(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, GRAMMY.com has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various individuals who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)
Since releasing her GRAMMY-nominated debut album, 2001's Acoustic Soul, India.Arie has made a career of creating music that is thoughtful, soulful and intriguingly hard to categorize. So it makes sense that the four-time GRAMMY winner has genre-hopping tastes when it come to her songs, ranging from the airy pop of Christopher Cross' "Sailing" and the rousing cry of Bob Marley & The Wailers' "Get Up, Stand Up," to the aching intimacy of Bonnie Raitt's "Nick Of Time."
"My favorite songs always have a musical and an emotional honesty to them, and all my favorite musicians write songs that sound like they're straight from the heart," India.Arie explains. "The song might make you think, or dance, or cry, or all three at once. But you feel something."
India.Arie's fifth studio album, 2013's SongVersation, reveals how her GRAMMY Hall Of Fame selections have influenced her music.
"I understand now that my heroes are people who tell the truth, and when I think of the honesty of all the artists I chose, it reminds me that they really did pave the way for me to be able to say anything I want to say in a song."
Here's a look at the five GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have inspired India.Arie to be a fearless singer/songwriter.
"Fire And Rain"
Warner Bros. (1970)
"I don't remember ever not hearing James Taylor. That's the thing about this song and his music — it's brought me comfort all my life. The song is so warm with slightly dark edges to it. It's one of my favorites because it makes me feel a way that I have recognized all my life. His voice has a special sound; his guitar playing has a special sound; his writing has a special signature; it's heaven for a music lover. He's a blueprint for a great musician.
"I'm still a huge fan. I went to see him in Atlanta and I couldn't sit down and couldn't stop moving to the music. I got a picture of him giving me a hug backstage and that was my social network avatar for a long time."
"[Joni Mitchell's] who I always wanted to be as an artist. Well actually, I wanted to be James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder rolled into one. But I think Blue is the best album ever recorded. I listen to it — on vinyl — every year on my birthday. It really speaks to me. The songs are beautiful stories with incredible emotional depth, and the production is really what I always wanted to sound like. Joni Mitchell's been a personal influence as an artist and as a person, particularly in her fearlessness.
"When she started out she had blonde hair and freckles, but that's not who she was, and that's not how she asked to be seen. She was a fire and she was going to burn her own way. [There's] so much beauty and strength in this album, and in everything she's done. I identify with the lyrics and the singing and the playing on Blue — but I also chose it because Joni Mitchell's one of my favorite people. She's always been willing to be real."
Songs In The Key Of Life
"This album feels like family. My mother's from Michigan, and at one point Motown wanted to sign her, so she's really cut from the same cloth as Stevie. When I hear his style of singing and that energy — I know that. That's my culture. Stevie Wonder's music belongs to everybody, but I feel personally connected to it. And I don't want to sound trite, but I always felt like he was singing directly to me. When I was 3 and heard 'Isn't She Lovely,' I just knew he was talking to me. I just understood that right away. It felt like he was 'Uncle Stevie,' singing a song for me.
"When I got older and began to mature as a musician, I really heard just how good his songs were. It wasn't just 'Uncle Stevie' — it was brilliant musicianship and songwriting and production. This was an album that helped me become very clear about the kind of musician I wanted to be. I wanted to create music that made you feel the way his songs made you feel. There's a message — but you still feel like jammin'."
"Killing Me Softly With His Song"
"I love Roberta Flack so much. She's another artist whose music always felt like it was part of my family. I heard her sing and it was, 'She's my Auntie Roberta.' She has something so special in her voice — something quintessentially maternal. She's the person you want to have singing you your lullabies.
"When I first started having some success as an artist I was being asked who I'd like to sing with. I got to do a cable TV special and had Roberta Flack as my special guest and we sang 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' as a duet. She was so humble — she really wanted to know why I picked her to perform. I couldn't come up with much of an answer because I couldn't even imagine that Roberta Flack would be asking me that question. What do you mean, 'Why you?' Because you're you.
"She's an expert musician and performer, and as a person she's always so nurturing and so insightful. I'm very lucky that an artist capable of this kind of greatness has also become a great friend and supporter of mine."
"I Loves You, Porgy"
"As a kid I knew who Nina Simone was because my parents had a big vinyl collection. But I was probably 20 when I first heard "I Loves You, Porgy," and I remember being struck by how emotional it was. The depth of the emotion almost scared me. Her voice and the way she sang was so intense, and she was just killing the piano. I hadn't heard anybody play like that before. It was scary, but it also intrigued me enough that I wanted to listen to it over and over.
"When I first stepped into the public eye and had people I didn't know talking about me, I started to really become aware of how people saw me, and how they described my music, and I quickly learned how hard you have to fight to be the kind of artist you want to be. I developed a new admiration for Nina Simone. I felt connected to her and understood how much a child of her legacy I am. I do have a lot to thank her for musically, but I didn't understand that until I was much older."
(India.Arie won her first two GRAMMYs in 2002 for Best R&B Album for Voyage To India and Best Urban/Alternative Performance for "Little Things," which is featured on the Top 10 album. Her most recent album, 2013's SongVersation, features 17 tracks and peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200.)
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)