Photo: Recording Academy
Watch: Ashanti Talks "Getting Back To R&B Roots" On New EP | Up Close & Personal
GRAMMY-winning R&B songstress Ashanti was just 21 when she released her debut, No. 1 hit single "Foolish" in 2002, and she's been unforgettable ever since. The sultry, can't-help-but-sing-along bop served as the lead single for her powerful self-titled debut studio album, which earned the emerging star a GRAMMY for Best Contemporary R&B Album at the 45th GRAMMY Awards.
Fast forward to 2014, when Ashanti released her fifth studio album, Braveheart, her first release on her own label, Written Entertainment, which she launched in 2011. Now, 18 years since she first rocked our worlds with her fire feature on Ja Rule's "Always On Time," Ashanti is still ready to serve up more.
For the latest episode of the Recording Academy's Up Close & Personal video series, we sat down with the stylish New Yorker to learn more about her next project, what that first rush of success felt like for her, going independent and more. You can watch a portion of the conversation above and read the full interview below. You can also visit on our YouTube page for a longer version of the video, as well as for other recent episodes.
So you recently dropped "Pretty Little Thing" featuring Afro B, along with the music video with so many fierce looks. Can you tell us a bit about that song and maybe your favorite look from the video?
Thank you! My new single, "Pretty Little Thing," that I did with Afro B was such an awesome experience. I shot the video in the Keys in Miami and it was so cool because the reason that I did the song was I just dropped a collab swimsuit line with PrettyLittleThing, and it just made so much sense. You know, how music goes with fashion, and I said, "Hey, we need a new record. Let's put it in the campaign." So we shot a video, we shot a commercial and the synergy was just amazing. It all came out so organic and the vibe of the song matched the line. It's Afrobeats and the vibe of the swimsuit line is very exotic and global, and very island-y. Everything had an amazing synergy, so I was really excited.
One of my favorite looks from the video; [pauses] there was a really cute looks! I like my look with the horse and the braids and the one with the zebra/snake print chaps. My sister actually designed the collection, and we had the bathing suit and we were sitting on Jeeps with the same print.
Earlier in the summer you released another upbeat jam, "The Road," with Machel Montano. Where was that video shot? Was it as fun as it looked?
It was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. I actually went out to do Machel Monday and Carnival in Trinidad, which was my first time, and it was life-changing. I had so much fun, I don't think I've ever partied like that in all my years. [Laughs.] It was an amazing, amazing experience and I just found a new found respect for soca music.
I had a show in Trinidad a few years ago and we did a remix to one of the biggest [soca] records, which was one of Machel's, "Like Ah Boss." We went back and forth on Instagram and he's like, "Much respect. Thank you for showing so much love. We need to do something together." Fast forward, that turned into a FaceTime call and then a studio session. And then we recorded this awesome record and then we performed it for Carnival and Machel Monday. We actually shot the video with Director X in Trinidad while Carnival was going on. So those were real moments, that wasn't scripted. The beach part, yes, but the stuff on the road was all organic. It was really cool.
I know a lot of your fans are hoping this new music points to a new album. Can you tell us anything about what's happening on your next project?
I'm very excited to be releasing more music. I think just for me, I'm at a point where I want to try different things. I love Afrobeats, I love reggae music, I love soca music. And as an artist, you want to fulfill your creative energy, you know? But I'm definitely getting back to my R&B roots. [Laughs.]
I'm very, very excited about the new EP, I'm working on it with Metro Boomin. We have some amazing records I'm very, very excited about it. Some amazing other producers and some writers and I'm just really excited about the new sound. You know, there are a couple of things that I'm talking about that I've never talked about before. And some people are going to be like, "Oh my gosh, did she say that?" I'm excited about it.
Recently there's also been some talk about a The Inc. Reunion tour maybe happening in the future. Would that be something that like you'd want to be a part of?
I know that there's been some talks about it. I'm not really sure what's going on right now, but we'll see. [Laughs.]
In 2011, you started Written Entertainment and went independent, which is super cool. I'm curious what that transition meant to you?
What led me to go independent? I had offers from seven majors at one time and it was really hard to sit, you know, me being Libra, and be like, "Okay, what should I do? Where should I go? I don't know what to do." And at that time the labels were offering 360 deals, and I'm just not a fan of that, that's not my thing. So I made the very bold decision and scary decision to go independent.
And just as an artist, that has had success—I'm very humble—and I've had relationships to be able to make phone calls and, you know, strengthen my partnership with iTunes/Apple and things like that. So I think it's beneficial when you own your masters. It's a digital world, you know, at the touch of a button you can expose your music to millions of people.
So I think just learning to trust myself, learning to be motivated to say, "Hey, your future is in your hands and your destiny," is really important. You have to kind of be in the driver's seat and know what's going on. It's very hard being the executive and the artist.
I feel like at some points I would be in the studio and I'm like, "I want to stay in here all night. You know, I want to record for five days." And the other side of me is like, "Yeah, but who's going to pay that bill?" So you have to be like the exec and the artist and still be creative, you know? So I think it was a really great decision now and I had so many of my peers calling me like, "I should have did that when you did it and I'm doing it now."
And then when you were 21, your first single "Foolish," along with your features with Ja Rule and Fat Joe, were huge hits. What did that initial success feel like for you?
The initial success of "Foolish," "Always On Time" and "What's Love?" was just really weird for me because I didn't know. I would always ask like, "Is this good, guys? Are we doing good?" I really didn't understand it. And it's weird because I'm a humble person, and even back then I was a little naive, you know. We were making history and we were on the top of the charts and everyone around me, all the guys are like, "Yeah!" and I'm like, "Oh, so this is a good thing."
So it feels good to later understand how much it meant and how pivotal it would be in my career, even now. You know, to be there and performing these same records and getting the same exact reaction, you know, years later from younger crowds, you know? So it's really, really, really a blessing and it just goes to show you, like, when you're working hard and you're creating meaningful music, that stands the test of time.
Yes, they still hit hard.
They still rocking, baby! [Grins.]
As you've navigated the music industry, who have been your biggest mentors and role models?
I'm just a huge advocate of women empowerment. Just being a young female in this very male-dominated industry it's just so hard sometimes to garner that same respect. And still respect yourself and go in and be focused on music and not be distracted by other things going on.
My mom has been a huge inspiration to me. It's weird because I grew up watching her in a business suit, with a briefcase, going to work and it was very different from what I'm doing in my career. So I think the path is just being a very powerful, strong woman going into the workforce. And that's kind of the same mentality that I have. I have been inspired by women before me to open up the doors.
That's awesome. What would be your piece of advice for a young person that's trying to get into music and not really sure where to start?
I would say, it's way easier now than it was for me. You know, you can upload yourself on YouTube and end up on "Ellen" or "The Voice" or and all these other shows that are kind of catalysts. I think you have to be very determined, I think you have to be motivated, you have to have a thick skin and you have to have an incredible drive. Not everyone is going to like you. You're definitely going to get rejected before you get accepted, and as long as you're able to maintain your expectations, you should be okay.