Fighting her former record label has been only part of
the battle, Amel Larrieux says on a quick promotion junket
to Tokyo for her new album Bravebird.
Beautiful, talented, opinionated: New York songbird Amel
Larrieux seems to have it all. But sitting across the table
from me in an Aoyama café, she insists shes only
human: Im insecure like any other human being.
Its hard to tell exactly where her insecurities lie,
though. While, for lack of a better label, her neo-soul
peers sing about cheating boyfriends, Larrieux is defending,
on the title track, victims of female circumcision. Its
all part of a confident and conscious message that brings
to mind an Erykah Badu without the back-to-Africa trappings.
I think its natural to write about things that
are making a social commentary, Larrieux states, noting
that this sometimes caused friction with her former label,
Epic/Sony. Some record people in the past may have felt
I was being too wordy. They wanted me to write simple songs.
But Larrieux was not about to trade in her views for the sake
of what the record execs thought would move CDs off the shelves.
She wasnt brought up that way. I was raised by
a very strong woman who was very decisive and made her own
strongly, loudly and clearly, Larrieux
Brought up in an artists building in bohemian Greenwich
Village, Larrieux explains she is the daughter of a professor
of performing arts who has written four books on how African-American
dance has influenced European dance forms. She writes
about subjects that are not comfortable for people, like race.
Probably that has influenced me in terms of my writing.
The title song, Bravebird, ultimately took five
years to find a proper release. Larrieux played it for the
people at Epic, but says they drew a blank. The song was not
included on her 2000 Epic debut, Infinite Possibilities, so
Larrieux released it as a white label and circulated it to
DJs at New York clubs. The reaction eventually gave her the
confidence to include it as the title track for Bravebird
on Bliss Life, the label she set up with her husband after
parting ways with Epic after Infinite Possibilities failed
to live up to its, er, possibilities.
The response [to Bravebird] from outside
the label was pretty big. Weve always felt that if we
believed in a song, and if people that we respect around us
like the song, then well stick with it, she says,
the we referring to her and her musical partner
and husband Laru Larrieux, with whom she lives in Brooklyn
with their two daughters, Sanji-Rei (5) and Sky (9).
Larrieux also battles other pressures. I still fight
stereotypes about what Im supposed to sound like or
look like, she says. But definitely in the beginning
it became clear to me that there was something that was expected
of me because I was female and black. I made it clear right
away what I was going to do and what I wasnt.
Initially trained to be a ballerina, Larrieux found her path
to music not through the hood, but through the rarified
classical world. She attended the elite Tanglewood school
and was being groomed for a life in opera, but had other things
in mind. Now 30, Larrieux first found success almost a decade
ago with the acid jazz/trip-hop duo Groove Theory, when the
pairs song Tell Me reached the Top 5 on
the R&B charts in 1995.
The success led to all sorts of offers. In addition to music,
Larrieux ventured into acting and modeling, and was featured
as a style maven in Harpers Bazaar and a slew of other
titles, as well as appearing in an ad for luxury brand Coachs
60th anniversary, a job that also brought her to Japan.
Getting back to Larrieuxs insecurities, she says she
had to get over them the way anyone else does. Thrust into
the limelight with the sudden success of Groove Theory, she
faced a steep learning curve. It had to come naturally
otherwise I would have looked like an idiot, she says.
I wasnt doing choreography or anything and I didnt
have dancers. It was all on me to make it happen, so I started
learning how to talk to the audience. That was when I realized
that I liked being the kind of performer that gave more of
myself than I realized I had. It was almost like my brain
went into this mode of going on an energy and vibe that I
hadnt consciously chosen.
But it turns out theres more to it than that. Sexually
abused as a child, Larrieux fled home at 16. This experience
fuels songs like Giving Something Up, which touches
on the pain of women whose families are destroyed by abuse
and infidelity, and also perhaps accounts for the gossamer
delicacy of her voice.
And then there are more present reminders like 9/11, which
the Larrieuxs watched unfold from their Brooklyn rooftop.
Every night I would wake up thinking someone was going
to drop a bomb, she recalls. Then after a while,
talking with Laru who has a better grasp on life and death
than IIve been a person who was fearful of deathI
realized one has to live each moment. It gave me more gratefulness
for every single moment.
Amel Larrieux plays Shibuya Duo on
May 10-11. See concert listings for details.
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