In discussion with Sassy J on “Songs In The Key Of Life” by Stevie Wonder (1976).
I found „Songs In The Key Of Life“ in the record collection of my mother in the 70s and secretly transferred it to my own after listening to it. How did the album find you?
I grew up listening, dancing and singing to this album as a little girl. It was one of the rather few soul records amongst my parents Jazz collection. I made my babysitter put it on. I was singing along the lyrics using my skipping rope as a mic. Oh well… That’s why I picked this record for this interview. I think next to all the Jazz at home “Songs In The Key Of Life” built the firm roots of musical tree of life.
Were interested your parents’ Jazz collection as well, or did the album offered an alternative to what you were used to hearing around the house?
The Jazz records that were playing and Jazz tunes my dad played on the piano was just the music that was mainly there. I remember being scared when Duke Ellington’s „Caravan“ would play, or that I loved to fall asleep to Sarah Vaughn’s voice. The funky clothing or jewelry and style of the musicians that stayed with us stuck with me. I also remember artists performing in our living room on house parties. So I was interested in those other aspects of Jazz at home. When I started getting into Hip-Hop later on, finding out about the samples & originals, I got more interested in their Jazz collection again – up to now. I am still pulling out things.
Some childhood memories are very formative and lasting. Was it important that you were introduced to the album at a young age?
I guess so. It reached out to the little girl in that living room. It triggered the attention of her ears and eventually made me choose it for this particular interview.
Why did you think the album had such on impact on you, and what kind of impact was that?
I liked it and I wanted to hear it over and over again, because it made me feel good. The sound, the groove, the melodies, the moods and of course his voice. Next to all the other music at home, this record surely made me fall in love with music. Music is the love of my life. I couldn’t live without it. That’s a hell of an impact!
I remember that even the format of the album was very special to my fledgling music enthusiast self. There was a lot of music spread over two discs, plus a bonus 7“ and a fat booklet. Even at a time when I did not spend too many thoughts on an album’s background that seemed extraordinary. Does the album justify this grand scope, could it not have been any other way?
Yes, the format added an extra attraction to it. I used to love to sit down, open it, take out the booklet and look at it while the record was playing out and out: the cover art, his signature and fingerprint, all the content of it. The older I got, the more I would discover. Singing along to the lyrics, finding out who was featured on there or who was listed in his thank you’s.
What are the highlights of „Songs In The Key Of Life“ for you? And is it mandatory to swallow it as a whole, or can you skip parts that do not hold up to others?
To me the highlight is the journey you go on, listening the whole record. The cover artwork and title reflect it: Mr. Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life. Genius. Timeless. So much to hear and discover. So rich.
Most critics heralded „Songs In The Key Of Life“ as a masterpiece ever since, fewer noted that it is patchy in parts. Not only in terms of songwriting, but also in terms of stylistic diversity. The latter I always found very unfair, as the diversity was always one of the aspects I found most fascinating about the album. Would you agree that this ambitious palette is a pro rather than a con?
I groove, feel, get inspired, sing, dance … to music. I don’t approach it that way. To me the record is genius. It is ONE. No drawers or palettes needed.
It is quite astonishing that Stevie Wonder was only 26 years old when he released „Songs In The Key Of Life“. Yet he signed to Motown when he was 11, and before he started work on the album he even considered quitting the music business for good. So he had a long career going on already. Does this inform the music contained on „Songs In The Key Of Life“? Is this a statement bursting out he could not deliver before? How much artistic freedom is needed for an epic like this?
It is a beautiful thing in life to learn, grow and get better and more experienced in all you do.
I think the beauty in this album lies in the journey he made up to then. On “Songs In The Key Of Life” you can hear his experience, all of his brilliance and essence. It feels so complete, strikingly timeless. A flower, fruit, expression of the genius he is. I believe delivering a record, an epic like this, you need to be yourself to the fullest and complete artistic freedom is needed – else it wouldn’t be that complete.
There were a lot of conceptual albums in the 60’s, like The Beatles’ White Album for example, and numerous psychedelic pendants. What took Soul music so long? Is the reason found in the very lyrics „Songs In The Key Of Life“ contains?
Sly & the Family Stone released “Everyday People” in late 1968 – the same year as the Beatles released their White Album. „Stand!“ was released on May 3 in 1969. What a genius. What a band.
Very much ahead of their time… But coming back to your question. What is taking America so long securing equal rights for all? I am not a specialist for this question nor am I somebody that grew up in the culture. I would rather want a voice out of the artists you refer to, answer that for themselves.
The Beatles surely had other conditions than an Afro American Artist. „Love’s In Need Of Love Today“, „Village Ghetto Land“, „Pastime Paradise“, „Black Man“, „Ngiculela“ surely reflect issues of that time, so did plenty of his songs of his earlier albums. Unfortunately they are still up to date and current issues as most of the conscious records out of that time. Until we reach a “Higher Ground”…
Motown already had a history of reacting to issues like war, social injustice, or racial inequality with songs like The Temptation’s „Ball Of Confusion“ or „War“ by Edwin Starr, among others. But Marvin Gaye’s „What’s Going On“ was probably the first album where a formerly more commercial Afro-American artist emancipated himself from expectations did just what he wanted to do in 1971, both in terms of music and lyrical content. Curtis Mayfield also comes to mind, with his albums shortly after. How would you put Stevie Wonder in that context?
Stevie Wonder recorded “Where I’m Coming From” in 1971. It was released about the same time as Marvin Gaye’s “Whats Going On”. “Look Around” or “I Wanna Talk to You” were clearly socially conscious songs. As far as I know he already produced that album with full artistic freedom. You can hear the sound changing on that record. On “Look Around” he is playing a Hohner Clavinet in his very unique way. For me he is a visionary in his sound, independence of an artist in owning his royalties and the conscious content of his lyrics.
Did Stevie Wonder set an example that other artists followed? What is the legacy of „Songs In The Key Of Life“?
A master creating a masterpiece with absolute artistic freedom is profoundly inspiring and surely set an example for many other artists to follow. “Songs In The Key Of Life” is in the National Recording Registry list of sound recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect the life in the United States. They called it “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.
How would you place „Songs In The Key Of Life“ in the back catalogue of Stevie Wonder? Are there other works you think are as important?
They are all him. I chose this record because it shaped my approach to music and the little girl listening to it on the floor of the living room. I didn’t choose it because I think it is more important than his other works. I can only speak for what it triggered and shaped in me. „Talking Book“ and „Innervisions“ had a big impact on me, too. My mother put on „In Square Circle“ when it came out. „Where I’m Coming From“, „Hotter Than July“, „Music Of My Mind“ and „Fulfillingness First Finale“ I discovered later as a teenager.
Do you think it still possible to release an album like this? Or is it even necessary?
I think the key is embracing the beauty of its uniqueness. Every genius is different, that is the beauty of it. It would be so boring if all were the same. I think its necessary that we all try to do our best and get inspired by the greats to create and achieve our best.
One final question, why did he end the album with „Another Star“, instead of „As“? I have been asking that myself since years now.
You would have to ask that the master himself. „If It’s Magic” followed by “As” and ending with “Another Star” feels great and perfect to me. Time is almost standing still listening to Dorothy Ashby playing the Harp and there seems to be no gravity. You are up on a cloud somewhere and he’s singing… “If it’s magic… Then why can’t it be everlasting, if it’s magic why can’t we make it everlasting”. A song about love. An ode to love and the desire for it to be everlasting. “As” Starting light and happy, drawn more and more into bittersweetness. An ode to the everlasting unconditional love. We can’t make the moment everlasting, but we can love eternal unconditionally.
I feel like my heart gets a huge hug when I listen to it. Still makes me cry and feel so alive.
Very powerful, deep and strong. After such an intense and emotional song “Another Star” shines the light to go on and feel light again. Loving, letting go, knowing your love can be eternal, but carry your journey on being happy and joyful again. The melody still lingers on beautifully in the end. To me the feel of the song reflects his uplifting musical spirit.