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By Andy Argyrakis
Legendary soul icon chats
about her comeback collection
March 14, 2008
Getting on the phone with Chaka Khan for even a few minutes is an arduous planning process, but that's only because the famed funk diva is currently being pulled in a million different directions. Though it's been ten years since the public's heard the soulful side of the Chicago-bred entertainer, the former Rufus front woman has plenty to fill her plate as of late, from signing a deal with Sony's new heritage label Burgundy Records, to lining up a list of all star collaborators on her new CD Funk This, to putting on the finishing touches on its thirteen tracks in the studio. And on the day of this specific chat, Khan's smack dab in the middle of tour rehearsals, which will take her all across the globe for the first time on a major scale since her late 1990s escapades with Prince.
"I'm sorry if I sound a little tired, but I'm running through the new songs with the band and trying to get the show really tight," says the singer/songwriter as instruments tune in the background of an unidentified L.A. soundstage. "I've been working my ass off [over the last several years] doing work with Prince and putting out [the 2004 disc of jazz standards] ClassiKhan with The London Symphony Orchestra. And I wasn't totally out of the loop because I've been working on getting this new CD out, which was rough, but worth it."
Fans from her 1973 start in Rufus through those who've followed the ensuing solo career are likely to concur, as the new disc features the best of both old school worlds, merged with modern production flourishes, courtesy of classic hit makers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Usher). "I just felt I needed to return to myself and bring Yvette forward," Khan quickly quips, citing her birth name. "So I went into the studio with the intent of giving people the sound that made people fall in love with my voice in first place."
As for Jam and Lewis, Khan calls their initial meeting period filled with stories "of mutual admiration" and listening to a lot of her classic albums to get the upbeat feel and focus. Though it took the singer a few days to get settled back into that side of her vintage style, everything flowed briskly and naturally once getting past the warm up stage. "Jimmy and Terry are so patient and kind, especially because it took a minute to get my legs back on," she admits. "But they're both amazing individuals who are so great to work with and very cool. They're like musical geniuses and philosophical like Shamans all wrapped into one."
The results are a combination of collaborative efforts, covers and originals that span smooth soul, dance, funk, R&B, and even occasional hip-hop contexts. Album opener "Back In the Day" provides an instant shout out to her Windy City roots (boasting the introductory lines "guess I grew up fast in Chi-town"), tied around chucky bass beats, snarling guitars, and a smoky, retro groove. She later channels Joni Mitchell's folk-focused "Ladies' Man" via a seductive bedroom ballad, Prince's "Sign 'O' the Times" as a socially conscious expose, while presenting Jimi Hendrix's growling "Castles Made of Sand" into a sophisticated soul piece. Guests include Rufus' guitarist Tony Maiden on a medley of the group's "Pack'd My Bags/You Got the Love," Michael McDonald for a version of "You Belong To Me" (which he co-wrote with original singer Carly Simon) and Mary J. Blige come "Disrespectful."
"I love singing other people's songs that I've always loved to listen to, which in the case of Joni Mitchell, is my number one artist," Khan reveals. "We called in Tony and got busy going back to the past, plus had Mary J. in on a new song she wrote, and Michael McDonald for another oldie. In those cases, we recorded the parts in separate studios, but that's how it is nowadays- artists are rarely, if ever, in the same studio at the same time!"
The topic of modern day recording techniques also provokes Chaka's thoughts on the music industry in general. Outside of all the technological aspects and format shifts (from physical to digital), she's most upset about marketing often times overpowering artistry. "It's seriously gone crazy now that everybody and their mother is in the music business," she vents. "The competition is extremely high, the talent is extremely low and I don't believe a lot of it because it lacks sincerity. There are certainly some exceptions with the right intent who are really kicking booty, but a lot of people enter music for the wrong reasons. They're using too much technology and people can't do a live show to save their lives! Rappers are just yelling or talking and musicians can't reproduce what they're playing on CD in concert. I'm old school Chicago and [recreating the studio on stage] is what we do. It's as natural for me as sleep!"
That attitude has not only built up Khan's longevity, but also endeared her to several younger stars, from the aforementioned Purple One to Whitney Houston (whose version of "I'm Every Woman" stormed the charts throughout the early 90s). Of course, no mention of her influence could be complete without mentioning fellow hometowner Kanye West, who sampled the power ballad "Through the Fire" within his own "Through the Wire" in 2003.
"I didn't expect [Kanye] to do my voice at 5,000 rpms, but otherwise it's great and I'm honored," she offers. "He told me a story about how my song helped him recover in the hospital after his accident and that really moved me. Prince is like working with myself because we're such kindred spirits. He's a very sweet and loving person that's also shy and very misunderstood- a genius too! And Whitney used to sing background for me with her mom [Cissy Houston] and she did a brilliant job on 'I'm Every Woman.' She's going through a life crisis right now, but she's going to come out of it. [The media] needs to let her get it past that and let it be a private walk- everybody deserves that."
Though Khan's in a very positive personal and emotional place right now, she asserts the material on Funk This could give troubled listeners an ample dose of empowerment and encouragement. Her self-penned "Superlife" is all about making the most of every opportunity and not letting life's problems lead to complete defeat, while "Disrespectful" is about getting on the right side of a relationship.
Even with her highly storied and decorated career thus far (which includes eight Grammy Awards, four American Music Awards, and a 2006 BET "Lifetime Achievement Award"), the multi-faceted star remains remarkably humble while saluting her Midwest upbringing. "Chicago was the training grounds for me and introduced me to a mixed genre of people, music, and art that was a very good preparation for the world at large," she explains, also suggesting a low key lifestyle keeps her down to earth. "I don't listen to the radio or music at home, just in the car where I have Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis right now. When I finish a show, I leave the building and go try to catch an episode of "CSI" or something. I sleep a lot and hibernate a lot. I have two grandchildren, who I entertain when I'm not working, and I don't go out and party!"