For her thirteenth studio album The London Sessions, Mary J. Blige made a hard left. Bored with the slog of the recording process and facing creative redundancy, the R&B veteran took a different approach for the LP, spending 10 days in London to work with hitmakers including Sam Smith, Disclosure, Naughty Boy, Emeli Sandé and a handful of others.
The resulting LP is arresting, stirring a mix of ‘90s house, downbeat R&B and contemporary dance. While recording the project, the 44-year-old Bronx native took the suggestion of the execs at her new label, Capitol Records, to capture the process for a full-length documentary. On Thursday (April 16), the Tribeca Film Festival debuted the 45-minute feature at New York’s Beacon Theatre, in partnership with American Express (who previously teamed with Blige in 2011 for its “Unstaged” concert series.) Blige gave the packed house an intimate look at how the album was shaped followed by a rousing performance from Blige running through tracks from Sessions as well as past hits “No More Drama,” “One” and “Family Affair.”
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The next morning, Blige sat down with Billboard at New York’s Smyth hotel to discuss the documentary and what it was like to give yet another piece of herself to her fans.
How was it sharing the documentary with the audience last night?
I was so happy, first of all, because the documentary is something that I wanted people to see. It was the connection between the album, so that my fans can understand it. So to have it viewed at the Tribeca Film Festival was just unreal. To have people respond to it the way they did, that was a dream come true for me. To actually entertain, and perform the songs…I don’t know how else to express it. I was so overjoyed. The documentary was so important to me, because it was important to me that my fans know how and why, and see the process of it. For the last 15 to 20 years, they’ve been with me on a journey, and they know what we’re gonna do, and they always know, but this is something completely different that I’ve done. I needed to them to be enlightened as to why.
When you went into actually recording the album, what went through your head to say, “I want to document this. I want to make a movie out of this”?
It wasn’t my idea to document — it was something that came from the powers that be — but it was my idea to say, “You know what, I’m going to go ahead and do it.” Because I need people to come inside with me on this one because I’ve never done anything like this before.
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This album is so different for you because you took such a chance in a direction your fans may not have expected. What did you tell yourself in order to hope that they joined you on this journey?
That moment came when I realized that as an artist, I needed to do something creatively different and no longer do the same thing. To me, everything was stagnant and redundant — the same thing. I said, “I hope they appreciate this, but I think they will because it’s a move that they don’t even know they need.” I needed to take this chance and do this for myself, because I just couldn’t be stuck anymore.
The genesis of The London Sessions really was when you came out as a surprise guest at Disclosure’s Terminal 5 show in January 2014. How did that connection form?
We were watching Vevo one day, my husband [Kendu Isaacs] and I. He had already seen this video, but this was something he wanted me to see — I wasn’t even watching the TV, and I just heard “F For You” playing, and I was like, “Who is that?” I just lost my mind completely. Like, “Who are they?” The music reminded me of something that we grew up on. I was like, “How did they know that? They were like five years old!” So I said I need to be on this song. Something made me say it because I loved it so much. My husband, who’s my manager, called our label. Turns out our label was their label, and called their management, and everyone was just excited about Mary J. Blige being on the record, and we did it that week. They released it a couple weeks later in the U.K. and it exploded, and the rest is history.
You mentioned your husband, who’s obviously a very integral part of your career and life. He was there in the documentary and with you throughout the recording process, but we didn’t really see to what extent he was involved in the record.
You never really see his [input] because when the project is fully finished and it’s just songs, there’s no cohesiveness, he does that. We go home together, and we structure the album: which song’s going to go first, what’s going to go second. He was a producer before, and that’s the part that he does. He produces around it, and ties it all together. We actually do that together.
In terms of your label situation, you decided to go with Capitol for this record. What made you want to sign with them?
What enticed me is the chairman of Capitol Records [Steve Barnett], his conversation. He sold everything like it was Uptown back in the day. Like it was freedom to be who I am, freedom to make the type of music I want to make. Having that freedom to do Mary J. Blige and not have to do something younger because it sells. I felt like I needed that, like I needed someone to tell me, “It’s OK to just go crazy and be Mary J. Blige.” For a couple of years, people have been restraining me, and say, “Oh no, you have to do like this because this is what sells.” It just made me freeze, and kind of not want to do it anymore.
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Nowadays, everyone has a DJ Mustard beat. What you think of the current climate of R&B?
I think some of it is good, so you can’t shoot down all of it, but I think everyone is expressing themselves the way they know how right now. That’s what’s going on. You have people like Sam Smith, and his album. You have the Adele album, that was great. There’s a lot of good stuff, and then there’s a lot of redundancy.
You’ve been playing a lot of smaller venues, which is different for you.
Those are the things I love — it’s so intimate, so up close and personal. People that don’t know anything about you get a chance to get to know you, and see you. When it’s Madison Square Garden, it’s just people. When it’s that up close and personal, it’s the best. Like last night, that was very intimate. I like it when it’s like that, because people get a chance to see that I have a sense of humor, they see me.
You seem so much more in your skin, and you can tell that with the music now too, in a way that it hasn’t been before. Do you feel like you have a new sort of confidence?
I feel like I have a new confidence when it comes to life, when it comes to who Mary J. Blige is, period. So that makes everything better. That makes my music different, that makes my music better, that makes my life different, that makes my life better, that makes my clothing…They’re not wearing me, I’m wearing them, you know? It’s just confidence all around.