India.Arie calls her debut album, Acoustic Soul (due Tuesday), a collection of thoughts, emotions and dreams.
"Since music is intangible and it's pure energy, when you sing it, it goes into your ear and into everybody's ears and into their hearts," the Atlanta singer/songwriter said. "So when I write, I'm just saying words that I hear in my ear or something I dreamt about."
(Arie puts a Web site-like dot between her first and last names because it "gives it an aesthetic flow that she likes," her publicist, Tracey Miller, said.)
The 25-year-old who has drawn comparisons to Roberta Flack, Tracy Chapman and Bill Withers was wide awake when she got the inspiration for "Video," the album's lead single, which is at #23 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart. She said she wrote the hook while hanging out with some male friends who were gawking over women in a music video. The song went through several versions before it wound up as the upbeat, bluesy/pop number it is now.
"I had written the song several times, but sometimes it was kinda sad or it was kinda angry," she said. "I wanted it to be lighthearted and to say what I really meant, which is that there's beauty in diversity, and that's fine."
Arie said the song is reflective of her childhood in Denver, a predominantly white city, where she said she felt "different" but "free."
"[Growing up there] kind of allowed me to just be as different as I wanted to be," she said. "I was like, 'Well, I'm different anyway. I'm gonna wear this, I'm gonna say that, I'm gonna do my hair like this.' All I ever did was play music. ... I stayed at home and played music."
Arie looks back on her childhood fondly. "I really did have a very interesting and free childhood, where I could do whatever I wanted. I was like, 'I want a piano,' and my parents saw that I really wanted to do music, and they got me a piano. 'I want a saxophone,' and they got it. I didn't have anybody telling me, 'You should go outside,' or 'You shouldn't do this' or 'You should do that.' ... I'm thankful for my childhood."
Arie said she had to muster up the courage to sing the sensual "BrownSkin," which tastefully explores intimacy between two black people, for her mother.
"That's just my way of declaring my adulthood," she said, "because before, when I started working on my album, there were a lot of things that I didn't know about myself."
Arie said she felt more comfortable with "BrownSkin" once she felt more comfortable with herself.
"In an artistic way I took myself so seriously, and I didn't know I was doing that. I was like, 'I'm not gonna sing about that; I'm not gonna use no programmed drums. I'm not gonna talk about this or act this way.' ... But the more I learned about myself, the more I learned about people in general, the more I learned about how the universe works, the more I understand it's where you come from, it's the sincerity that will always come across.
"I can sing about that and still feel like I'm being respectful and feel like I'm on my road and walking straight to where I'm supposed to be going," she continued. "It's just like a declaration of womanhood."
Other standouts on Acoustic Soul are "Promises," which, along with the semi-autobiographical "Back to the Middle," showcases Arie's storytelling skills; "Part of My Life" and "Ready for Love," the album's love songs; and "Always in My Head."
"I had a dream about ['Always in My Head']," Arie said, "where Bonnie Raitt was talking to me about relationships and how you don't have to pretend; you don't have to talk that baby talk; you can look him in the eye and say, 'What's wrong?' That's what she was saying in my dream, and then I woke up. I was half-asleep and half-awake, and I heard different lines and I was just writing them down. My first thought when I woke up was, 'Man, I wish I wrote that.' Then I realized, 'That was me, that was me,' then I wrote it down and turned it into a song a year later."
Anasa Troutman head of Atlanta's independent Earthseed label and Groovement, a management company for neo-soul and alternative artists has worked with Arie for about five years. (Earthseed put out a compilation featuring Arie in 1997). She said she's not surprised that Arie, who has a strong following in and around Atlanta, is being embraced nationally.
"The response has been really wonderful, and the thing is that it's equally exciting for men and women," Troutman said. "A lot of people thought that she was just going to be embraced by a lot of women because of the song 'Video.' Women will come up to her and say, 'Oh my God, I love you. I have a daughter and she's 8, and she knows all the words to your songs,' but men come up to her and say the same thing."