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Singer-songwriter Jamilla Woods' new album is inspired by a Toni Morrison quote


With everything going on in the world right now, why don't we just listen to something beautiful for a little while?


JAMILA WOODS: (Singing) The good news is you're the only one. The good news is no need to rush. There's good news hiding right behind every burden.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Jamila Woods. She's a singer and songwriter from Chicago. She also teaches poetry, and she weaves that into her music. Her new album, her third, is titled "Water Made Us." It's inspired by this Toni Morrison quotation, "all water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was."

WOODS: I love that quote so much. She talks about when they straightened out the Mississippi River. In some places, the river would flood and kind of a reframe to understand that flooding as an act of remembering the act of the water trying to retrace its steps and go back to its original source. And that's what I felt like in the process of making this album. It's a lot about love and relationships and the memories of the experiences that I've had in connecting with people. And so it really felt like a process of retracing my steps, reflecting on those experiences and trying to make some kind of meaning or new language from those memories.


WOODS: (Singing) The good news is water always runs back where it came from. Good news is water made us. I take it back - the words I said. They're just a cloud over my head.

MARTIN: Before we get into the substance of the album, the album cover is of you, fittingly, underwater. I read that you realized that you really couldn't swim, and you specifically took lessons for the cover art. What was that like? Like, did you just jump in and go, oh, snap, I can't swim?

WOODS: (Laughter) I had some experiences when I was a kid of, like, pool parties and not knowing how to swim and the lifeguard having to bring me out. So I had some kind of, like, nervousness around deep water, specifically. So I had to take three or four private lessons to get good enough so I could be in the deep water. But I'm so glad I did that. I think it helped my body get used to relaxing and really surrendering to the water, which felt really fitting. There was a lot of surrendering to the process.

MARTIN: You know, there's so much there. Gosh, we could do a whole conversation just about that and the way that, you know, Black people in America have related to water...


MARTIN: ...Having been denied access to water in pools and so forth - you know what I mean? - treating water like fire. You could've been...

WOODS: Used as fire - yeah. I used as a weapon. Yeah.

MARTIN: Right? But the album - it feels both different and familiar. I mean, it's different in that - your previous two albums, the way your art relates to current social issues - this one feels more internal, more personal. Let me just play "Send A Dove."


WOODS: (Singing) Here comes the flood. I save a place for you. And when it's all said and done, I hope you send a dove. I hope you send a dove.

NIKKI GIOVANNI: Because I've caught the frowns and the anger. You come home, and I catch hell. Because I love you, I get least of you. I get the very minimum. And I'm saying, you know, fake it with me.

MARTIN: You use an excerpt from a recording of two great writers, Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin, in conversation about love. She says, I've caught the frowns and the anger. You come home and I catch hell. Because I love you, I get the least of you. I get the very minimum. And I'm saying, you know, fake it with me. Tell us a little bit about why you decided to include it in the song.

WOODS: Nikki Giovanni was really talking about Black men in America and the example of someone going to their job and, you know, their boss is white and racist. Because it's their job, they have to put on a certain mask - you know, smile in their face and be cordial and be polite - and that takes a toll on that person. And they go home, and their wife or their kids or whoever's there gets the brunt of their day. And Nikki Giovanni was basically saying, you lie to your boss all day. Why can't you give me that same attempt to bring a positive energy into this space? And I think this song was thinking a lot about the way that we communicate through conflict or through stressful situations. Give me the gift of just putting on a smile for me because you know that's how you actually feel about me, even if it's not how you're feeling in the moment.


WOODS: (Singing) You were drowning every time you sent the flood. But don't save your worst for me. I'm not your leather Everlast. Open your hands. We both have some scars to heal. Lie to me still.

MARTIN: There are moments on this album where Jamila Woods really leans into her poetic side. While I was listening to the album along with a few other people, we heard a special moment pop up. Woods breaks into a spoken-word piece about honoring past relationships. Listen to this.


WOODS: I miss all my exes who open car doors, light nag champa in the living room, burn mixtape CDs, cook veggie burgers with Lawry's, lemon pepper everything.

MARTIN: I found it charming because, look, I've been married for a long time, OK? You know, it's been a long time since I had exes.

WOODS: Yeah.

MARTIN: And then another person who was listening was, you know, at a different stage of life, and there was another person who was listening who was also at a different stage of life. And it just was funny that we were all so moved by it. I was just curious about why you think that might be.

WOODS: Oh, I love that. I kind of turned a corner in my healing process and having distance and time from certain people and just actually missing certain things about them and feeling nostalgic - little random things.


WOODS: Who drive me to the airport, who pick me up, who let me pick from their plate, split two meals at the restaurant.

That's not something we usually hear or feel allowed to say. It's usually like, it's good that you're getting over them or moving on. And, you know, that is good, too, but I think it's so undeniable the way that we impact each other. And just like water running through - over land, like, it leaves an imprint. And to kind of celebrate that and not feel shame around it felt important.


WOODS: Why I look at the camera like I'm in love, why I always stay longer than I should. I never left any one of them - not really - I just went somewhere new.

MARTIN: That's Jamila Woods. Her new album is called "Water Made Us." Jamila Woods, thank you so much for talking with us about this.

WOODS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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