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Interview: Kelly Rowland

June 11, 2013

In a fan-captured video from a May concert in Washington, DC, Kelly Rowland pauses during her chilling new track "Dirty Laundry" and hangs her head, seemingly to cry. She swings it back, appears to wipe tears, then keeps going. Jezebel called this a "gut-churning" break down. A couple days later, Kelly Rowland performed in New York and repeated this performance, bowing her head during an interlude where her band knew to drop away. It was hard to tell whether this was, like the song itself, a hard-earned display of emotion or simply a scripted display of vulnerability that would prime the crowd for her next song, Destiny's Child's still-explosive "Survivor." Perhaps it doesn't matter. Rowland says she values "honesty" above all and maybe for her—a polished pop star for a decade-plus who's now learning to keep her star bright in a social media age—there's something genuine in both real and forced tears. Before playing that New York show, she opened up about transitioning out of an abusive relationship, embracing sex in her songs and her relationships with Beyonce and The-Dream.

In the past couple years it has become more important for pop stars, especially female pop stars, to communicate directly with their fans. Did you make a conscious decision to be more transparent with "Dirty Laundry"? Well, thank god for my relationship with Dream. I didn’t feel like I had to be put together with Dream. He’s passionate and loves hard, he wouldn’t judge me. He’s very creative and I can tell him if I don’t like something. That’s a great relationship. We started hanging around the end of last year. Jay was touring for Watch the Throne and we all hung out then and I was like, He’s cool. So we all started hanging out. And then [Dream and I] finally got into the studio together. Right before we started recording he said, “Look, I want to dig deep. I want something different from you. I don’t want what’s on the surface. I want to get in the thick of it all, so I know what’s underneath.” And I was like, Ohhh shit. Because once you start doing that, it’s really real. There was just one personal conversation that led to us writing “Dirty Laundry.” And I was like, wait a minute, this is personal! He’s just like, “People go through this everyday. Everybody has their version of their dirty laundry and it allows people to get to know you more. Is that a bad thing?” You sit there and you’re wondering what people are going to say, but in that moment after I sang it I didn’t care. For me it was therapeutic. I felt lighter.

Do you feel even lighter as you continue to sing and talk about the song now? I do. A couple nights ago I had a moment where I felt like it wasn’t the rest of the audience as much as it was just the spotlight on me. I was just really singing the song to myself and became really emotional. And then once the music went off, I was like Oh shit, I’m on stage, and I finished up the record. It does yank at your heart like that, though, because I remember the place I was in, I remember the space, everything that happened.

During that time, was it difficult to balance the reality of that abusive relationship with your job being a role model of independence? You can sing and preach about strength, but of course you still have those moments where you’re like, I’m strong in this way, mentally and whatever, but when you get down to the heart of it all, there’s still some moments where you can grow and learn. There’s nothing wrong with that.

On "Dirty Laundry" you sing, When you’re soaked in tears for years, it never airs out. Even if lessons from that relationship will stay with you, what was your strategy for managing its negative impact over time? I went through a process of getting to know myself. A process of being by myself. Learning what I like and what I don’t like. Just that in itself is quite the feat—sometimes it takes people years to do that. When you walk around for so long and you’re just existing, it starts to wear on you. A little part of you dies. I got tired of walking around with all that crap and decided it was time to make a change. I looked at it back then like, I’m about to be 30 and every morning that I wake up I want to truly, genuinely be happy. If god is allowing me to open my eyes, why wouldn’t I live each day and every day like I’m grateful for that? I’m just in a place in my life right now, to where I’m just like, You are with this or you ain’t. I used to hear my grandmother say that about anything. You either are with it or you’re not. You’re either happy or you’re not. You either like somebody or you don’t. They either like you or they don’t. So it’s like, Who cares? I’m here to live and I’m going to live my life the best way that I can as a human being and I’m gonna die. But before I do I just want to be happy. I want to be known as a good person and I want to be known as somebody who gives great music. I don’t want to just exist. You can’t just exist in the music industry. Destiny’s Child set such a high bar. I wanna do that on my own, but on my own level. The only person I can be is me. And for so long I remember people saying “Oh, Kelly, that’s a round-the-way chick. You feel like you can just know her and you can be cool.” I’m like, Okay! I’m in a place where I’m a woman and I’m proud of who I am as a woman, and just being real and genuine.

During that transition, was it difficult to spend time alone? Yes. Working, you’re always surrounded by people. The noise becomes comfort, instead of silence being comforting. The sound of your own self breathing should be more than enough. You need that meditation time. At least I do. When I start not meditating in the mornings, I’m scatterbrained, and that starts infiltrating into my work, my relationships, my business. I don’t want that. I’m a control freak. Ask my team! I just want things a certain way or done a certain way. Actually, I’ve slacked off on the reins a little bit, but for a moment there I really felt like I had to take the reins. If prayer and meditation are the ways I can control everything, so be it.

You've said you recorded 70 songs in the lead-up to this record. Were you just enjoying being in the studio? The whole process for this album was so long! But it was great that I was in the studio, it was no pressure. I feel like some of the pressure I’ve probably, in the past, put upon myself. Some people brought out a certain vibe out of me and it was great. Kevin Cossum wrote four, five songs off the record. He’d write them in like 20 minutes, and once he was finished with one, I’d be like, Let’s do another one! We probably did about 10 songs together, and of course we had to condense those down.

Your impression of Mike Will, who you did “Kisses Down Low” with, is pretty spot on. I love Mike! He’s so silly and cool. He loves music and wants to make a difference. I respect that. He’s like Theron [Thomas] from [songwriting duo] Rock City: always turnt up. You have to chill Theron down in order for him to chill. And Mike’s like that too, so off-the-cuff and always trying to think of something to turn up. Turn up! You know, I don’t use that phrase like that. Everyone else uses that enough for me. It was all about turn up last year, but I feel like it’s on the way out.

"Kisses Down Low," like "Motivation," suggests that women should be comfortable with their sexuality. Have you always had that kind of sexual confidence? It wasn’t until I became older that I expressed what I really wanted and liked. It all started with Rico Love. I love him! When he started writing “Motivation” I was like, Oooh! This is really saucy, what am I gonna tell my mama? Rico said, “Well that’s how you got here.” And funny enough, my mama was like, “That’s how you got here.” It’s important to embrace your sexuality and sensuality. It’s a part of what makes us women. When “Kisses Down Low” came out, my older cousin said “Mmmm, kisses down low, huh? You’re so nasty.” I said, It’s your record! She was like, “I know, I love that shit.” I know she does, cause she would tell me if she didn’t.

What qualities do you look for in a romantic partner? I need to laugh. Just make me laugh. If you can make me laugh and you can cook and you have great conversation and you are smart, we’re going to have a good time. There’s barely time for me to date really. It’s a very slim amount of time. But I can please myself.

Why'd you title the album Talk a Good Game? It’s just about asking someone to be honest with you. In the album's title song I’m talking to somebody: I don’t think I can take another broken promise/ Why do things the hard way when you can just be honest. I’ma do what I’m supposed to do, if you tell me you gotta, why do things the hard way, if you give me your love, I’ma give you mine back. If you get to acting up, I’ma cut you off, like that. I don’t think I can take another broken promise, why do things the hard way. You talk a good game is just you talking all of this smack, and I’m just trying to understand where the truth lies. I really value honesty.

Kanye West famously called you out as an exemplar of dark-skinned beauty in "Power." Kendrick Lamar recently replaced the original lead of his "Poetic Justice" video, casting a dark skinned girl, saying he wanted to make sure all shades of "hot" were acknowledged. Is the industry getting better at honoring all kinds of women? I think you have people with preferences and you don’t knock them for their preferences, but I know there’s nothing better than chocolate! I’m just saying. Nothing better than chocolate. Women should be comfortable in their glory. It doesn’t matter what somebody thinks or deems is popular. We make it popular. Thank you Kanye for the shout out! Every time I hear that I’m like, Oh my god! That’s so cool!

Were you nervous about landing your jump out of the stage at the Super Bowl? I said, Lord, just let me land on my feet. Then I enjoyed the rest of the performance with the girls. To be honest, I didn’t remember anything that happened until I saw it on YouTube. Cause when we walked off the field and came down the stairs, we were all like, What happened? Why are the lights off? I was like, We still got it. We didn’t know there was a blackout.

Will Destiny’s Child grow old and perform in Vegas together? Well, we’ll never be old, honey! I don’t know. We’ll see. I love what we have right now. The best thing about being with Destiny’s Child is our friendship. I can call the girls, email them—it doesn’t matter what time it is. I’m so blessed. I’ve been knowing B since we were 9, 10 years old. Michelle came onto a moving train and now she’s one of the closest people to me in my life. I trust her and I trust B. What we have is very special. And it’s something that some people, not even women, don’t have: genuine friendship and love.

What's particularly significant about your relationships with other women? I learn something from a woman every single day. From each woman in my life—I don’t care where she’s from, if I’ve met her for a second. I might learn from how intelligent she is, or the way she speaks, or the way she dresses, or her point of view and her perspective, or her business sense. I love that. It can be the saleswoman at freaking Marshall’s. The other day I was shopping with my mother and niece, and the way the saleswoman said something to my niece made my niece pull up her chest and feel better and walk taller. Women know when we know something that another woman could benefit from. That’s how we empower each other.

Interview: Kelly Rowland