Jamila Woods Is Busy Creating Heaven On Earth

The singer talks to us about her latest project, 'HEAVN,' which arrives (for free!) on July 11th.

By Jeff Ihaza Jul 6, 2016

Chicago-based singer Jamila Woods has the type of voice that one would be remiss to pass up. On her track, "Blk Girl Soldier," she manages to conjure the spirits of generations of inspirational black women to create a song so innately uplifting, it's hard not to attribute the affair to magic. "Sojourner was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight," she sings, before summoning another black female hero, Assata Shakur. Known for her angelic contribution to Chance The Rapper's single "Sunday Candy," Woods got her start as a writer, publishing and touring around a number of poetry books. When I call her via Skype, she's at her job where she teaches poetry to Chicago's teens.

Woods' debut album, HEAVN, is out via Chicago-based label Closed Sessions. In the same vein as another Chicago musician, it's free. The album, as Woods describes, is about turning wherever you are into heaven, an idea that comes close to home for the singer.  "I think that a lot of moments in the album, I maybe romanticize to present a different sort of image of the south side [of Chicago], a place where a love story can happen, or a place where you can just take pride in the fact that your lake doesn’t have salt water in it."

So you started out as a poet right?

Yeah I’m still a poet, I do um, yeah I do music and poetry, I’m in my poetry job right now.

Oh where do you work?

I work at a non-profit that teaches poetry to high school students in Chicago, and we run a youth poetry festival that’s the largest youth poetry festival in the country. So it’s pretty fun.

Have you published poetry books before? Is there a corollary between putting out these collective pieces of work?

I put out one book of my poems by myself and I’ve also been in some anthologies. I toured on this book called The Breakbeat Poets, which is all poetry inspired by hip-hop, and it’s cool, it’s really a cool process to put together a poetry book. It feels a lot different from putting together an album, at least this album. Music I think is just a much more collaborative thing. You could write poems alone in your room and then put them out into the world, and then stay in your room. I don’t do it that way, but you definitely could. So even though I collaborate a lot in poetry and I’m in a poetry collective and I like working together with someone on my manuscript, it’s totally different from music. I feel like I’m learning a lot too, because I brought one of my friends who’s a producer into one of my mixing sessions just so I could see like what his feedback was and how I can learn to better communicate what I’m trying to say to the engineer whose mixing, and, there’s just so many people at all times and  I’ve learned a lot about who I want to go to for this thing, who I want to play guitar on this, who would be really good to sing on this, and so, it’s a lot of networking and building a community of people  who make it happen instead of just me, by myself, even though it’s my solo album, it’s funny.

Where did the impulse come from to release an album and start making music in the format of an album come from?

Yeah I think it was after being in my band for a couple years, I was in a band called Milo and Otis, or M and O, and we did a couple albums together, and then my bandmate moved to New York. I had been pretty spoiled because we had our own studio and he was the producer I mainly worked with. I just had this ever-flowing Google drive of beats constantly, I never had to go out out of my comfort zone, so I kind of just realized, “I don’t want to stop making music even though I don’t have all those resources or the partner I was making them with any more. So how can I keep creating?" I went on Youtube finding beats for a while, reaching out to friends who I thought had made beats before. It just became me not wanting to lose my creative process. When "Sunday Candy" came out, it felt very affirming that people were really responding to my voice in that way. Also my songwriting, people really attached to the meaning behind the words too, so I think that all really encouraged me to try to put together something that, at least right now, is defining where I’m at in my solo work.

It seems like a lot of people’s response to your music is very much inspirational. Is that something that you think comes natural given the fact that your work involves trying to bring out the voices of teenagers?

That’s cool. Yeah I think that is something that I try to be intentional about, making art or music that creates space as opposed to shutting people down or making it feel like this is the only thing that exists. I like starting a conversation with a song, or starting, you know like Cyphers, that’s when you know a song is really good, when it catches fire and people respond to it. They want to make their own version of it, they want to write think pieces about it you know, that’s the kind of music that really excites me, when it’s like not just only about that song in that one moment, but like how it can be responded to and how it can be kinda interpreted by other people.

What kind of music did you listen to growing up? Do you remember kind of connecting with anything specifically?

One of my favorite people to listen to growing up was Whitney Houston. It was the movie The Preacher’s Wife that I really loved. It’s basically just like a love story at Christmas time and Whitney Houston is the wife of a preacher and she sings in the church. I had one of her songs as my solo when I was in church and I was like ‘ah I’m Whitney Houston,’ so yeah, I really love her and I love gospel music. I grew up singing and listening to a lot of gospel music and just my parents music, so Stevie Wonder and Dionne Farris and Erykah Badu. When I was like in middle school and high school, I was one of not that many black people, or the only black person in my class. So it felt kinda like sometimes I had these two different worlds of music that I was immersed in. At school it was the alternative rock station that I always listened to on the radio, and I went to all these Boxcar Racer concerts and Taking Back Sunday concerts with all my friends from school. I would always see, or I’d always gravitate towards, the similarities in different genres. I really appreciated the way that people payed attention to their lyrics, and I loved good call and response. I feel like Taking Back Sunday, I don’t know if they ever listened to gospel music or soul, but they have all this intricate call and response that happens in their songs.

How does Chicago shape the music on this record specifically?

I think something that Chicago has allowed me to do is exist as a poet/musician kind of freely. Even when I was starting my band, because I work here, there’s like a really great performance space out at the front, and so all of our first performances were at this poetry open mic, where people weren’t like “this is a poetry open mic” they were like “Oh cool, ya’ll are going to do this, cool” and they were the best listeners of my lyrics ever because they were used to listening for words all the time. It’s kind of like this really great incubator space where there’s not so much concern about borders between different art forms or pigeonholing people in that way. It's funny because other aspects of Chicago are very segregated and politically there’s all this of bullshit that happens, but in our artistic spaces I feel like there’s a lot of resistance to that. There’s a bunch of songs that are just clearly inspired by places in Chicago, too. There’s this song about lake shore drive and just the lake and that fact that we have a lake and there’s beaches and when I went to school on the east coast people would just be like “There’s a beach in Chicago? That’s so weird.”

When you were thinking about how you wanted to put all of this together, how did you land on the album title, HEAVN?

There’s a couple of different things I think. I wrote the song “HEAVN,” and I think after I wrote that was the moment where I realized that I was writing a project, or that I wanted it to be bigger than just these little songs, you know? I think it comes from a longing feeling, like I sample “Just Like Heaven,” the Cure song, but I changed the lyrics to “Show me how you love someone in this city that like keeps killing us. Show me how you make it winter all the time so that you know it won’t be how violent summers are, but still give us a warm winter so that we can be safe but still warm, because Chicago’s too cold.” It’s kind of like this longing of how to make the world, this city that I live in, the best version of itself. But not heaven like in the sense of needing to pass on to another world to get there, but like how can that happen here, how can heaven be here, and how can we make that happen? Part of why I just think I really liked the word is because of a book I read when I was younger called Heaven, and the cover of this book is just this black girl in a bunch of clouds. I just remember it was one of the first books I read where it was all about this black girl, I could see myself in her. I want black girls and people from Chicago, young people from Chicago, to have a similar feeling like, you know, you can see yourself here, and there’s also space for you to fill in the gaps with.

What are people from the outside missing when they look at Chicago through violent stereotypes?

I think part of what people are always missing talking about not just Chicago but just talking about like, black on black crime or just crime, just when people are like “Oh it’s so violent” just saying that kind of offhand is just off. There are systemic things that are in place that lead to violence, it’s like you’re just looking at the result of so many violences and putting it all on the people who are actually victims of the greatest violence.The way that so many public schools, like fifty plus public schools have just been closed, for example, our CPS isn’t sure if schools are going to open in September because the company that runs the schools is broke. So what does that make a young person feel like? It  makes you feel like the city doesn’t care about you, doesn’t care if you learn doesn’t care if you’re safe. So yeah there’s a lot of violence going on but I just wish there was more talk, especially from people outside of the city looking in, about the dynamics that lead to that violence and how that can be talked about and like, people who are making those things happen can be held accountable for that as opposed to the people who are suffering from the conditions that other people created.