Recently announced as one of the stars of this year’s Vivid Live festival, still considered one of the most important figures in the continuing story of soul, and a woman not constrained by borders between the arts, Jill Scott is a force of music as much as nature.
As she explains in this 2013 interview, it may look odd – or plain nutty – to others, but she does things her way for reasons that go deeper than eccentricity and wider than simple faith in such methods.
Oh yes, and she can tell if it’s working because if “I see people dancing and kissing, holding hands, people with their arms in the air, I know that I'm doing the right thing.”
For someone who has only made four albums in a career just ticking over 13 years now, Jill Scott has an outsized reputation.
In an age of superlatives run riot for otherwise ordinary talents, she is seen as not only one of the key figures in the re-emergence of soul music this century, alongside the likes of Maxwell, Erykah Badu and R Kelly, but one of its finest exponents.
Her connection to the deep soul of the 1970s, the last hurrah for soul music in many ways before modern R&B and then hip hop transformed it, is lauded by her peers and critics. Her ability to mix spirituality (as distinct from religiosity) and feminism, sensuality and fire, in music that can be tender and angry has drawn millions of fans.
Her determination to do it her way, and at the time of her choosing, has annoyed record labels and thwarted any of their plans to turn her into some kind of mega star.
And this is without considering her acting career, on stage and in film and TV, most notably her role as Precious Ramotswe in the film and then made-for-TV follow-ups based on the Alexander McCall Smith books, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
Yet when pressed on the relative thinness of her musical output Scott happily confesses that at 41 "I'm just getting the groove of it now. I'm starting to understand how to do this”.
Though she is planning to make up for this late discovery with two and possibly three albums in the next year or so. Just maybe not all the kind of albums you expect from her.
The first of them is what she’s calling the Lullaby Album. And she’s serious about that, calling it "a medicinal record, made for people who can't sleep". It will be soul and it will be soothing.
"I want to erase all the programming that we have all day in our minds. I want people to wake up feeling fortified and nurtured and loved," says Scott. "We go to sleep with the television on and all kinds of things get in our heads and I wanted to create some music that was beautiful and not stereotypical lullabies either.”
She made this with what you might call a holistic approach. "It's a very hands-on record,” and she means that literally.
“I had [the musicians] touch things and smell things. Soft blankets, very soft blankets. And I burned specific types of incense. I played certain sounds underneath our session, a certain kind of frequency. They don’t know that though," she says with a conspiratorial laugh. "They did ask why are there soft, fluffy blankets in here now [and I said] hmmm, I have no idea.”
All the band, which includes jazz and classical figures pianist Robert Glasper and bassplayer Derek Hodge, had a long personal connection with her beyond their musicianship, most notably drummer Lil John Roberts, her ex-partner and father of her four-year-old son, Jett. In other words, they knew her manner and were not afraid, or laughing.
"Music is a conversation and I give musicians pictures, I give them the story, from what the air smelt like to what colour I'm wearing to whether I'm an adult or child, or I’m in water. I try my best to explain and some musicians understand that and some don't," Scott says.
“These guys I could tell them anything. I remember one song I told there is a train but it's very, very far away and you can't hear it, you can only feel it. I'm telling you that Lil John Roberts on the drums, he made the thought come in to fruition.”
While some of this – ok, a lot of this - may sound hippy dippy, if you’ve ever listened to and fallen for Jill Scott’s songs, there may actually be something in this: for emotional commitment has been a cornerstone of her albums, and whatever methods she uses to get that, do seem to work.
"I see music in pictures and if I can't see the picture then it's not good enough yet,” Scott says firmly. “I now understand my musical process. It's taken me 13 years to understand it but now I get it. I need to sleep, I need rest, that's when dreams happen. The majority of my dreams are very vivid, I dream in colour.
“Often times when I don't have anything to say I catch the bus and I ride and listen to people's conversation, I watch body language, I smell perfume and cologne and funk. And then I make an attempt to be as honest and as genuine with the notes as possible. I'm a writer before I am anything and I try my best to paint pictures."
As a writer and singer and co-producer she can set these terms but when she steps on to the set of a television show or a film, she is part of somebody else's process. Does she look for the same level of commitment to working at an emotional level from the people she is working with and for?
"I had a pretty great experience with Anthony Minghella, the original director of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency because we understood each other and he saw things pretty much the way I do. He would give me physical things to do to reach the place I needed to be and I love that.”
As we will finally see Scott on stage in Australia for the first time later this year, I’m curious how she manages that control of emotions, hers and ours, on stage.
"I think at this point I have an understanding with a live audience that what I'm doing now is spirit work and I have to allow my energy and my body language and my voice and my thoughts to be inside each and every song to build the parameters for the moment," Scott says. "I hire musicians that are understanding of that and don't do things to break the spirit and I pray that the audience will allow themselves to be that vulnerable and open as well.
“So when it's happy and I look out in the audience and I see faces that are beaming, I know I am in the right place. If I look at in the audience when I'm singing something tender and I see people dancing and kissing, holding hands, people with their arms in the air, I know that I'm doing the right thing. And I just try my best to stay in that clinch."
Jill Scott will play Vivid Live, Sydney Opera House, May 22-23, 25-26.