India.Arie's voice is deep and clear as she speaks into her cell phone from a Manhattan sidewalk. The 26-year-old singer-songwriter has just finished a photo shoot, one of the necessary duties of pop stardom. "They say it's not glamorous and it's not," she says. "The only part that's glamorous is when you're on stage, and that's only one-third of everything." Judging from her organic sound, her unpretentious lyrics, and her straightforward conversation style, she's too down-to-earth to get carried away with off-stage demands. "I just go with the flow," she adds, "because this is what I wanted."
She's gone with the flow, and she's getting what she wants. She's seen massive success in the past year, despite the fact that her style isn't neatly in line with industry expectations. While most female artists are shoved into one ready-made package or another (diva, riot grrl, folk songstress, etc.), Arie and her brand of "acoustic soul" shun that molding. "I define who I am," she says. "I can't control what people say about me, but I don't think about opinions that don't matter. I mean, why don't they just call Lauryn Hill a creative genius, because that's what she is? It used to make me mad when they called Alanis Morrissette the angry girl. She's a person with a beautiful way of expressing herself. Why can't they just say that?"
Not only does she refuse to conform to the superficial, materialistic demands of the pop world (she wears clothes designed by her mother and never works out), but on her platinum-selling debut album, Acoustic Soul, she comes out and attacks the standard. In the album's first single, "Video," a self-affirmation anthem for the modern woman, she admits without apology that she "ain't built like a supermodel" and then calls herself a queen anyway. In the song's bridge, she sings, "Sometimes I shave my legs and sometimes I don't/ Sometimes I comb my hair and sometimes I won't/ Keep your silicone, I prefer my own/ What God gave me is just fine."
Self-love is not the only theme in Arie's music. Acoustic Soul includes songs that address romance, relationships and personal integrity, as well as freestyle interludes where Arie names her influences, which range from John Coltrane and Sam Cooke to Ma Rainey and Karen Carpenter. Acoustic Soul's catchy melodies, deep soulful vocals and mellow guitar work earned Arie seven Grammy nominations (she won none). She lost five of them to fellow R&B sensation Alicia Keys, who, after all, is younger, thinner and flashier than Arie. But that setback doesn't seem to bother Arie. "It's beyond cool that I even produced a blip on their radar," she told Newsweek when the nominations were announced.
Arie is gratified in other ways that mean more to her. Sade selected her for the opening slot on her tour, and Oprah Winfrey thanked Arie personally on her show for writing "Video." She also recently collaborated with jazz singer Cassandra Wilson on Wilson's latest album, Belly of the Sun. "These women have a certain level of integrity," she says. "You can tell they're doing the work they do because they love it. So when they seek me out, I interpret that as meaning that they see that same sincerity in me. It makes me feel like I could be a Cassandra Wilson, who can just get onstage and sing and people appreciate her for her music and not who she's dating, or some scandal in her life."
Arie prefers live performance to recording anyway, another situation where she goes with the flow. "I started performing when I had one song written," she says, "so over the years I've learned how to pay attention to the people who are paying attention." At a recent New York club show, she shifted her focus from an acoustic set to a louder, more upbeat set when the audience of networking, see-and-be-seen types refused to curb their chatter. "At one point," she says, "I kicked my leg up and said, 'Did you all see my underwear?' It broke the ice. I was just being free."
It's that freedom of expression that makes live performance exciting for her. "I think when a person is being herself and letting her personality shine through on stage, it's a unique experience because we're all unique," she says. "When I'm on stage, sometimes I talk about why I wrote the songs, sometimes I play new stuff or old stuff that's not on my album, or I might switch the set list around in the middle, or have one of my band members sing. I perform the way that I feel that day."
- 'When they seek me out, I interpret that as meaning that they see that same sincerity in me.' -- India.Arie on earning props from Sade, Cassandra Wilson and Oprah Winfrey