When Raphael Saadiq hit the studio with Mary J. Blige to write the sweeping “Mighty River” for Mudbound -- about two World War II veterans who strike up a controversial friendship -- he hadn’t seen the film. “It was a lot of pressure. Mary was like, ‘That’s not it!’” says the singer, 51. But the pair, along with Saadiq’s writing partner Taura Stinson, harnessed the theme of unity for the ballad, which earned all three an Academy Award nomination for best original song -- on top of Blige’s nod for best supporting actress. Seated behind a mixing board at a studio in his longtime Los Angeles recording compound, Saadiq explains how they landed an Oscar nod, gives an update on the follow up to 2011’s Stone Rollin’ and details his J Dilla-inspired collaboration album with A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
How did you connect with Mary J. Blige for "Mighty River"?
When [I] see Mary as a writer and a fan, I’m always like, “What are you doing? What are you working on? When do you go back to the studio?” That’s a normal thing I’d say to Mary. “I wanna work with you.” So we always kept that stream open, and she called me and said, “I’m working on this movie. I’ll be away for a while shooting. When I get back, I’ll have an opportunity to have a song in this piece, in this film, and I wanna write something with you.” So I called my writing partner Taura Stinson and Mary came by the studio and told us about the film. She basically sat down and gave us the scope of it. Her and Taura grabbed a pen, I grabbed the guitar, we sat down and we kept conversing. Going over and over the lyrics and the words. We just kinda sat there and put no pressure on anyone, but it was a lot of pressure. Mary was like, “that’s not it. That’s not it.”
There’s an overarching theme among Oscar nominees for best original song that’s about inclusivity. The same goes for "Mighty River." Why was it important to have it be a center theme to it?
For me, I love songs that have something about a river in it. I grew up in church, and there was always a song about -- a negro spiritual or I’d sing like, classical negro spirituals in high school, at my high school in Oakland, and you read about the Jordan River. People sing “The Jordan River.” Then I started listening, a little bit further into my music school, I fell in love with Neil Young, and he used the word river. I always wanted a song that talked about the river. It’s that simple. I’m a huge Al Green fan, and Al Green had, [sings] “Take me to the river.” You know. I’m a soul baby too. I just knew that this piece, this film, with Mary and Taura, we had to say something about rivers. They both looked at me very weird when I said that.
“Mighty River” came about without you having seen the film. Now that you’ve seen it, how do you think it aligns with the message of the movie?
I think it aligned very well because Mary was such an intricate part of being in my face and talking about it. You know, she knew. She lived it, she walked through the mud, she was there in the shoot taking it on. I was just so glad it lined up with the stories, with her character, the husband, the son going into the military and coming back feeling like he had no worth. It’s about fighting. You don’t wanna fight. You don’t wanna have this struggle. You will fight, but you don’t wanna have this struggle all the time. We gotta put our differences aside. I felt like Mary’s character was the person who was putting her differences aside to make everything work with both families.
What do you make of Mary’s performance in particular and the way she inhabited that character?
I was watching and critiquing Mary really hard. Even when she wasn't speaking, I was still looking at Mary. Because that’s the hardest thing to do in acting, is to be believable and have the eyes that the camera can stay on. And the camera is very consistent in her eyes, which means she did a great job. I thought she did a great job.
Were you surprised by the Oscar nomination for the song?
Oh yeah! I was shocked. Cause you know I don’t do anything for awards. I do it because Mary came over. When Mary comes over you gotta pull out all the bells and whistles. It just shows that if you love what you do -- and I actually do, I love what I do -- you just put your head down and keep working and good things, amazing things, can happen.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on next season of Insecure here really soon. I’m working on my new album for myself that I’ve been working on, in and out for six years. I stopped for working on the Solange record [A Seat at the Table] and a couple other things that I stopped for. Now I’m steadfast in working on my record. I’m trying to finish in the next three months.
How is the album shaping up musically?
It’s a hybrid of, I would say, Instant Vintage, but it’s a little more colorful than The Way I See It, that was more like a ’60s record. Stone Rollin’ was more of a Chicago blues, rock and roll, kinda like Rolling Stones thing. I played on the words, you know, Stone Rollin’. Muddy Waters, Rolling Stones, more of that. This is a little dirtier than that, but it’s definitely a lot of effects, but it’s a lot of undertones of guitars and me playing bass, a lot of crazy bass. More like Lucy Pearl, or me kinda reaching back to my Sly & The Family Stone roots, but at the same time still sonic boom. Really strong beats and me using more of my tenor voice to feel a little young Stevie a little bit. But dirtier. Just kinda distorted stuff, more effects, more visual stuff happening. I’m super excited about it.
Would you ever reunite with your groups from the past?
Honestly, nostalgia. I would love to, but going backwards is OK, it just never felt right now just where everybody’s at in their place. I think I’ve lended too much to people, I’ve given too much of my heart to people like that. In 2018, I just decided not to do that anymore. I’m just going forward with people who really wanna work and have the same focus as me. As much as I’d love to give it to my fans, you know, I would love to be on stage wit -- that was actually Ali Shaheed Muhammad [Ed: the A Tribe Called Quest member walked in on the interview], he has some room in my studio that he uses every day. It just didn't happen. Actually me and Ali is doing a project called “Saadiq and Shaheed,” and it’s pretty cool. It’s gonna be a two-man show. We just going out, it’s just gonna be me and him, just us with everything, with a DJ and a bass player. It’s gonna feel like some Dilla, but it’s gonna be me singing. But we’re gonna be able to just grab briefcases and get on a plane and just go somewhere and play a show. You just wanna have fun at this point in your life. You just wanna work with good people, fun people, and just eat the best food in the world.
Taking a look at the year ahead, it’s just live performances you’re gonna do with Ali?
Nah, we gonna do a record.
Have you been working on it?
Always. He rents a room, so he’s been here for two, three years. We just jump back and forth.
What do you think of the last Tribe record We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service?
I love the last Tribe record. I got into it, I actually stole a couple of albums from Q-Tip’s house the last time I was there. He went upstairs and left me downstairs. He went up to his room with some girl or something, and he left me downstairs with all this vinyl. I just got up with about 30 vinyl pieces and I left so I could listen to it. I didn't need 30 of them, but he had about 200. They’re like brothers to me. So I played with them at FYF last summer on bass. I did the Phife thing with them on bass. I don’t know how I became so close to the Tribe, but my claim to fame is I’m the only R&B dude on Midnight Marauders. I played bass on “The Night Is On My Mind.” I always brag to that to people who think they’re real hip-hop junkies. I’ll be like, “Really?! Then let me ask you a question. Who played bass in ‘The Night Is On My Mind’?”
Q-Tip was really upset about the Grammys and not being acknowledged. What did you think of that? Not just that, but of the exclusion of their record from nominations?
I don’t know why that happened. That was a little weird, I’ll be honest. But I just told them like, hey, you don’t do it for the Gram. You do it for the fans. When that happens, I’m sure he only got stronger through the process. I mean, I never won a lot of awards as a solo act. A lot of people haven’t. It’s a TV show. I played with Mick Jagger on the Grammys, so I feel like that’s winning more than I could ever win.
What gets you excited musically these days?
I think what gets me excited is the possibility of reaching a new audience all the time, and people continue to find out and discover what I’m doing. And for me to discover what other people are doing. I think we’re just able to discover so much different music, and I think everybody’s excited about music. People are talking to each other about music. The conversation is continuously going. For me, I’m starting to notice people are really starting to go back and listening to music. Like, I’m on this whole Al Green, Neil Young kick. And Kenny Berg. The other day, I was listening to Guy on my own, I was listening to Teddy [Riley], and that’s what made me write that story. I never even knew that he had done a new jack swing type of thing. I was just doing my, you know, this song called “Wanna Be Long Gone” by Guy that Teddy’s singing. I think what gets me excited is that people are still listening and people and kids are hungry. A lot of adults have forgotten about what they were, and I haven’t. I wanna share that with the adults and the kids. I think most of the adults kinda lose their way and try to be too young. I’m really excited about showing people the levels of what you can do, and you just focused.