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Arranged by David Nathan for the Soul mailing list,

There was no mistaking the honey-toned voice at the other end of the phone. The same voice that has enraptured millions worldwide sounds familiar whether she’s singing or speaking. Anita Baker is one of a kind, an artist who has stood the test of time, who has established a unique place in the pantheon of contemporary music. To hear Anita tell it, Sade opened the doors for her own breakthrough with the 1986 release of “Rapture” and while there’s no doubt truth to her assertion, it’s also true that Anita has forged a musical trail of her own. Even a lengthy absence from the music scene - broken last year with the release of her Blue Note debut, “My Everything” – didn’t stop the petite songstress and songwriter from garnering notable sales and headlining to capacity crowds at places like The Hollywood Bowl earlier this year. Indeed, speaking with her backstage at The Bowl some months ago, we reminisced about how it must have felt for her standing in front of the vast, capacity-filled venue knowing that some twenty-plus years earlier, she had been living just ten minutes away in Burbank at an apartment complex and taking the 212 bus to the studio to record her very first album, “The Songstress.”

Much has happened to Anita in those years and now married and raising two children (“they’re both taller than me!”), she’s been able to create a balance between personal life and career. When we talk for the umpteenth time in the past two decades, I detect a certain relaxed attitude, a peace of mind that wasn’t always present as Anita worked to establish herself as first and foremost, an artist rather than

a hit-making ‘machine.’ A stickler for perfection and for giving audiences her best, she was often labeled ‘difficult’ by folks in the industry and sometimes in the media: today, she seems more comfortable in her own skin, more assured…

Our main topic is the release of “Christmas Fantasy,” her second album for Blue Note. Interspersed in our conversation are questions submitted by members of the Soul mailing list to which she gladly responded…

DN Whose idea was it for you to do a holiday album?

AB: I always wanted to do one. Whenever I said “Christmas,” no one ever responded until I got to Blue Note. At this label, you say something and they say ‘let’s explore that.’ When I mentioned it, the folks at the label said, ‘We like this Christmas album idea.’ We didn’t know what the format would be but we always knew that my second record was going to be a jazz album – part of my contract with Blue Note was that I’d do that. Now as far as the timetable for getting it done…well, I’d never done anything this quick in my life! I was forced to. We had deadlines and once I found out I could get all the musicians I wanted in a two-week time window, I said, ‘I better go get this.’ It all fell in place and once we got Al Schmitt as our engineer, he set up this [recording] environment and I just walked into it.

DN: What was the process of recording this album like for you?

AB: I was surprised that I was able to take myself out of the way. I was not worrying about I, I just got on with it. For example, when we were doing “Moonlight Sleighride,” Joe Sample played…and I just let myself flow with it. When we did “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” it took me a minute to relax. I was trying to sing every note I knew! But I got out of my own way. I Iearned a lot about myself making this record. I hope I can conjure that up again [when I record]. It was truly a Godsend: I asked for all these great people and they all showed up at the door. Making this album was such a departure for me. I’ve always loved traditional jazz and this is the first time I let it out [on a record]…

DN: How did you go about choosing the songs for the album?

AB: (Producer) Barry (Eastmond) and I get in a room and we choose songs that stand up to being done with just a vocal and piano. We choose songs that take arranging: with “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” we didn’t re-arrange the body of the song. With “Christmas Time Is Here,” the cats just started doing what they were doing! “Frost” was something I had done for a “Good Morning America” taping. I had heard the Louis Armstrong record and it just took me to that old ‘New Orleans’ preservation kind of thing with its ragtime arrangement. We just did a loose version of it, not really a ragtime thing…

DN: What was the inspiration for the original songs you wrote for the album and how easy was it to write songs with a specific holiday/Christmas theme?

AB: I’ll play something or Barry will bring me something. With the song, “Christmas Fantasy,” Barry brought me the track. I got inspired… I mean, even grown up girls want something special for Christmas! “Family Of Man”? After losing my own parents, I wanted to do something for people who had been through that too so they could feel connected to this holiday. I came up with a hook but I kept writing ideas down for the verses and by the end of it, I was exhausted. We brought in a third writer who came up with the verses and we were done.

DN: How did you feel when you first heard the finished album?

AB: When I first heard it, I was flying. It was daytime, blue sky and fluffy clouds. I felt relaxed and inspired. I felt it did what I wanted it to do. I think it puts you into Christmas in a grown up way. After a busy day shopping, I also want to be in the Christmas spirit and I think this record does that. And really, I did this for my own household. After the kids are gone to bed, I want to have a ‘grown ups’ moment. Usually, the holidays are either all for the kids or nothing. When I was making this record, I was thinking, ‘how do I get this holiday back?’

DN: OK, now on to some questions from our mailing list. asks if there is any chance of you releasing a CD with a jazz influence?

AB: I always wanted to do a jazz record but it’s about waiting for inspiration, for when necessity meets creativity.

DN: asks if you have any plans with the legendary Gladys Knight again?

AB: I don’t know…all I know is Gladys don’t need no help!

DN: asks if you have any plans to do any concerts in Africa?

AB: I don’t know…

DN: A few questions about the current music scene. asks what you think of the new singers and who are your personal favorites?

AB: There are a great group of young artists out there – Alicia Keys, all of the members of Destiny’s Child, Jill Scott, India Arie, Kanye West, Mario, Outkast… my kids bring music in so I hear it…

DN: And from, what do you think of the music of today and who do you think will carry the torch for soul music?

AB: Alicia is carrying it – listen to “Unbreakable” and it’s like an old school standard. Jill Scott is our Nina Simone…I’m not worried about it. Now, I don’t think soul music is being nurtured the way I’d like it to [by the industry]. I’d like to see if it could be nurtured. I mean, I could go to church and find you five great performers but it takes time and energy to nurture artists and most record companies want instant hits.

DN: wants to know who your favorite female and male singing group and your favorite male and female singer were as a teen and what about them made them your favorites?

AB: Well, Mahalia Jackson was my favorite as a little kid because gospel was the only music I heard at home. But I remember the first time I heard Aretha Franklin. I heard this voice coming out of the radio, ‘You’re no good, heartbreaker, you’re a liar and cheat…’ Now I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about but I had my ear on the radio…and I just felt it, whatever she was singing about!

Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “If Were Your Woman” – I had a schoolgirl crush and she was singing just what I wanted to say to this guy! Edwin Starr was probably the first male singer and groups? Well, any incarnation of The Temptations! Probably, The Emotions were my favorite female group but The Supremes had the most impact on me as a child. When I saw them on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” it was the first time I saw someone who looked like me on television. They were all dudied up and very dainty and there was this power coming out of Diana Ross, this confidence, she was a star from the git-go…

DN: You mentioned Diana Ross and wondered if you went back to see her when you went to her show at The Detroit Opera House?

AB: Yes I did and she said, ‘It was nice of you to come out!’ and I said, ‘I had to come out!’ I mean, this was Diana Ross and I thought about all the fabulous-ness that she’s always brought. You bet, I was right here in Detroit, absolutely, I was gonna go see her!

DN: Finally, has a couple of questions. What is in your CD player in your car right now?

AB: Fantasia, “Ashes To Ashes” by Joe Sample, Sting… When I was growing up I listened to all kinds of music….Cream, Grand Funk Railroad, Sly & The Family Stone - music wasn’t so segregated…

DN: And do you ever read or listen to (newspaper) critics when it comes to your music nowadays?

AB: No. I lived through the performance so don’t need to go back and read about it. People come back and tell me what reviews say. But, hey, I do what I do. Back in the day, I read reviews all the time.

I had to know, back then, I had to try and please everyone!

DN: And, lastly, what would you like to be known for?

AB: Hmm…well, that I did a good job, that I did my best…

DN: Well, as far as I’m concerned, I would say that you’ve created a real great body of work. While there aren’t loads of albums, each one has quality and shows your work as a real artist.

AB: Thank you! We appreciate that…

Anita and I stayed on the phone for a few more minutes reminiscing about favorite albums (me, ‘Mine is ‘Compositions,’ Anita, ‘yeah, that was great, that was really me, especially the song ‘Lonely’…wow…although ‘Rapture’ will always be my favorite because it changed my life!’) and how the first time we met, I recalled walking into the Elektra offices in Los Angeles expecting this huge big woman (because of her ‘big’ voice) and seeing this tiny little person who I thought was a secretary getting ready to introduce me to the real Anita Baker! As always, it was a pleasure speaking with one of the rare real artists in our industry. She may not have two dozen albums to her credit but I can genuinely say that every time Anita steps into the studio, she delivers and although I’m not usually partial to Christmas albums, this one has that AB magic, for sure. You can hear tracks from it during our Anita Baker Holiday Special at Soul Radio Live. Enjoy…oh and happy holidays to one and all!

Thanks to Anita, the staff at Blue Note Records (Jeff and Shaneika) and Lee Bailey for support in arranging this Q&A session

About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create Records as a leading reissue label.

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