Christina Aguilera goes “Back to Basics” with her first album in nearly four years. Out Aug. 15, the two-disc RCA set was inspired by her love of music and imagery from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. Irresistible first single, “Ain’t No Other Man,” appears on the first disc, produced largely by DJ Premier, which combines traditional musical styles with hip-hop, samples and modern day arrangements.
The second disc reunites Aguilera with producer/songwriter Linda Perry (“Beautiful”) and features all live instrumentation. In this expanded version of an interview that appears in the July 29 issue of Billboard, Aguilera speaks extensively about the new project and her life since marrying music executive Jordan Bratman last November.
In February, you called your label team together and told them your vision for this album. What was that vision?
My vision for this record was to go back to old blues, jazz and soul music, the music that I love and am inspired by wholeheartedly, [and] combine [that] with the visuals of some of the best era, I think, with the throwback to old Hollywood glam-that kind of retro, pin-up style of sexuality. You know, I thought the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s were such interesting elements to combine with the feel, look and sound, so it was just very exciting and I wanted the entire label to get on the same page with me and be in for this crazy ride that I wanted to go on with the record.
How did you pick the producers?
Whenever I first got this vision, I set out for the producers first. I compiled a two-disc CD, a compilation of 30 or more soul-inspired songs that are throwbacks [up] to more current day, modern, with a twist, of all the kind of songs that have influenced me in some level in a soul, blues and jazz-driven way.
I sent it out to producers that I thought might be able to get into this headspace with me because I didn’t want another old sample that’s totally recognizable and let’s throw a beat over it — I wanted to get obscure pieces of music and get people who would really, really use their imaginations in reinventing the wheel. I didn’t want any covers. I didn’t want to do anything that would remotely sound recognizable.
That’s where DJ Premier came along. He was one of the people that I reached out to. After I’d given Linda these CDs, she really was the one that really, really listened to what I was trying to say. We just went from scratch, from ground up. There’s no beat machines, no samples whatsoever. We just really went in there and recreated ourselves to get this old throwback sound. I’m most proud of things like “I’ve Got Trouble,” where we really used old vintage microphones [and] covered them up with old ratty cloths to get that muffled old crackly sound.
We started seeing photos of you close to a year and a half ago, where you already seemed to be in this image: platinum hair, red lipstick. Were you preparing for the studio?
You’re absolutely right. It definitely was a preparation for me, because… I take this seriously, I really do. Everytime I went to record a song or what not, [I wanted] to really get into the mode and character of what these songs were conveying: the poppy, pin-up imagery sometimes or the burlesque place that we’re taking a song like “Naughty Boy,” to that Mae West place. I wanted to put on my red lipstick and do up my blonde hair sometimes, just to get into that saucy mode or that old Hollywood glam kind of effect.
I would surround myself also with old imagery of your Billie Holidays, and your Pearl Baileys and people like that. I would have these tearsheets and pictures of even Louis Armstrong and Coltrane and Miles Davis and all these amazing jazz musicians. I just wanted to get into the heart and soul of the music, literally, and I guess the best way to describe it, what actors call method acting, it was kind of like my way of method singing in a way.
The album is very ambitious. There is the sense that you were holding nothing back.
I totally went to bat every single day, I put my whole heart into it. I really opened myself up a lot and I appreciate and admire artists who are ambitious and are able to really take chances and think outside of their own comfort zone. I think the only time we really pave the way for future music and to encourage future artists to be their own individual selves and to express themselves to their fullest capacity is to encourage them to think outside of that safety box. And, yeah, it can feel naked sometimes, but I think it’s for the good of music sometimes and for the good of being an artist, period.
Do you sing any songs from start to finish when you record, like the artists you’re paying tribute to did?
A: We definitely tried some of that on this new record. I have to say, and I shoot myself in the foot with it sometimes to the point where I’m pulling out my own hair myself, but I’m an extreme perfectionist, so I do like to go and pick up tiny things here and there. But for the most part of it, on Linda’s portion of the album, those were one-take songs where we took it all the way through and no matter what little crack or imperfection might come up, Linda has taught me the beauty in certain imperfections.
“The Right Man” is stream-of-consciousness song about your wedding day.
It’s a beautiful thing when you find the right person, “The Right Man” was inspired by, my God, I never really had this father figure, which never bothered me. I was like, whatever, it’s cool. I had my mom, I had people that did love me and care for me, but then it becomes your wedding day.
I was never like the kind of girl that was like, oh, I’m going to wear this dress, have this cake. I was very focused on my career from a very young age. I knew that I wanted to be a singer [and a] recording artist. And when the time came and everybody asked me who’s going to walk you down the aisle, you know, I started off really cool, calm and collected, I was like, oh, I’m a performer, I can totally walk myself down the aisle. But when the time came, I started writing the song because all these emotions started coming up of, wow, it would be really nice have that male protector in your life, to have that one person give you away to the next man that’s going to take care of you. I never really had that strong male presence to ever shelter me and I never really felt a need for that until this day.
“Oh Mother” is also a very powerful song on which you praise your mother for being so strong in the face and aftermath of your father’s abuse. What was your mom’s reaction to that?
What’s interesting is I haven’t really been able to play it for her yet [laughs]. She lives in Pittsburgh. On the last record I touched on the abuse for a moment and she cried and thought it was beautiful and it really touched her a lot. She gets that I’m an artist and that I do need to speak about these things, but “Oh Mother” is really paying tribute to how strong she was. It’s got a more positive message than “I’m OK” [from the 2002 album “Stripped”], which was more therapeutic for me to get out there. I think it’s important for me to speak out about domestic violence because it’s still such a hush-hush subject, and it goes on in the privacy of your home and I think it needs to be brought up as much as possible.
On “Thank You,” you feature messages to you from fans about how your music has helped them. How did that come about?
I ran a contest on my Web site. I told them was it was for. I said, look, I want to do a song dedicated to my fans and I’d like you guys to be a part of it. If you can share with me some stories of how my music has touched your life or how it’s affected your life, you may hear your voice or your message on my next album. They all signed a release so they were all cool [laughs], making sure we took care of business first.
As you get more and more famous, is it harder to keep that connection with your fans?
It’s definitely hard for me sometimes to respond to many of the fan letters as I want to or partake sometimes with more success and what not. Thank God for it, but your schedule is jam-packed and you become exhausted and especially I realize that I don’t have the same stamina I had when I was 17.
Exactly. I look at people like Madonna. I saw her last tour. I go to check out her visuals, and I’m thinking, Wow. I’m looking at this woman, she’s got two kids at home, she’s still able to do it. She’s got the stamina to be on that stage, she looks amazing and it’s just really inspiring. And so I look at that and go, Wow, I’m 25. What am I complaining about? I better get off my butt. The world touring schedule is crazy. You’re in a new country every day. It becomes crazy, but thank God I get to do what I love to do. So yeah, the “Thank You” song was totally my way of thanking my fans — giving a little bit back for a minute.
You sampled “Genie in a Bottle” on “Thank You.” Can you still imagine doing that song live or is that a lifetime ago?
[Laughs]. Well, if I were to do that song live, I would not do it the way I did it when I was what, 17 years old. I would definitely reinvent it with my band. I think you can totally reinvent music to get it to the place to which I’ve grown today.
On so many of these songs here, you share your experiences. Is there any kind of self-editing that goes on?
You know, no, there’s not. “I’m OK” was probably the toughest song that I ever put to record. I definitely had a tough time writing it. Linda really encouraged me to get behind that mic to do it because right before I was about to really go there, I kind of had a little breakdown. I was like, Man, I don’t know if I can really share this, you know. I broke down in tears, rather. It was hard for me. It was very vulnerable and it brought back memories of my past with my father and the abuse.
I definitely talked with Linda about it and said it’s really hard for me to do this. She said, You know what? It needs to come out of you, and it did help when I finally had it out there. I’m proud of that piece because it was important for me to get it out there on the table. Some of the letters I get from my fans, it makes it completely worthwhile when I hear that they connected with that song in some way and that that song gives them hope. It’s really important for me to feel no holds barred whenever I get behind that mic.
That’s very courageous.
Thank you. I honestly think I wouldn’t be as driven. I know some people handle painful situations and abuse and what not in their lives in different ways, but I really, really would not be the person that I am today if I hadn’t gone through that. It instilled such a drive in me to feel like I have to succeed, I have to do this, I have to accomplish my dream and it still drives me to this day.
Then how do you give yourself a break?
You know, I’m really bad at that [laughs]. I’m really bad at just giving myself a break, but you know, being that I have this incredible man in my life, who is my backbone, who is my partner, in every way, I’m able to at least unwind and feel I do have that someone I can at least turn to and relax, that tells me sometimes when I just need to quit stressing things [and] feeling like I always need to work. It’s really true. That’s how I constantly feel. I feel funny when I start relaxing and getting too comfortable because then I start feeling like I’m procrastinating and being lazy when really I’m just taking a break.
Are you concerned that people won’t listen to both discs?
I think it’s unfair if you walk into this record and listen to three songs and make a judgment. You have to really take in this album as a whole [and] give it time before you make any opinion or any judgment on it whatsoever. You have to listen to disc one and you gotta listen to disc two. That’s why I wanted to make it. They’re like fraternal twins. They’re the same theme but attacked in very different styles.
What happened to the pictures of your musical heroes that you took into the studio with you? Do you carry any of them around with you now?
I do actually, because I’m still getting ideas for the tour — still getting ideas for all the visuals, screens, the dancers, characters, things I want to portray on stage, things I want to see come to life on stage. Just because the record’s done doesn’t mean I can just put these things away. I’m still living it.