What You Sing Matters!


By Neal Pollack and Mary Bolster  |  

Keeping It Real With India.Arie

From the moment she burst onto the scene in 2001 with her sultry debut album, Acoustic Soul, India.Arie has radiated confidence, poise, self-assurance, and authenticity. Her career has soared—she has recorded gold and multi-platinum albums, won four Grammys, and been hailed as one of the great voices of her generation—and her soulful lyrics and luscious melodies have resonated with millions.

But in 2006, though she was an unqualified success, Arie says something wasn’t right internally. Her music, she says, didn’t feel authentic. The very thing she was known for—keeping it real—felt like it was missing. “I had to leave the road and get myself together,” she says.

When she returned home to Atlanta after touring, the first thing she did was kneel down and press through the balls of her feet. “It was profound how good it felt,” she says. “I just started bawling my eyes out.” That grounding sensation was the beginning of her yoga practice, and it changed everything.

Since that day, Arie says she hasn’t traveled without a yoga mat. She practices every day—sometimes in a class but more often on her own—first thing in the morning. She is more aware of her posture. Her diet has improved. She has begun to dance on stage, feeling much more confident in her body’s ability to express itself. Most important, though, her work has transformed—both the music and the lyrics. “Everything in my music has always been emotionally and spiritually motivated,” she says. “But after I started doing yoga, the place where I come from changed drastically.”

In 2008, Arie traveled to Israel with author and mystic Carolyn Myss, who wrote the book Anatomy of the Spirit. There, Arie met Israeli pianist and composer Idan Raichel, and she found herself deeply moved by his music. This led to her collaborating with Raichel and an Israeli orchestra and resulted in Arie’s fourth album, Open Door, coming out this fall.

The centerpiece of Open Door is “Gift of Acceptance,” a song with a message that’s stunningly beautiful in its simplicity: We can live in harmony and tolerance and accept one another’s choices and beliefs as valid.

“The things that I say in that song are things that I always thought,” explains Arie, “but I guess I was afraid of it because I didn’t want to offend anyone or go too far. But not being able to speak my true mind in my music was not sustainable. I’m not afraid anymore.”

Finding Connection With Morley

Like the singers she’s been compared to—Joan Armatrading, Sade, Tracy Chapman, and Annie Lennox—New York singer-songwriter Morley pens intelligent, compassionate, and deeply personal songs rooted in folk, jazz, and world music. And she’s unapologetic about what the art represents: “Music goes back to the basics—that we’re interconnected, that love is the highest power, that we’re not divided.”

Morley’s fascination with interconnectedness (her new album is called Undivided) dates to a Sivananda Yoga class she took in 1996 at age 19. The class inspired her curiosity about unity and action, which led first to a commitment to social justice and later to songwriting. Her practice, her causes, and her music have since been mutually reinforcing.

Morley became a Sivananda Yoga teacher in 2000. Through yoga, which she has taught all over the world in settings from basements and safe houses to lunch rooms and prisons, she has encountered amazing diversity, but she is always struck by the essential oneness of her students. “They all want the same thing: their humanity acknowledged,” she says. “When we recognize that in each other, we don’t have to make a fist and shout at one another.”

In her own life, yoga provides a feeling of spaciousness when things look bleak. “If I get too attached to results, my world contracts. My practice, especially Pranayama, helps me unhook from that attachment and create space,” she explains. Yoga’s power to create space has proven useful in Morley’s work with international, multi-faith teen leadership program Face to Face, Faith to Faith. The program brings together teenagers from conflict zones around the world for two weeks of workshops in Holmes, New York.

Morley suggested adding yoga to the program in order to give the teens relief—a “place to put things”—after talking about war and death. “For me, yoga is crucial in every setting where this kind of work is being done. Every police officer should be doing yoga, and every prison guard. It would change things,” she says. Yoga is a way for the teens to experience their commonality. “To see 90 kids from around the world standing in Tree Pose, all linked to the same balance, is beautiful. That’s real love and understanding,” Morley says.

On Undivided, “Be the One” is inspired by the teens Morley met through Face to Face. “I wanted them to know they could change the history of their family or community or even their country. I didn’t want them to forget that.”

Being Present With a Fine Frenzy

It took a long time for Alison Sudol to recognize what she now considers to be two of the greatest gifts yoga offers: being present and being grateful. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter, who has been practicing yoga since she was 15, says “I would hear about being present in the moment and being grateful, but I had a very difficult time figuring out how to get there.”

In 2007, performing under the name A Fine Frenzy, Sudol made a big splash at the South by Southwest music festival, and she subsequently went on tour opening for Rufus Wainwright. Her fun, romantic songs have made her an indie darling and were used in multiple TV show and movie soundtracks. She should have been reveling in the glory, but she wasn’t.

“It’s a funny thing when you find yourself living the life that you imagined and not being happy in it,” says Sudol. “With every great thing that happened, I was already focused on the next thing, and I was missing my life.”

Prompted by some “very wise people in my life,” Sudol thought about what really made her happy and vowed to build her life around that. “I realized I wanted to make art that would transport people to some beautiful place and that would allow them to feel safe enough to connect.” She also realized that nature had a powerful hold over her. “To walk through a forest or along a river or a beach centers me the way a really great yoga class does,” she says.

The result is Pines, due out this fall. The album takes the form of a fable about nature; in the songs on the album, the world transforms from something dark and lost to something bright, beautiful, and hopeful. “Writing these songs really helped me work through what was blocking my being present,” she says. Now, she finds her yoga practice is reinforcement for what she’s learned as well as a reminder to stay connected to that which lets her see the world with hope and wonder. “It all adds up to happiness and presence,” she says.

Loving Peace With Emmanuel Jal

Click on any YouTube video of African hip-hop artist Emmanuel Jal and you will be transported to a carnival of joyous, celebratory, infectious expressions of love and peace. Like musicians in South Africa during apartheid and Bob Marley in Jamaica, Jal believes in the power of music to end wars, heal wounds, and rebuild lives. His journey from the killing fields of South Sudan, where he was a child soldier, to concert and lecture halls around the world, where he raps and shares his story, is extraordinary. Plucked from a refugee camp by a British aid worker and smuggled into Nairobi when he was 11 years old, Jal started singing to ease the trauma of his violent and bloody childhood.

“Music is a way for me to communicate. It’s a painkiller to me,” he says. Through his music, Jal hopes to heal the pain of the people he left behind in South Sudan. Devoted to bringing peace to his home country and helping communities overcome the effects of war and poverty, Jal founded two charities, Lose to Win and Gua Africa, and he lends his support and voice to many others, including the Africa Yoga Project in Kenya.

“I support the yoga project because they are promoting a message of peace,” says Jal. Initially wary of yoga, which he thought was devil worship, Jal now helps raise money for the group. He occasionally does yoga himself, especially before a show, though he says he can’t practice asana too frequently because it activates too much energy in him. “When I look at yoga, there’s a connection to how we used to play as kids,” he says.

As this issue goes to press, Jal is organizing a peace rally around the world at all of the Sudanese embassies to shine a spotlight on the conflict in Sudan, and he’s confident yogis will participate: “The yoga people are the biggest givers and peace-lovers that I’ve ever come across. They are always smiling, always loving one another. I haven’t met an angry or mad one yet. You actually see love in them.”

Through his music (his new album See Me Mama will be released in September, 2012), activism, and partnerships, Jal expresses his gratitude and wishes for a more peaceful world. “I don’t want to lie to myself that I can solve everything because I can’t. But I am here to make a difference, and I want to know that I did the best I could.”

On Love and Longing With Rebecca Pidgeon

Her roots are in folk-pop (she was the lead singer of the British band Ruby Blue from 1986 until 1990), but Rebecca Pidgeon has been branching out steadily since releasing her first solo album, The Raven, in 1994. Her third album, The Four Marys, was a nod to her Celtic-influenced childhood in Scotland. In her latest album, Slingshot, released this year, Pidgeon moves easily between jazz, folk, country, and rock as she explores themes of love and yearning with unflinching honesty, laying bare the ways in which we strive and seek. “As humans, we always have a tinge of longing because we’re always striving for some other thing. There’s never that stasis of perfect harmony,” the singer-songwriter says.

Introduced to yoga in her teens by her mother, a senior intermediate Iyengar Yoga teacher, Pidgeon started practicing in earnest at the age of 30. After trying various styles, she returned to Iyengar Yoga, which she describes as “so deep, it’s like a feast.” Now, Pidgeon says, yoga sparks her inspiration. “Not practicing yoga would feel like being inside a prison,” she says. “It’s a discipline that guides me toward my best expression.”

Even as her music illuminates human longing, yoga serves to deepen Pidgeon’s own understanding of harmony. “That’s what yoga practice is about, trying to be completely in the present and connected to the divine, knowing what every cell in your body is doing, what condition it’s in,” she says. “Yoga directs your longing to the correct place.”