role took shape on the raw 1994 album "My Life," produced by Sean "Puffy" Combs and recorded when Ms. Blige says she was hitting bottom. This week, Ms. Blige released a sequel of sorts, "My Life II: The Journey Continues (Act 1)." In the intervening years she cleaned up, got married and diversified her career. Last year her fragrance (also called My Life) set a sales records on HSN, and she recently sang '80s rock numbers by Journey and Pat Benatar for the coming movie version of the Broadway musical "Rock of Ages."

Earlier this fall her manager and husband, Kendu Isaacs, summed up the challenge Ms. Blige faced in writing a follow-up to "My Life," saying, "Mary's fans go from the girl in the neighborhood all the way to Elton John in London, so how do you make an album that broad?" "My Life II" is still centered in pain, but puts more emphasis on getting past it. On the closing song "Living Proof," Ms. Blige sings, "I'm so glad the worst is over, I can start living now." In a recent phone interview, conducted during a manicure ("I'm going for a brownish gray for fall"), Ms. Blige discussed her vocal abilities, her image among fans and childhood memories of singing for snacks in Yonkers, N.Y.

The Wall Street Journal: How has your music changed since the first "My Life" album?

Ms. Blige: What I wanted to do was not make a competitor to "My Life," but to show people how far we've come. You can hear it in my voice and in the song topics and in the spirit behind it, which is optimistic, strong, but also realistic about what life is. I had none of that back then.

Your voice has more depth to it now. How have you pushed your singing abilities?

I've definitely had some coaching. I've always had range, but due to so much harsh living in my life I ended up losing a little bit of it. So the vocal training shows you that you have it, but you just have to use that muscle memory to do it.

Have you had the kind of vocal-cord damage that many professional singers deal with?

I do have acid reflux and that burns up your vocal cords and swells them up. I had to go to my ear, nose and throat doctor. He stuck his camera up my nose and down my throat and he put me on Prevacid and Zantac, and it's been working. I've been clear as a bell.

Pop music is so dominated by dance beats right now. Did anyone push you in that direction for "My Life II"?

Everybody's going in that direction. I was approached by a couple people, but I was like, "Nah, I'm not gonna do that." I've experimented and it turns out some things don't work for everybody.

You recorded about 50 songs and whittled your track list down to 17. Do you always record that much material?

Yeah. We make a lot of records. That's why we end up wanting to do a double album, but instead we'll do a Part 2. We have most of it and we'll record more.

Since "My Life," much of your music has been about putting the past behind you. But do you have fond memories of your hell-raising days?

Absolutely. I have friends from back then. There's good times and laughter that comes from back then. When I was running to clubs, hanging out with my girlfriends, or at the studio recording and there were beers and stuff all over the place, that was fun. But when it became abusive and borderline suicidal, then it wasn't fun anymore. But for those moments that you're out and trying to live and get past the darkness, you make it fun.

What do you remember about the first time you stepped into a recording studio?

I was probably 15. I wasn't in the music industry yet. Everyone was trying to get me to a studio. The people who were managing me at the time took me to one in Brooklyn. It wasn't even a studio, it was like an apartment. I was always quiet and really shy, but I knew what I could do. I wasn't always super-confident in who I was, but I knew I had a voice.

Who supported your singing the most?

There was my Aunt Laura Bell. My really good friend's mother, Miss Brenda. A lady by the name of Cathy. A store up the block called Steve's Market—this was in Yonkers, on Palisades [Avenue]. I used to go there and sing for chips and grape juice. I'd sing a Deniece Williams song, "Silly, that he'd ask me to sing all the time.

Did you stand out or were there a lot of singers around you?

I stood out, because everybody said "Mary, sing! Mary, sing!" People wanted to hear what I could do. Not everything was chips and grape juice. It was just more like a neighborhood thing where people were just blown away, I guess, that a little girl could sing like that. There weren't any clubs or anything. I was a kid.

Do singers retire?

I'm definitely going to retire at some point. Retire in the way where you can say, "Call me when you need me." Or make an album when you want to. Right now, it's demand, demand, demand. There's going to be a time when you're not in demand, and you can just hopefully say, "I'm going to go downstairs to my studio and record." But I have to sing, yes, because it makes me feel good. It's healing for me, not just for my fans.



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