By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
What drew you to Stevie Wonder for the new disc?
I’m a person who loves a good story, and Stevie Wonder is one of those unique artists who have great facility with the word and the melody. And he‘s got a huge songbook, so making choices was hard. At one point a suggestion came across my desk: ”Look, it’s too broad. Why don‘t we narrow it to ’Nnenna Sings Songs in the Key of Life‘ or ’Nnenna Sings ‘70s Stevie’?“ But I rejected that, because one of the things that I love about this man is that he continues to evolve in his artistic life, and I wanted to celebrate that.
Is yours the first vocal tribute to him?
I searched and found all kinds of things, but not a single artist just taking his tunes and running with it. And I kind of understand: His music is hard. There were many of his tunes I could not sing -- it‘s like he built a safe and kept the keys for himself. There were songs I thought I wanted to do, and I started messing around with the chords, and it just fell apart in my hands. It was like, ”Oh, you didn’t want to be something else. Okay, fine, you go back on the shelf.“ I don‘t want to disrespect the song by taking it somewhere it doesn’t want to go.
You‘ve often been compared to Sarah Vaughan. Have you patterned yourself after anyone in particular?
From Carmen McCrae, I’ve learned the power of the word, of phrasing. From Ella Fitzgerald, a sense of swing, and a joyousness. Sarah with her sensuousness, her adventurousness, how she would take a melody and just have her way with it, would make you believe that‘s the way the man wrote it in the first place. From Etta Jones, that salt and vinegar. All these women, and men too -- Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks -- have something to teach us about the way of the voice.
Younger singers, we have a heavy weight on us. Here we are just being out here 10 years or 20 years, and that’s nothing in comparison to the body of work that‘s gone before us. And there are a finite number of ways, I guess, of doing a thing; you’re inevitably going to be compared to somebody. But there are no two anythings that are exactly alike.
I am more and more reaching for singing who I am, as opposed to singing who the world may want me to be or think that I am. It takes a degree of not only honesty but lack of fear, and there are days that I feel less afraid than others. It‘s a journey. If you just stay on the path, that’s the point, maybe. To just stay on the path, and not be knocked off.
Nnenna Freelon appears at the Playboy Jazz Festival on Saturday, June 15.