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Solange Talks 'Saint Heron,' Becoming A Label Owner

Solange Knowles performs during uncapped at the Atlantis Landromat on July 29, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Rob Kim/Getty Images

It's been a busy year for Solange. On Wednesday (Nov. 20), she announced a partnership with Puma as the sneaker brand's new art director, updating the company's classic Puma Disc sneaker with a new Brazil-inspired line for women called Girls of Blaze.

Solange is about to escape to Brazil for a long girls' weekend with her pal Melina Matsoukas, taking some well-deserved time off after a year that saw her touring virtually every major festival in support of her breakthrough EP "True," founding her own Sony imprint Saint Records and executive producing its first release, "Saint Heron" (Nov. 11), a compilation which debuts at No. 35 on the R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart.
The eclectic, minimalist compilation is already earning high marks from influential blogs like Pitchfork, Spin and Slate for representing the "future" of R&B, and a quick glance at the participants makes it hard to disagree. Artists like Jhene Aiko and Sampha, hot off featured vocals on Drake's "Nothing But The Same," each contribute exceptional new tracks, while buzzy new acts like Kelela, BC Kingdom, Jade De La Fleur and India Shawn offer arresting originals of their own that put commanding vocals first and trendy beats a distant second.

Solange Talks Upcoming Album & Saint Records Label: Exclusive

Solange herself contributes a quietly soulful track called "Cash In," which could also double as a peak at the sonic direction she's heading in her for her forthcoming Saint Records full-length, which will be distributed in partnership with Columbia. But before she makes her next solo step, Solange spoke with Billboard at length about "Saint Heron," what she learned from the likes of No Limit and Cash Money, and why her father, Matthew Knowles, was so proud of the project.
How did you go about compiling the project?
Honestly everyone I've had on Saint Heron I've been a of for awhile now, and have been introduced to their music either from friends or this kind of assembling from across the internet. And really I just kinda wanted to celebrate these awesome, sometimes overlooked, incredibly gifted R&B artists and have them come together and celebrate the art form and the diversity of the art form. I wanted it to be a cohesive record from top to bottom, and individually everyone sort of interpreted rhythm and blues in a very different way from artist to artist. So that was probably the hardest thing about so many of the artists that I've loved – it was reducing the songs [they submitted] to one and making sure the record still is a compilation that sounds like a cohesive project.

How did you establish that cohesion - did you ask everyone to write to a brief or a theme?
I actually put together a deck and a mission statement and sort of a general aesthetic of the artwork and I put together a package and reached out to everyone individually. I told them what I've tried to do, and hopefully everyone was onboard. Just having everyone excited to be onboard, that was really awesome. On the first release release for Saint Records it was really important because at heart, I'm just a music fan. To have the first project really kind of celebrate myself as a genuine music fan feels the most natural for me as a label owner, president, whatever you call it.

The album features artists who are brand-new, cult favorites as well as known for more mainstream R&B, like Cassie. How did she get involved?
I always wanted Cassie to be part of the project — I've always been a fan of hers. And over the years with "Must Be Love" and "Official Girl" and her R&B records, we've really vibed. I reached out to her, telling her what the project was and she was totally interested. There was another record I thought would be perfect for her, and she was really into the idea of us getting into a room together and creating something from scratch. I've always had a role in producing my own music and co-production, so this was really an awesome experience to be able to sit there with her and create this from scratch. It's interesting because Sean Nicholas Savage, who's an artist I've been a fan of for the last year, he has this record and the drums always knocked so hard to me I always wanted to sample them. It kind of shaped the record - it's very minimal, the production, and and pretty synth heavy. We kinda wanted to make a record that was a newer, new age nod to mary jane. It was a very laid-back recording [laughs].

"Indo" is not the type of song we've come to expect from Cassie. How did she feel about going outside of her known comfort zone?

I have to say she was totally down. She came to the studio and I had the demo for the record already laid out. I played it for her with his huge disclaimer, like, "I don't know if this is the vibe she'd be into doing." And she actually heard it and her exact words were, "I love that." Ive known her as a friend and known her musical palette is very wide in terms of what she listens to and what she does. I think her taste is very eclectic and probably a lot more diverse than people perceive it to be.

And in the spirit of Saint Heron, because this is gonna be an annual thing, I'm really kind of into the idea of doing that – maybe having more mainstream R&B artists and curating them with unexpected producers. I definitely want to play around with a couple of different ways to celebrate R&B and the movement.

Kelela Talks Saint Heron, R&B's Racial Politics & Working with Arca, Hudson Mohawke

Tell me about working with Kelela, another artist you have a history with.
Yeah love her, think she's so incredibly gifted. My manager actually played her music for me when I think she only had one single at the time, one cut, and I was looking for artists that I felt would be a good fit for an opener for the True promotional tour. I heard it and I thought instantly, "Yes. Whoever this is." And it's been really really exciting to watch her career really flourish, and she's again so incredibly talented and doing really really great things.

She would be on the tour with me, and we've had long conversations. I'd bring on the tour bus after the show, annoyingly I'm sure with my iPod. And I think it's really awesome to hear someone who's doing something so incredibly experimental but that still really really values the art of the vocal. That's something you don't see a lot of times with the newer wave of R&B music, that much emphasis on the vocal. And it's been really, really cool to see both sides of that — really valuing the actual vocal as well as the production.

The whole album is built around the vocals. Why was that so important?
It was really cool, even working with Sampha and her his EP that he just put out and the tracks where he's just singing with a piano. His voice is so incredibly distinctive, that's for sure, and in the whole entire landscape of the record the vocals are really important to me. As a young girl I kind of just idolized Mariah Carey and my sister and Brandy as vocalists, and I think there's something that R&B has really identified with as kind of just elevating the skill form or just being able to have a voice like that. That was something really important to me on the record – showcasing new voices. India Shawn is one of those, her voice is incredible, and Jade [De La Fleur] and everyone on the record - BC Kingdom, has one of the best voices I've heard in so long.

Are any of the artists on Saint Heron official singings to Saint Records? And if not, could they be?
There's definitely potential and there's been conversations that I've had with certain artists. But as of now, there's not any concrete thing happening, but definitely some artists that I'm really excited about and would love to be a part of that journey.

It must be strange adjusting to having the power to sign someone to your own label now.
It's so, so weird. I have to say, actually, my dad sent me a text and said he had read me mentioning how great an influence he was for me growing up. A lot of performers think of the homegrown success stories of No Limit or Cash Money, and our family was sort of in that same place in terms of literally my father leaving his corporate America job and reading, researching and studying everything he could get his hands on to really learn how to navigate the business and became incredibly gifted at it. And I was there the whole time, and for whatever reason took this late interest in it myself. And you know, as many labels as I've been with, anyone can attest to the general interest in wanting to really have weight on the process. And asking as many questions as I can. The individual experience I had at all three labels inspired me to shape and mold the shape I've had.

What did your most recent experience with Terrible Records teach you in particular?
Ethan at Terrible is a good friend of mine, and before I put out there record that conversation happened really, really organically. It was literally, "This is the stuff I'm listening to" and he was like, "Oh shit I'd love to put it out" and I was like, "Well cool that sounds perfect." It wasn't some pre-negotiated, thought-out thing. I had full creative, artistic control and his support. And I definitely learned how to work on budgets I'd never really experienced working with coming form majors. When I tell people how much we spent on "Losing You," going to another continent, and Melina [Mantsoukas] who's one of my best fiends and the video director, we're taking a girls trip for the weekend she's with me right now, she had never worked on budgets like that. And the limitations we had – that was constantly the story, always trying to work out to put that record out and create visuals that were still really inspiring. But just to be plain and honest, we just did not have the money on that level. Even with "Saint Heron," everything has been about resourcing all these incredibly gifted, amazing talents on the other side with the web site and the artwork with my friends who are helping make this happen. It's really a labor of love and to see the response at this level, that's been the experience that really just humbled me and made me so overwhelmingly happy. I'm very excited.

As the head of Saint Records, do you report to anyone at Sony?
"Saint Heron" was incredibly independently done. This was an idea before anything came into fruition. Something that had come up wanting do to for a really long time and I really, truly had free rein to produce this on my own. This was like truly my project on every front.

How did the pre-release trunk sales go?
That was really fun. I grew up in Houston in sort of the era of No Limit, Cash Money, all of these homegrown business record labels that were selling out of their trunks, and I really wanted to give a bow down and a nod to the origin of how young black label owners really started. I was talking to my publicist about it and mentioned Baby and Slim [at Cash Money] kinda talking to us about it. It really became about opening our own doors. All of those stories I followed really closely and were a huge inspiration. Especially growing up at the time I did – the Master P of "Cribs" with the gold toilet and something every young i wanted to aspire to have that success story. Obviously the idea of shaping and molding came differently than maybe the golden bathroom, but certainly I wanted to pay my respect to that. It was also about being able to meet the people who were buying the record. Especially in the day and age of being 16 – I put out "Solo Star" and came face to face with who were buying the music. That was the best part. Everyone I've met has told a story of having this artist or what this song did for them. It really opened up the connection to the community. We're in small record stores - not the bigger Best Buy, Target, Walmarts yet – so it really was kind of a cool platform to meet everyone and really kind of put the emphasis on the hard copies in this digital age was really important to me too.