Solange Brings It All Full Circle with Her Sister Beyoncé
It’s difficult to keep in mind the effort, the control required to make music that feels as graceful and cool as Solange’s A Seat at the Table—especially when it’s playing anywhere within earshot. All and everyone it touches just seems to groove in its glow. But does that deceptive ease, that seamlessness, on a jam like “Weary,” for example, ring somewhat differently when we know it is a Knowles joint? For so long, and perhaps right up until the release of A Seat last September, and because the media can only think in archetypes or binaries, apparently, Solange was often cast in contrast to her big sister, Beyoncé-Solange as the groovy Dionysian hipster to Bey’s Apollonian majesty. And, to be fair, while Beyoncé was making perfectly manicured pop marvels, Solange was more apt to drop a funky progressive EP, as she did with the freaky-good True, from 2012. She was, by definition, making popular music—and was then, as she remains, among the more thoughtful and direct songwriters out there—but she certainly sought out the woollier hinterlands of the genre, working with Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, Mark Ronson, and even Andy Samberg’s comedy trio the Lonely Island.
There are some great cameos on A Seat, too (Lil Wayne for the win), but it’s the restraint that creates drama throughout the record. Excepting the interludes of mini-monologues from Solange’s parents and from Master P (!), the tracks on A Seat, each written and co-produced by Solange, are as tight and polished as cue balls. It seems notable that, in a year full of unparalleled turmoil and tragedy, when sexuality, race, gender, and identity politics were the slowly moving, if molten hot, tectonic plates of American culture, the tenor of A Seat at the Table is one of extraordinary, almost chilly poise. There is a severity in Solange’s seeming serenity, as she sings on “F.U.B.U.,” for instance, about commercial and cultural appropriation of black culture; there is a rigor to her composure. But that anaerobic tension makes for all the more seductive a re-listen and re-listen and re-listen.
Solange was, of course, born and raised in Houston and fell in with the family biz (managed by her father, filling in from time to time with her sister’s Destiny’s Child). Since then she has ranged further afield, living in Los Angeles, in Brooklyn, popping up in the odd movie and TV show, even performing on Yo Gabba Gabba. For the past few years, she and her husband, the director Alan Ferguson, and her son, Julez, have lived in New Orleans, where she runs her record label and online cultural hub Saint Heron. In December, Solange brought it all full circle, getting on the phone with her big sis to talk about the challenges and achievements of a lifetime.
BEYONCÉ: Are you exhausted? I know you had a parent-teacher conference …
SOLANGE: Yeah, I actually had to fly to Philly because there were no flights left to New York. And now I’m driving from Philly to New York. Well, I’m not driving, but …
BEYONCÉ: You have to drive? From Philly?
SOLANGE: Yeah. But it’s not bad. It’s only an hour and 40 minutes.
BEYONCÉ: Oh my God! Rock star. Well, it is a bit strange, because we’re sisters and we talk all the time, to be interviewing you. But I’m so happy to interview you because, clearly, I’m your biggest fan and I’m super proud of you. So we’ll start from the beginning. Growing up, you were always attracted to the most interesting fashion, music, and art. You were obsessed with Alanis Morissette and Minnie Riperton and mixing prints with your clothes … when you were only 10 years old. You would lock yourself in a room with your drum set and a record player and write songs. Do you remember that? Of course you do.
SOLANGE: I do. [both laugh]
BEYONCÉ: What else attracted you growing up?
SOLANGE: I remember having so much perspective about my voice, and how to use my voice, at such a young age—whether it was through dance, poetry, or coming up with different projects. I guess I always felt a yearning to communicate—I had a lot of things to say. And I appreciated y’all’s patience in the house during all of these different phases. They were not ever very introverted, quiet phases.
BEYONCÉ: No, not at all. [both laugh] I remember thinking, “My little sister is going to be something super special,” because you always seemed to know what you wanted. And I’m just curious, where did that come from?
SOLANGE: I have no idea, to be honest! I always knew what I wanted. We damn sure know that I wasn’t always right. [both laugh] But I’d sit firm, whether I was right or wrong. I guess a part of that was being the baby of the family and being adamant that, in a house of five, my voice was being heard. Another part is that I remember being really young and having this voice inside that told me to trust my gut. And my gut has been really, really strong in my life. It’s pretty vocal and it leads me. Sometimes I haven’t listened, and those times didn’t end up very well for me. I think all of our family—you and mom—we’re all very intuitive people. A lot of that comes through our mother, her always following her gut, and I think that spoke to me really loudly at a young age and encouraged me to do the same.
BEYONCÉ: You write your own lyrics, you co-produce your own tracks, you write your own treatments for your videos, you stage all of your performances, all of the choreography… Where does the inspiration come from?
SOLANGE: It varies. For one, I got to have a lot of practice. Growing up in a household with a master class such as yourself definitely didn’t hurt. And, as far back as I can remember, our mother always taught us to be in control of our voice and our bodies and our work, and she showed us that through her example. If she conjured up an idea, there was not one element of that idea that she was not going to have her hand in. She was not going to hand that over to someone. And I think it’s been an interesting thing to navigate, especially watching you do the same in all aspects of your work: Society labels that a control freak, an obsessive woman, or someone who has an inability to trust her team or to empower other people to do the work, which is completely untrue. There’s no way to succeed without having a team and all of the moving parts that help bring it into life. But I do have—and I’m unafraid to say it—a very distinctive, clear vision of how I want to present myself and my body and my voice and my perspective. And who better to really tell that story than yourself?
For this record specifically, it really started with wanting to unravel some truths and some untruths. There were things that had been weighing heavy on me for quite some time. And I went into this hole, trying to work through some of these things so that I could be a better me and be a better mom to Julez and be a better wife and a better friend and a better sister. Which is a huge part of why I wanted you to interview me for this piece. Because the album really feels like storytelling for us all and our family and our lineage. And having mom and dad speak on the album, it felt right that, as a family, this closed the chapter of our stories. And my friends’ stories—every day, we’re texting about some of the micro-aggressions we experience, and that voice can be heard on the record, too. The inspiration for this record came from all of our voices as a collective, and wanting to look at it and explore it. I’m so happy I got to take my time in that process. And the end result feels really rewarding.
BEYONCÉ: Well, it brought tears to my eyes to hear both of our parents speak openly about some of their experiences. And what made you choose Master P to speak on the album?
SOLANGE: Well, I find a lot of similarities in Master P and our dad.
BEYONCÉ: Me, too. [laughs]
SOLANGE: One of the things that was really, really deep for me in talking to Dad is his experience of having the community choose you [as one of the first students to integrate his Southern elementary and junior high school]—to do that, to go out and be the warrior and the face of that is just such an incredible amount of pressure. And to evolve from that and still have your sense of independence and still have your stride and your strength, and to dream big enough that you can create something from the ground up bigger than any community, neighborhood, or those four corners … I remember reading or hearing things about Master P that reminded me so much of Dad growing up. And they also have an incredible amount of love and respect for one another. And I wanted a voice throughout the record that represented empowerment and independence, the voice of someone who never gave in, even when it was easy to lose sight of everything that he built, someone invested in black people, invested in our community and our storytelling, in empowering his people. You and I were raised being told not to take the first thing that came our way, to build our own platforms, our own spaces, if they weren’t available to us. And I think that he is such a powerful example of that.
BEYONCÉ: It was a three-year process to create A Seat at the Table. You took your time, and it’s still so fascinating to me the amount of production you did for this album, the live instrumentation, with you physically, on the keyboards, on the drums, producing not only the vocals but also co-producing the tracks. It’s something to be celebrated, for a young woman to be such a strong producer as well as a singer-songwriter and artist.
SOLANGE: Thank you! One of my biggest inspirations in terms of female producers is Missy. I remember seeing her when you guys worked together and being enamored with the idea that I could use myself as more than a voice and the words. On my previous records, I contributed to production here and there, but I was always really afraid to really get in there and … I guess I wasn’t really afraid, I was just really comfortable writing the songs. I felt like my contributions as a producer were enough. But when I started to work on the sonics for this record, I realized that I had to create such a very specific sonic landscape in telling the story. I had these jam sessions, and there were holes that no one else could really fill for me. It really came out of a need for something outside of what I could articulate and lead someone else to do. And it was scary. It was really scary, and a lot of times I was frustrated with myself and feeling insecure because it was new to operate in that space and be in front of people at this age, learning something on this level. But I feel so grateful and excited that there’s a new phase that I conquered as an artist.
BEYONCÉ: What does the song title “Cranes in the Sky” mean?
SOLANGE: “Cranes in the Sky” is actually a song that I wrote eight years ago. It’s the only song on the album that I wrote independently of the record, and it was a really rough time. I know you remember that time. I was just coming out of my relationship with Julez’s father. We were junior high school sweethearts, and so much of your identity in junior high is built on who you’re with. You see the world through the lens of how you identify and have been identified at that time. So I really had to take a look at myself, outside of being a mother and a wife, and internalize all of these emotions that I had been feeling through that transition. I was working through a lot of challenges at every angle of my life, and a lot of self-doubt, a lot of pity-partying. And I think every woman in her twenties has been there—where it feels like no matter what you are doing to fight through the thing that is holding you back, nothing can fill that void.
I used to write and record a lot in Miami during that time, when there was a real estate boom in America, and developers were developing all of this new property. There was a new condo going up every ten feet. You recorded a lot there as well, and I think we experienced Miami as a place of refuge and peace. We weren’t out there wilin’ out and partying. I remember looking up and seeing all of these cranes in the sky. They were so heavy and such an eyesore, and not what I identified with peace and refuge. I remember thinking of it as an analogy for my transition—this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us. And we all know how that ended. That crashed and burned. It was a catastrophe. And that line came to me because it felt so indicative of what was going on in my life as well. And, eight years later, it’s really interesting that now, here we are again, not seeing what’s happening in our country, not wanting to put into perspective all of these ugly things that are staring us in the face.
BEYONCÉ: I was with you the week leading up to your release, and it’s the most nervous time for any artist, but I know it was a nervous time for you.
SOLANGE: Yeah. I was breaking out into hives. I could not sit still. It was terrifying. This was going to be such an intimate, up-close, staring-you-right-in-the-face experience, the way people would see me and hear me. It was one thing to make the record and have those reservations; it was another to finish it and actually share it. I just feel so much joy and gratitude that people have connected to it in this way. The biggest reward that I could ever get is seeing women, especially black women, talk about what this album has done, the solace it has given them.
BEYONCÉ: All right, girl! [both laugh] What inspired the cover art?
SOLANGE: I wanted to create an image that invited people to have an up-close and personal experience—and that really spoke to the album title—that communicated, through my eyes and my posture, like, “Come and get close. It’s not going to be pretty. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s going to get a little gritty, and it might get a little intense, but it’s a conversation we need to have.” I wanted to nod to the Mona Lisa and the stateliness, the sternness that that image has. And I wanted to put these waves in my hair, and to really set the waves, you have to put these clips in. And when Neal, the hair stylist, put the clips in, I remember thinking, “Woah, this is the transition, in the same way that I’m speaking about on ‘Cranes.'” It was really important to capture that transition, to show the vulnerability and the imperfection of the transition—those clips signify just that, you know? Holding it down until you can get to the other side. I wanted to capture that.
BEYONCÉ: Your voice on the album, the tone of your voice, the vulnerability in your voice and in your arrangements, the sweetness and the honesty and purity in your voice—what inspired you to sing in that tone?
SOLANGE: It was very intentional that I sang as a woman who was very in control, a woman who could have this conversation without yelling and screaming, because I still often feel that when black women try to have these conversations, we are not portrayed as in control, emotionally intact women, capable of having the hard conversations without losing that control. I had not really explored my falsetto as much on previous works. As you said, I have always loved Minnie Riperton, and I loved Syreeta Wright and really identified with a few of her songs that she and Stevie Wonder did. She was saying some really tough shit, but the tone of her voice was so sweet that you could actually hear her more clearly. I wanted to find a happy medium, feeling like I was being direct and clear, but also knowing that this was a conversation that I was very much in control of—able to have that moment, to exist in it, to live in it and ponder it, not to yell and scream and fight my way through it—I was doing enough of that in my life, so I wanted to make a clear distinction of me controlling that narrative. Aaliyah was also a huge influence and has always been. Her vocal arrangements with Static Major are some of my favorite in the world.
BEYONCÉ: Well, I am so glad we grew up in Houston. And I know that it’s such a big inspiration for all of us: you, myself, my mom, my dad … everybody that lives there. How can you describe growing up on Parkwood, and what about our hometown do you carry with you?
SOLANGE: Growing up on Parkwood was so inspiring because we got to see a little bit of everything. We grew up in the same neighborhood that produced Scarface, Debbie Allen, and Phylicia Rashad. So, culturally, it was as rich as it gets. People were warm. People were friendly. But the biggest thing that I took from it is the storytelling. I feel like, in the South in general, but specifically in our world growing up, people were expressive and vivid storytellers. In the hair salon or in the line at the grocery store; there was never a dull moment. I feel so happy that I got to grow up in a place where you could be the pastor’s wife, you could be a lawyer, you could be a stripper on the side, you could be a schoolteacher—we saw every kind of woman connect on one common experience, which was that everyone wanted to be great and everyone wanted to do better. And we really became womanist because of that. And that’s the thing that I carry with me the most, being able to go out into the world and connect with women of all kinds. I was just having a conversation with someone about The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and I was saying how I love that show and think it’s so brilliant because it’s the woman that was represented in my childhood in Houston. It makes me feel so at home.
BEYONCÉ: What are some misconceptions about being a strong woman?
SOLANGE: Oh my God, they’re endless! [laughs] One thing that I constantly have to fight against is not feeling arrogant when I say I wrote every lyric on this album. I still have not been able to say that. That’s the first time I’ve actually ever said it, because of the challenges that we go through when we celebrate our work and our achievements. I remember Björk saying that she felt like, no matter what stage in her career, if a man is credited on something that she’s done, he’s going to get the credit for it. And, unfortunately, that still rings true. It’s something I’ve learned so much about from you, getting to be in control of your own narrative. And, at this point, it should be an expectation, not something that you’re asking permission for. I feel like I’m getting closer to that, not taking on all the baggage when I have to just stand up for myself and say, “No, I’m uncomfortable with that.” And I really appreciate you and mom being examples of that, being able to speak about our achievements, these things that deserve to be celebrated, without feeling bashful about it.
BEYONCÉ: You have an ability to see things before they happen that I’ve never really seen in anyone else as consistently as you do. You always know the new artists two years before they come out. Or the new DJs or producers or the new fashion brands … How do you do that?
SOLANGE: I’m probably on the internet way more than I should be. [both laugh] I don’t know. I love connecting people. I love introducing people to other people who are doing incredible work in the world. And I’m just on the internet too damn much. [laughs]
BEYONCÉ: You and Alan—who is my brother, your husband—worked together on the visuals for this project, and y’all outdid yourselves. What was that experience like?
SOLANGE: The experience was one I will cherish for the rest of my life. I remember telling you years ago that I wanted to work with him, but I was scared because I felt like our relationship, by the grace of God, is the one thing that I can count on to be intact and to be solid. When I go out in the world, I know that when I come home, I’m going to find peace with him. And I didn’t want any variable that could interrupt that. And you actually encouraged that and said, “I swear, you guys are going to be just fine and will probably make the best work that you have ever made because of the way that you love and respect one another and each other’s vision.” And through the process of making this record, every time I would come home from the studio, I would be really depleted. And it was Alan who would encourage me and help lift me back up and give me that coach speech to go back into the studio and start a new day. So he knew these stories better than anyone did. And when it came time to talk about the visual aspects of the project, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he had to be the person to help bring the vision to life. And he really saw this through in every single detail that he possibly could have.
Only a person who loves me would say yes to shooting 21 scenes in one week and climbing mountains and literally crossing waterfalls with million-dollar equipment strapped to his back. We started off with huge ideas, a sizable crew. We were in two RVs that we drove from New Orleans to New Mexico with about ten to fifteen stops along the way. And, at the end of it, people were so tired, rightfully so. They were cranky and ready to go home, rightfully so. And Alan and I were like, “We just got started!” We were maybe a quarter of the way through what we actually wanted to achieve. And only a person who loves you would say, “Let’s fly back to New Orleans, rent a car, and just you and I do that trip all over again.” I was so happy to have a partner in crime, because visual storytelling is just as important, if not more important in some ways, to the overall storytelling of my projects. It’s really a meditation for me when I’m coming up with these concepts and painting these pictures—that is one of the few times that my brain shuts off in that way. And Alan was there to say, “Hey, the light is fading. Everybody is telling us that we can’t get this much light in the aperture. We need to wrap. But I think that this is when the light is just beginning. This is the color the sky needs to be.”
BEYONCÉ: Okay, now I’m going to go to the speed round … Lady Sings the Blues  or Mahogany ?
SOLANGE: Mahogany! Without a doubt. You know, that’s the first movie that Alan and I watched together. That was our first official date.
BEYONCÉ: That I know. When do you feel most free?
SOLANGE: When I’m in a musical meditation.
BEYONCÉ: “No Me Queda Mas” or “I Could Fall in Love”?
SOLANGE: This is so unfair! “No Me Queda Mas.”
BEYONCÉ: What is the funniest text you got from our mom this week? [both laugh] That’s too personal, never mind. You’ve got to love Mama Tina. How does it feel to have the dopest wedding photo of all time?
SOLANGE: Oh my God, that is subjective!
BEYONCÉ: What makes you laugh the hardest?
SOLANGE: The Real Housewives of Atlanta, hands-down.
BEYONCÉ: Really?! I didn’t know that.
SOLANGE: I watch it religiously, and I am in stitches the whole time.
BEYONCÉ: One of my proudest moments as a sister was when I was able to introduce you to your hero, Nas, and you cried and acted a fool. I was so surprised that Mrs. Too-cool-for-everything was acting a fool. Is there another human being that would get that reaction out of you now if you met him/her?
SOLANGE: Diana Ross. For sure. I broke out in some hives when I went to her concert. Alan was like, “Uh, you’re breaking out into hives. Calm down.”
BEYONCÉ: And, honestly, growing up, how did I do as a big sister?
SOLANGE: You did a kickass job. You were the most patient, loving, wonderful sister ever. In the 30 years that we’ve been together, I think we’ve only really, like, butted heads … we can count on one hand.
BEYONCÉ: I was expecting something funny, but I’ll take it. Thank you.
BEYONCÉ IS A 20-TIME GRAMMY AWARD-WINNING RECORDING ARTIST. HER SIXTH STUDIO ALBUM AND COMPANION FILM, LEMONADE, WAS RELEASED LAST YEAR.