RIDING LIFE’S WAVE
I hear her before I see her. Anita Baker is sitting at the piano in a lounge at the office of Blue Note Records in Manhattan, the label that’s putting out her latest CD, My Everything, her first in ten years. How perfect. She’s playing a jazzy, bluesy, sweet sliver of melody she has been working on for a while. It’s a song for which she has no words. It’s not even a song for herself. She’s thinking of it for Mary J. Blige, a younger voice she admires.
She has a pixie cut similar to what you remember. But she’s rounder than she was in her old studio shots and has what she calls “mother hips.” Now, at 46, she looks like a suburban mom, which she is, in her white capri pants, black tee and black mules that turn out to be Nine West. You might have a pair in your own closet, which tells you more than words how regular she is.
She likes doing things right, and this song is not ready yet. “It’s a sad song,” she says of the lyrics that first came to her. “I don’t want it to be. The music is speaking something else, and I want to wait till it finishes talking.”
That’s how her life has been. All these years she has been caught up in somebody else’s song, the reality of life’s calling and needing her, and she has had no choice but to live it. To this day she speaks of her ten-year absence from the public as if she were hit over the head and pulled into a dream state. The music could wait, would have to wait; it could not coexist with a more urgent life in progress.
She tried to write songs that would not come, tried to produce a record that demanded more than she had. “I made numerous attempts to find a way to do it all,” she says, “to be a creative singer, songwriter, producer, and to be the mother, daughter, sister, lover, wife. And the thing about music is, with me, that she’s a harsh mistress. She does not come to me in the midst of stress. She sits back and she waits. She’s like, ‘You know what? Come see me when you’re done.’
“When I came to that realization, then I understood that I can’t force music if it’s not there. I simply have to learn how to ride the wave that comes onto shore for me, at any particular time.”
What lay ahead of her was the decline and passing of all the people who made her who she was: the woman who gave birth to her and gave her away; the beautician aunt who took her in and raised her to be a churchgoing, piano-playing singer who also knew her way around a sewing machine and a pressing comb; the beautician’s husband who became the only daddy she knew. She had to come to terms with their passing, and also with the patchwork quilt of a family whose secrets were deeper than she knew.
And ultimately she had to come to terms with herself and what had propelled her for so long. “It started with the fact that my mother gave me up when I was a baby,” she says of the event that made her question her own worth and try to prove herself all her life. “Not because she was a bad person or because she was some monster or something. She was just a child and could not care for me. It has taken me a long time to find peace within my own heart.”
All these parent figures started getting sick and dying when she was a new mother herself, with two little boys, Eddie, now 10, and Walter, 11. And each time she tried to get back to the music, something else stepped in front of it. “Every time I would leave to do music, my mother would go into the hospital,” she says of the aunt she calls her earth mother, as opposed to her birth mother. “And eventually I decided, you know what, I’m not leaving, because it’s just not worth it to me to leave her.
“So I set up a studio at home. My producer would be flying in, and we’d be in the middle of something, and I would get a call from the hospital, and I’d have to go. And then I’d come back, and I’d try to get back to the place where we were writing this beautiful love song. And then it’s three o’clock, the kids come home from school, and they’re like, ‘Mommy, this is what happened today... What are we going to eat?’ That’s all they understood, and they should have that. The two—my life and my music—would not coexist. They simply would not.”
There was a time when you couldn’t be in love and not hear Anita Baker’s smoky contralto whispering into your soul to go for it. She preached a biblical ’til-death-do-us-part, 365-days-of-the-year love. The voice said amen to who knows how many wedding vows, brought lovers back together again, told people love was worth whatever it took. Her songs— “Sweet Love,” “Giving You the Best That I Got,” “I Apologize,” “Fairy Tales”—gave breath to secret stirrings people didn’t know they had. They helped a whole generation of people who are, say, 13 or 14 years old now, get born into this world.
Then in 1994 she left. Left a multiplatinum career, left lovers without a sound track, but, most important, left the public’s love affair with her and her dreamy love songs. She never intended to leave for so long. But one year melted into another and then another, and parents and aunties got sick, and she tended them and still they died, and her little boys wanted to know what was for dinner, and her own marriage felt the weight of it all.
She realized that she could only do one thing at a time, and that was be herself and do what the moment called for. And that did not include making music, because making music takes everything, and she did not have it to give. “Life had decided where I was going to be,” she tells me, “by putting the infirmities and my children and my marriage in front of me. These are choices I made, and they had to be dealt with. I think there’s no sacrifice too great for family, whether it’s career, singing, whatever. And I, apparently, was willing to sacrifice pretty much anything.”
And so she went missing, this openly sentimental grown-up woman with a little girl’s heart, believing in old-fashioned love songs that the sex-you-up generation didn’t even know it needed. With those raw and hopeful pleadings, Anita Baker was unafraid to say she wanted love and all the trimmings while others made do with one-night stands. Which made it all the more jarring when she left. So where has she been? And what is it that is bringing her back now?