The life of High Point, North Carolina native Fantasia Barrino has transformed in the 12 years since being scrutinized by Simon, Randy and Paula on American Idol: Two Broadway musicals, a Grammy win, a public battle with depression and a painful divorce. Now, Barrino has returned to the music business with a brassy new sound in the key of Ike and Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits."
"I'm bringing back rock-soul," Barrino declared walking down the Wenner Media hallway in Midtown Manhattan, flanked by an entourage that includes husband Kendall Taylor, whom she is taller than by at least an inch. In a short, white tailored dress and metallic heels, the 32-year-old said that the next chapter of her career is about artistic fulfillment. She won't cut a song that doesn't make her feel anything.
"After 12 years, I have to do what my heart wants," the singer said. "There were times I left the studio thinking, if I can't do it this way, I don't want to do it at all. … I never started out as an R&B singer, I grew up on all types of music – jazz, rock, pop, country, folk – and I wanted to bring that to my stage."
"R. Kelly is different – music is always going through his brain"
Making The Definition Of… led to some uncomfortable label meetings, she said. RCA executives were unconvinced the R&B stalwart should tinker with other genres. R. Kelly, a previous collaborator, helped finesse Barrino's rock-soul vision. He put her yowl to work on the excellent, chiseled single "Sleeping." The R&B heavy played on Barrino's jazz training from After Midnight, creating a paean to Cotton Club-era elegance with sliding strings and a smoky noir feel.
"R. Kelly is different – music is always going through his brain," Barrino said. "I remember we'd be having a conversation and he'd choose a word I said and write a whole song to it." She said that when she was out of the recording booth, she liked to watch him while he worked in the studio. "He has such a deep respect for the music, and taught me that if you’re true to the work, people will go on that journey with you – whatever it is."
One of the more evocative songs on the album, "Ugly," frames Barrino's painful personal trials with depression, a failed marriage and abortion that culminated in a suicide attempt in 2010. "I didn't care about anything. I just wanted out," the singer told VH1 at the time.
"Picket fence, two-car garage and a man that she don't love/ But he makes six figures/And she thought he'd fix her/But that iron gate feels more and more like an old bird cage/Than a way to keep out the danger … So she takes to liquor," she sings darkly on "Ugly."
"My grandmother taught me that your test will help someone along the way," said Barrino, adding that she wrote "Ugly" with her teenage daughter and niece in mind. "I was very insecure growing up, and even though I'm not that girl anymore, I think that the passion, that not feeling pretty and being insecure is where my soul came from. And from early childhood, I let it free onstage."
"Your test will help someone along the way"
Singing soul music specifically, is more than just Barrino's preferred form of therapy. It's a way of communicating with her loved ones. Maybe, especially, with her grandmother, whom she continues to bring back into conversation, implicitly thanking her for bringing her to those church choir rehearsals.
"I Made It," ends Barrino's album on a stirring high. Assisted by gospel star Tye Tribbett, the song celebrates the woman – and the women, like Barrino's grandmother – who made it through. "I wanted people to know that I've been through the rain," Barrino said solemnly. "I've been broken into pieces, I had a daughter at such a young age. There were times people would say, 'That's it for her,'" she said.
"But that didn't happen."