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Jill Scott: Act The Part

Jill Scott's latest album is called The Light of the Sun. (Courtesy of the artist)

When Jill Scott came on the music scene a little more than a decade ago, she wanted to let the world know who she was — so much so that she named her debut album Who Is Jill Scott? Since then, the Philadelphia native has won three Grammys, sold 5 million records worldwide, and starred in a number of movies and TV shows — from the Tyler Perry film Why Did I Get Married? to the HBO series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Now Scott is back in the music mix with a new album, out this Tuesday, called The Light of the Sun. She tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan that while some moments on the record are mysterious and others deeply personal, her decisions about what to reveal in a song are rarely premeditated.

"Not everything is up for conversation; not everything is up for art. But do I really discern what is and what's not? That's the question," she says. "Particularly with this record, I've really just been standing in front of the microphone and blacking out musically. I come back a couple hours later and there's six songs from beginning to end."

Scott's character in Why Did I Get Married? is a woman who endures a lot of emotional abuse at the hands of a philandering husband. She says that singing songs about heartbreak, like the Light of the Sun track "Hear My Call," is a bit like acting in that it requires getting inside a character.

"I know I'm not the only one who's ever felt lost and confused by a broken heart," she says. "[That song is] actually very difficult for me to sing live, because I have to embody those things in order to give permission to everyone in the audience to feel something."

Scott doesn't play an instrument herself, so she relies on a trusted team of musicians to help bring the songs into being. She says the process is more about creating a mood than following any specific structure.

"I give them the beat with my mouth, I give them the notes, and then I describe the textures," says Scott. "I tell them, 'It's in the South. It's hot. There's mosquitoes everywhere and you're drinking corn liquor to keep them away. And your favorite woman — not your only woman — has decided that she's going to marry somebody else. Now play.'"

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Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, host: When Jill Scott came on the music scene a little more than a decade ago, she wanted to let the world know just who is Jill Scott. That, in fact, was the title of her debut album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GETTIN' IN THE WAY")

JILL SCOTT: (Singing) He let you go a long time ago, now it's time to turn him loose. You're getting in the way of what I'm feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LONG WALK")

SCOTT: (Singing) Let's take a long walk...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDEN")

SCOTT: (Singing) Living my life like it's golden...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HATE ON ME")

SCOTT: (Singing) Hate on me, haters, now...

SULLIVAN: Since then, the Philadelphia native has won three Grammys, sold five million records and starred in a number of movies and TV shows from the film "Why Did I Get Married?" to the HBO series "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency." Now, Jill Scott is back in the music mix with a new album coming out Tuesday. It's called "The Light of the Sun."

And we caught up with her in her hometown at member station WRTI on the campus of Temple University.

SCOTT: I went here for about three years. I was going to teach the wonders of the English language to high school students, 11th grade.

SULLIVAN: Why did you change your mind?

SCOTT: I had a principal tell me that I was young and idealistic and that I would get over it. You know, everything about the school was great. And I said, you've got to be able to understand these are kids, you know, and they walk in the door and everything is great, feels like they're already defeated. I know I feel defeated walking in. We had to get some color on the walls. And that's when the principal told me I was young and idealistic and that I would get over it. And I was like, OK, you know what? I won't.

SULLIVAN: And you walked out and ended up in music. How did that happen?

SCOTT: Yup. It started off with poetry. I was reading poetry to my girlfriends, and they were like, you're really good. You should go to some poetry readings or something. And I eventually went and got a, you know, somewhat of a name for myself and a little bit of a following. And one day, I just got up to read a poem and started singing. I looked around, the reaction was great. And I said, oh, boy. I like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCOTT: Let's see if I can do some more of this.

SULLIVAN: And now here you are with your new album, "Light of the Sun."

SCOTT: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLESSED")

SULLIVAN: Let's listen to the first track of this album called "Blessed."

SCOTT: (Singing) This is the last date for the night. Understand it's kinda late and I gotta get home to my son, 'cause he's so special to me. I mean, I gotta see him. I need to breathe him, that's my baby, don't call me crazy. I love the studio, but I love him more. Let me give you what I got so...

SULLIVAN: Jill Scott, this is a song very much about your own life. How do you figure out...

SCOTT: Yes.

SULLIVAN: ...how much to reveal in your music and how much to hide?

SCOTT: Well, I don't really hide, but I do keep some things to myself. Not everything is up for conversation. Not everything is up for art. But do I really discern what is and what's not, that's the question. Most of the time, particularly with this record, "The Light of the Sun," I really just been standing in front of a microphone and blacking out musically, you know. I'd come back a couple hours later and there's six songs from beginning to end, you know? I don't know what I'm going to say. I don't know how I'm going to say it. I don't even know what the musicians are going to play nor do they. You know, it just been happening that way. It's like we're taking musical journeys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLESSED")

SCOTT: (Singing) Woke up this morning listening to this song, you're so blessed, yes, yes. Gonna rock the song all night long, you're so blessed, yes.

This energy and these lyrics and truth and vulnerability and power and passion and all this stuff is pouring out. I don't judge it. I don't beat it up, and I don't question it either. You know, it's here. It's for a reason. If it's coming out the way it is, it's for a reason. And that's pretty much the way I look at it. You know, I think about Miles Davis saying that there's no mistakes in music, you know, there's no wrong note. And I, you know, I kind of live by that.

SULLIVAN: Where does your inspiration come from?

SCOTT: My mother's a genius. She just kept feeding me art on whatever we had; paper plates, silver platter, didn't matter. You know, she just kept feeding it to me. So we went to see all kinds of theater. We would go to the art museum pretty much every Sunday, and I would watch her. She let me know that art was supposed to touch. You know, some paintings she would cry, you know, standing in front of a painting. I didn't know why, but it touched her. She really just gave me the freedom to appreciate art and to be artistic.

SULLIVAN: I'm speaking with singer, poet and actress Jill Scott about her new album, "The Light of the Sun." You've taken on a number of different very memorable film and TV roles in a very short period. One of them was in the ensemble cast of Tyler Perry's "Why Did I Get Married?" And you played Sheila, a pretty passive wife who took a lot of psychological abuse from her husband; a husband she later finds out is cheating.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHY DID I GET MARRIED?")

SCOTT: (As Sheila) I thought that God had given up on me, because here I am in this marriage, and it didn't work. He don't love me. He don't like me.

SULLIVAN: This is a very real, very raw character. How did you get there?

SCOTT: For me, it's all about the writing first. And then I look into this character and create her, you know, all the little nuances, how she walks, how she sits, if she stands with a bowed head. I looked at the way Sheila was being treated, and I hurt for her. So that allowed me to hurt being her.

SULLIVAN: Sheila actually reminds me a little bit of the song "Hear My Call," number seven on your new album "The Light of the Sun."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAR MY CALL")

SCOTT: (Singing) I'm such a fool, how did I get here? Played by all the rules, then they changed. I'm but a child to your vision, standing in the cold and the rain. Lost here in the dark, I can't see, my foot to take a stand, what is happening? Oh, this hurts so bad, I can hardly breathe. I just wanna leave. So, God...

SULLIVAN: It's such a beautiful song. It's so raw. It sounds so theatrical, almost. Is that what you were going for?

SCOTT: Yeah, it does. Even when I listen to it, it makes me get quiet. It is meant to be theatrical. Emotion is supposed to be evoked. It's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAR MY CALL")

SCOTT: (Singing) God, please hear my call. I am afraid for me...

It's so human, you know? And I know I'm not the only one who's ever felt lost and confused by a broken heart, you know? It's actually very difficult for me to sing live because I have to embody those things in order to give permission to everyone else in the audience to feel something, you know? So here's free music with some flaws, some mistakes that I wouldn't touch if you paid me. I would not auto-tune a thing. I wouldn't do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SULLIVAN: Do you play an instrument of any kind?

SCOTT: I do not.

SULLIVAN: How do you put the music to the words?

SCOTT: Well...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCOTT: I have a great team of musicians that are - they blow me away. I normally give them the beat with my mouth. I normally give them the notes, and then I describe the textures. So I'll tell them it's in the South, it's hot, there's mosquitoes everywhere, but you can't - there's mosquitoes and you're drinking corn liquor to keep the mosquitoes away. And your favorite woman - not your only woman - your favorite woman has decided that she's going to marry somebody else. Now, play, you know?

SULLIVAN: What would the bass line for that sound like?

SCOTT: I would say really gutter roll: pa tug, boom, boom, boom. Bo, bo, boom, bo, bo, boom. Boom, bo, boom, bo, boom. Bo, bo, boom, bo, bo, boom, something to that effect. And then I would tell the drummer that the snare is - it's on fire and you just need to fan it. So you've got the: doom, do, dom, doom, dom, dom, dom. And then the: ch chh, shh, sh chh, shh, sh-shh, shh. You know, and then it starts to happen. It's more like we're communicating with each other and painting a picture that gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And then I come in, and I lay whatever lines are on my mind. And then we've got this moment, and it's music, and it's alive, and it's happening now.

SULLIVAN: I want to play another track from the CD. This is called "Womanifesto."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOMANIFESTO")

SCOTT: (Singing) I am not gonna lie and pacify, I am armed to hold. I am lift to speak. I am a (unintelligible) jeep. Strong legs that stroll off the 33 bus or out of a money green phantom comfortably, knees that bend to pray, clean from Ajax washings, hair that is thick and soft, thighs that betweaks an amazing all-expense grand prize. I am eyes that sing...

SULLIVAN: Not many singers put a poem on their new R & B album. Why did you do it?

SCOTT: It's - I had been looking around and noticing that women were really compartmentalizing themselves, as well as allowing society to, you know, pull apart our pieces. And I - you know, it frustrates me because what were we fighting for? Equal pay is one thing, but there's a - the whole of a woman, you know, whole of a person, and that has to be respected as well. It's not just her eyes or her breast or her booty or whatever. I mean, there's an all of you. And that is my womanifesto, and I would hope that other women would write theirs. You know, just to value to rest of you is massive. And it's - for me, it's been life altering.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAME")

SULLIVAN: Jill, thanks so much for coming in today.

SCOTT: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAME")

SCOTT: (Singing) I'm the one you really want, but you just can't see it. I've tried and tried to make you understand, won't believe it...

SULLIVAN: That's Jill Scott's latest single "Shame" from her new album "The Light of the Sun." It comes out Tuesday. But until then, you can sample every track from the record at our website, nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAME")

SCOTT: (Singing) Shame, shame, it can't be a damn thing. Well, well. What you're so scared of me. I'm just a woman. Maybe I got it all together...

SULLIVAN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode Sunday nights. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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