INTERVIEW: Fantasia's new album, "Sketchbook," shows a Phoenix rising from the ashes.
Wearing a red dress and gracefully positioned on the American Idol stage, a 19-year-old girl sang her heart out with a moving rendition of "Summertime" from the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. She was a teen mom who had dropped out of high school and was tending to her toddler daughter when she decided to take a chance by auditioning for the hit singing competition reality show.
Fantasia Taylor, nee Barrino, grew up in a household filled with music. Her family tree was rooted in song, and it wasn't a strange occurrence for there to be an impromptu jam session at any time of the day. "Can you imagine what we were listening to when I was growing up?" she asked while she excitedly shared stories of her upbringing with us exclusively. "At the age of five, I was introduced to stuff that kids in my class had never heard or would never hear. All of the jazz singers, all of the gospel singers, all of the R&B singers, all of the blues singers. I knew country songs that kids probably [had never listened to]."
"When we were on Idol, we sang every genre there was. Every genre. It wasn't just R&B," she recalled. "I was [there] for it! I was picking songs they didn't think a black girl my age would even know, and that only came from the fact that I grew up around great music." That level of exposure to various styles of music from such a young age gave Fantasia an edge when it came to competing against other American Idol hopefuls, including fellow contestant Jennifer Hudson. In the Spring of 2004, she took home the title, and what followed was a whirlwind of a career that was being molded and shaped by industry bigwigs. She sang romance-centered power ballads or sweet endearing songs that won over women, helping to catapult her debut album, Free Yourself, to certified Platinum status. Two years later came her album Fantasia which went Gold, and her third album Back to Me helped earn her a Grammy win with her single "Bittersweet."
Fantasia was sitting on top of the world as she was sharing her talents with fans around the globe and reaching a level of success she dreamed of as a youth. Yet, there was something missing. Although she loved being an artist and was thoroughly enjoying her time in the limelight, she felt as if the people put in place to help navigate her career were "prostituting her gift." Then, the singer's name was the subject of disreputable headlines over a former relationship. Her finances were also in disarray and her depression was deepening by the day.
It was time for the award-winning singer to take back her life, so after leaving RCA Records, her label home since the inception of her career, Fantasia was determined to release the album that she said has been trapped in her soul for as long as she could remember. The mother, wife, artist, and entrepreneur now runs her own business from the top down, and while taking conference calls and maintaining her schedule, it took her a year to create the project that she's been wanting to release for her entire career. On Friday, Sketchbook finally made its way to the world.
"I'm in control, now, of my destiny," Fantasia said. "I can literally go into a booth and I can now show them what it is musically how I see things. What I love. And that's how we did it this whole entire album. Nothing sounds the same, but it all has...it's beats people never heard from me. I always had somebody telling me what I could and could not do. When those doors opened, we ran through it and we created a monster."
The album comes from her independent imprint Rock Soul, backed by B.M.G. "I thank God for them allowing me to do that," she said. "This thing that came out on this album has been inside of me for so long. I said if I couldn't have done it, then I probably would have quit the game. It's been 15, 16 years for me, and you and I both know, it ain't been no cakewalk. It's been a fight. So, I'm at a point in my life now where I don't have to fight anymore. I've made it to this place. I'm sitting in it. I've worked hard for my peace. I've worked hard for my joy. Nobody can take that away."
Sketchbook offers a look at Fantasia in a way that we've never seen her before. She describes the record as "genre-less" as she borrows from those moments in her childhood home having song-filled jam sessions with her family. The 12-track offering has a little something for everyone, playing on bits of hip hop, rock, jazz, blues, R&B, funk, and gospel. Fantasia recognizes that her career has been heavily supported by women, and she greatly appreciates that, but she hopes the fellas will "rock with it" because "the beats are undeniable."
Next week, Fantasia kicks off her Sketchbook Tour as she hits the road with Robin Thicke, Tank, and The Bonfyre. Now that she's found her newfound freedom as an artist, we wondered what fans could expect from her live show. Aside from the all-women band, she said, "I think this is gonna be the one [where] people are gonna walk off and be like, 'I didn't even know. I thought I'd seen her before. I thought she'd reached the max, but this b*tch just took the whole roof off the place and I feel like I wanna go with her.' That's what I'm planning on doing and giving them. Making the dudes move and making the girls sing. That's what I want."
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You don't want to miss Fantasia take to the stage, because trust us, it's unlike anything you've ever experienced. However, if you aren't able to make your way to the Sketchbook Tour, Fantasia revealed that she has something up her sleeve to make sure that the world joins her on her fresh musical journey. She hinted that it may come in the form of a docuseries, but we'll have to wait and see.
Even with the fame, the money, and the global recognition of her talents, Fantasia desires for the public to be drawn to her heart, more than anything else. "When you meet me, the smile that you get, the 'hey y'all,' the hug that you get, it's genuine," she shared. When she speaks, Fantasia encompasses an energy that is like your sister, your best friend, and a motivational speaker all rolled into one person. She encouraged people to not live in "victim mode" and, like her, to stop complaining, learn from their pasts, and "to keep it pushin'!"
"I think [people meet me and] think, 'There's no way in hell after all she's been through, that she can be this nice," she said with a laugh. "One thing I will never, ever lose, is my humility. I will never, ever lose the fact that I'm just like you. I'm just like you. [The difference is] I just sing. I drive my own car. I shop for my own groceries. I cook my own food. Nothing will ever change about me."
Stream Fantasia's new album "Sketchbook" here.