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There is a long tradition of American stars visiting Britain to record albums. Sometimes the reason is anglophilia, like Frank Sinatra who came over to make Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain (he wanted Winston Churchill to paint a picture for the cover but had to settle for a silhouette of Big Ben instead).
Other motives are less refined, like the Eagles, sent to London to keep them out of mischief while making their debut album. “They packed us off to England,” Don Henley later said, “and stuck us in this little apartment, picked us up, took us to the studio, and then we’d go back to this little apartment and drink ourselves to sleep. Then we’d get up the next day and do it all again.”
Mary J Blige is the latest American big name to make the crossing. The “queen of hip-hop soul” came over from the New Jersey palace she calls home to record The London Sessions in the British capital. The album teams her with a rising generation of British pop musicians including Sam Smith, Emeli Sandé and Disclosure, many of whom grew up listening to her – the modern equivalent of the blues-loving UK rockers who featured on 1971’s BB King in London.
I meet Blige at a luxury hotel near Trafalgar Square. The New York-born singer, 43, sits at a table by the window looking immaculate in a cream blouse and trousers. Her blonde hair is elegantly swirled and she is wearing a pair of tinted glasses.
Like visiting royalty, she has attendants. Both her US and UK publicists are sitting in on the interview. One question will prompt a rebuke from the US publicist (of which more later). But at no point in our conversation does Blige act the big diva. Her manner is unguarded – perhaps too much so for the publicist.
The London Sessions has its origins in a moment last year when Blige was at home browsing music videos on the internet. She came across one by dance-pop duo Disclosure. “I was like, ‘Who is this,’ ” Blige remembers. Then the song’s beat really kicked in. “I just lost my mind completely!” She turned to her husband, who is also her manager, and told him: “I want to be on this record with them! Call, call!”
Within days she was in a studio singing on a remixed version of the song “F for You”. Then some more calls were made and Blige found herself flying over to the UK to record The London Sessions. That’s what happens when you have 50m album sales to your name and a video grabs your attention.
The album casts Blige as an elder stateswoman of UK pop, singing powerful Adele-style piano ballads and British garage-inflected dance tracks. It also looks back to the club music and soul of Blige’s New York roots.
“It was the kind of stuff I was dancing to in my mother’s living room when I was a little kid,” she says. “It’s the same feel, the same everything, it’s just weird. These 19- and 20-year-old guys just knew so much of what I knew when I was growing up. They’re gifted. They’re super-knowledgeable.”
Blige was born in the Bronx but moved as a child to a housing project in the neighbouring city of Yonkers. Her father is a musician who specialises in bass guitar, although he can play anything. “He learns like that,” she says with the click of a finger. Meanwhile, her mother, a nurse, raised her to the sounds of soul’s great female vocalists. Blige recites their names like a sacred litany: “Aretha [Franklin], Gladys [Knight], Mavis [Staples], Betty Wright, Chaka Khan . . . ”
Her break came when she recorded a version of an Anita Baker song and sent it to record labels. One signed her in 1992 and sent her to work with Sean “Puffy” Combs, then a tyro producer, later to become the rapper Puff Daddy. For her debut album, What’s the 411?, he placed her classic-soul voice in a rap setting: it went on to sell over 3m copies.
The garlands continued coming over subsequent years. There have been nine Grammy awards and eight platinum albums – but the success unfolded against a difficult personal life. Blige had a hard childhood involving alcoholism and domestic abuse and grew up to become a troubled young woman, prone to drink and drug addiction. The theme of surviving recurs in her songs, such as 2001’s signature hit “No More Drama”.
The London Sessions opens with “Therapy”, a retro-gospel spin on Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”, the latter’s black humour replaced with a very American striving for self-improvement. Unlike Winehouse (whose work, she says, is an “inspiration”), Blige has managed to beat her various addictions. In her forties, she is singing with as much force as at any point in her career.
“It hasn’t been easy,” she chuckles ruefully. “In life you’re going to go through trials and error but you learn to take care of yourself, you’ve got to take care of yourself because your body will break down, it’ll just shut down.”
London today reminds her of the New York of her youth. “The radio here is so diverse,” Blige says. “You’re not going to hear one genre of music on a station, you’re going to hear a lot of things. What I love about that is that when I was growing up in New York that’s what radio sounded like. You’d hear George Michael, then Luther Vandross.”
I ask whether she finds that London’s music scene is more racially mixed than in the US. “Things are a little more separated there, as far as music is concerned,” she adds.
In 2012 she appeared in a Burger King advertisement in the US. To her horror, the advert, for a range of chicken wraps, was construed by critics as racist, leading the fast-food chain to apologise to the singer.
“It hurt me so bad to see the backlash and the things that people were saying and the amount of people that were crucifying me,” she says with feeling. “It hurt me so bad that I wanted to go under my bed, I wanted to go under my rug. But something made me rise up. The courageous person in me, that strong Mary said: ‘Put your head up, go do your job. Don’t worry about who’s laughing, matter of fact don’t even think about that. Just go out there and be Mary.’ ”
The US publicist intervenes. “Are you having to cover the negative part?” she asks me. But there is no stopping Blige.
She mentions another “hell” she had to face recently, when her father narrowly escaped death after being stabbed by a former girlfriend.
“I am a soldier,” she says. “I come through it. I am a phoenix. I rise through the ashes and here I am.” Her language takes on a religious cadence, an echo of the days when she found refuge from her tough upbringing singing gospel songs in church. “I have been chosen to do this job. And now I serve people. I am nothing but a servant and they see that.”
On the night of our meeting she had played a show that culminated with an epic “No More Drama”, Blige on her knees singing with maximum power as the audience chanted: “Ma-ry! Ma-ry!”
Amid her new London direction, it was a moment of old-fashioned American catharsis. “It felt like you worked out something, like you got something out that you needed to get out,” she says with a laugh. “And everyone else got out something that they needed to get out. It’s just one moment, everyone’s just yelling and screaming, because they’re released as well. It’s a really powerful, spiritual moment.”
‘The London Sessions’ will be released on November 24 in the UK and December 2 in the US
Photographs: Josh Brasted/Getty Images