Andy Kropa, Getty Images If singers like Tina Turner and Millie Jackson…
- Posted on Dec 8th 2010 1:00PM by Jonathan Dekel
Today, she continues to tour, performing everywhere from the Calgary Folk Festival to the Montreux Festival, as well as create, working diligently on a collection of Beatles covers as a tribute to her old neighbour John Lennon, who was gunned down 30 years ago today. Here, Flack talks to Spinner about her musical upbringing, living through the civil rights movement, her relationship with the Ono-Lennons and reconfirms -- despite some nasty UK reports -- that she's still very much alive.
You first learned to play classical piano at age nine. Why did you transition to R&B and pop?
That was a result of my environment. I was brought up in a family of musicians -- not working musicians, but people who loved to play and sing with each other, and who loved to listen to black radio. At the time, there were only two great black stations and only one black label, that was Motown. Of course, you had single performers like Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and Lena Horne later -- and when I was listening to these folks, I was still playing classical music, but I was taking it in. Also when you're young, whatever the pop music of your generation is, even if you're not writing it like Paul Anka or Neil Sedaka or Stevie Wonder, you're exposed to it. So I was absorbing it anyways; I couldn't be a young teen without absorbing it.
Do you consider yourself a musician or an artist?
I committed myself to the art of music, and consequently became categorized as an artist. I think an artist is a person who has learned everything they can possibly learn about their art. And usually that person is very esteemed, lauded and praised. I don't think I fit that description. I'm still trying to be as good as I can in terms of my music and my musicianship; I'm trying so hard. I take voice lessons every week, I work with all kinds of interesting musicians as much as I can. So I didn't make the decision to become an artist, I made the decision to study music as long as I could possibly afford to, and to find good teachers.
You lived through the civil rights movement, what comes to mind when you look back at that period in American history?
Well, I'm glad I made it through. I'm glad we all made it through. I think history proves that times like that may come again and I'm just hoping that some lessons have been learned because I saw things with my own eyes that made me cringe -- things I don't even want to talk about.
It's astounding how mean people can be; how cruel people can be. How low people can go when it comes to being selfish and self-centered and unkind. You can't even say stupidity because what we consider stupidity is the way people have been raised. There's a song from the musical 'South Pacific' called 'You've Got to Be Carefully Taught,' and the hook goes 'You've got to be taught to hate.' You have to be taught that people are different than you, whatever it is you're not supposed to like about them -- you need to be taught that. If you put kids alone in the room, they will make everything alright between them; they don't see colour, they see fascination. They see differences, but they don't see those things as bad -- it's only after you've grown up that you get to be self-burdened with all these prejudices.
You were one of the first prominent black female singers of your generation. What are your thoughts on the current crop of young, black female artists?
I think of them as being seriously more talented than I was as a songwriter, and many of them as singers. I'm thinking of people like Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill.
I'm glad you brought up Lauryn Hill. You've had several 'comebacks' in your career, including the one following the Fugees' version of 'Killing Me Softly.' Do you feel that you get the respect you deserve from the people you've influenced?
It feels wonderful when they cover my songs and come up to me. But I read something off the UK press [earlier this year] that really depressed me. During the ESPY awards Janelle Monáe and Will Farrell covered 'Tonight, I Celebrate My Love for You' and I read that they reported it was by the "late jazz singer Roberta Flack." I thought to myself, 'Do people think I'm dead? I'm not dead! I'm performing! I'm doing a Beatles album! Wow."
Speaking of that upcoming Beatles covers album, how did that come about?
I live in the same building [The Dakota] that John [Lennon] did up until the day he died. As a matter of fact, on the same floor -- and I'm a friend of the family. So one of the people that worked with Warner Group had this idea and he took it to my label, and they said, 'Okay.' So we've been working on it for the last couple of years -- we're getting close.
You knew John Lennon personally right?
Yes. He was sweet.
Do you remember where you were when you found out he had died?
I was working in New Zealand.
How is your relationship with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon?
They're both very sweet. I think one of the reasons we've maintained our friendship is because I don't share about it.
I live on the same floor. There are three apartments on this floor. John and Yoko have the most rooms, then I live next door, and there's another apartment on the right.
Have you played the covers for either Yoko or Sean?
I've played some of them for Sean -- he liked it very much.
Which Beatles song would you say is most meaningful to you?
The Beatles song that's most meaningful to me I haven't done yet. It's the one that goes [sings] "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make" ['The End']. And I also like [sings] "You never give me your money, you only give me your situations, and in the middle of investigations you break down" ['You Never Give Me Your Money']. The reason I haven't covered that is because it goes into something really weird after that. I also really like [sings] "Because the world is round, it turns me on" ['Because'] -- I want to do that.
Hearing you sing those songs, it's obvious that you still have a love of music. After so many years what keeps music interesting for you?
The fact that I keep learning new things about music is what keeps it interesting. I almost majored in music therapy, and the effects that music has on the brain really interest me. I just bought a book called 'Your Brain on Music,' which I look forward to reading. I also recently saw a documentary on the power of music to positively affect autistic children -- which was very powerful.
Alternatively, it could also be used in a negative or violent manner, like the power of 'Helter Skelter' on Charles Manson. So the psychics and the revelation of music on the brain really fascinates me.