OUT OF THE GATES, MARY J. Blige’s seventh album, The Breakthrough, was a blockbuster. Released in December of 2005, it debuted atop the charts, selling a whopping 727,000 copies in its first week out. The lead single, “Be Without You,” ruled the R & B charts for fifteen straight weeks, and the powerhouse collaboration with U2 on their classic “One” reached an even bigger audience — proving without a doubt that Blige is the pre-eminent soul singer of our time. Now she is nominated for eight Grammys, but Blige still sees The Breakthrough — on which she addresses her past drug and alcohol abuse and childhood abandonment by her father — as more of a personal triumph than a professional one. “I had to kick through the wall, to no longer blame other people for the terrible things that have happened to me,” says Blige, 36, sitting in her suite at the Ritz Carlton in New York. “I had to find the pleasure on the other side of pain.”
Why were you named Mary Jane?
People sometimes ask me, “Gosh, how’d you end up Mary Jane Blige? It sounds like a country singer’s name.” My father’s mother died, I believe, while having him. Her name was Mary Jane.
As a kid, you sang in church. What was your first big solo?
I always sang lead in a song by the Clark Sisters called “I’m Looking for a Miracle.” But my first time ever singing in public was in elementary school, at a talent show in the auditorium. It was a big deal. I was seven, and I sang “Reunited,” by Peaches & Herb. There were a lot of girls that could sing, but they got put into girl groups. When it was Mary J. Blige’s turn, it was just like it is right now. I went out alone.
Growing up, were you constantly listening to music?
When things didn’t feel good, music made things feel good. And when it came time to have fun, we put on the music. When my father left, he left a crate of records behind, and I know every song: Parliament, B.T. Express, the Ohio Players, Staple Singers, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Betty Wright… the list can keep going. Did I mention Gladys Knight?
DMX, who also grew up in Yonkers, New York, told me about the block parties. How’s your break dancing?
I was really, really good. I was a poplocker. I used to battle guys in the hallways. And as far as the electric boogie and all that goes, I was nice. I still think I’m nice. I wouldn’t do it in public, but if I did, I wouldn’t embarrass myself.
Instrumentalists can get in a serious groove, where they can play no wrong note. Does that ever happen to you when you’re singing?
Absolutely. It comes out of nowhere, and it feels like you’ve stepped out of yourself.
When is the last time that happened?
Lately I’ve been singing “Take Me as I Am” [from The Breakthrough], and there’s a part in the breakdown when I keep saying, “This is me, this is me.” By the third “This is me,” I’m gone. I’ve lost myself. Then I say, “This is me, nobody else,” and then I begin to do this moan, almost a cry. That moment is crazy! And I don’t care how much I sing “No More Drama” — that same thing happens every time. Oh, man! That’s the best part about singing.
When you sang “One” with U2 at the Katrina telethon, I felt it.
Yeah. That part where it says, “We hurt each other and we do it again/You say love is a temple, love is a higher law” — when that part hits, it’s over.
During that telethon, Kanye West dropped the bomb on President Bush. Being there, what went through your mind?
I was feeling so terrible about what was happening to our people down there. We didn’t know why they weren’t getting any help, dying of thirst and sleeping in their own feces. I’m not saying that I totally agreed, but at the time, it looked like it was true.
What’s your normal day like?
I get up and I pray that everything goes right. Then I train. If I don’t have to work, I read a lot of self-help books, about anything that will make my life better or show me how to treat people better. I go online, I drink a lot of water, and if a good movie pops up, I’ll check it out.
You’ve worked with U2, Elton John and Sting. Who’s next?
My manager told me that Annie Lennox wants to do a record with me. I love Annie Lennox. Whenever she’s ready, Mary’s right here.
You’ve said that your voice is not perfect — whose is?
Whitney was perfect. Technically, she was the best.
Do you like going to shows?
Yeah. I went to an Usher show in London, and I went to see Justin Timberlake, too. You can’t take anything from Justin. He’s the truth. If I could pick anything up from them, it would be their showmanship. They’re really not afraid to face the audience, to really be a star.
What instrument do you wish you could play?
I wish I could play guitar like George Benson and piano like Thelonious Monk.
What songs from your past are difficult to listen to?
There’s a song I wrote years ago, “Happy Endings.” I could cry every time I hear that record. But I don’t mind feeling pain at all. As long as it’s not self-inflicted or unnecessary. And I know that there’s pleasure now on the other side of that pain.
How many acceptance speeches will you write for the Grammys?