Ari Lennox on Her Love for D.C., Being Signed to J. Cole & Protecting Her Mental Health

This summer, Ari Lennox tweeted, “I’m more than my talents. Ask me how I’m doing.”

That was two weeks after she released the stunning single “Whipped Cream,” her first track from an upcoming EP. It’s an incredibly silky smooth R&B ballad about unrequited love, which finds Ari -- the first lady of Dreamville Records -- crooning beautifully about coping via simple pleasures like online shopping and low squats.  

“I’ve been crying at night, holding bullet tight,” she laments sweetly on the track. Like most of Ari’s lyrics, they ring loudly with real life, as she bases everything she writes off of “super personal shit.” But with “Whipped Cream,” the pain she had penned took on a new reality when a family member and a friend both died in the week after the song’s release.

“It seems almost too perfect that I’m singing about this sadness, and then this sad shit was happening in my life,” Lennox says. “It was just too hauntingly connected, and I was starting to resent ‘Whipped Cream,’ just because of how sad it is. And I was like, ‘No, fuck this, man. It’s too much.’”

This has all been part of the D.C. songstress’ ongoing back-and-forth development with mental health and figuring out how to stay afloat as a budding artist -- something she says she maintains through a mix of therapy, puppies and J. Cole’s wisdom. We spoke to the wildly talented soul star ahead of her EP and album -- both due out “before winter” -- about why Los Angeles is inferior to D.C., how she maintains happiness, and what it’s like having J. Cole as a mentor.

What is it like being signed to Dreamville Records?

My music had been circling throughout Dreamville, and they wanted me to fly out to work with him on some references for Rihanna. But they wound up being my records cause I’m just not really a songwriter for other artists. It’s hard for me cause I’m always writing personal shit. It’s just hard to do that.

And I didn’t really think Cole was into me. He was cool, but he was talking about Earthgang the whole time. ‘Cause Earthgang, is probably one of the most brilliant groups out, so I was definitely honored to be learning about them through Cole, but I was jealous. I was like, ‘Damn, he loves them! I wish he would love me like that. Damn the shade.’ But it wasn’t like that all, Cole is just hard to read sometimes.

What’s the atmosphere like between you and the other signees? Do you guys ever work together?

Moving out to LA, I feel like I was seeing everyone less, but now that I’m back I’m praying I see everyone more again. Back before I was in LA, I used to see everyone at the animal shelter, partying, talking, hanging out, constantly great music. It’s always fun.

What’s your best J. Cole story?

Hmmmm. Well, I was so excited when I was finally getting on planes ‘cause I’ve been so scared of them. But he was the one who realized I was still basically drinking to get through it, and he encouraged me to face this thing I’m so afraid of, instead of just really running from it. I had been doing it, but I had to be drunk to do it, so he was like, ‘Why don’t you try being sober? Just really feel the plane, and get used to the sounds, and all these things.’

He helped me realize that in life, in general, I be running versus facing my shit fully. And the most recent flight I did, I didn’t drink at all.  

In the Washington Post article, they made a really good point when they pointed out that you rep D.C. so hard, which isn’t always something R&B artists do. So I wanna ask you some D.C.-related questions. I know you had moved to LA briefly, and then back to D.C., so what was it that you didn’t like about LA? 

LA is so beautiful, like its land is breathtaking, but I just felt like there wasn’t enough to do during the day to keep me excited. It’s great if you wanna read and hike, and eat vegetables and Mexican food, but I was tired of all the driving I was doing, tired of how expensive that gas was. There wasn’t enough animal shelters for me, and I need that. I feel like the animal shelters in D.C. are lovely, and there are so many beautiful dogs, and I love giving them my love and vice versa. I felt like in LA, even the dogs are different. [Laughs]

Do you think your music style changed at all when you were in LA? 

Oh yeah, I dibbled and dabbled in lots of different types of new experimental sounds, and some I kept and some I’m gonna keep on the shelves. 

I’m debating on this one joint called “Tammi Terrell” because I’m not sure where it would fit, and I don’t want people to think I changed too much. And then there’s songs that I kept from LA, like one I did with MeLo-X, but that might be because he’s from New York. And that’s no diss to LA because there are a lot of beautiful artists, and I did try new things. No shade to LA, because it’s really about the people who I was working with when I was there. 

Who are your favorite artists coming out of D.C. right now? Even the DMV now too.

I like Kali Uchis, who’s from VA. Meche Korrect, she’s fire; I would definitely work with her. Ivory Haze, Daryn Alexus -- all these artists are fire. Oh and Mannywellz, he’s so amazing and he can really sing.

This is another influence-related question: I know you did a lot of covers initially. If you had to cover a song that came out this year, what would it be?

Wow, damn, dang. [Laughs] Uh, Earthgang. I was listening in the car. Oh, “Off the Lot.” I’m trying to do a whole cover to that.

You have a voice that’s so reminiscent of some of the great R&B artists -- where’d you get your sound?

Changing Faces, 702, SWV, En Vogue, Anita Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. Just mad amazing artists that I was taking a piece from -- Monica, Brandy -- just taking little things. My parents really liked music and were always playing music. Same thing with Common and Kanye, they all just kind of morphed me into this. 

I’m switching topics a bit, but I know you’ve said your EP and "Whipped Cream" are all about the same ex -- does he know it's about him? Has he said anything to you?

I don’t really think he pays attention. He’s not really a fan of me, like my music. He don’t pay attention, and he might not because he doesn’t want to hear certain things, I don’t know.

Do you think you’ve moved on now?

Pretty much. I haven’t met anyone that special, not that he was that damn special, but I haven’t met anyone worth giving my time. I would love to be in your relationship. I think [the music] would get better, but the career would go down in the drain because I would want to just be all up under them. So I just need to relax and evolve.

In August, you tweeted about wanting to quit music because of your mental health. Where are you at with that now?

Each day, it’s been getting better. It’s been a struggle lately because I had some personal shit happen that really, really sent me in a dark place -- a close family member of mine commit suicide a week or so after “Whipped Cream” dropped, and so that messed with me. I was in LA, and I couldn’t get back home and that bothered me, and I also think I didn’t fight hard enough to get back home and I should’ve. And that’s just been fucking with me.

And how “Whipped Cream” is supposed to be this beautiful thing, but so much fucked up shit was happening behind the scenes. The weekend before it dropped, this beautiful guy from the D.C. area got in a car crash and passed away, and I just talked to him after ten years of not seeing him, like we had gone to school together. So all of this weird eerie shit has been happening, and I think some shit with this guy was the cherry on top of it all, and I was like, “yo fuck everything.”

But it made me realize that I do appreciate Interscope and Dreamville because they’ve been so nice and sweet and patient. Shit could be a lot worse, and could be signed to someone who doesn’t give a shit. They’re perfect, but I mentally wasn’t all the way there. But I’m taking it day by day.  

The mental health discussion is obviously becoming increasingly more important in the music industry with Mac Miller, Peep, etc. I know you had tweeted something about performing right after the news of Mac Miller’s passing.

That was hard, and I didn’t even know him. But all my friends really know him, and to see he was such an angelic soul that could be taken from everybody, that is eerie and it’s not fucking fair. That shit always fucks me.

I’ve been day-by-day feeling a little better, but that honestly helped me get out of my funk. I have made some not-so-smart decisions in my life, and I’ve made some fucked-up ones, and I’ve been beating myself up, but I just feel like my shit -- how do I say this? I feel like that shit humbled me. Things could be way fucking worse. I can get through my shit and I can do it 'cause like when I think of Mac Miller’s mom and how she must feel right now, it’s just so sad to me. I felt like, "I can get through this" because what they’re going through, his friends and family and him, is so unfair.

I was in a very dark fucking space, and it made me think a lot of things.

What are some of the ways you try to maintain mental health as an artist? Especially with the long hours, etc.

Just talking to my friends, talking to a therapist now and then and going to animal shelters. I love animals, so I have to do that. And giving away all my shit, like when I have too much shit, I like to live minimally and give it away to someone. That makes me really happy.