Several months back, Wayne Coyne called up Erykah Badu out of the blue with the news that he was on the way to Dallas to work with her. “He drove from Oklahoma one night, naked,” she tells Rolling Stone, then pauses and corrects herself. “I don’t know if he was naked, but it seems like he would probably do something like that.”
A fan of the Flaming Lips‘ bright, confetti-abundant stage show, the “Window Seat” singer was all ears. Later that night, the two were in the studio recording a couple of songs, including one that was released today on The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, a collaborative double vinyl the psych-rockers put together for Record Store Day.
“Wayne is the Willy Wonka of music. He said, ‘Well, I have two songs for you to do,'” the four-time Grammy winner explains, doing her best Coyne impression. “One is just a psychedelic hodgepodge and whatever you want to do over it, you can do, but we’re not going to do that first. I want you to do a remake of Roberta Flack’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.'” Despite her initial reaction – “Heeeell noooo!! Can’t nobody do that!” – she decided to persevere.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Badu admits. At first instructed to “just feel it” and “sing it however you want to,” she says Coyne then proceeded to interrupt her 29 times with instructions during the recording process. “I was like, ‘C’mon man, just let me sing it!'” she says, laughing about Coyne’s madcap peer pressure. “By the 29th time, EUREKA! I understood exactly what I wanted.” The end result clocks in at 10 minutes, perhaps the longest take on the song in history.
The next recording was “Now I Understand,” the supernova dust cloud of sound that surfaced online in January. The novel track is a cosmic yin-yang between Badu’s airy, lush vocals and the iPhone’s artificial intelligence. Badu sings about the moon and the stars, while Siri repeats “I don’t understand” like a modern-day HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Do you know where I can get some pussy?” Badu asks her gold-chromed iPhone during the interview, showing the inspiration for the track. “Let’s see what she says,” Badu anticipates, turning up the volume on her handheld. Sure enough, Siri hits back creepy and calm, “I don’t understand … where I can get some pussy.”
If you’re wondering why Erykah Badu is in such high demand, the answer is simple: Apart from the talent that crowned her the Queen of Neo-Soul 15 years ago, she is fun to hang out with, an old soul never afraid to push the envelope. Her voice also shows up on the Damon Albarn, Flea and Tony Allen afrofunk supergroup Rocket Juice and the Moon debut, released earlier this month. She recently collaborated with jazz pianist Robert Glasper on a cover of John Coltrane’s “Afro Blue,” and made a cameo in the DJ documentary Re:Generation Music Project. With her production collective Cannabinoids, she dropped the free beat-tape – aptly titled “The Beat-Tape Vol. 1” – in March and anticipates a legit full-length album will be out soon. The 41-year-old is also planning to complete the follow-up to 2010’s New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) by year’s end. “I take my time,” Badu says of her work. “I’m ballin’ up pieces of paper and throwing them away, cussing out my boyfriend in-between, just trying to get some energy or emotion going.”
Her work doesn’t end there. In 2012 alone, Badu has helped deliver three babies through her part-time work as a doula. When asked if she sings while helping deliver the babies, she replies: “I cry. Joni Mitchell says it’s the same emotion: laughing, crying and singing. It’s the same feeling that I have.”