Billboard Cover: Mary J. Blige on Getting Sober, Her New Musical Direction and Why She Could've Helped Amy Winehouse

Martin Schoeller
Mary J. Blige photographed on Nov. 8, 2014 at Milk Studios in New York City.

Every so often Mary J. Blige finds herself in a place so lofty that even after all she's accomplished, she can't quite believe her fortune. One of those times came earlier this month, when she performed in front of Barack Obama during a White House concert for America's troops. She's a favorite of the president and first lady, and it was her second trip to the White House -- the first was for the 2008 inauguration. "I must say," she admits with a cheerful laugh, "it never gets old."

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It's not that Blige, 43, doesn't have the kind of résumé that gets you to the White House: 24.5 million records sold in the United States (among female R&B singers, only Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston have moved more in the Nielsen SoundScan era), eight platinum albums (four of them, bookended by 1997's Share My World and 2007's Growing Pains, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200), arenas filled around the world. The disbelief stems from what roils underneath all those hits: struggles with addiction and depression that date back to her teenage years. "The very first time I went to sing for the president, it made me think of when I was living in Yonkers [N.Y.] and in the projects," recalls Blige, who now lives in Saddle River, N.J., a small and very pricey suburb of Manhattan. "How did I get here? It makes all the struggle and pain worth it. Every time."

These days, like most of her long-famous peers, Blige no longer reliably sells millions of records. She could lean harder on her loyal-in-the-extreme fan base (which works -- her 2013 Christmas album sold 334,000 copies). Instead, she has undertaken a reinvention. Her 13th album, The London Sessions, sounds like nothing she has ever done before. It's a trans-Atlantic collaboration with some of the United Kingdom's biggest, coolest breakout stars, including Sam Smith and Disclosure, that seems as likely to be embraced by Pitchfork as by BET -- but maybe not by mainstream R&B and pop fans. "I did it for myself," Blige says. "Just to do something completely different that liberates me and that gets people listening. I'm just trying to get my art out there and be respected for that."

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For Smith, who has become one of Blige's close buddies, the experience has verged on the surreal: "She's a legend, an icon!" he says. "I cannot believe I can now call her a friend." Guy Lawrence of Disclosure was similarly dazzled. "She's as talented as ever," he says.

The London Sessions is Blige's first record for Capitol. For much of her career she was signed to Interscope/Geffen, and her boss there, Jimmy Iovine, sees the album as a savvy move. "The fact that she went to England to make the record was brilliant," he says. "The music community there and in Europe really appreciate what makes her great. There's a song on the album called 'Long Hard Look' [written by Sam Romans, among others]. It's a powerful, powerful song. She crushed it."

The move builds off of a couple of recent Blige collaborations that made waves among hip listeners -- a pumped-up remix of Disclosure's single "F for You," which became a minor dance hit, and a lovely duet version of Sam Smith's single, "Stay With Me." Capitol Records chairman/CEO Steve Barnett, a U.K. transplant, suggested Blige might want to go further down that road, writing and recording with members of a loosely affiliated scene of young English artists. "It's just my opinion," he says, "but the best music in the world today is coming from London." So in July, she hopped on a plane, checked into the Mandarin Oriental Hotel near Hyde Park and emerged a month later with the songs that would become The London Sessions. "I'd been to London before, but I'd never lived in London," says Blige, who spent her time exploring when she wasn't working. "I love that city. They understand that music's not just one genre -- it's soul music, it's club music, it's West Indian music, it's all kinds of music. It feels so free over there as an artist."

 

Onstage with Whitney Houston in 1999.

Blige sees the album -- which ranges from glitchy soul tunes to full-on dance tracks -- as a celebration of that musical diversity. It's built around songs contributed by Smith and Disclosure, who broke through together on the latter's smash "Latch," and each represent one of the London scene's main sounds -- neo-soul for Smith, retro-tinged house music for Disclosure -- but also includes some of their less-known collaborators, the songwriter/producers Romans and Jimmy Napes among them. (Veteran U.S. hitmaker Rodney Jerkins came to London, too, and contributed to most of the tracks.)

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The London Sessions kicks off with a clear declaration of intent: a blast of deep soul called "Therapy," which Smith wrote with Blige in mind. When he first sang it to her in his London studio, she found herself profoundly moved. "I just had to change a couple little words to make it fit me," she recalls a few weeks before the album's release, while relaxing on a sofa in a New York studio. "It touched my heart because it's a topic that people don't like to talk about. I thought it would be nice to let people know, 'It's OK, you're not the only one.' " It's a chilly autumn evening, and she's dressed for the weather in soft leather leggings and a loose-knit baggy sweater, both black, and nerdy-cool glasses; her hair is cropped in a glam blond bob. She's warm, quick to laugh and an attentive listener, pursing her lips and leaning forward in concentration as she considers a question.

The empathetic quality she displays in person is all over the record -- helping her fans feel better about themselves is a major goal of Blige's. But it turns out that she herself actually hasn't seen a therapist, despite a traumatic childhood, the struggles with addiction and bouts of depression. "I've never sat down with a doctor like that, no," she says. "But I meditate and pray and try to really take responsibility. That's therapy too, when you take responsibility for all the foolishness you're doing and all the things you did wrong. It hurts. You got to feel it, deal, then heal."

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She thinks for a minute, and adds another form of less noble therapy she's tried to the list. "I used to shop too." She laughs at the memory. "I still do, but when I'd get depressed, I'd really shop. I would go out and just be frivolous. I'd feel better! But then the bill would come and I'd be like, 'Oh, my God.' "

Blige has always admired the spin that U.K. artists put on soul music. "Adele, she's a soul singer," she says. "Sam, he's a soul singer. Elton John was a soul singer -- we could take it all the way back. Soul music has been coming from the U.K. forever and been inspiring me." But one particular London soul superstar looms larger over the project than anyone: Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011. "She was the first inspiration," Blige says emphatically. "When I first heard Amy's album, I was like, she's incredible. And then when I saw her perform, It was scary how amazing she was, all that emotion and that almost Nina Simone-type singing."

Blige also saw Winehouse as a kindred spirit on a self-destructive path. "I felt connected to her in terms of the darkness and the searching for something other than the hell she was living in," Blige says. "I know that's what she was searching for. Because that's what you're searching for when you're doing drugs and alcohol -- you're trying to get out of that hell that's in your head."

She never got to meet Winehouse, and still believes she might have helped her. "I would tell so many people, 'I need to talk to her, I need to get to her,' " she says. "Especially when my life turned around and I chose life. I wanted to somehow get to her, to tell her, 'It's OK to choose life.' "

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Blige has spent most of her adult life struggling with alcohol and cocaine. Right now, by relying on her faith (she has never wanted to go to rehab), she has strung together two solid sober years since last drinking. But she knows herself well enough not to rest easy. "I've done those things for so long," she says. "I would stop drinking and then I'd start again. This is the second time that I've stopped drinking. It's peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys."

Her low point came at what should have been a joyous time: working on the songs for her second album, 1994's Sean Combs-produced My Life, which went on to be one of the year's biggest records, selling nearly 3 million copies. She was just 23 and wracked with self-loathing and doubt about her talent, her appearance, her worth as a human being -- all of which she connects to an incident of sexual abuse by a family friend when she was 5. "I was ready to just check out," she says now. "It was a moment -- I can't get into it -- but I saw my life going and I was grabbing for it. I was like, 'No, no, no, no, no.' That's when I realized that I don't want to die. And I switched, and I started praying and crying, and my life shifted right there."

Performing on MTV's Unplugged with Jay Z in 2001.

Still, it was years before things got much easier. She finally opened up about the molestation when she was 33, and slowly began to get her drinking under control. She attributes much of the improvement to her husband and manager, Kendu Isaacs, 44, who entered her life in 2000, when he was working with Queen Latifah, producing a track for her that Blige sang on. They didn't marry until 2003, but right away, she says, "I had something to look at that was new -- a person who was happy, a person who appreciated life. A person who had family who loved him and taught him how to be what he was. I was able to look at that and try to be that. That's when my life began to go up."

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When she's not working these days, Blige keeps a low profile, spending time at home. "Sometimes I go to dinner with my sister and my friends, but it's very light now because I don't drink and hang out anymore," she says. "So you know I can't be in a club. If I ever felt like going out and dancing, I could do it. I could sit around everybody while they're drinking, but I just don't want to." She spends lots of time with her stepkids, Isaacs' teenage son and daughter, who have been in her life since they were 2 and 3, and whose opinion clearly means a lot to her. "They love this album," she says. "It's when they don't say nothing that I'm like, 'Uh oh!' "

Blige, the second of four children, grew up in the Schlobohm Houses project in Yonkers, just outside of Manhattan. Her mom, Cora, moved there after her father, musician Thomas Blige, left the family when Mary was 3. It was there that Blige suffered the molestation, and for years she blamed her mom for not protecting her. But now, her relationship with her mother has become a source of strength. "As a child or a teenager I didn't understand her," she says. "But now that I'm grown up, she's just so funny and I love her. She's so confident and laidback -- she doesn't worry about much. So I just watch her for my swag."

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In her 30s she also reconciled with her father. "I listen to him, because I know he has something to teach me. Ever since we were little kids, before he left, everything was teach, teach, teach. And now it's the same way." A jazz musician and Vietnam vet, Thomas gave Blige her first music lessons, a memory that's still vivid. "He's super smart," she says. "He taught me how to hold my note with other singers, like if we were singing harmonies."

Early this year, Thomas was stabbed in the neck, chest and arm during an argument with a woman he had been in a relationship with, and ended up hospitalized in critical condition. He's doing fine now (and his assailant was sentenced to a year in prison earlier this month), but the incident was harrowing. "That's another thing that really drew me even closer to him," she says. "I almost lost him to this foolishness."

Blige listens to music constantly. Stevie Wonder has been in heavy rotation her whole life. Lately it has been Miguel and Sia and Sam Smith. But once in a while she wants to hear something a little closer to home, and when she does, she pulls up the Mary J. Blige station on Pandora. "I get Mariah, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill," she says with an easy laugh. "You know, R&B queens."

When she needs advice, there's one musician she'll always listen to: Elton John, a huge Blige fan and friend, who checks in regularly by phone. "Every time I do something, Elton will give me a call, tell me if I'm on point or if I'm not. He'll tell me the straight-up truth." Working on The London Sessions, she took one of his long-standing pieces of advice: "He'll say, 'No more of that two-track shit, Mary'" -- meaning that she needed to stop being afraid of recording live with a band, as opposed to singing on top of tracks alone in a booth.

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The experience was exhilarating. Working in two classic London studios, RAK (where everyone from David Bowie and Pink Floyd to Adele and Arctic Monkeys has recorded) and Metropolis (which has hosted The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Winehouse), she sang with groups ranging from small combos on tracks like "Not Loving You" to an entire orchestra on "Worth My Time." "I just broke out of my shell and went all the way," she says. "Went all Tina Turner, 'River Deep' on them."

John isn't her only mentor from the world of rock'n'roll. She's also close to Bono (they got to know each other when they recorded the smash duet version of U2's "One" in 2005). She respects him for his willingness to, like John, speak the unvarnished truth. "A long time ago," she recalls, "I was worried about not being able to sing on key. Bono was like, 'Forget singing on key, just sing. People don't care about Mary J. Blige being technically on point, they just want to hear you sing from your heart.' "

Blige has always been modern R&B's most thrilling live performer, an emotional powerhouse in the tradition of Turner or Aretha Franklin. And she's excited about the prospect of taking the new songs on the road. While she won't discuss specific plans yet, she says the tour will likely include shows in the style of the iTunes Festival gig she played at London's historic Roundhouse earlier this year. "It was intimate but big at the same time," she says. "Those are the kinds of shows I want to do." She still gets a major charge out of singing for a crowd, particularly when it comes to performing songs from her troubled past. "It always hurts," she says. "It's always right here." She gestures at her core. "It's here."

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