Hair apparent 

Soul vocalist India.Arie ditches her tresses and dishes on music

OK, enough already about India.Arie's hair!

The way folks go on and on about her coiffure (she used to sport dreadlocks but now rocks a super-short buzz cut), it's almost easy to forget that Atlanta's most successful soul vocalist just released a new album, Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship. Sadly, it seems the CD's first single, "I Am Not My Hair," and Arie's own propensity to radically alter her 'do at the drop of a dime are threatening to draw attention away from her current project. Fortunately for people who actually listen to her music, CL recently caught up with Arie and chatted about what's going on inside her head.

What's the musical mission of Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship?

My whole thing musically and lyrically was to do everything I like and to express who I am. That's why there are so many different sounds of production on the album. I did exactly what I wanted. And when it came down to the lyrical content, I wanted to really be honest about everything I was going through and say all the things that I wanted to say. That was my goal. That was my theme.

I've heard some critics refer to the new CD as "sugary."

I always think it's a funny thing when people critique another person's art -- because they don't know me. Like, that's a fact. You don't know me. And I mean that in the factual manner, and I also mean it in the way that has that connotation, "You don't know me." I think if a person really understood the whole process and what doing anything for three years really looks like, then you'll be able to deduce logically that I dug really deep to get to the core, to the seed of whatever the lesson is. If that sounds sugary to anyone, then it just does. But I think when people deal with the surface of a situation, then you're like, "He did this. Then I said this. Then we broke up. Then we got back together." But I dug really deep for these songs. The lyrics to these songs -- and more importantly, the lesson that I was learning from the things that happened in this relationship -- when I get down to the core of the lesson, that's the stuff that's true. It's not about what he did or what I did.

And then, I also think I have a natural way about being diplomatic. But that's just me. There are other times when I can be very, very blunt. But especially in my writing -- not just my songwriting, but my writing in general. I seek to tell what the real truth is. And a lot of times the truth is very simple. And Tony [Atlanta-based vocalist Anthony David] says this all the time: My voice is my secret weapon cause I can make anything sound sweet. There are some songs where I'm actually going off on somebody, if a person really listened to it. But I think I just have a natural way of making things beautiful. And I don't think it's sugary, I think it's beautiful. I take it as a little bit of an affront to my character, as if I'm not being honest. And I am. But you know, they don't know me.

When you debuted years ago, you were marketed as a neo-soul singer. These days, with play on Top 40 radio and TV networks like VH1, it seems like you're being pushed to mainstream America. Do you consider yourself a pop star?

No. [She laughs.] I think people view me as a neo-soul singer. And the next biggest box is R&B singer. I know who I am musically. And if you don't know me or you've never seen me in a live performance environment, I don't know if you can really understand that I'm more than neo-soul and R&B. Yes, I know that's how people look at me. But if you ask me how I view myself? I'm a musician. "Can I Walk With You" was a country song. For a person who studies vocals, you can hear that I live very authentically in that space. I don't have to twang it to make it a country song. It just is. But if you're black and have natural hair, you're neo-soul.

Soul, or neo-soul, artists seem to have problems staying signed to big record companies. It appears to be a pattern: An artist records a debut album and then, by the second or third CD, the artist gets dropped. You, on the other hand, have managed to thrive on a major label. What's the secret of your success?

One of the things that has helped me to survive and continue to make albums is ... for me, music was always my whole life, so I'm always full of inspiration. It was more than just about fitting into a movement or a moment or a sound or a thing that young black people were doing at a time. I have continual inspiration for music. It's always there. So whether I was on a label or not, I would still be making music.

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