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Rough Voyage

2001 was a pivotal time for neo-soul music. The genre had begun a resurgence aimed at a younger generation. And from that resurgence emerged a new name, Atlanta's India.Arie. She was part of the driving force that touted an earthier, more bohemian view of life. And after just two albums — her critically acclaimed 2001 debut effort, Acoustic Soul, and the Grammy-winning follow-up, Voyage to India — Arie had become a staple of Western pop culture.

But the music industry can be a rough ride, what with all the shifting tides in public opinion, new marketing strategies, and VH1 specials (Where Are They Now? being an artist's death knell). Add a little relationship turmoil and you've got a recipe for some hard times. In the past four years, Arie had to deal not only with changing music industry trends but details in her personal life were just as shaky. No longer is neo-soul the hip tag word for Arie's style of music, which she now prefers to describe simply as R&B. Before a recent show in New York City, however, she expressed a desire to go beyond the confines of that genre. Sticking to the CD for a live performance won't cut it; Arie wants the freedom to be creative — of the moment, if you will.

Arie's new attitude comes after a four-year break in career that she spent scrutinizing her personal life — and turning it into art. Though the 30-year-old singer reached the pinnacle of her young career in 2002 (with 12 Grammy nominations and two awards), a year later found Arie taking some time off after a painful breakup with her old boyfriend. The creative process sent her on a trying emotional journey; she was struggling to regain what was rightly hers: a sense of confidence and self-identity. Arie's a Grammy winner, for crissakes. She deserves better.

"I like my songs and music to have the qualities of healing and love, regardless of the subject matter," Arie tells New Times. "I want to express my truth. Sometimes people call me preachy, but it's not my goal. I think what it is, is opinionatedness and emotiveness. I don't think I have the answers, but I am searching for them. I also love beautiful music. And I like to convey a subtle sensuality, regardless of the subject matter."

Three years in the making, Arie's new studio recording, Testimony, Vol. I: Life & Relationship, hit stores June 27. On the album, Arie addresses all the issues she struggled with at the time — emotional pain, vulnerability, independence, and finding the strength to face the future.

"With this album," she says, "I wanted to look at my relationships — my relationship to my ideals and the human condition of relationships from every angle. So while the bulk of the album is about a committed relationship, I also talk about my relationship to myself, my body, my fears, crossing the threshhold into womanhood."

Arie doesn't just write music that reflects what she's been through; she actually redefines herself through her songwriting. Her new, confessional-styled songs read like an autobiography. Testimony's opening track, "Intro: Loving," is a quiet, piano-laden ballad invoking God for some emotional support. She confesses to an ignorant bliss, even amid the painful fights of her past relationship with her boyfriend on "These Eyes," a song adorned with mournful trumpet blares and delicate, acoustic guitar phrasing. But it's on songs like "The Heart of the Matter" where Arie is especially mournful.

Dealing with her breakup was only the half of it. Things didn't get any easier for Arie when she found out, from a friend, that her ex had found himself a new love. Rather than retreat into a corner, she did some deep soul-searching — and a lot of songwriting. On the song "Good Morning," Arie laments what she most misses, from the simple pleasure of a good-morning kiss to the lost opportunity of marriage.

"It was important for me to explore my personal relationships in these songs," Arie says, "because I sing about where I am and that relationship I was in [in the past]. The healing process that followed and restructuring my ideals were the major themes in my life. It's an authentic expression of where I am in my life. That's what I do. I'm no preacher. I'm just expressive."

Over the past year, Arie says she has devoted a lot of her time to listening to other musicians, primarily Stevie Wonder. His influence is most evident in the festive, celebratory spirit of her song, "Private Party." The background vocals on that track even provide a choral refrain from Wonder's "Happy Birthday" (from Hotter Than July).

Although Arie's a master of expressing personal matters, she's not afraid to address serious social issues as well. Following the path of late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on "India'song," Arie imagines herself climbing a mountain and proclaiming her freedom from the shame-ridden legacies of slavery and lynching in the Old South.

Commenting on social pressures within the African-American community, Arie talks about jheri curls and other hairstyles on the self-affirming song "I Am Not My Hair," featuring label mate Akon. Arie originally sang the song with Pink, but her label decided to release the track with India singing solo, later adding Akon in a remix. The song traces Arie's personal history with hairstyles, concluding with her decision to cut her hair in 2002, after she realized she didn't need to depend on her hair and good looks for a sense of self-confidence and identity.

Arie says she has already started thinking about her next project, Vol. 2: Love & Politics. By then, she may have some newer, happier tales to tell.