BlackBook Interview: Ingrid Chavez on Her Stunning New Album ‘Memories of Flying’ and Paying Poignant Tribute to Prince
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there seemed to be an inordinate number of up-and-comers whom the press were labeling “Prince protege.” It wasn’t really much of a surprise – after all, who wouldn’t want that title? But one in particular, Ingrid Chavez, arrived on the scene in a most arresting manner, a young Hispanic girl from New Mexico, of absolutely breathtaking beauty – and, like her mentor, also remarkably adept at shrouding herself in mystery. Which only heightened her allure.
She and His Purpleness recorded a poetry album together in 1988, which was temporarily shelved. But 1990 saw her pop up playing the love interest in his beloved film Graffiti Bridge, while “Justify My Love,” the slinky-sensual song she co-wrote with Lenny Kravitz for Madonna, shot straight up the charts.
Her debut album, titled May 19, 1992, soon followed, curiously actually released in fall of 1991; and an adoring public swooned to such irresistible singles as “Elephant Box” and Prince’s “Heaven Must be Near.”
During that time she also met the romantic British post-punk crooner David Sylvian (formerly of the band Japan), and thy were wed in 1992. The enigmatic couple moved to a farm in New Hampshire, had two children, and Ingrid for all intents and purposed dropped out of music. They separated in 2004, and, returning to music, Chavez’ 2010 album A Flutter and Some Words simply did not get the attention it deserved.
Now she’s back for real. And new album Memories of Flying sees her at her most visceral and self-assured. From the sultry, opening/title track, with its chilling observation, “The lines between Heaven and Hell are a blur,” to the cosseting beauty of the affectively sanguine “Light Rays,” to the haunted, enigmatic synth-funk of “Driving to the End of a Dream,” to the hopeful “Let the Healing Begin,” with its striking harmonies, lush atmospherics and lyrical proclamations like, “I’ve been broken / But I’m still open,” it’s a work of remarkable emotional complexity, and equally accomplished musically. She is without a doubt at the height of her creative powers.
We caught up for a chat with Ms. Chavez about this new chapter of her life, and how she came to write a moving tribute to Prince, “You Gave Me Wings,” which is a particular highlight of the album.
You won accolades for your debut, and seemed ready for certain stardom. What made you decide to disappear from music for nearly a decade?
When I set out on my path as an artist and musician at 19, never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find myself caught up in the whirlwind of Prince’s world. As exciting and life changing as it was, it was overwhelming. The excitement quickly waned, as my record on Paisley Park was not getting the attention it deserved from the label. The movie, Graffiti Bridge, was getting a bad rap, and then there was the very public feud between Lenny Kravitz and me over credit for “Justify My Love.” I was getting a bad taste in my mouth about the business of music. On a European publicity tour for the movie, I interviewed with a German magazine in Paris; the journalist asked who I would most love to work with in the future, and I said David Sylvian.
Then you actually met him.
That interview set a course in action that would find me working with David within a few months and eventually married to him. I made a decision then and there to put all of my creative energy into making a family with David and living vicariously through his music. That was enough for me for about eight years, but as the girls got a little older, I started to miss that part of myself that I had set aside.
How much did working with Prince shape you as an artist and a person?
I always incorporated spoken word into my music, even before meeting Prince; but for me it was not something I had considered a focus stylistically. When he put me in Studio B at Paisley Park soon after meeting him, I recorded “Cross The Line” – that was his introduction to me as an artist. That first recording became the piece that was played during intermission on the Lovesexy tour. He was the first person to really encourage me to use more spoken word in my music. He asked me if I would like to make a poetry album, and because of that collaboration between the two of us, I am known for that style.
What are you wanting or needing to say with Memories of Flying?
Memories of Flying is the newest chapter in my life. By now, my life is measured out in songs and albums, and this is a record about healing and trying to hold people up. Every record I’ve ever released has elements of light and darkness, joy and sadness. Ingmar Bergman asked the question, “Isn’t art always to a certain extent therapy for the artist?” I write to communicate, and to heal myself and the listener.
What is the significance of the title? Are you trying use music as a way of soaring to some higher place? Spiritually? Creatively?
It comes from the idea that when you are weighted down by the world and feel heavy, it is a temporary state. If you can remember what it felt like to fly, to be weightless and easy, it can give you strength and courage to push through the hard times.
There is a noticeable signature to your sound. What did you try to differently on this record, sonically and aesthetically?
I don’t overwork my vocals. I record myself. There is a rawness and an intimacy that I am able to capture by being alone. The recordings can be messy and a nightmare for someone mixing my vocals. What is lost in quality I hope is made up for in the capturing of a moment. This album, in particular, was a bit more of a challenge because I worked with five different co-writers/producers. I had to have faith that my voice and words would be the thread to pull it all together and make it a cohesive collection of songs.
When you’re writing the words, is it more as a poet than a lyricist?
I write as a lyricist, but I don’t see a big difference.
On the title track, there is the line, “You smoke to think straight / And drink to stay numb” – is that a confession of sorts?
This song was to and about a friend. Songs are like letters to me. I talk to people I care about through my songs.
When you proclaim, “You deserve all the love in the world” are you addressing yourself?
I am proclaiming it to myself and to everyone who needs to hear that. Again, this is a song that I wrote to a friend who was coming out of a bad relationship that had left them broken inside, and I wanted them to see themselves through my eyes. We are all a little broken inside and sometimes that is all we can see of ourselves; but if someone loves you and you can see yourself in their eyes, it is healing.
“You Gave Me Wings” – is it about Prince?
Yes it is. An artist named Ganga out of Denmark had sent me a track to write to that I had been sitting on for a few weeks, so I decided to take it for a drive. It was April 21, 2016. I stopped at a cafe to grab a coffee for the drive when a friend of mine called to ask if I had heard about Prince; she thought it might be a hoax but within seconds both of our phones started blowing up with calls. I knew it was true; he was gone.
And you reacted to his death by writing this song?
I did what I do, I just started driving with no destination, until the words came. I was listening to Ganga’s track, and through tears, the words came. They speak of our winter together, me writing the poetry record and him writing Lovesexy.
“Let the Healing Begin” and “Spread Your Wings” seem to suggest a desire to move on from trying or difficult times. Did you find the writing and recording of this album particularly cathartic?
“Let The Healing Begin” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. I wrote this song driving from Jacksonville, Florida to Orlando, at a heavy time for me. There are two songs on this album that refer to me as a child; this one and “Calling Out The Thunder.” I am always attracted to music that has a little heaviness to it; it forces me to dive a bit deeper. I always say it’s the sad songs that I love the most and although there is often a tinge of sadness to my music, there is always that redemption, that light at the end of the tunnel.
You can hear that on both tracks.
“Spread Your Wings,” again, is a letter to a friend. Writing a song is like summing up all the swirling of emotions, finding words and melodies to make sense of it all. Yes, writing and recording this album was cathartic, it sums up the past four years of my life, a closed chapter, and now the book of my life is ready for a new one.
The musical landscape has changed radically from when you first came on the scene. What do you hope to get from making music at this time in your life?
I would never want to go back. I am comfortable here in this new geography where I am able to navigate my own way through it. I was never good at playing the game. I have managed to stay true to who I am no matter the climate. And I feel blessed to have gotten the big label experience of the early ’90s – what a ride.