Marsha Ambrosius Reflects On The Joys That Music And Motherhood Have Opened
Marsha Ambrosius has a way of putting herself in great company. Since entering the industry as half of the renowned R&B/soul duo Floetry, the English singer/songwriter has been in the studio with Michael Jackson (she penned the King of Pop's beautiful 2001 single, "Butterflies"), Dr. Dre, and everyone in between, writing songs for them and being one of the most reliable chorus singers in the game. And in July, she performed in a tribute to Anita Baker at the 2018 BET Awards. “My Wikipedia is not enough,” she laughs while sitting down for an interview in the VIBE office this summer, wearing a purple sequined shirt with distressed jeans.
Now, after a nearly 20-year career of lending her musical talent to the most renowned artists in the industry, she has another area to exert her wisdom: family. The last two years have seen her marry her boyfriend, Dez Billups, and welcome a daughter, Nyla. Her new music video for “Old Times” shows Ambrosius at home with her daughter, praying that her husband comes home safely without falling victim to police brutality. Family has its joys, but it also comes with a different set of fears and her upcoming third album, Nyla, taps into some of those new experiences. “Creating, if I was thinking five steps ahead before, it’s ten steps ahead now,” she said, “'cause I have so much to be accountable for.” She'll also be joining Maxwell on the 50 Intimate Nights tour.
Here, Marsha Ambrosius speaks about being a fly on the wall for mythical studio sessions, what rapper she would make a Best of Both Worlds album with, and finding closure after Floetry.
VIBE: Your new video "Old Times" stars your real-life daughter and husband. What made you decide to put them in the video, instead of casting actors?
Marsha Ambrosius: I've never really done your stereotypical video. I've always managed to keep it true to life and what better way to do it with this one because it's so personal and being a wife and mother. It's that ongoing feeling that your loved one goes out to handle business and you just hope they make it home to dinner, you know? I've always envisioned the visual to this audio clip that is "Old Times" to be me just sitting at home rocking my baby side to side, singing it to her as a lullaby. I know my husband grinds every day and works hard every day to provide for us and make sure that we're safe, but is he safe? I can't pretend with someone else's husband, someone else's kid.
I remember writing the hook and I was like, how do I paint this picture? I was turning on the news and scrolling through my social media, and seeing #RIPwhoever. I was like if I name one, I have to name them all. It's these mini funerals that we as people get to have far too often with people that we don't know.
Should we expect more social commentary on the album?
My social commentary is love. I think once you give away your art, people interpret it to be as deep as they want it to be. There are songs like "Old Times," there's a song called "Flood" which is when you hear it pretty self-explanatory – it’s really sexy. Flood. Water. Deep. (Laughs) I think I've always managed to create music like that. It may be deep to you but I remember writing a song called “If I Was A Bird” and everybody was like, "Oh my god that's like–" [insert their personal meanings]. And I was like, "I wrote it about tearing ligaments and not being able to play ball anymore." So that's what it was for me. For someone else, it was their spiritual awakening.
You brought up “Flood.” You're married now, and you're a mother. Have you felt any pressures to tone down the sexuality of your music, whether it's from fans or elsewhere?
Nah. I've never felt pressure how to create. It's, "hey Marsh, what's going on with you?" "You know, chilling, enjoying my life," and whatever song stems from that, cool. Or it might be, "I'm not too good right now. I just had to bury a friend and say my goodbyes to someone I care about." What music comes with that? If you’ve been riding with me for the past what is about to be two decades, my narrative hasn't changed. It just remained consistent and I've always spoken about what I'm going through in life. So tone down the sexy? Why? I just had a baby, I feel all glorious like I can do anything! So it's empowering. It's more so empowerment and now if it was toned-down before, it's turnt up now.
How have motherhood and marriage affected your writing and your perspective on your music?
I have a swear jar in the house so I keep it PG-13 language wise in front of my daughter. But other than that it's finding room in my heart to love at the level that I do now because of being a mother and being a wife. I didn't know I was capable of loving and being loved like this. Creating, I'm thinking ten steps ahead. If I was thinking five steps ahead before, its 10 now 'cause I have so much to be accountable for, and I know Nyla will one-day press play on songs I've done prior to her being here. So now you have Nyla, and it's all the steps that it took to let go of the negativity and baggage or everything I felt I needed to let go of to move forward. In doing so, all of these songs and all of these amazing concepts and musical moments happened as they were happening in my life.
What were you looking to do with this album?
The album started to shape itself right after I recorded what I considered the last song for the project. Myself and Focus…, who is the executive producer of the album, came together and we listened to everything and he was like, “there’s a story here.” The intro starts with a conversation I had with my best friend in Philly, Angie, when I saw my husband for the first time. I didn't know he was going to be my husband but I was on tour, I hit her up and I was like "yo he is fine." (Laughs) So we're laughing with each other, but then here I am in this predicament and I'm trying to do better. I'm trying to reconcile and forgive any wrongs that I felt I’ve ever done and I'm attempting to reunite and reignite for other people, but what do I want out of this? All of these songs started to come together. I cried my eyes out in the studio cutting “Old Times” and another song called “Glass,” I thought I wasn’t gonna make it through.
Conceptually, they brought something I didn’t even know I felt. I was like, wow I’m really this upset? I’m really hurt over something. You know when you cry and you don’t know where it’s coming from? It was one of those moments. Once that was out the way and I could let go, everything else started to fall into place.
You’re one of the most reputed singers when it comes to choruses on rap songs. Which ones stand out to you, either as your favorite songs or the ones that were the most fun to make?
I'll start with “From Scratch” with The Game. I just remember the reaction of Dre when I sent it back. They were like, "Look we need to get Game's album out. He has this record and he don't have a hook yet." I remember sending it back and I was like, "Yo, I'm on the Game album? Like THAT album, The Documentary? I'm on that album? Okay, crazy." And then I remember "Get You Some." I could only hear, "money, cars, clothes, sexy broads." So I sent that back with the intent for them to put someone else on there. I was like I'm just writing it, I’ll reference it. Before I know it, I have a record with Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip. I was like, "I can throw in the towel. I’m going to hang it up, I quit. This is all I ever wanted to do."
I'm almost the female Nate Dogg. Almost. I didn't know I was striving for that title if there's ever such a title. "Why You Hate The Game," doing that with Just Blaze. Even the more recent stuff like with Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers. He really has bars, and when I met him in the studio he told me he wanted the song conceptually to be an ode to his grandmother. I was like, "Okay, I’ma write this hook as if I'm her talking to you." So it's, "I need you to say your prayers, do the right thing and I'll be watching over you at all times." I remember him getting really emotional. I was seven or eight months pregnant at the time trying to keep my breath together spittin' in the booth but that was definitely a memorable moment to see how happy he was to see that song come to light and hear his grandmother's perspective of where he is as a young man.
If you could make a Best of Both Worlds album with one rapper, who would it be?
Oh man! Don't do that to me, cause there would be different ones. I would love to do something with Q-Tip, ‘cause we did a bunch of songs that's crazy and I was thinking about that the other day. That's the first thing that comes to mind. Who else? I've worked with everybody—this is everybody here. I've worked with absolutely every rapper. Oh, I haven't worked with Drake. That'd be fun. Well JAY-Z, Kanye. Kendrick? Like a full-blown Best of Both Worlds with Kendrick? That might be dumb. I'll get the clan together. Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, me and Kendrick, and it'd be dumb as hell. So that's cool. I'll call him.
Where are these Q-Tip songs?
They're nowhere to be found. Let's just say that. They're unreleased. Complete unreleased work and I was doing a lot of stuff during the making of the new Tribe record and got a hook on there which is nuts as well. But we did a couple of other things that no one's seen yet and should.
Dr. Dre dropped Compton a few years ago, but Detox never came out. What is the best song that you heard by Dr. Dre that never came out?
(Sits silently) You hear it? That was amazing. The song is so fire like it’s the most fire-est beat. (Laughs)
I’ve heard Dre just plays all these random songs while hanging out with people, and they're better than anything that's come out in recent years.
Yeah. My privilege of having this—I am the fly on the wall. I get to be in these rooms where I'm seeing these great things created firsthand and then see the reaction of the world as it drops. If Dre does it, he wants to do it on his time, his dime, his way. There might be a possibility that you never even hear half of what's being created and he'll be okay with that. Us on the other hand? Not so much. We'll just have to live and die by, "remember that day when me, you, Snoop, Kendrick and Anderson and came thru and said, “you know what let's use that Teena Marie sample.” We'll just have to live with being the ones that know.
I've been very consistently the only one that knows. We didn't have Instagram or Twitter or Facebook Live when Michael Jackson was in the booth and I'm seeing his reaction firsthand while singing "Butterflies" back to me for the first time. That's something I have to go, "I was there.” I was there with Prince in his house as we're jamming and The Time is performing and then when they finish, The Revolution is there and Prince is like, "Marsh, come up and sing that song I love you to sing," and I'm singing "Lay Down" back to Prince because he loves that particular song. There's no Instagram for that. There's no blue check verification for that. These are all things that you just have to go, "I'm here for a reason. I have to acknowledge that and live in the moment.” We're talking Dr. Dre, Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Patti Labelle, Jamie Foxx, Alicia Keys. Like, my Wikipedia is not enough. There's no room for what I’ve actually done. Standing at the White House with the first family that I acknowledge–Barack Obama and Michelle–and the kids looking at me singing Christmas carols to them. There's no award for that.
You just recently performed for Anita Baker. Had you met her before this happened?
That sounds ridiculous to say out loud. See what my life is like? Yes, I met her a few times and it's crazy. We follow each other on social media also and a week and a half or so prior to the BET Awards she tweeted, "Old Times" and hashtagged something like “old music is coming back.” She passed the torch. This is someone I respect on too many levels. So come BET Awards weekend and I get the call that there's a slight chance that I may honor her. I'm just waiting on the callback, like, "Just tell me when it's real."
It's real when I'm sitting in rehearsals and there's Jamie Foxx on keys and Adam Blackstone and the BBE band playing the arrangement, and knowing that Ledisi and Yolanda Adams are gonna be there. On one hand, it's like, "I have to sing Anita to Anita?" But then it's all ultimately a celebration. I just remember getting on stage and seeing her face and her reaction to me and it was like no one else was in the room. And I just saw her rise from her seat with tears of joy. And I'm seeing my daughter’s face and my husband in the audience and I was overcome with emotion. I was like, how do I even sing this song? I don't even know how I got through it.
Multiple fans wanted me to ask you if you have plans of making a live album.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Without question. I think once people hear Nyla the album, even past work that I've done, period. Anyone that's seen me tour or been to these shows are like, "I have to experience what I felt in that room again and again and again." So, it's only right and will be done.
Also, a lot of people asked about Floetry, of course. I think fans are always gonna want you guys to get back together.
We did, in 2015 and 2016, and that was that.
How did you find the closure to move on from the group?
I think–well it really was the end of 2015 but ultimately 2016–the second reunion tour. One weekend I find out that I'm pregnant and I'm terrified and excited all at the same time but I get through the end of the tour. The closure really was in knowing that over a course of years–if you viewed and you knew a friendship one way and you're told it was exactly the opposite, it kind of shifts your focus a little bit. I came to forgive, reconcile, admit my fault or flaw or what I could've done to better a situation. You can't change how the other person feels about you. So if I'm your permanent trigger of who you wanna forget, there's nothing I could do to change that and vice versa. There are certain things that I’m not saying can't change, but it'll take time. And I knew in my heart, I don't have room nor the capacity to take aboard somebody else's mishap or feeling. I can only go on with what I feel, and there's too much living to do. So it's like counting down somebody's days. I don't have the time to worry about what somebody else is worried about. My worries had to disappear and once they did it was blessings on blessings on blessings. Then I meet my husband, now we're pregnant, now we're engaged, now we get married, now I don't have to do life alone and that's all because I could then let down all of these guards that I had up. All these worries, all these concerns, all of this baggage. It was tough, but once you come out the other side there was that silver lining and that light. I'm glad I did that for me as hard as it was and still is at times, but it's way easier.
Someone also pointed out that the video for "Say Yes" had Omari Hardwick, now popular for his role on Power. How did you guys connect for that video and what is it like to see him now on one of the bigger shows on TV?
Every time we see each other it's all love, but he still says that that was his real first gig in Hollywood. That's back then when people had real record deals and real budgets. We had a casting agency with a folder full of headshots and I remember sitting there going, "I'll take that one. That one's mine." And it's Omari Hardwick. Get to set and I'm sitting here on the train kind of doodling away having him look at me and we're flirting and all that other good stuff, and years later, he's freaking Ghost. Amongst many other amazing things and just an all-around great human being.
Thankfully, having written that song in all of two minutes that it took to do and Andre Harris and myself in the B room of [Philadelphia recording studio] A Touch of Jazz. I was supposed to give it to Ron Isley, 'cause he was doing his solo project, but he passed on the record. No one wanted this demo, it was never a Floetry song. Natalie did not write it, she was never even in the room. So it was literally a demo and I remember Babyface comes to the studio and we try and play it for him; he passed on it. So then it stays on this 10-11 song demo that then becomes the Floetic album, and I remember doing the video for Floetic. We do that, go back home, grab visas, and come back to do "Say Yes." So when "Say Yes" hits, it's pandemonium. I didn't see that coming. I just knew it was a really nice, sexy song coming from a female's perspective. I don't think the industry was ready for very strong, very bold black women to portray that type of record. Then lesbian rumors came out. So I was like wait! I picked Omari! Like what? I didn't understand that part. I guess this all comes with the territory.
Is there anybody still on the collaboration bucket list?
I never had a bucket list. I just wanted to make good music and for someone to go, "I like you, I like that." It’s all very fake, an aspiration wish list or bullet points. Like Michael Jackson? Who writes that down in real life? Like, get over yourself, it's never gonna happen. But it did, so I never, ever, ever call out who I'm gonna roll with next 'cause I just don't know what's gonna happen.