Poet, teaching artist and singer Jamila Woods has lent her stunning voice to songs by Chance the Rapper and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and this month she’s stepped out on her own with her solo debut, Heavn. This week she appears on RBMA Radio’s local Chicago spotlight show, The Deepest Dish. In this excerpt from her interview with host Leor Galil, she talks about the impact of the church on her music and her hope for a time when it seems normal to walk into a studio with women in production and engineering roles.
Listen to The Deepest Dish on RBMA Radio every third Wednesday of the month at 11 AM EDT.
Heavn is your first solo album. Tell me a little bit about it.
Heavn is basically all of the music that I’ve been writing since my band and I went our separate ways. It’s been about a year of writing music and figuring out my sound as a solo artist. It’s really inspired by my time in Chicago, especially on the South Side and just what it means to be a black girl. Also, just what it means to aspire to be happy or loving where you come from but also seeing the ways that it needs to change. I grew up in church, and so heaven is this aspirational place that is always talked about. It’s about how I can manifest a version of heaven here in my current life, personally and with my community.
You spell heaven without the “e.” Is there a particular reason for that?
I think similar to the way I spell black B-L-K, that comes from one of my poetry mentors. His name’s Avery R. Young and he always spelled black that way. I think it was a way of renaming and reclaiming his identity and our identity as black people. I think, for me, heaven was a similar thing. It was reclaiming the notion of heaven. I don’t know. I imagine if I grabbed the word I would squeeze it so hard that maybe the E would pop out. For me, it just made more sense to adjust it since I’m adjusting the meaning in my work.
You celebrated the release for the album at Double Door and it was... I haven’t been to a show like that. Why don’t you explain it for folks that weren’t there?
Yeah, so I wanted it to be an indoor music festival – a bizarre, really feel-good, summer barbecue. An artist I really love, who’s a singer, who also makes amazing food, she was selling her homemade vegan soul food. There were all women vendors, mostly women of color, selling their goods and it was jewelry and art and all of these things. I just really wanted it to be a place where it could celebrate women and black women and have everyone feel really beautiful and really accepted.
I’ve built amazing relationships, but I’m also interested in seeing what would it even feel like to walk into a studio where it’s all women and that’s normal.
The themes and your voice ties the album all together. It’s a tremendous voice. At what point did you realize, “This is my singing voice, this is who I am”?
I think, honestly, I’m still discovering my voice and what I want to do with it. Starting my band was when I learned a lot about recording. I always loved layering my voice. When I was in a cappella in college, I would arrange songs on GarageBand and sing everyone’s parts, and developed a love for hearing how, with janky GarageBand Auto-Tune, I could make my mini-productions.
There’s one song on the album that I kept my GarageBand vocals, because there’s something about being in my bedroom, laying on my stomach on my bed singing into it... It has a sound that can’t really be recreated. I think this album has allowed me to really explore those weird things. When I listen to music, I always gravitate towards that weird moment on a track.
One of the songs that really inspires me is “Les Fleurs” by Minnie Riperton. There’s this one moment in the song where she literally starts singing gibberish words. That was really inspiring to me, because I feel like there’s a lot of times where I’ll start writing something based on a melody, but there won’t actually be words there. I embrace those things. I don’t feel like I have to follow a cookie cutter pattern of what a song is.
You’re putting out this album through the Chicago label Closed Sessions. What attracted you to them?
I think it was just thinking about it in a community-oriented way. I don’t think I wanted a record deal, per se, but I knew I wanted to integrate myself more into the Chicago music community. I think with my band, we didn’t really get to integrate ourselves into this scene as much as we could have. So I wanted to connect with people, and see what other people were building.
Also, it provides another example of someone who can be on their label, because I have students who are young women or just singers. Maybe they think, “Jamila is there, maybe I can be there.” They wouldn’t have thought that before. That’s really important to me.
Tell me more about the title track of the album. I’m curious about why you referenced The Cure there.
When I teach poetry, we read a poem, and then maybe we borrow the first line of that poem in order to create a new poem, and there’s a prompt, and people write off of that. When I have writer’s block with songwriting, I try to treat myself as a student, and give myself a prompt. I gave myself a prompt to write about my idea of heaven, basically, using The Cure song as the first line.
I’m always thinking about the myths that go along with my history, and the history of slavery in America, and black people, and how black people got here, and how there’s all these myths and stories about slaves who jumped off the boat. There’s a story about slaves who walked into the water, and then flew away, back to Africa.
Those have always been really inspiring to me, even in my poetry, and I was just thinking, “If that’s my history, what do we do now, when we’re trying to figure out how to love in this country, or how to live and be safe in this country. What is our version of flying away? Or do we stay?” That’s kind of where that came from.
Growing up, at what point did you realize that art had power?
I went to my Grandma’s church, and it was a really good illustration of the power of music, to me. In a very physical sense, watching the way that music physically affected people – and how it affected me. The whole heart of church was the music, and the people that I met there were people who were not just “face-value community.” It was like, “I will come over to your house and cook for you when you’re sick.”
One of the women from church paid for my SAT classes, and drove me there every day in high school. That’s just the power, I think, of creating spaces that are based in music and stories. That’s what I got from it when I was a kid, at least. Listening to the preacher tell the story, and singing songs. That’s where a lot of my artistic practice comes from.
You jump between a lot of different social circles and physical spaces. What do you see as your communities here in Chicago?
I think the south side is definitely a community I feel really attached to, because my family is from there. But also I’ve moved further north now, since going to college and coming back. A lot of my students are from there, so that’s definitely one of them. I also feel like high schoolers – they’re the best, the funniest, the most creative – I get constantly inspired by spending so much time around young people.
I think I also want to cultivate for myself... There’s a definite selfish motivation behind wanting to create a space for women musicians, singers, especially women of color, because I feel like that’s what I maybe lack a little bit of. It’s not hard to interact with men when you’re doing music. Usually an engineer would be a man, a lot of producers are men, and it’s really great. I’ve built amazing relationships, but I’m also interested in seeing what would it even feel like to walk into a studio where it’s all women and that’s normal.
You have been involved with YCA (Young Chicago Authors). What advice would you have for someone that wanted to become a part of a community like that?
I would say there’s so many spaces like this that exist on all sides of the city. Go to any one of them – even if you have to make a trek for your first one – and you can then find one closer to you. Just don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone in order to find those spaces, and trust in your gut what you’re meant to be doing.
I think it took me a long time to realize that being an artist can be my profession, because that’s not something that young people are really taught. If you know in your gut that you’re meant to be doing something, don’t let the idea of a real job deter you.