Lessons in love

India.Arie shares them on her latest CD — and finds strength and renewal in keeping an optimistic outlook, even in the face of a painful breakup.

By Naila Francis

India.Arie is an unabashed romantic.

The soulful singer-songwriter known for her empowering songs of positive affirmation and honest self-examination admits as much in the liner notes of her latest CD, “Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship.”

And those who have followed her career from her celebrated debut, 2001’s “Acoustic Soul” — which broke her as a bold new artist unafraid to channel her faith, sensitivity and optimism into a fresh sound that transcended the genres of hip-hop, rhythm and blues, pop and folk — know it, too. India, after all, was the woman who requested with tender urgency a relationship with an artistic and spiritually conscious partner on the track “Ready for Love,” off her debut. She joyously declared that love on songs like “Simple,” and on “Voyage to India,” her Grammy-winning sophomore disc, waxed poetically about its headiness and constant gift of revelation on songs like “Beautiful Surprise,” “The Truth” and “Complicated Melody.”

And while the romantic in India is still very much alive and open to love’s possibilities, with her latest disc, the Atlanta songstress, who performs Friday at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, is coming to terms with the fading luster of fairytale romance. “Testimony” is by her own admission a breakup album, written in the aftermath of a devastating split from a love she imagined would be her last.

“Before you fall in love, you think it’s going to be like it was in a song or in a movie,” she says. “I was alarmingly old to believe in happily ever after. I really thought happily ever after existed. I didn’t know that love didn’t make relationships last.”

But as would be expected, rather than wallow in the bitterness and pain of her loss, the 30-year-old singer spent the years following the breakup working on her own healing and trying to unearth the lessons from her relationship’s demise. “Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship” is the culmination of that journey — a radiant and moving cycle of songs that sifts through the sorrow and heartache of losing in love to find triumph in forgiveness, acceptance, appreciation for what was shared and a resolve to love again, wholeheartedly, if only from a more seasoned perspective.The disc is a deeply personal reflection on a letting go that sometimes seems too gentle to believe.

But with almost four years in between this album and “Voyage to India,” the singer — named India as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi whose birthday matched her due date — says that what listeners don’t hear is the process it took to get to the point where she could share her experiences from a more enlightened place. They also don’t hear the songs, deliberately excluded, that made her cry while recording them.

“I think one of the things I did that’s more rare is I took a lot of time to create my album,” says India. “I had the flexibility to take a long time to just rest, heal, think about everything and really dig deep and find out what the truth was for me, and this album is what truth is for me. If I would’ve written it the first month after I broke up with this person, I would have been angry.

“But this really was more about me and my capacity for forgiveness and my capacity for love and growing into a woman — and that’s my truth.”

With delicate piano interludes — titled “Loving,” “Living” and “Learning” — woven throughout the album’s songs, forgiveness is a recurring theme, with India adding a buttery warmth to a cover of Don Henley’s “Heart of the Matter” and celebrating the freedom of pardoning those who hurt us in her own stirring entreaty, “Wings of Forgiveness.” And while she sings, too, of celebrating inner beauty, womanhood and our shared humanity in songs like “Private Party,” “Hope” and “I Am Not My Hair” — a sultry hip-hop-fueled declaration that picks off where her very first single, “Video,” left off in 2001 — it is her guileless meditations on the benefits of forgiveness that has some dismissing her as an idealistic preacher of saccharine inspiration.

But India, who professes to come from a line of strong, compassionate and humanitarian women, is simply sharing what works for her and what she knows to be personally liberating.

“I actually think it’s a place that is harder to attain but I don’t think it’s unrealistic,” she says of embracing forgiveness. “I think it’s less common but I had the leisure and the pleasure to just be at home and cry for years and talk to all kinds of different people about relationships and write in my journal and pray and meditate. So I’m not trying to look at the world through rose-colored glasses. With this album, there’s a lot of love in it, but I’m still saying goodbye.

“I just feel like, for me, you can love a person and still know that they’re not right for you. I think that’s one of my biggest lessons in my life. When I found that out, then I could have a more grounded approach to relationships and not be attached to a certain outcome.

“I’m actually much more of a romantic because I don’t think happily ever after means perfect — there’s still that dance that men and women will always do — but it’s about living in the moment and that’s one of the key components to being in a relationship.”

So, too, she has learned, is being responsible for her own feelings and actions.

“If we find someone that we can spend a lot of our life or a big portion of our life with, that’s a blessing,” says India. “But you don’t put your heart into another person’s hands and then ask them to take care of it. You just know you’re going to do the best you can, they’ll do the best they can when things happen, and you just make a commitment to not let those ups and downs be the end of you.”

Her 96-year-old grandmother, she notes, has been one of her greatest teachers.

“You have to give up the need to be right. That’s really what makes it hard, if the other person doesn’t say: ‘You were right, I’m wrong.’ My grandmother told me that and I think she would know after being married for 75 years,” says India, who as a U.S. Ambassador for UNICEF is devoted to several philanthropic causes worldwide, including the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

“It’s also OK to forgive as much as you can because there’s no song on that album where I say: ‘I got it. I forgive you completely, totally. I don’t know what I was thinking. You were perfect. I’m perfect.’

“I think it’s important to know you can forgive as much as you can that day, as much as you can in that moment. That’s what I did over the last few years. Any part that I couldn’t do, I didn’t beat myself up about it.”

She admits there was a time when she worried that audiences would not embrace her deeper vulnerability — which she exposes on the aching but ultimately uplifting “This Too Shall Pass,” the hidden track with a gospel sweep that closes out “Testimony.”

“I felt like I didn’t want to let my fans down,” says India. “But several people actually said to me that a lot of people who listen to my music listen to what I’m going to say next. They’re not waiting for me to say something happy.”

And so she recorded an album that not only speaks to her truth lyrically but sonically as well, with guest appearances by artists like Bonnie Raitt on the funky jam “I Choose” and the Rascal Flatts’ Gary Lenox on “Summer,” a jaunty country tune that feels as breezy as its title.

“I did everything regardless of whether it was going to work or not — pop music, country music, acoustic music, vocal music, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt — I did what I wanted to do. That’s why it’s poetic justice that the album debuted at No. 1,” says India, of her crowning debut on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart last June. “I’m not trying to put myself on a pedestal. This is my offering. Whoever it speaks to it, it does. Whoever it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

– The Intelligencer


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