It was Halloween 2009 when India Arie hopped a plane at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and left her successful career behind.
She had just finished a 10-week tour opening for John Legend in support of her fourth album, “Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics.” Before that she’d been headlining her own tour. But on this day, she was done. Exhaustion, self-doubt, a bad breakup and a dispute with her management had brought her down. So she sought refuge on an island in the Pacific Northwest.
As the cold air stung her face on the ferry ride following the long flight, she remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of relief.
“It was the beauty of being free. I felt like I was going in search of something and didn’t know what it was,” said Arie, 38, speaking last month from Seattle, where she kicked off a two-month tour supporting her fifth and latest release, “SongVersation.”
“Once I admitted to myself that I didn’t like my life and that I needed to make changes, I was willing to do whatever it took,” she said. “I was like, [God], just tell me what it is, because I want to feel good about my life. I thought what I wanted to do at that time was retire.”
Riding high on hit songs including “Video” and “I Am Not My Hair,” Arie had been a frequent presence on the R&B charts throughout the 2000s. She’d racked up 21 Grammy nominations, garnering four wins, and sold more than 10 million records worldwide. But the success had begun to feel hollow. She no longer controlled her own life, thanks to a chaotic schedule, and her mission to spread “peace, love and healing” through her music had lost its focus.
The time had come for her to stop.
The daughter of a Motown singer and an NBA basketball player, Arie was 12 when she moved to Atlanta from Denver following her parents’ divorce. She always had a creative streak, so after high school she went to SCAD in Savannah to study metalsmithing. But when a boyfriend gave her an acoustic guitar, she began writing songs and her metalsmithing days were over. She left SCAD and began performing regularly at Atlanta’s Yin Yang Café (now Apache Café), where she developed her sound.
Arie’s acoustic guitar-based songs set her apart from the slicker productions of the more established female R&B artists like Toni Braxton and TLC, who were on the scene at the time.
“Being an alternative to that gave me an identity,” she said.
Yin Yang Café was a hotbed for the neo-soul movement, so called for the artists’ smooth vocals, use of real instruments and their melodic references to classic R&B. And Arie was at the heart of it, co-founding a collective of like-minded musicians called Groovement. When “India’s Song,” an acoustic rumination on slavery and racism, appeared on a Groovement compilation CD in 1998, it landed Arie a spot on that summer’s Lilith Fair tour. That led to a deal with Motown after a top executive promised her creative license.
Arie’s rise to fame was swift following the 2001 debut of her album “Acoustic Soul.” The next year she released “Voyage to India,” which peaked at No. 1 on the R&B charts.
But by the fall of 2009, as her tour to support “Testimony: Vol. 2” ended, Arie needed a break from the industry.
Her Halloween getaway turned into three years of side projects, soul-searching and musical experimentation. She traveled to Hawaii and the Middle East; she helped her mom launch Haven Street, an online leather handbag and jewelry business; and she performed at a charity event for Half the Sky, a global initiative to improve opportunities for oppressed women. A nationwide screening of the event held on International Women’s Day in 2010 benefited Atlanta-based CARE.
Around that same time, Arie met Israeli pianist Idan Raichel, and the two wrote an album of songs in Hebrew and English. “Open Door” contained lush melodies and lyrics about world peace and gender equality. The pair performed at the Nobel Peace Concert in Oslo and got a standing ovation when they played a few songs at TEDx Atlanta in 2011.
“I jumped in with all fours,” Arie said of “Open Door.” But she and Raichel could not agree on how the music should be released, and she shelved the project in 2012. That’s when she got the idea for “SongVersation.”
“I was sitting at my table, meditating on things, and it just hit me. I asked myself, ‘Are you going to give away your power for the sake of one specific thing?” she said, referring to the negotiations with Raichel. “Or are you going to do what you know you need to do?’”
What Arie needed to do was to get back to her roots. It had been three years since she’d released a recording. So she gathered her longtime band members and started from scratch. The result is a 16-song CD on Motown that debuted in June in the Top 5 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums.
Arie is proud of the way “SongVersation” hearkens back to her earliest days in Atlanta.
“I still hold those same fundamental tenets today of why I sing about the things I sing about,” said Arie. “All of that came from the [Yin Yang] era.”
The album bridges the divide between confessional acoustic balladry and polished, upbeat grooves. “Just Do You,” written with her music director Shannon Sanders, is a feel-good number pushed along by rhythmic piano chords, a call-and-response chorus and motivational lyrics that could have been ripped from the pages of a book by spiritual self-help author Marianne Williamson. “Thy Will Be Done,” also co-written with Sanders and featuring reggae artist Gramps Morgan, has a horn section, a Swahili chant and gospel inflections.
Arie co-wrote three songs with David Ryan Harris, a songwriter and producer who once fronted the Atlanta-based bands Follow For Now and Brand New Immortals.
“My job was to help foster a feeling where she could really express what’s going on in her life,” Harris said.
The first song the pair wrote, “Life I Know,” prompted Arie to tweet, “David Ryan Harris and I wrote the most important song since “Ready For Love” yesterday. I’ve been crying all day.”
The ballad is one of Arie’s most personal. “I’ve kept a secret for too long. The truth is, I’m confused about where I belong,” she sings contemplatively. “I’m not a mother or a wife and I’m living such a complicated life.”
On a recent episode of “Super Soul Sunday” on OWN-TV, Oprah Winfrey asked Arie, if she had one question for God, what would it be? Arie answered, “Where is my husband?”
“Life I Know” addresses that yearning. “All my friends are having families of their own,” she sings. “I’m still waiting for the perfect one to come.” Then she reassures herself: “Sometimes it hurts like hell, but I walk away with a song and a story to tell. And this is the life I know.”
Arie said she has always spoken her truth in her songs, but in a conceptual or thematic way. “It’s autobiographical, but with a thin layer of poetry protecting me,” she said. “Taking that thin layer out is what David inspired me to do. I [am] willing to talk about things I wasn’t willing to talk about before.”
“SongVersation” has moments of deep reflection, but its themes – reminiscent of Arie’s sentiments on that ferry ride four years ago — are about liberation and courage.
She said she was searching for something back then but didn’t know what. She does now.
“I found spiritual maturity,” Arie said.