Speaking from her home in New York City, the 27 year old songstress opened up to That Grape Juice about her comeback, album sales, feeling like an underdog, collaborating with Beyonce and co for charity single ‘Just Stand Up’, her relationship with a certain St.Louis rapper – Nelly and a whole lot more. As ever, we don’t shy away from the questions you really want answers to. A lengthy, yet great read. Enjoy.
Ashanti: I’m good, how you doing?
Sam: I’m fine, thank you. Where are you at now?
Ashanti: New York City!
Sam: At home?
Sam: Ok, we have a lot of ground to cover, as, once we put word out to your fans and our readers that we’d be interviewing you, there was a really big response. So with that said, I’ll fire away…
Sam: You’ve just released your new 4th studio album ‘The Declaration’, which I must add is absolutely fantastic – personally my favourite Ashanti album to date…
Ashanti: Thank you!
Sam…what exactly are you declaring with this project?
Ashanti: Basically I’m declaring a sense of growing up, a sense of freedom, a sense of taking control and being independent. I did the whole project on my own and I learned so much about myself, about the industry and the politics that goes along with it. So for the whole project, I feel the name is just perfect. It just matches everything.
Sam: The album experienced a few false starts – so I know there was the track ‘Switch’ that was thrown out there, as well as ‘Hey Baby’, ‘My Number Babe’ too. Why was this? Why was there so many false-starts with the record?
Ashanti: I think with me being gone for 4 years, everything changed so much from the last time. I put out my last album, ‘Concrete Rose’ back in ’04. So, I basically said, ‘let’s record a bunch of records and let’s see what happens’ (laughs). It was like “Oh I like this, lets try this, oh I like this too, lets try this instead, oh this is completely different for me, let’s see how this works’ (laughs). I had to kind of familiarise myself with everything again, see what the lane was looking like and just threw a bunch out. I think it’s so crazy because it’s like every single artist has done it. Nearly all the major releases that came out this year and last year experienced the same thing.
Sam: Very true. You worked with some of the industry’s biggest hit-makers on this record; from Darkchild, to Jermaine Dupri, to Akon to LT Hutton. Who did you enjoy working with most and why?
Ashanti: I would say every experience as different. All of them were great, though. When going into the studio, the vibe was completely different when working with JD in Atlanta, Atlantic City with Rodney (Darkchild). By far, though, me and LT Hutton clicked the most…
Sam:…yeah, he has the most tracks on the album, if I’m correct?
Ashanti: Yeah, he has a lot of tracks on the album. I actually recorded a bunch of records with him – like between 14-17 records as a whole. We just really clicked. I believe he was the second producer I worked with on the album. Straight from the beginning, he’s funny, he’s talented, and he’s very humble and down-to-earth. I still talk to LT now; he’s someone I absolutely consider a friend. He gets me; I can go into the studio and be like “make me a beat like this” (laughs) and he’ll do it and we’ll make it grow from there.
Sam: Fantastic. The album debuted respectably at #6 on the Billboard 200 upon its release selling through 86,000 copies. With the sales being less that what your past releases have enjoyed, do you feel any added pressure to match your past numbers?
Ashanti: Well obviously we all want to strive to do our very best and to top ourselves each and every time. So I think the pressure is a good pressure and a regular pressure – if that makes any sense (laughs). It’s like you’re under pressure and you feel like “Man, I want this happen, I want this to do the very best!” However, we are living in reality and the reality is that the economy sucks right now. Some people have to decide, ‘am I going to buy a CD or am I going to buy gas, because they’re about the same price right now!’ (Laughs) You know what I mean? There’s so much that comes with the territory; it’s being gone for so long, reacquainting myself with the scene musically, the economy being the way that it is, the politics in radio, switching over from labels. It’s just been so much. The best thing for me, I must say, is that this has absolutely been a critically acclaimed album. I am just so so happy that the response from the fans, from the critics has all been the same like ‘Oh my gosh, I love the album!’ With me doing the whole thing by myself, it really is a great feeling.
Sam: I can definitely vouch for that, in that, whether you’re speaking to your friends or reading reviews etc, the general response to the album has been really great. The majority seem to consider it, on a number of fronts, to be some of your strongest work to date. There is generally a really good feeling about the record. Congratulations on that.
Ashanti: Thank you.
Sam: You mentioned earlier that you’re having to reacquaint yourself with the industry and that it has changed. Do you feel like an underdog? Do you feel like you have more to prove this go round?
Ashanti: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, I feel like the underdog! Obviously no one has exactly the same story, but I definitely feel like no one has MY story, you know what I mean? This has been an uphill battle in every way shape and form; with everything that happened with the indictment, Murder INC, to being gone for so long, with the politics in the switching of my labels, just a lot of stuff. My story is complicated to say the least (laughs). It’s good, though, because it keeps me motivated and it keeps me fighting hard and just learning. The best experience is the experience gained from life’s lessons, making mistakes, learning from them and getting better and becoming stronger.
Sam: You recorded over 52 tracks for this album, what will become of the unused tracks? Will we hear any of them?
Ashanti: Well, we definitely want to use all of the tracks. Being that I’ve been blessed to be able to try other things outside of music, it’s a broader spectrum for me now. I can now say “Oh, this track would go perfect with this movie”. So we’re definitely looking to get placements on some movie Soundtracks, television etc. Definitely utilise all of those records. Not forgetting…you get to sell them. It’s one of the best feelings as an artist and writer, when there are new artists on the come up, to be able to say “Oh this track would be perfect for such and such”.
Sam: A lot of people have their favourite tracks on the album, one of mine being ‘Struggles’.
In terms of future singles, is there anything we should be looking forward to? Obviously we had ‘The Way That I Love You’ as the first single; ‘Good Good’ as the follow-up, over here in the UK ‘Body on Me’ is CONSTANTLY on the radio…
Ashanti: Yeah I heard! It’s doing good over there. We may have to come over and see you guys soon (laughs)…
Sam: I’m sure many will be hoping for that. So, what in terms of new singles can we expect from the album?
Ashanti: You know what; it’s weird, a couple of people have mentioned ‘Struggles’ to me quite often. I did a show in LA about a week ago and it was amazing – like 10,000 people came out, it was hot, the vibe was great – and the whole left section of the audience kept screaming ‘Struggles! Struggles! Struggles!’ I was like “Oh my gosh”. I don’t know. It’s a toss-up. I love ‘Struggles’, I love ‘So Over You’, I love ‘You’re Gonna Miss’. So who knows…
Sam: A case of wait and see, I assume then?
Ashanti: Yeah. I’ll let them (the label) know that you like ‘Struggles’, though.
Sam: That’d be great. I’m not just speaking for myself when it comes to the track. As you said, the track is very popular, so hopefully it gets the single treatment…
Sam: We’ve seen the pictures and heard the rumours; for the record what is your relationship status with Nelly?
Ashanti: Me and Nelly, we’re really really really good friends. We do a lot of hanging out, a lot of working together. He’s a really good person. We’re really good friends.
Sam: Just good friends?
Ashanti: Yeah. Really really really good friends (laughs)…
Sam: Mhmm…really really really good friends (laughs)
Sam: I’m not going to ask too much more about Nelly, but you thanked him for teaching you so much in the album credits for ‘The Declaration’; what exactly has he taught you?
Ashanti: You know, he taught me to always try and push further. (He taught me) to think outside of the box, to not be scared to try something different. So, for example, going into the studio, working with different people and try to break from the norm, without feeling scared or (feeling) a certain way. It’s like sometimes if you go to a pool and the water is cold, what’s the best way to do it: do you stick your one toe in and gradually go in or do you jump into a cannon-ball? Either way, you’re going to have to jump in sooner or later (laughs).
Sam: That’s great. The internet is abuzz about how much you’ve stepped your game up this go round vocally, stage presence-wise. In your time away, has there been anything in particular that you’ve been doing to hone your craft?
Ashanti: Well, I definitely surrounded myself with so many different people – so Nelly and other people outside of my expected norm. You just learn a lot; going into the studio with so many different producers, going to different shows, and just becoming more confident and growing. That time off was almost like a double-edged sword; it was great because I learned so much, I had the opportunity to film 2 more movies and to do other things outside of music, and then obviously I have this uphill battle coming back, after being out of the music for so long. That said, you learn from these situations. The best thing is, whatever happens – good or bad – you take that knowledge and that way you’re a better person at the end of the day.
So as far as me becoming better, yeah you become more confident – you experience yourself a little more and that all stems from coming out of the box and thinking out of the box and trying thing different, because you never know unless you try.
Sam: True, indeed. Speaking of the internet, do you check out what the blogs are saying about Ashanti and your industry contemporaries?
Ashanti: Uhm, I’m not an Internet junkie; I log on every so often. Usually for me, if I’m not in New York or if I’m overseas or something – where the time zones are completely different and I’m just up at night for no real reason – I’ll log on. But, my little sister (Shia), she definitely keeps me posted. She, on the other hand, she knows the Internet in and out (laughs). She carries her laptop with her, her Blackberry, everything, everywhere! She definitely knows what’s going on.
Sam: You recently took part in the ‘Stand Up 2 Cancer’ campaign song ‘Just Stand Up’ alongside Mary J, Beyonce, Ciara and many other female artists as well. How did the whole project come about and your involvement with it as well?
Ashanti: Well, basically, LA Reid reached out to all of us to come together for this amazing cause. I think every person has been touched by someone – friend, family member – being lost to cancer; so everyone was just over-the-top willing to come together and do something for this really great cause.
Also, Babyface (who produced the song) was the first producer I worked with on my record. So me and him established a really great relationship. With me being with Universal, which LA is a part of (Def Jam head), it was nothing; he reached out. He was like ‘listen, I want you to be a part of this, it’s going to be great!’ That’s kinda how we all unfolded.
Ashanti: It was amazing. I can’t even front; going into it – with all the girls names that were going to be apart of it, I was like ‘Oh man’ (laughs). Going to the rehearsal, I didn’t know if there was going to be some cattiness or whatever. You know when a bunch of females get together, you never know what could pop off (laughs). You know what, though, it was so cool. Everybody was talking, having conversations, rehearsing around one piano. All twelve/thirteen of us were crowding around this one little tiny piano with Babyface, everyone was singing and laughing. Genuinely, it was a really good thing. To be on stage for such an amazing cause – so many amazing people coming together – it was great. It felt good.
Sam: It was a great performance, I must say.
Music aside, what other projects can we look forward to from you? I hear that you’re starting a new label, Written Entertainment?
Ashanti: Yeah!!! You’ve been doing your homework (laughs).
Ashanti: Written Entertainment is something I want to get started really soon. Basically, with me being a writer, I want to form my own company to get records out there (via other artists too). There are a bunch of other projects that we’re going to do underneath that umbrella. Like, I’ve been doing a lot of stuff in Hollywood; there are two projects that I’m working on right now – keep your fingers crossed for me – that will involve me being a little more involved behind the scenes as opposed to in front of it. You definitely have to think outside of music. I mean, music is my passion and I love it and it’s the best thing for me to be able to go into a studio and create. Yet, at the same time, you don’t want to limit yourself. You can’t keep all your eggs in one basket.
Sam: You’re oft described as being one of the most down to earth artists out. After all of your success, how do you continue to remain so level headed?
Ashanti: I surround myself with family. With me, it’s like, you know, the money and being recognised (for what I do) is cool, but at the end of the day, I’m still the same person. It’s really not so different. I have the opportunity to do something that I love and they happen to give you some good money (laughs), but at the end of it all, I’m still the same person. It didn’t change who I am.
Sam: You mentioned your family, as to why you remain so level headed. Could you share a time with That Grape Juice when your family had to put you in check?
Ashanti: Let me see. Sometimes, like when we’re going shopping or something. I’m a very very very indecisive person – I’m a Libra. So it could be like the smallest thing: “Should I wear the Nike socks or the Adidas socks…This one has a little check, this one has a red check…this one fits different” It’s ridiculous. So, if I’m going shopping or something – and my mom and sister are with me – we’ll go to like 11 stores and I’ll buy 2 or 3 of the same thing, they’ll be like “You know what? You are playing yourself right now”. That’s my sister, she’s like “You’re ODing, you’re doing too much…cut it out.” Sometimes they have to reel me back in when it comes to being indecisive and doing too much.
Sam: Ok, a lot of new music has been released this year and we still have a lot to look forward to on the horizon. What are your top 5 songs at the moment?
Ashanti: Top 5 songs at the moment? Hmm. I love The Dream’s song ‘I Love Your Girl’. Did you guys get that out there?
Sam: I’ve heard it personally, but they haven’t really launched him over here as such – yet.
Ashanti: Ok. I like Lil Wayne’s ‘Mrs Officer’ (sings “wee oh wee wee oh wee”). I love that song. Oh and I love my song with Robin Thicke ‘Things You Me Me Do’ (laughs) – I be bumping that in my truck (laughs).
Sam: My friend stays playing that song!
I’m also really liking Jazmine Sullivan’s ‘I Need You Bad’. Lastly, number 5; well I actually got to hear Nelly’s new album ‘Brass Knuckles’ and he has a track with T.I. that I think is pretty hot (‘Hold Up’).
Sam: A lot of your UK fans wanted to know whether you’ll be officially launching the project over here and whether you’ll be coming over here anytime soon.
Ashanti: Well I definitely plan to. I haven’t been over there in so so long. I miss you guys. I definitely want to get out there and do some big shows. I hope and pray that we get to do it before the year is out. I know I’m going to Japan in October and December, so hopefully we can get over to the UK during that period. If not, then possibly top of ’09.
Sam: Ok. What are your tour plans in general?
Ashanti: Yeah, I wanted to do something kinda intimate, which I haven’t really had the chance to do before. We’re working towards me doing a House of Blues run; small intimate settings, which are really cool as they give the audience a chance to get up close and personal. I can go out and perform records from my first album, to right now. So a small House of Blues run and then hopefully turn that into something in ’09.
Sam: The hotly anticipated MOBO (Music of Black) Awards are coming up here in London on October 15th – you performed at the show a few years back.
Ashanti: I remember MOBO. When I was there last, someone broke my award in the limo – must have put their bag or something on it (laughs). They sent me another one, but I had to wait for a while for the replacement (laughs).
Sam: What does Music of Black Origin mean to you? What does MOBO Music mean to Ashanti?
Ashanti: I would say, the fact that we create the best music in the world. It’s a phenomenon, it’s amazing to be a part of that and it’s a passion. It comes from the soul, it comes from the heart. It can heal your heart, it can break your heart, but it’s all about that emotion. To have so many talented black artists doing what they love and being respected for it is definitely amazing.
Sam: Well, Miss Ashanti, it really has been an honour speaking with you.
Ashanti: Thank you so much.
Ashanti’s fantastic new album ‘The Declaration’ is in stores & iTunes now. Do be sure to pick up a copy.
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