Solange: Hot On Her Heels (2013 Cover Story)

Solange knows that reaching the top isn't as important as enjoying the ride. We talk to the generational superstar about her rise to the top.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

complexsolange16 cover story

Solange knows that reaching the top isn’t as important as enjoying the ride.

This feature appears in Complex’s June/July 2013 issue.

Kinetic energy hums through the Museum of Modern Art’s sprawling lobby in midtown Manhattan, packed for the annual Armory Party benefit gala on the first Wednesday in March. Jessica Biel and Melanie Fiona are here, along with fashionistas Alexa Chung and Harley Viera-Newton; the latter, a DJ signed to Roc Nation, warms up the artsy crowd as drinks flow. Partygoers loom by the stage in anticipation of a live performance by Solange, the younger Knowles sister who went indie in 2009 and emerged with some of the best music of her career on her latest EP, True.

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Backstage, Solange’s drummer realizes that he left the pants he was supposed to wear tonight at home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s close to showtime but the star of the evening keeps her cool as others start to scurry. Having started training as a backup dancer with Destiny’s Child at age 13, she’s not easily rattled. “I try to transition my energy into just having fun,” says Solange, now 26. When she arrived for sound check earlier in the day, she was pleased to see that the Confetti System-designed stage set matched her Vika Gazinskaya outfit, a metallic skirt and black turtleneck with a white cloud floating across her chest.

From the atrium balcony overlooking the stage, Solange’s mom, Tina Knowles, clad in tight all-black-leather everything, stands alongside Solange’s boyfriend, music video director Alan Ferguson, and snaps a photo of the crowd below. Behind the scenes, Solange and her band, including the British producer/co-writer/guitarist Devonté Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, gather in a cipher and chant in unison: “LET’S HAVE FUN!”

“Hopefully everyone’s had a little Champagne,” Solange quips to the crowd as she takes the MoMA stage. Her band starts breezing through tracks from True, seven slices of sultry funk pop—think “Paisley Park” meets Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—released last November on the Brooklyn-based indie label Terrible Records. Surrounded by orchid light, she glides into the churning groove of “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work.” Then she launches into the EP’s forlorn standout, “Bad Girls,” singing, “And still I try to pull you into my own hurricane/It’s like you spot me trying from a thousand miles away.”

Toward the end of the set, as Solange performs the single “Losing You,” the crowd realizes that Beyoncé and Jay-Z are in the balcony, behind Tina Knowles. For a moment, it seems as if the audience may turn away from the stage. With her head down, Beyoncé shakes her blond locks along with her sister’s tune, snatching the spotlight even as she crouches to conceal her presence. Below, Hynes and Solange shimmy in unison, glowing, grooving, and having a great time.

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A week and a half after Solange’s MoMA performance, Beyoncé drops a new single on her Tumblr page, “Bow Down,” a Hit-Boy–produced anthem that stirs up controversy for being so big on bravado. The single’s artwork features Mrs. Carter as a young girl surrounded by trophies.

When she was about the same age as her older sister in that photo, Solange was racking up more insults than accolades. One day, she wore a “full-on Native American outfit” to Will Rogers Elementary School in Houston. “I had my own little quirks as a child,” Solange says. “I had a very vivid imagination, mostly through my style and fashion choices. The kids had a lot to say.” Her fourth-grade teacher, Miss Bethann, found Solange on the verge of tears in her Pocahontas costume outside of the classroom and gave her a lesson that stuck with her: “Don’t you ever, ever bend or break because of who you are.”

“From that point,” Solange says, “the idea of convention versus non-convention or mainstream versus indie or any of those quote-unquote ‘conflicts’ has never crossed my mind.” Her cutting-edge taste and eclectic style are reflected in Solange’s circle of friends, from the crew of girls she grew up with to fellow indie acts like Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, and Oliver Sim from the xx. Her friend Jay Electronica, who met Solange during “the great Twitter boom of 2009,” as he calls it, admires Solange’s self-awareness. “She’s a beautiful person and open and she seems unafraid to be herself.”

“I call her Hollyhood,” he adds. “You can ask her why.”

In 2003, when she was 15 years old, Solange released her solo debut, Solo Star, a teen pop collection that failed to take off. Two years later, she married her childhood sweetheart, Daniel Smith. The two met at a party when Solange was 13 and had been an on-again-off-again item ever since. Shortly after tying the knot, Solange’s husband transferred to the University of Idaho to finish college, and the couple moved to the boondocks with their newborn son, Juelz. Lonely and isolated, Solange discovered a state-of-the-art recording studio at nearby Washington State University, where she began writing her second album, the retro-tinged Sol Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams. During that time, she also penned two hits for her sister, “Upgrade U” and “Get Me Bodied.”

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Then came what Solange calls her “Houston days.” At 20, she moved back home after splitting with her husband and “wil’ed out for a little while,” she says, finally breaking free from the confines of her teenage years. “Houston’s hip-hop scene was in the forefront,” Solange recalls. “I remember going to all of these shows: Paul Wall, Bun B, Mike Jones, Slim Thug. I enjoyed the freedom and the newness of experiencing people and a world that I had not had much access to.” After that first taste of liberation, Solange was hooked. Upon the release of Sol Angel in 2008, she reached a breaking point with her label, Interscope-Geffen-A&M.

“I wanted to make all of the creative artistic decisions but I wasn’t the one paying for it. And they didn’t fully trust me to make them,” she says. “Every decision was a battle. It was exhausting. I wanted to be in a position where not only was the music fully my body of work, but everything thereafter was also my body of work. I knew that meant I had to leave and that I had to struggle.” She split with the label and later that year leaked a song called “Fuck the Industry (Signed Sincerely).” 

“There’s a difference between being an artist and being a performer,” says Solange’s friend Janelle Monáe. She met Solange at the BET Awards and later introduced her to Ferguson in the editing room while he was cutting Monáe’s “Many Moons” video. “We both love telling the truth from our own mouths and being in control of what we do,” Monáe says. “That’s an artist’s job—paint the painting that you’re selling.”

Being indie has taken its toll, but Solange seems to embrace the challenge. She explains how she pooled her own frequent-flier miles with her mom’s to fly a crew to Cape Town, South Africa, to shoot the “Losing You” video. “It’s an independent label, so with that creative independence comes some financial independence,” she says, laughing. “I had to get very creative with how I was gonna pull it all together. Having an intimate team makes you much more resourceful. It comes out the way you want it to, and there’s not a committee of thinkers and observers.”

Solange prefers to handpick her fellow voyagers. In the summer of 2009, she and the Brooklyn rock band Grizzly Bear connected via Twitter and planned to meet in person in Osaka, Japan, during the Summer Sonic Festival, where they were both performing. They soon became fast friends. Solange later brought Beyoncé and Jay-Z to a Grizzly Bear show at McCarren Park in Williamsburg. “Regardless of her sister or her family,” says Ed Droste, the band’s lead singer, “it’s apparent that her identity is not a response to trying to step away from someone else’s fame. It’s genuinely her. She follows her visions as they come.”

“I have a mother who never took no for an answer when it came to her creative pursuits,” Solange says. “She started a hair salon in her spare bedroom and four years later had 30 employees. I have a father who was the first black student at his junior high and high school and had to do a lot to get to that point. So it’s really in my bloodline when it comes to having an idea and making it happen.”

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Dev Hynes sits in an East Village Starbucks scribbling in a notebook with Rihanna’s Unapologetic logo imprinted on the cover. “I’m making a list of songs that I’ve written lately that: a) I like, b) I would like to finish, and c) need something done to them,” he explains. Hynes, who’s written with The Chemical Brothers, Florence and the Machine, and Sky Ferreira, says that he was brutally bullied for being an outcast while growing up in England. “I’m fucking lucky that I escaped Essex and I’m somehow living in New York,” the 27-year-old says. “If things were going well and I was older, then I’d be okay. But I feel like I still have time to severely fuck things up.”

Back in 2010, the emerging songwriter and producer met Solange in L.A. while collaborating on Theophilus London’s “Flying Overseas.” Solange had been enjoying her time away from the recording studio DJing at various parties, and found herself gravitating toward ’80s jams ranging from S.O.S. Band to Chaka Khan to Ready for the World and Control-era Janet Jackson. She was looking to develop her artistry with a producer à la Missy and Timbaland with Aaliyah or Amerie with Rich Harrison. “When you think back in history about producers and artists or writers who’ve had good synergy, a lot of times they date or they’re married or there’s a friendship and a kinship,” she says. “I was looking for it.”

For Solange and Hynes, the connection began when she invited him to a session at a house she’d rented in Santa Barbara, CA. “The song that was a real catalyst to it all is ‘Don’t Let Me Down,’” Hynes recalls. “It has weird vocal parts that we do back and forth, like these ‘Oh’s’ that keep happening. It was literally just us passing the mic, and it was very smooth and organic,” Hynes says. “That song was pretty much finished then. After that, she asked if I wanted to be the producer.”

“I was trying to find that chemistry with different producers, and when Dev came it was like, ‘Oh! This is it,’” Solange says over lunch at Madiba restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where she nibbles on lobster tail and saffron rice. “‘Don’t Let Me Down’ is one of the most personal songs on the record. I’m saying, ‘This is amazing, I’m enjoying it but I’m a little scared that something fucked up is gonna happen.’ I’ve been in a relationship for four-and-a-half years now, but you still have those moments. In any relationship there’s gonna be conflict. Before Dev came along, I wrote all these happy, settled love songs, which was very difficult. It’s weird how, as writers, we draw more from conflict than peace. When Dev came onto the project, he was going through a breakup and it sparked something in me. Which is something I have to explore. I’m like, ‘Why is it so easy to draw from that?’”

The pair spent the next year living together, writing and recording songs and making what felt like magic, resulting in the seven tracks on True. “We were either staying in a rented house or he was staying with me, my boyfriend, and my son. Everything that happened on this record was literally waking up, him usually before me, going and creating the bones to the track and then me rolling over and hearing it while I’m fixing breakfast. When you’re making music like that, where it’s a natural extension of your day, it’s so much more enjoyable,” Solange says. “I remember being in writing sessions and having to put disclaimers out every time I was about to share something. You need to be in a space where you can just say, ‘All right. This is what I’m feeling.’”

A Buddhist proverb proclaims that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Cee-Lo delivered this message to Solange a few years earlier while collaborating on “Sandcastle Disco” for her sophomore album. Solange and Cee-Lo were scheduled to work in a Miami studio. “The first day it was a chill-out zone,” Solange recalls. “The second day it was a chill-out zone. The third day I’m like, ‘Okay, when are we going to work?’

“He said, ‘I cannot work like an assembly line,’” Solange remembers. “‘We can’t put this with that and just click it in place and it’s just gonna work. We gotta talk. We gotta vibe. We gotta see what’s up with each other before we can open ourselves up to sharing these ideas and intimate moments.’”

“At that time, I didn’t get it,” Solange says. “’Cause I was like, This is costing a lot of money.” She laughs at the memory. “That has stuck with me. ‘This can’t be like a factory.’ If there’s seven days, he felt like we needed those three days first.

“For me and Dev it was different because from day one, we just kind of—” she snaps her fingers.

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Cee-Lo said, ‘I cannot work like an assembly line,’ Solange remembers. ‘We can’t put this with that and just click it in place and it’s just gonna work. We gotta talk. We gotta vibe. We gotta see what’s up with each other before we can open ourselves up to sharing these ideas and intimate moments.’

Sitting by the window at Madiba, Solange is sporting clouds again, this time on a baby-blue button-up. She lives in nearby Carroll Gardens, a low-key neighborhood a few blocks from the Gowanus Canal. Sipping a Tusker beer, she says that she and Hynes were “on a clean and sober goal” after drinking and smoking too much while touring in Europe. She broke at SXSW after 21 days. Hynes is still going strong on the cleanse, aiming for 100 days.

“When I’m home, I’m just straight mommin’ it,” Solange says of life in Brooklyn, which revolves around 8-year-old Juelz. “School runs, play dates, soccer games, etc. You have to constantly fight for that balance and now I kinda got it under control.” After a hectic few weeks on tour, she’s looking forward to leaving town with Juelz later today for a two-week vacation—a week in L.A. and a week in New Orleans, where she feels very, very at home. “I go to crazy bounce clubs,” she says. “I eat crazy po’ boys, drink daiquiris. I ride my bike a lot.”

New Orleans native Jay Electronica connected Solange with one of his hometown friends to show her around and was impressed with her down-to-earth personality and overall gratitude. “Most times in the industry, a person usually won’t get that energy from an artist,” Jay says. “If they do, it’s only for as long as some service is being provided or some need is being fulfilled. And once that part is over, the other person ceases to exist in the same universe. But not with her.”

Says Solange of the friendship: “In the beginning he was shocked at how much I knew about certain Southern cultural aspects like bounce music and Southern hip-hop.

“He says I have this best-of-both-worlds, hood-and-Hollywood vibe about me. I’m assuming that’s where ‘Hollyhood’ came from,” she says, laughing. “But only he would know what he really means.”

Solange has been mapping out the plans for her “Lovers in the Parking Lot” video, which she’s determined to shoot in the actual parking lot of her childhood hangout, King’s Flea Market in Houston, despite others trying to convince her to shoot it on a set in L.A. She refuses to bend or break—not because her fourth-grade teacher told her, but because it wouldn’t be authentic.

“Someone asked me, ‘What quarter are you trying to come out?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t heard that in so long!’” Solange cracks up at the thought. She says she’s looking forward to working on her full-length album with Hynes, but isn’t pressed. “It’s just about putting the music out when it’s ready. When I wake up in the morning, I get dressed for myself, I listen to what I wanna listen to, I make decisions for me. It’s been interesting to navigate that from such a young age so publicly. But life is short and you have to live for you. I would never wanna look back on my life and feel like I missed out on any of that.”

ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) Peju Famojure. (PROP STYLING) Robert Sumrell. (HAIR) Nikki Nelms. (MAKEUP) Munemi Imai. (MANICURIST) Gina Edwards. (CLOTHING) OPENING SPREAD: Top by Amaya Arzuaga / Shorts by Gottex / Shoes by Christian Louboutin. NEXT SPREAD: Swimsuit by Eres / Shoes by Christian Louboutin. PREVIOUS SPREAD: Swimsuit by Gottex / Shoes by Christian Louboutin

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