India.Arie Talks New Album, Influencing Younger Artists & Finally Feeling 'Worthy'

India Arie
Benedict Evans

India Arie

Singer-songwriter will support her seventh studio album with a national tour starting April 30.

Four-time Grammy Award winner India.Arie is back on the scene with Worthy. Released Feb. 15 through SoulBird/BMG, the project marks her first full-length album in five years.

But that doesn’t mean the singer-songwriter stopped making music during that time. In fact, India.Arie released two projects prior to Worthy: the 2017 EP SongVersation: Medicine (the follow-up to 2013’s full-length SongVersation) and the 2015 holiday set with good friend and late jazz great Joe Sample, Christmas With Friends

“There’s been a few times when several years [have elapsed] between albums,” she says. “But I always make music. This time, however, it wasn’t like I was escaping.”

India.Arie is referencing the time she contemplated leaving the music industry, something she revealed during a 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey while promoting SongVersation. She had decided to shelve Open Door, a still-unreleased collaboration with Israeli musician Idan Raichel, in October 2012. “I call that album college for me,” she says now. “Because in writing those songs, I said everything I wanted to say with no fear of being preachy; no fear of any of the stuff people kept telling me I needed to be careful of.”

Fast-forward to the aptly titled Worthy. Recorded in Nashville, which India.Arie currently calls home, the album finds the singer reuniting with executive producer Aaron Lindsey, longtime creative colleagues Shannon Sanders and Branden Burch plus new collaborators Joel Cross and Chuck Butler. Showcasing Arie’s ever-evolving and compelling perspectives on love, life and humanity, the 16-track set’s noteworthy selections include Caribbean-vibed first single “That Magic” (No. 6 peak on Adult R&B Songs), “Steady Love,” “In Good Trouble,” the title track and the inspirational “What If,” an emotion-packed tribute honoring social activists from past (Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks) to present (#MeToo).

Presently traveling the press promo circuit with performances on the Tom Joyner Morning Show (Feb. 15) and the Trumpet Awards (Feb. 17), plus a Feb. 28 guest stint on Good Morning America, India.Arie is also prepping for her 2019 Worthy Tour. The national trek launches April 30 and continues through June 9 in New York City. Additional dates will be announced in the coming weeks (SoulBird.com).

Gratified by the success of “That Magic,” India.Arie says she’s happy “just having songs in the air. I’m enjoying it more than I have in the past because I’ve been through a lot. And it feels good to have a chance to do it again.” In the following interview, she talks about Winfrey helping her “double-down” on her desire to record Worthy and a long-held fantasy that’s come true.

Was there a pivotal moment that led you back into the studio to record Worthy?

I don’t know if I’ve ever had moments where I’m like okay, let’s get started. That’s because I’m always working on the next record in my heart somewhere. Even when I [almost] quit that one time. This one just started slowly taking shape with Aaron and I writing songs. Then I met Joel Cross, another songwriter, and we wrote a lot of songs. At a certain point I was like, “I’m ready to start putting these together into something.” And it turned into Worthy.

What came first: the album title or the title track?

The title of the album was Worthy for a couple of years before I had any songs. I love that word. It’s so potent and encompasses so much [in terms of being] deserving of regard and respect. I always have a favorite word. For a while, it was resilient then authentic.

When I did the interview with Oprah, she asked me how long unworthiness had been my calling card. I realized that I didn’t feel unworthy inside but I could see how I could be giving off that energy to others. It made me double-down on wanting to call this project Worthy and explore why she asked that question. The track “Worthy” is one of the songs that Joel and I created. At that point, I knew what I wanted to say. Then all the other songs started to take shape, being about respect. Even the love songs are about how you want to be treated, how you want to treat other people. [Radio personality] Tom Joyner said this album is a perfect blend of message songs and love songs. That’s where I’ve been in my life these last few years. And the word worthy is imbued in all of it.

Why was it important to include a song like “What If”?

With all of my albums, I’ve tried to make not just protest music, but message music. Music I felt could be a social contribution. Whether I did or not depends on the listener. But with this album, because I’ve grown and matured, I’m able to fully have the confidence to express myself more clearly through protest music that is more potent. For the first 10 years of my career, I was trying to do it but was afraid because people were telling me I needed to pull back and tone it down. So I walked the fine line of it. But 10 years ago I decided I was going to live my life my way. I’m loving being able to be this person at this time because more people are open to it -- even more than five years ago.

How would you describe India.Arie then versus now? 

The India of “I Am Not My Hair” was searching for how to be empowered and free. She knew she had it inside of her but a lot of things were blocking it. The India of today has achieved freedom and empowerment; maybe earned is the right word. I also earned the respect of myself. I like who I am, even in the hard times, and it’s coming across in my music. The “I Am Not My Hair” India used to completely fall apart. Like “I quit; I’m moving to a whole other country. I’m out.” Today, I’m like, “Oh I had a hard day, but oooooh I got to sing.” I see the joy in all the things I get to do now because I’m doing it the way that I want to do it. All of my life my mom has been saying that happiness is a choice. It used to drive me nuts. I’d be like, “If happiness was a choice, everybody would just be happy.” The India of today understands what she means now.

How does it feel to be embraced by a new generation of singer-songwriters like Janelle Monae and Ariana Grande?

It was always a fantasy of mine that I would influence someone. That maybe one day people would wake up and say I grew up on India.Arie music. A straight fantasy. [Laughs] Now for people, even 30-year-olds, to be saying that to me, I’m like, “Well, how old are you?!” But I love that a musician whose music I like too would say I had anything to do with whom they’ve become. It’s a fantasy come true. There’s a lot of music I love, like Janelle, Ariana, Lianne La Havas, Jonathan McReynolds, Tori Kelly, Mali Music and Gregory Porter. When something’s good, it’s just good.

What are you most looking forward to on tour?

Of course, I’m looking forward to singing the new songs but also to reinterpreting songs from my catalog. And I’m looking forward to seeing how the audiences are feeling. Every time I put out an album, I’m regarded by the public in a different way and I never know how it’s going to be. That’s really what the shows are about: fellowship and faith from the audience. One of the side effects of the India I’ve become today is that my singing has matured. I never even considered that was a possibility. So I look forward to singing with my new voice and hearing what things come out.