Interview: Ingrid Chavez Reclaims ‘Justify My Love’

When Madonna’s provocative #1 single ‘Justify My Love’ was released on November 6, 1990, a 25-year-old Ingrid Chavez had just been plucked from obscurity by Prince himself for both musical collaboration, and to star in his latest film Graffiti Bridge. The world appeared veritably at her feet.

She also happened to have co-written said Madonna song with Andre Betts and another rising star, one Lenny Kravitz – and yet was ultimately left off the credits. She later walked away with a significant out-of-court settlement.

She would go on to record a stunning debut album, May 19, 1992 – which was actually released in 1991 – featuring the striking single ‘Elephant Box,’ which marked her out as an artist defining an unparalleled sonic and lyrical vision. Yet she eventually set her career aside when she married post-punk crooner David Sylvian, and began raising a family with him.

Last year she returned with Memories of Flying, an engaging, deeply reflective album, that proved she was still an artistic force. Yet she still had some unfinished business – and today she at last releases her own sultry, but utterly captivating version of ‘Justify My Love.’ We engaged her to elaborate on the 30-year journey, and to touch on her new mindfullness product line Snow + Ink.

What was the original inspiration for ‘Justify My Love’?

The song was a letter that I had written that I happened to have on me when I was hanging out in the studio with Lenny and Andre. After they sampled that beat and laid the synth down, Lenny asked me if I wanted to try laying a vocal down. I said sure and pulled out the letter and just spoke over the top of the music.

Can you give a snapshot of what happened with the songwriting credit controversy?

The snapshot is this: Lenny, Andre and I create this amazing song in the studio. Lenny and I take it to the head of Virgin Records to let him have a listen. He asks me for my copy. I hand it over thinking I will get another one. I never got another one. A few months later, Lenny asks me to hang with him in NYC where he tells me Madonna is doing the song and that if I want any money for writing credit I would have to sign an agreement to stay silent about my roll. The song comes out, Prince called me up and said, “What’s up with that Madonna song, I know that’s you.” I, for the first time admit to having written the lyrics and recording the original track. Prince is disappointed as we are just about to release a spoken word record on Paisley Park Records. He says that people are going to think that I am copying Madonna. I hire a lawyer and sue for credit.

Where does ownership of the song stand now?

I own twice the amount I was offered in our ‘hotel room deal’; but most importantly, my name is in the writers’ credits. 

Did you like Madonna’s version?

It is exactly like the version I recorded. I couldn’t even tell if she had used my original background vocals in the chorus it was so close. Every word placement and expression was like the original.

Did you record this version as a way of “taking the song back,” so to speak? Or because you just wanted to do something different with it?

I have never looked back or felt like I needed to take anything back. I am fully in the moment of my life. I happened to be in Copenhagen rehearsing for a show in Bremen, Germany a couple of years ago, and the guys I was performing with asked me if I would consider doing ‘Justify My Love’ live. I said I don’t know, we can try it and see how it sounds. That live performance is on Youtube. It felt good and natural so we decided to record a version of it for potential release one day…and here we are.

Tell us a bit about your musical approach to the song.

My approach to the song was to read the letter I had on me. It was very personal. I just imagined I was speaking to the person on the other end of that letter.

Your version eschews that in-your-face sexuality of Madonna’s version. Is there a different message you think the song needs to convey?

Not really. She understood my passion and delivery from the original. That is why the song is so powerful. My version captured the raw emotion of a deep love affair and Madonna did an incredible job replicating it.

How do you feel about the song and its history now that you’ve finally recorded this new version?

I think that everything about the song is perfect. How it was written, why, that it landed in Madonna’s hands, that it was so stylistically mine that Prince knew it was me upon hearing it, and that I ultimately wound up with credit. I’m very proud to call the song mine and to be able to perform it. I wish people could hear the original, but it’s exciting to be sharing this new version with everyone.

Can you tell us about your new product line Snow + Ink?

I have been wanting to create a product line under the name Snow + Ink for a few years now. It was conceived of in the snowy landscape of New Hampshire winters and realized beneath a canopy of redwood trees here in Big Sur. It is about the writer’s life. Finding stillness in the morning and setting intention for the rest of the day. I want to create products to help with this process.

What is the significance of the name?

I have spent many years inspired by the long snowy New England winters. When I was ready to release [2010 album] A Flutter and Some Words, I worked with the artist Frank Verdeja out of Minneapolis to create the cover. He worked primarily in ink back then, and so that cover is an ink portrait of me. I wrote a short poem around that time called Snow + Ink inspired by that collaboration.

What is the mission statement, so to speak?

Snow + Ink was created to offer products that inspire mindfulness in our everyday routine…with an emphasis on starting the day with intention.

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