The first time that I probably realized, 'OK, this is not a stereotypical black girl moment,' I was in the fourth grade... I went to a record store and bought all these Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple records," recalls Solange Knowles with a laugh. "I remember coming home and blasting them in my room, and my mother being like, 'That's devil worship music!'"
Knowles is tucked sweetly, if sickly, into the corner of a banquette in the restaurant of a W Hotel in Manhattan, nursing a mean cold or flu -- "I don't even want to tell you what I think I have, because you'll be like, 'Let me sit back'" -- but every bit the professional, she has shown up for the fight, ready to answer whatever questions I might have in an effort to further promote her new record, SoL-AngeL & the Hadley St. Dreams, with the aim of not merely getting people to buy it, but to understand it... and to understand her.
Sipping chamomile tea, wearing a white Armani sweater draped over her impossibly small shoulders, Armani velour jeans and shiny white patent leather jazz shoes, she looks something like a beautiful, frail bird whose wings have been flapping much too fast of late. Far from the vibrant soul-queen persona she affects in videos and public appearances (and the accompanying pictures here), today Solange is decidedly subdued and the lips are un-glossed -- not for nothing, neither. In the past two weeks, she's jetted from Paris to New York to Bermuda and back to New York, performing, doing photo shoots and press, filming a video, and being a mom to her 4-year-old son, Julez. "The problem is that I haven't had just one night or day to really just rest," she says, the need for rest practically pulsating from her body. Knowles insists, though, that after this interview, and another performance the next day, she's going to take a break. When I ask her why she works herself so hard, she explains, "I come from a family of workaholics. Both of my parents have hustler spirits. So whenever you grow up in that kind of household, you know, it's just a hustler spirit -- work, work, work. It's hard to know anything else."
Sweater by Moschino, cardigan by ISSA, necklaces by Stephen Dweck and
earrings by Lorraine Schwartz.
Solange, along with her older sister by five years, BeyoncÃ©, grew up in Houston, Texas under the fairly strict house rules set forth by parents "Mathew and Tina," as she gamely refers to them at one point during our conversation. Clearly, "Mathew and Tina" were no joke when it came to parenting, although not necessarily in an honor-thy-father, Jackson-family-patriarch kind of way; more in an honor-thyself kind of way. "I think from a young age I showed signs of probably not being a typical, straight-laced young lady, and that could have very much gone bad if my parents hadn't told me, 'We love that that's you.'" Both of her parents are heavily involved with and invested in the careers of their daughters: Mathew manages Solange and BeyoncÃ©, as well as Destiny's Child members Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, and several other independent artists, while Tina designs most of the clothing the girls wear during their performances -- but Solange shows no signs of resentment and seems truly grateful for their support, attentiveness and steadfast encouragement. Imagine that -- a grateful child. "The good thing about my parents is that they understand that my definition of success may not be the same as theirs. It doesn't mean that we don't have disagreements about it, but they understand," she says, sounding far more mature than her 22 years.
Of course it would be just plain silly to try and overlook the fact that Solange's sister is a super, mega-famous, multi-media star, married to an equally mega-famous star, particularly when a waitress comes over to our table and says, struggling mightily to contain her excitement, "You're BeyoncÃ©'s sister, aren't you." When Solange nods graciously, eyes watery from blowing her nose, and manages a nasally "Yes, I am," the waitress juts out her hand for a shake, sufficiently pleased that she's met BeyoncÃ©'s sister -- not that she has met Solange Knowles, an artist and individual with her own Social Security number. But while comparisons between Solange and BeyoncÃ© are inevitable -- and their dynamic readily invokes that of other celebrity sister acts where the younger is engaged in an often transparent attempt to set herself apart from the more famous older one (Ashlee and Jessica; Jaime Lynn and Britney; Ali and Lindsay) -- the two young Knowles women are markedly, and genuinely, different from one another. And that's really just the way the DNA shook down. "We were raised by the same parents, so morally we have the same priorities," says Solange. "Our parents told us both that we don't need to be stumbling out of clubs or sleeping with a bunch of men -- but that has nothing to do with what we each took a liking to individually, or what food we eat or art we're drawn to." It's a tiresome subject to Solange and not all that relevant to the ideas she has about her own work and career. "I think with this project, I really stopped trying to point out our differences. I think the truest form of art is freedom, and that comes through the freedom of expression -- freedom is the biggest key for me artistically."
This project, which is the second solo studio album from Solange (her first, Solo Star, was released on Columbia Records in 2003), features songs written and produced by Solange with guest producer cameos by Mark Ronson, The Neptunes and Cee-Lo Green, among others, that sound less like the "devil worship music" of Morissette and Apple and more like devil worship music of a different sort -- hip-swaying, swanky-neck, smooth-groovin' Motown Soul. Not that Solange doesn't continue to be
influenced by the music she listened to as an adolescent teen, when her look was "a hot mess" and she "would only wear secondhand clothes, cut all my hair off because I needed it to start back full natural, and I didn't eat meat for four years, for all the wrong reasons." But at 17, when she became pregnant with her son, she experienced a dramatic shift in perspective: "I just stopped caring so much. And I think that's when I really was able to grasp that notion of freedom." Now she sees fashion less as a statement and more as an art form ("fashion is to me as much an art as a Damien Hirst piece"). She wears a weave when she's in the public eye ("It looks like shit today, by the way.") and describes her
personal style as being "like compote, it's all mixed up."
Morissette and Apple aside, Solange says she is "drawn to artists who are so enclosed in their own space that they just don't care about the outside," and lists in particular BjÃ¶rk, Sia, J*DaVeY and her good friend Janelle MonÃ¡e as those she admires most. "I feel like I straddle that line, and I can't wait until I'm all the way there -- with this project, I'm getting closer and closer to that feeling." It's a risky path to be sure. Solange relays a story of how, before she signed the deal for Hadley St. (which is released jointly by Geffen and Mathew Knowles's label, Music World), she took her father aside for a private conversation to break down her goals for the record. "I think initially he was a little confused, because he never heard 'I want to be number one, I want to go platinum, and I want to perform this at that place -- or even that I want to win Grammys." I wonder out loud if his confusion might have something to do with a contrast in goals set forth by BeyoncÃ© in similar conversations. Solange tenses up for the first time, ready to go mile-high attitude on my ass, and then sits back, just so over it -- the relentless defending and explaining on the sister issue; a little talk is OK, but come the fuck on already -- before offering up a reasonably thoughtful response: "I don't know of any conversations career-wise that my sister has had with my father, but I know for me, that conversation was more about 'I just want to make music that makes me feel the same way I feel when I go see my favorite artists.' And I think that's challenging in this industry, because at the end of the day, and I'm very conscious because my dad owns the label, that the goal is to make a profit."
Nevertheless, Solange believes that there is a way to be both profitable and true to your art -- the age-old conundrum. "It's crazy, because I used to listen to artists and be one of those people who would say [about] interviews and all of that stuff, like, what does that have to do with music? But I'm finding that most of the people that I like, it's probably more so about what they represent -- not more so, but the music has to be just as good as what they represent," says Solange. "Because I feel like if I never knew Bob Dylan's story and I just heard his music, I would like it -- I would probably love it -- but I love it because I believe it and because I've seen those interviews where he just didn't give a fuck. It was like, 'This is my art and you have nothing to do with that. And if you aren't on the radar of that, then what do I have to prove to you -- why should you get this record, why should you believe this record?'" I let Solange off the hook here for basically outlining what amounts to arrogance, because as authentically composed and mature as I believe her to be, she is still, after all, only 22, and youthful haughtiness can be a beautiful thing. God bless her.
As to the pending success and get-ability of her own record, Solange says she's heartened by what feels to her like an industry shift, a diversification of musical interests. "There was a time that if you wanted to do soul music or if you wanted to do something more left of center, that you had to have the afro and carry around incense... and that's all beautiful and great, but what I'm excited about is that more people are able to be more accepting."
The tea has helped, and I can see that hustler spirit start to rise. "I don't think it's over yet, because I still have to deal with it, especially in the mainstream market, but that's why I just stopped trying to be a part of that market, because I don't think they're completely ready for that yet. But I'm excited. I feel like there is a new push and a new movement of artists that are breaking that barrier." From her lips to Billboard's ears.
Hair by Nikki Nelms * Makeup by Silvia Dell'Orto for Art Department * Manicurist: Lisa Logan at Next * Eyebrows: Armond Hambrick at Damone Roberts NYC Salon * Stylist Assistant: Raquel Smith * Photography Assistants: Michael Preis and Robert S. Johnson * Interns: Justin D. Joseph and Megan Eisermann * Hair products by Sunsilk