Jill Scott: Poetess of soul

The R&B singer Jill Scott started out performing spoken verse. Then she had a hit album. Chris Mugan hears why it has taken four years to deliver a follow-up
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The Independent Culture

Applicants for Simon Cowell's latest talent show, The X Factor, should look away. Anybody who has grasped at the flimsiest straw of fame is going to hate Jill Scott. For starters, the soul singer never wanted to be a star. She began her creative career as a poet, giving readings in the boho cafés of Philadelphia, before she realised that her words could be fitted to music. Then the wide-eyed ingenue came under the wing of a fellow Philadelphian, Will Smith's producer, "Jazzy" Jeff Townes. She went on to record with the hip-hop group The Roots and, as a nice little earner, contributed to the Fresh Prince's Willennium album. Then, in 2000, she released Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Volume 1, a gorgeous album of sultry, passionate soul.

Applicants for Simon Cowell's latest talent show, The X Factor, should look away. Anybody who has grasped at the flimsiest straw of fame is going to hate Jill Scott. For starters, the soul singer never wanted to be a star. She began her creative career as a poet, giving readings in the boho cafés of Philadelphia, before she realised that her words could be fitted to music. Then the wide-eyed ingenue came under the wing of a fellow Philadelphian, Will Smith's producer, "Jazzy" Jeff Townes. She went on to record with the hip-hop group The Roots and, as a nice little earner, contributed to the Fresh Prince's Willennium album. Then, in 2000, she released Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Volume 1, a gorgeous album of sultry, passionate soul.

That defiantly feel-good record went gold in the States and gave her a minor hit over here with "Gettin' in the Way", where she threatened to take off her rings and assault a rival for attempting to divert her boyfriend's affections.

Scott had done well to prosper at a time when old-school soul singers were starting to kick back against the tide of R&B divas who aped the language and poses of their male peers in rap. Along with Lauryn Hill, Angie Stone and Erykah Badu, she was integral to the birth of a new soul movement. But, in recent years, this wave of singers has lost momentum. Hill found religion, Badu journeyed to a more ethereal plane, and Scott simply disappeared. In four years there have been no guest appearances, no acoustic album to mirror Hill's MTV Unplugged epic - just a live album in 2001 that included recordings of tracks that missed the cut for her debut release.

Instead of rushing to consolidate her success, Scott committed the cardinal sin of dropping out of the public eye. She did not write as much as a couplet. Having just married the DJ and graphic designer Lyzel Williams, she took a two-year break from the industry. Rather than starting a family, she picked up a cat from the local shelter. Domestic bliss was a refreshing change. "I took one whole year and stayed home. I cooked, I cleaned. I read books. It wasn't a Martha Stewart life. I rode my bike. I hung out with my family. My mother, my grandmother, a cousin. I did very real things in real ways.

"I needed to replenish, and where do you find creativity? You find it in living, simple things. Falling asleep, waking up, listening to the birds, and actually paying attention to it."

Scott is in a hotel room on Park Lane. As her two companions talk animatedly in another room about shopping and the Olympics, Scott is a figure of Zen-like calm, relaxed but straight-backed on a plush sofa. She can roll out the New Age clichés like a guru, but there is an underlying grit that stops her from sounding airy-fairy. Her poetry book includes masturbation as a topic, and she says she would like to find cures for "cancer, Aids and genital warts".

Throughout her break, Scott benefited from an understanding record label that gave her time and space, although her fellow artists thought they knew better. Scott rolls her eyes as she remembers. "They were all saying, 'Strike while the iron's hot,' and, 'Things don't always go your way.'"

But Scott is someone very much at home with the idea of "listening to yourself" and "being true to your life'. That means doing nothing that feels wrong, and having to patiently await the movement of forces beyond your control.

It was last December that her creative juices started flowing once more, or, rather, bursting out. "It all poured out, which was nice, really nice." Except that her muse would not keep regular hours. "I needed to be obedient. When a song woke me at 2am, that meant get up, write it down or it would be gone. The year I was off, nothing came, but then songs would get me out of the tub. It was like someone hitting you repeatedly and not stopping until you responded."

Since then, Scott has written 60 songs; enough, she says proudly, for two albums. Along with the lyrics came enough poems to fill her first anthology, The Moments, the Minutes, the Hours, due out next April.

Beautifully Human - Words and Sounds Volume 2 picks up where its predecessor left off. While Volume 1 encompassed the beginning of Scott's love affair with Williams, her second record is centred on marital bliss. This could make for a very limp experience but, just like on her debut, Scott allows us to share a sensuality that is inextricably linked with love. "You had me climbing up a wall/ How many ways was God called," is a world away from the bump and grind of Missy Elliott or Lil' Kim.

Another subject carried over from Volume 1 is eating. Scott is besotted with the idea of soul food, recipes handed down through generations of African-American women. On the menu of Beautifully Human are fish and grits and chicken wings, a famous potato salad and Helenora's lemon cake. When she describes how attracted she is to a man, she says he "makes me want to cook my favourite dish" (it is yams).

What differentiates the two records are Volume 2's more confident melodies. Scott's debut mixed classic R&B with spoken words over jazzy grooves, in the manner of Gil Scott-Heron. Here she has found the discipline to wrap her lyrics tightly around the smooth instrumentation of her home city's finest musicians, who play in a manner inspired by that period in the early Seventies when Philadelphia was at the pinnacle of soul music, with The O'Jays and The Delfonics.

Scott admits that this has been helped by her reaching a better understanding with those musicians, now veterans of her eccentric recording process, having worked on Who Is.... Despite having such a glorious voice, Scott can't read a note, so explaining what she wants from a band has been a challenge.

"I describe songs in colour, taste. Sometimes I'll paint a picture in words, so people know what I'm looking for."

Volume 2 reaches its own peak on the forthcoming single "Golden", a triumphant anthem with more than a hint of gospel. Scott sings of "holdin' on to my freedom/ Can't take it from me'. Just as Aretha Franklin demanded respect with lyrics that could be read in terms of a relationship or society at large, in this song Scott could refer to freedom from the shackles of a relationship or political liberty.

But for Scott, the two are one and the same. "I'm talking about freedom in general, freedom to be who we are and that is beautifully human. We all get angry and jealous sometimes, none of us is perfect, but we should not try to be different." She is less coy about another track, "My Petition", in which she lambasts someone not only for letting her down, but for denying her the right to criticise. There is one especially sinister line: "You'll say that I'm wrong and there'll be quiet consequences too." She explains: "I believe the relationship you have with your government is not so different to a love relationship. I could easily yelp and riff and run all day long, but I thought with that one I would like to sing it in a very lovely way for the sake of clarity. I want to love my country, I want to have faith in it, but based on the actions of my president and the government I just felt our relationship wasn't working out too well."

Scott has yet to be be roped into any of the anti-Bush campaigns. She has not taken to the road with Bruce Springsteen and REM, nor joined Mary J Blige and Missy Elliott on a new version of "Wake Up Everybody". "I do it my own way, because when you begin down that path, you become a slave to it. Everyone's going, 'We got to go to the Democratic convention,' or, 'You gotta be this way.'"

Instead, Scott has concentrated her energy and resources close to where she now lives, in Camden, New Jersey, not far from her native North Philly, and a town with similar prospects. "Camden is the poor city in America and it's bad, really bad. When the kids get out of school at four o'clock there are prostitutes and pimps and drug dealers outside."

Through her Blue Babe Foundation, she has kept open community centres and reopened school libraries. Beyond that, Scott is developing a legacy that goes far beyond today's usual standards, whereby stars salve their consciences by appearing on a charity record.

As well as the Jill Scott Library, the singer has put her name to a School of Creative and Performing Arts. Already a success, it is due to move to a larger site in 2006. At the original site, teachers had given up their parking spaces to make way for temporary classrooms so more kids could be taught, even though it meant their unprotected cars were being broken into every day.

"Because I have a foundation, people tend to think, 'Oh, if you're civic-minded, then you wouldn't mind doing this cancer benefit', but I'm focused here. People should look to their own corner first, and if we all did that we could link up and have something really beautiful."

Scott sounds more passionate about the opportunity to improve her neighbourhood than about going into the studio to record her latest songs. She is remarkably matter-of-fact about her creativity, accepting it as a force that comes either from outside or deep within. Scott sees her album not as an end in itself, but as a preparatory stage before her live performances, when her mild-mannered earth-mother transforms into a firebrand and brings her songs alive.

"The albums are tools for people to learn the lyrics, so when we get together at a live performance we can all sing them. I turn it up about 1,000 per cent because the concert hall becomes a womb or a church so we all feel able to express ourselves."

Scott returns in November for her live dates, and you are hereby given notice to expect fireworks.

'Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Volume 2' is out now on Epic/Sony

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