Reflections with Ursula Rucker
Ursula Rucker has been opening ears with her thought provoking poetry / wordsongs for nearly 20 years. Through her stories, insights, experiences and observations she shares her quest for honesty and truth. Her passionate delivery and wide range of topics has led to collaborations with a vast array of creative sonic architects including King Britt, The Roots, 4 Hero, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Josh Wink, Bahmadia, Jazzanova, Tim Motzer, Jonah Sharp, Robert Yancey III, Alexkid and Philip Charles. In January 2011 I had the pleasure to speak with Ursula Rucker about her newest recording, SHE SAID, and touch on other topics from story tellers to art to parenthood, and this is what SHE SAID…
G1: I really dig listening to She Said. It has a real band feeling. I mean it doesn’t just sound like “Ursula Rucker with Guests”, it sounds like a real band and it feels like a real band. Talk about the cats who are with you and the whole feeling of bringing this together.
Ursula: I think it’s really cool that you said that because I have to keep reiterating this,’cause I think it’s so important and it’s exciting to me, that SHE SAID is my first live in-studio recording. So, it actually is a live band and such a pleasure to create like that, the spontaneity of it. There’s 6 musicians that are the core band, and they
are Timothy Motzer, who is my guitarist and music director for about 10, 11 years now. An amazing guitarist , effects pedals, looping, he’s just totally incredible. The visionary who kind of prodded me and had the idea for me to do the live in-studio album, he also executive produced my 3rd album, Ma’At Mama, Anthony Tidd on the bass, and James Ralph on drums (music director for Lauryn Hill at the time of this interview); Damon Bennett on keys. Damon is an amazing musician, we just have amazing musicians in Philly. Carlos Izaguirre on percussion, and a California boy Korey Riker on saxophone. There are two other musicians, on the track MOOK there’s Kevin Arthur, another amazing Philly bass player, and on WANNA there’s Phil Yeager who plays trombone. He’s my favorite trombone player. Sometimes it’s hard for me to do stuff with horns because the horn is so much like a voice, and Phil Yeager is so tasteful with his playing.
G1: Was the band sound and the band direction the initial thought when putting together SHE SAID?
Ursula: Ant Tidd pretty much kind of…, I just agreed “Hey Ok, that sounds cool. Let’s do that!” You know, I know all these cats, so I’m familiar with what they do. I actually have shared the stage with them. Other than Tim, he (Ant Tidd) pretty much chose the players. If I wasn’t happy with who he chose of course I would’ve changed it. But I was cool with all the choices he made and I’m glad that we went with that crew because it was a sheer joy to create with them everyday. It was a highly concentrated way of making an album. Really, the recording of the whole entire thing took, if I have to sum it up and put the days together, no more than a week really. Some days we would get together and do 3 or 4 tracks. I would come in, sometimes I didn’t have anything written at all and they would just kind of play; sometimes I’d come in I’d have the foundation or I’d have the hook, I shared with them and tell them what I wanted, what kind of vibe we wanted and we worked it out together. It was a pretty amazing way for me to create because it was something that I was unfamiliar with really.
G1: Yeah, it sounds like a truly collaborative work.
Ursula: Yeah I was pretty shocked myself. The joke is, when I first heard it and I was sitting there with Ant Tidd and just listening to some of the first things we recorded I said “Wow Ant! This sounds live!” and he was like “Yeah Urs, it’s live.” Like “Oh Wow!”
G1: Your work covers everything in life: relationships, observations on society… All kinds of things that we may think about daily, you write about. What was the process with the writing for SHE SAID, and what are some of the things that stuck out most to you in putting this together?
Ursula: This has been my most organic process to date. I have to admit, I’m not really a spontaneous chick. I have a desire to be more often than I actually am, but with the making of this there was a lot of spontaneity involved. I don’t know if I necessarily planned the themes, but definitely if there was too much of something… You know, we recorded more tracks than were actually put onto the record. There were a couple of things that I knew I wanted, they were like dreams of mine… one being the track MOOK which address the issue of, how shall I say it, um,of Black males posturing on corners in ‘hoods, and what that life style is, what the loss of dreams is like, what being miseducated is like, and also in that same track is a little mention and giving honor to Mumia Abu Jamal which I’ve always wanted to do on a recording, so I was so excited to actually see that come to fruition. That’s kind of like a corner stone of the record, for me anyway. SHE SAID, the title track, is pretty much kind of,… it was the first thing we recorded. I didn’t even know I was going to call it SHE SAID; it pretty much dictated how the rest of the album was going to go down really.
G1: Well the opening track, FEEL ME, really caught my ears. Some of the things that was said… As I mentioned you write about relationships, the different types of relationships between people. Now in this technological age there’s a shift in how we’re having relationships. We’re on twitter and facebook, and sometimes it seems that cyber relationships have altered the way some deal with person to person relationships, and I hear you address that in FEEL ME.
Ursula: Yeah, there’s a little bit of a lot of things in SHE SAID. FEEL ME is, you know I always make my commentary about my relationship with machines, and humanity’s relationship with technology. It’s always an issue for me. You know, people take their machines very personally. They feel personally attacked if you make any kind of commentary on kind of balancing out how much time you spend actually with human beings, and how much time you spend in front of your computer screen. My almost 16 year old is always clicking away at his little phone, texting. I mean, it’s like Wow!
G1: Right. People text now more than they talk.
Ursula: Oh yeah, and it definitely contributes to the demise of human contact, as well as, in a way, heightening human contact in a weird sort of way, but everything just needs to be balanced.
You know though, there’s a love song on there, there’s a song dedicated to New Orleans which is very important for me. I wrote it soon after Katrina so it’s one of the older pieces on there. There’s a poem that I wrote years ago about Black chicks and their hair, but it’s about this Black chick and my hair and choosing to wear my hair natural and that whole journey, ‘cause it is a journey. There’s a lot of stuff on there. I’m totally biased but I think I like this because there are more actual poems. Although I think of all the things I record as poems, I think when other people listen to it they might hear it as something different ‘cause if it’s a song and it has a hook, or I’m singing it or if I’m rapping, they may look at it differently. But I mean like something somebody would listen to and go “That’s a poem”, you know, so it’s like revisiting what kind of artist I really am which is a poet, you know what I mean, and how important this poetry is in my life and how it’s been such a gift to me and given me so many opportunities, and saved my life pretty much, cause it’s my therapy as well.
G1: Well, tell me more about poetry saving your life
Ursula: Well, even though I fight it tooth and nail sometimes it’s my way of… I had a conversation with a good friend the other day about not being one of the blissfully ignorant. Although, every once in a while, I kind of think that I wish that I was, but not really. It’s like I can’t watch the news or receive information or stories or anything sometimes without analyzing it and feeling a certain way about it, and seeing the truth of the thing. Sometimes that’s a gift and sometimes that’s a curse, really… just being committed to that “notion” of the truth. So, it helps me to be a better person, it helps me to stay sane without taking medication, and I repeat this all the time. I say that all the time, but it’s true. You know I have my moments. I’m a very emotional, very sensitive person so sometimes it’s difficult for me to deal with certain challenges and obstacles, things that come up, and the poetry, even if I’m not actually writing it, if I’m just thinking about it or I’m thinking in terms… see, ‘cause the poetry is a culture for me. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a way of life. It’s not merely my choice of art form, it’s so much more than that. I kind of live my whole life along those guidelines of being a poet, of being a story teller, of being an information communicator, being someone who’s committed to telling and sharing and striving for the truth, and love and peace, and having to cuss people out along the way… You know, I don’t want anybody to think, well people are going to think what they want to think anyway. You know, like “Oh Ursula’s a poet. She lights incense and candles and wears head wraps…” That’s all good, but I like my expensive shoes and my clothes, and I will cuss your ass out if you push me to that level, so don’t get it twisted.
G1: Right, Poet doesn’t mean Passive.
Ursula: Exactly, exactly. I choose other words sometimes than passive, but that’s a nice one.
G1: I think that quality in you is one of the things that has really attracted listeners for you. I mean the reality of your words, the way you tell the story, the way you’re able to create a scene with your words. I first became aware of you while listening to The Roots (The Unlocking, The Adventures In Wonderland, Return To Innocence Lost). Your stories were so raw and so real and so visual.
Ursula: I am attracted to story tellers myself. I was listening to the radio with the kids, and it was only because the kids were in the car and they might want to listen to what’s popular… we eventually end up turning the radio off. I mean I can only take but so much of that mainstream thing that everybody just lazily turns on and doesn’t go to the other options. I was just saying to myself, “Wow, what I miss in this stuff here is the stories.” I miss the stories that Heatwave would tell in a song. Or the Hip Hop, real Hip Hop artists, true Hip Hop, they’re story tellers. You sit down and listen to it and it’s like, “oh ok it’s going from beginning to…” Wu Tang is one of my favorite Hip Hop crews, you listen to Ghost Face or listen to Raekwan and they’re telling stories. Storytelling is a big part of Hip Hop that’s gotten lost. I don’t even know what R&B is anymore. When you listen to those songs there are no real stories there either, no love stories; it’s just all about, you know what it’s about.
G1: Right. It’s about that then getting to the hook.
G1: A lot of times, with today’s songs, the hook is the whole thing, unfortunately.
Ursula: With a film, in a piece of art, a painting, a photograph, a dance performance it’s all about the story. It’s all about the translation… I don’t require a message all the time. I don’t need to be politically and philosophically charged all the time. Sometimes I want to just simply enjoy something. It’s even hard to do that with the things you have to choose from now.
G1: How did this all begin for you? Where did writing begin for you?
Ursula: It began as being a shy little adolescent girl not really feeling like I had anybody to talk to, feeling a little crazy with hormones, things that were going on in the crib… not really being brave enough to be vocal so I just started writing in my journal, and that’s pretty much where it started. I kept it to myself for a long long time.
G1: When did you feel like you wanted to share it with other folks, and in doing that was there some vulnerability or fear that you felt?
Ursula: Yeah, you know, in college I met a couple of other poets who were doing it, self publishing a book and doing readings at a Jazz club in the city, and I just thought that was the coolest thing… kinda daydreaming about doing it, but kind of still putting it on hold and not really sharing it. In my early 20’s, I don’t know what prompted me to really share it with some friends; I think it was the excitement. I felt an excitement about what was happening. Something was happening to me. There was a shift, and I was like wow, poetry might be something that I actually do for life. I don’t know if it will be anything that I make a living from… I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do with it, I just knew that it would always be a part of my life, and when that revelation hit me that’s when I started sharing it with friends, and from their loving responses, I mean they could’ve just been gassing me up or whatever, but it felt good. So it kind of started there. The first thing I ever recorded was with my homie, my brother King Britt, and then that was that. Once I recorded it the ball was rolling.
G1: Did you expect the ball to be rolling or did you think that recording would be a one off?
Ursula: Oh no I didn’t expect it, I was just doing it. I was just going with the flow. You know, young, single, just trying to find your way, and being invited to do something that was creative and interesting… it was all new and I was just having a good time. I had no idea. I’ve just been really blessed to, on the path, meet so many amazing people and be led to so many amazing music people. People who are committed to making music, people who are committed to making change whether it’s through the music, or politics, or other forms of art, or just kind of letting people know what their options are which is so much more than they actually think. I think that’s one of the biggest problems, that people just have this little list of things they’re choosing from. Like “Wow, really? There’s all this stuff over here. Do you know about that?” It’s been crazy. This is my fifth album. I can almost not believe it when I say it… And the countless collaborations that I’ve done; collaborations have been my life. Without the collaborations I wouldn’t even be doing any of my own albums.
G1: Right, I was just thinking of some of the people you’ve collaborated with and been heard with. You mentioned King Brit, there’s Four Hero, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and so many others, and again The Roots… Those collaborations, you mentioned earlier some people, the way they may think of you as an artist, hearing different things you may be thought of as a singer or something other than a poet, with those diverse collaborations I’m sure you can see how people would see, think and sometimes expect different things from Ursula Rucker
Ursula: Yeah, I don’t really know and I think that’s the beauty of it. You don’t really know. You don’t know how people are going to receive you or if they’re going to receive you at all, or what their perception is going to be, if they’re going to dig what you do… I don’t expect everybody to dig what I do, it’s not for everybody… um, it could be. It’s so invigorating to think about all the possibilities and that’s what’s so exciting to me is here’s this thing, this poetry, and you could keep it to yourself and never share it with anyone, or you can go to an open mic and you can share it in that atmosphere, or you can put in on a page and you can have a book, you can put it to music… There have been many dancers / choreographers, which always tickles me, I just love it, it makes me just smile and blush because I love dance so much… When a dancer or choreographer takes one of my pieces and then creates their own piece to it it’s like Wow! I just never imagined that those kinds of things would happen but, I mean, the sky’s the limit with art.
I Believe in art. I believe art changes. Art saves lives. Art makes people happy, feel good. It’s just so many possibilities with art, and when art forms are merged it always makes me excited, when it’s done well and with good intention and heart.
G1: That’s the truth of it but I wish our local and national governments felt the same way about art.
Ursula: Amen! It’s so essential. It’s so essential. When you travel, which I’ve been blessed to do, you see that for real. You see that over seas in other countries on other continents, how important it is, how vital and how it makes a difference. It makes a difference in your level of information reception. Because, when you have grown up with art in your life it allows you to be open to so many things and kind of translate things in a whole different way… to not be so stoic and conservative about how you translate information and receive it, and I think that’s a big problem here.
G1: Right, it seems that art, whatever form of art, does give a person a more open view of the world.
Ursula: It most certainly does. There’s no doubt about it, but we’re always relegated into the bohemian realm where it’s like “Oh, those are the artists, those are the weird people over there. They’re different. They think different. They dress different. They look different.” It’s a shame, but we keep working on it.
G1: Let’s talk about parenthood. You’re a mother…
Ursula: Boy am I!
G1: …and I don’t mean a Mutha, but you’re a Mother, and thinking about that, and thinking about your work as an artist how do you balance that? How have you balanced that?
Ursula: I’m a mother of four boys. I take that very seriously. I look up to the sky. I talk to God, and I’m like “God really? You really think I can handle this? ‘Cause you’ve chosen me for this”.
G1: Some of your works that I heard early on, particularly the pieces on The Roots albums, the stories were really raw… really, true life raw. What were your feelings about having your children hear some of that material?
Ursula: It is difficult, because I’m telling them different things like, “Don’t listen to this; or this isn’t cool, I’m not going to allow you to listen to this…” And they have asked me, like “Hey Mom you use…” Because all language is available and game to me. I think that’s the beauty of being a writer and a poet. Language is such an amazing thing… words, the definition of words, the way they sound… but it’s the intention. The intention is everything. I think there’s a big lack of intention in a lot of what gets formulated with words on mainstream radio today. A lot of times I’ll bleep things out myself, when we’re and we’re listening I’ll just turn it down. My oldest one used to perform a piece I have called UNTITLED FLOW, in which I say a couple of choice things. What he would do, which I thought was the coolest thing, he knew the whole song from top to bottom, and he would do it with me on stage and when it came to the parts where I would get a little bit risque he censored himself. I thought it was the coolest thing, he understood. And when he understood then I understood “ok, it’s possible. He gets it. I can find a way to balance this out and I can explain this.” And I explain things to them and I think they get it. I’m not going to hide it from them because this is who I am. If I was ashamed of what I was doing why should I be doing it? I’m not ashamed of anything that I say. I mean, I have to be a parent, but I am on a mission a lot of times to be honest. First of all to be honest with myself. If I’m gonna tell a story I gonna tell the whole story. And if the story is serious and heavy then the words that are included in the story are going to be serious and heavy… not just the words the language of it, the meaning of it. As I have come to learn Greg, and it was hard, I’ve come to realize that I wasn’t chosen to make people feel comfortable. That’s not my calling.
G1: I think that is a part of the mark of a true artist. I mean that in the sense that art isn’t always going to be comfortable. Life isn’t always comfortable.
Ursula: The truth isn’t always going to be comfortable.
G1: Exactly! And with real art being a reflection of real life there is going to be a level of discomfort at times.
Ursula: And you know, as they say, the truth will set you free. That is so cliche and so over used but really, really valid. In an odd sort of way, being uncomfortable will lead you to, at some point, being comfortable because it makes you open yourself up and feel those things and once you feel those things you can only become more human and enlightened. I can’t believe the amount of people who sign off and are ok with leading a mediocre life when we have so much to choose from. There’s so much available in the universe.
Through her words and music Ursula Rucker continues to explore availabilities and express reflections of life. Check out her previous recordings SUPA SISTA, SILVER OR LEAD, MA’AT MAMA, RUCKUS SOUNDSYSDOM, and her latest SHE SAID. More information for Ursula Rucker can be found at www.soulspazm.com/digital/UrsulaRucker, www.myspace.com/ursularucker and twitter.com/urucker