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Queen Latifah Talks Jazz, Tabloid Rumors and Big Bird

The multi-talented Queen Latifah is switching gears again. It’s been three years since she has released an album, and in those years, she’s acted in almost a dozen movies, including the box office smash, ‘Hairspray.’ Now, she’s revisiting her first true love — jazz — with a new album that hits shelves Tuesday. ‘Trav’lin’ Light’ is a collection of standards from some of the biggest names in jazz, soul, R&B and blues, from Billie Holiday to Smokey Robinson. Queen Latifah sat down with AOL Music to talk about this music venture, as well as to dish the dirt on tabloid turmoil and how Big Bird played a big part in the highlight of her illustrious career.

People may not realize that jazz was a big part of your life long before your hip-hop and acting careers. Tell us about your early musical influences.

My father was probably the person who encouraged jazz in my life the most. He played nothing but jazz music, and every time I’d get into the car with him, he’d have [radio station] Jazz 88 playing … or Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday. It was mostly instrumental jazz — Wayne Shorter, Weather Report — that was Pop’s forte. He also had a jazz club when I was a kid. And when I started to get a little older and started making my own choices in music — jazz was there because it was becoming an influence on hip-hop. And I was hanging out with Q-Tip and DJ Mark the 45 King, and they had a lot of jazz records playing. Mark just loved the horn; Q-Tip loved the heavy bass. And I fell in love with Dinah Washington’s voice. I loved Sarah Vaughan and, of course, Billie Holiday. I was always fascinated by the inflection in their voices and how they said certain words, like Nancy Wilson’s ‘Guess Who I Saw Today.’ It’s a song about how she goes into town and catches her husband having lunch with some other woman. The way it sounds is just so clever.


How would you say you’ve grown as an artist since your last jazz project, 2004′s ‘The Dana Owens Album’?

I’ve become a lot more comfortable with my voice. I’m more comfortable singing to a live audience and enjoying it … not really thinking about it and just letting it go. That took a while, because it’s easy to record a song in the studio, but getting out there to perform, for me, is really where it’s at. Doing a live show demands more of you, and it demands interaction from the audience that you don’t quite get in the studio. And then there’s the freedom to try new things. One of the things I love about music is the mistakes [laughs]! Well, they’re not mistakes but they’re the not-perfect notes from instruments, as well as people vocally. Those become some of the things you get to know on the record — the way somebody might grunt or groove. James Brown made a career out of doing that! So to me, getting to do things like that — to not be so worried about getting things perfectly on this album — was fun.

You’re getting ready for a big tour in support of ‘Trav’lin’ Light.’ Do you have any pre-show rituals?

If I just take a shot of tequila, I’m good [laughs]. I have done that before. But really, a prayer is good for me. I warm up, and then I just try to relax and not really think about it. But I do usually go peek out at the audience to see if I can get any energy out of them, to see what the vibe is like — if they’re sitting back drinking wine, getting their drink on — or if there’s some strange scent in the air. I see if they seem like they’re in a jovial mood or if they look a little tired, like it’s been a long day. Then I’ll try and lift them up.

That makes me think of Melissa Etheridge, who once said onstage, “The more you drink, the better I sound!”

Exactly! [laughs]

Stevie Wonder plays harmonica on your new album, on the beautiful song, ‘Georgia Rose.’ That had to be surreal to work with him — I know he’s one of your heroes. How did you two hook up?

I’ve met Stevie a few times through the years at various events. And when [my producer] Tommy LiPuma and I were in the studio, we were thinking how cool it would be if we could put a harmonica solo on ‘Georgia Rose’ instead of a sax solo. And then I thought, “What if we could get Stevie Wonder?!” So my A&R rep reached out for me, and then I ran into him two days later at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. I was like, “Damn, what are the chances of that?” So I went over to him to say hi, and I asked if he had heard about it. I told him all about the record, and he told me about a record that he might like for me to do. So I was like, “Let’s make it happen!” And he was there within a week, and he had to leave to go on tour the very next day, so I was really fortunate to get him in the studio. It was the culmination of a life-long dream. To be in the studio with [Stevie] is like being in the studio with Prince or Marvin Gaye. And when I was driving home, I was like, “Did that just really happen?”

You dug deep into some pretty spectacular catalogs of music to choose songs for the album. Was song selection a tough process?

It was tough because there’s so much to choose from. After I did the first six songs, I realized the album sounded pretty mellow. So we decided, why not just embrace it, as opposed to adding something to spice it up. That just wasn’t necessary. We had really good songs — ‘Georgia Rose,’ ‘I Love Being Here With You,’ ‘Trav’lin’ Light’ and ‘I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl.’ They all started to feel nice and moody. So I felt like ‘Trav’lin’ Light’ was a good title for the album. It just has a really good vibe.

And I read that another song on the album, ‘I’m Gonna Live Till I Die,’ has become your new anthem. How does that song speak to you?

It’s the lyrics! “I’m gonna live till I die / I’m gonna laugh instead of cry / I’m gonna take the town and turn it upside down! / I’m gonna live, live, live until I die.” That’s who I want to be. I don’t want to be one of these people who’s 40 years old and is like, “Ugh, life is over.” I wasn’t one of those people who turned 30 and freaked out. I was like, “Yeah, I’m 30!” I was excited by life. I had a lot of good examples of people who came before me who made life look fun. My grandmother died at 94. And up until the very end, she had all her scruples, and she was energetic. She was like, “Take care of your business! And don’t cut your hair. I like it, it’s pretty.” She kept
me laughing. Both of my grandmothers — they just had these great attitudes, and they just lived life. My father is like that too, and so is my mother. So to me, life is for living, not for worrying all the time about what you’ve accomplished by this age. I write the blueprint for what my life is gonna be. Whatever God wants me to do is what I’m gonna do, and the rest is up to me. So, ‘I’m Gonna Live Till I Die’ inspired me as soon as I heard it. Hopefully this will be one of those songs people will throw on right when they wake up in the morning.

It seems like you adopted that anthem a long time ago. You’re an actress, singer, Cover Girl, author, entrepreneur. First of all, when do you have time to sleep? And secondly, what would you say is the highlight of your multi-faceted career?

Well, first of all, I haven’t slept … so let’s just get that outta the way [laughs]. But the favorite thing I’ve done in my career is probably rock the Apollo [Theater]. That was my first major show, and it was back at the time when you’d get your a** booed off that stage, but I rocked it. And ‘Sesame Street’ was the best! They took my song, ‘That’s the Way We Flow,’ and they changed all the lyrics and made it into ‘That’s the Letter O.’ So my song became the letter of the day. And the kid in me came out — Big Bird was there and Mr. Snuffleupagus, and I’m watching the puppeteers work their magic. And everybody’s spirit on that set was so cool. Honestly, in my whole entire career, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a relaxed group of people who really seem to enjoy what they do for a living. It was the perfect vibe.

Being a celebrity of your caliber, you’re constantly being followed by the paparazzi and reading things about yourself that are untrue. What is your secret to handling this tabloid-fueled world that we live in with grace and dignity?

I try not to read about myself too much. You’re right — a lot of it isn’t true, and it can be mean. So, I try not to listen to that crap. I know who I am, and I know what I’m about, and I’m cool with me. I like me, actually. And I don’t try to live my whole life in front of the cameras. I don’t have to be at every opening, every function, every club. I enjoy hanging out with normal people … and a few of my industry friends. But mostly, I just hang out with average people doing regular things. So there’s really nothing exciting to report, unless they want to write, “Queen Latifah Went to the Movies!” Interesting? Not at all. But I do think the press has been very kind to me over the years. There are photographers who are wonderful, and then there’s the paparazzi — and they can be feverish. But for the most part, they’ve laid off of me, and I appreciate that. When you’re doing regular stuff, it’s just so weird to have someone following you with a video camera. And I really don’t like them taking pictures of people’s kids — to me, that’s just a little bit too much. I wish it would get back to just the events and red carpets. But I know it’s too late, so you just accept it for what it is and you deal with it.

Queen Latifah AOL Sessions performance

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