Jill Scott on Country Songwriting and Love's Hard Knocks

Fifth album 'Woman' attempts "stories that you can feel"

A sharp, candid lyricist, Jill Scott has explored love from every possible angle, often drawing on her own experiences: from the thrill of courtship to the pain of divorce, the radical act of self-love and the humbling birth of a first child. But Scott has never sounded as authoritative as she does on her fifth album, Woman, out July 24. Whether setting her voice to hypnotic, adult-contemporary R&B (lead single "Fool's Gold") or letting it loose in the context of deep Southern soul ("You Don't Know"), Scott chronicles a lifetime of loving fearlessly, and at times recklessly, relishing the pain along with the payoff. 

When we caught up with Scott during her current tour, she wasn't exactly an open book. When asked about her initial defense and harsher follow-up critiques of Bill Cosby in light of the sexual-assault allegations against him, her publicist cut in: "Right now her Twitter is what her emotions are on the situation." Scott did, however, talk openly about love and how she plans to continue connecting with listeners in an era of diminishing album sales.

 You've described Woman's sound as "Philly soul meets country rhythm." How did you arrive there?
Nothing tells a story like a country song; it really paints pictures. Then to add fire to that with classic soul, like what Philadelphia brings, and then hip-hop elements — it's all storytelling. I consider myself a storyteller. So often people define me as, "You're an R&B singer," instead of, "You do jazz, blues, classical, funk, country, everything."

Was the idea of genre on your mind during the making of Woman?
The only thing that crossed my mind is making stories that you can feel. I want it to be music for people to live by, and I also want to show that there's a difference between girls and women. I'd say for about 96 percent of girls, love can be like water. When it gets hot, things get hot because there is nothing holding them down. It's wonderful to be a girl and feel that love, but when you become a woman! I thought I was a woman when I was 30. [Laughs] But I've learned and I love the process. It's about making decisions for yourself and learning the difference between having a maintenance man — the one who services your needs at the moment — and having a partner. Your needs compared to your wants is big, because you don't know what you need until you grow up.

What has it been like to revisit older albums like 2000's Who Is Jill Scott?
They're stories I love to tell. The Giving Tree — what a wonderful story. I loved it at the time, but when I read it to my son, I have an understanding of it that I didn't when I read it to myself or when my mom read it to me when I was younger. Somebody will relate to [Who Is Jill Scott] at some point in their lives, and a lot of people have fond memories of that time. It's the same for me.

You've talked about itching for change when it comes to your music. Why?
It's been 15 years. In order for me to continue loving this, I had to do something different. If I'm going to make collages — creative, artistic things that feed my soul — then I have to grow. I want the music to be more interesting, more powerful, more simple. Simplicity is the hardest thing of all. I'm not the artist who sits around and waits for someone else to come tell me what to say or how I feel or what's right. I have to live and learn. And I keep listening and liking new music.

Like what?
I really enjoy Laura Mvula. She's a composer, and it's wonderful to see. Alabama Shakes — I like their depth and the musicianship. It's good to see that the legacy of music continues despite the business, despite not getting the publishing that writers deserve on so many levels.

It's been tough for musicians.
For artists like myself, gold is the new platinum because most people are streaming. I love to sell records. I really would love to feel supported in that and appreciated for what I do. And I do, because I'm able to perform live. When I come to a town, people show. They're ready, and full of energy, and excited, and singing, and crying, and laughing, and dancing, and making out — and I like it. It's really good to see people just being people.

There are artists who release albums every single year. You're not one of them.
I base on my career off of Frankie Beverly and Maze, so I'm their kid whether they know it or not. They don't have to put albums out. People recognize them and know they're going to get a good show. I think Frankie just retired, but after 25, 30 years without putting out a record and selling out huge stadiums. I can always perform.

Is there anything you want to add about Woman?
I just would add to listen, not skim through. Turn everything off. Put the phone somewhere else. I'd say the same thing for all music. Music is an incredible way to tell stories and create. If you can find a moment when you're in the tub or in the car, really ponder, listen, feel. There's so many things that are stripping us of our humanity.

What's the biggest thing?
I think that it's easy to care behind a computer screen and not actually say or do anything with the people you can touch. There's lots of opinions on the internet but no actions out in the streets. That's what I think makes us lose ourselves. . . . I'll say this: I don't think that anyone is a fool for loving. If you haven't loved anyone, that's one thing. And if you have a well-rounded love and are mature enough, then it sucks when you get your feelings hurt, because if you chose love, you chose who you spend your time with.

You address that in "You Don't Know," how to love someone is to confront the pain that comes with it and the person you chose as a whole.
And with them being a part of yourself. You don't jump out of a window or off a plane and think that you might fall. Falling for love is getting beaten down and broken. People get hard, tough, instead of just taking the helmet off. That's the best way, you know? That's the way I live. People might not get that just yet. They might never.