Return Flight: Ingrid Chavez

by Dan Dodds

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Ingrid Chavez photo by Vern Evans

Ingrid Chavez photo by Vern Evans

 

With the Café de Paris in darkness, all you can see is the light from smart phones raised high in anticipation. 

“Rain is wet, and sugar is sweet…” a voice calls, to the delight of the crowd. These are the words of Ingrid Chavez, in her guise as The Spirit Child, legendary lines she originally spoke for Prince on his Lovesexy recording; Chavez returning to the material especially for Prince’s purple family of fans, who are gathered in London’s West End to celebrate his life.

In the distance a blue spotlight shines, touching Ingrid as she gracefully walks down the winding staircase. Arriving on the stage dressed like a cabaret artiste of the ’20s, she’s wearing a black trench coat with pink feather shoulder piece, fishnet stockings, heels and a gold masquerade mask. As the live band play the music to Ingrid’s “You Gave Me Wings” a song written in tribute to Prince—her former mentor, lover, friend, costar, and muse—and the first single from her new album Memories of Flying, Ingrid removes her mask. 

“I was incredibly nervous,” she says, on the phone from Philly, there for only a few days until she heads back home to New Hampshire. “I had never done that kind of performance before [with a full live band], because in Black Eskimo it was always just me, Marco [Valentin], and nobody else. I would have to command the entire stage, so this was a totally different experience.” 

Black Eskimo were a duo, consisting of singer/poet Chavez and musician Marco Valentin, formed in 2011. Together they put out the collection Deep & Heady before winning “Song of the Year” for “My Sky” (in the spoken word category) at the fourteenth annual Independent Music Awards. However, in lieu of a follow up with Marco—who was taking a while to come up with an album’s worth of new music—Ingrid felt the time was right to release a new solo project, her third overall. It was what she was working on when news broke suddenly that Prince had passed away on April 21, 2016. Since that day, there has been a real reconciliation of his associates, collaborators, and fans—coming together publicly, reminiscing, and connecting in a way that perhaps wasn’t possible while Prince continued to look to the future and ply his trade, as was his wont. Backing band the Revolution reunited and are now selling out venues across the world, as are the NPG (New Power Generation), and despite not having worked with Prince herself since the early ’90s—Ingrid’s credentials including contributions to the aforementioned Lovesexy, starring alongside him in Graffiti Bridge, and being signed to his Paisley Park label, putting out her debut album May 19, 1992—the demand and insatiable interest in the great man’s body of work has also pulled her back into the fold. 

“I love the PRN Alumni Foundation [a charity foundation set up by former employees of Prince to continue in the spirit of his philanthropy] and I feel very close to the people who organized that event,” says Ingrid. “They are the ones who brought me back into the family, and to perform at the Café de Paris, wearing a costume designed by Stacia Lang (who worked with Prince in the early ’90s), well, that was just a wild dream.”

Dreams are a recurring theme for Chavez, inspiring several songs on the new album, including the title track “Memories of Flying.” 

“I have dreams of flying and they are the most amazing sensations because it’s something you will feel in a dream state that you’ll never feel in real life. Even if you jumped out of an airplane it would be a feeling of dropping, so there are certain sensations that you feel in a dream, like flying, falling in love or heartbreak, that feel so vivid and real. I love my dream world, but it scares me too.” 

Though it’s a collaboration with her former bandmate, to Ingrid Memories of Flying signifies her return to going it alone. 

“It was an ending of a period of time with Black Eskimo and the poetry of the album seemed to connect to that title, which is about taking off again,” says Ingrid, “That feeling of, when you’re down, that you can take off again because you have done it before. It was the first time that I had entered into a project where I didn’t have a collaborator from first song to last, where I didn’t have someone where it was like, ‘We’re building this record together,’  so I wasn’t sure how it was going to play out and I needed to remind myself, ‘Look you’ve done this before, you can do it again.’” 

The biting chill of “Calling Out the Thunder” is, says Ingrid, one of the most personal songs on the album—addressing her bouts of writer’s block and the struggles of creating art. 

“It’s crazy,” says Ingrid. “I feel undone—like have I said everything? Have I done everything? There’s so much you could say and so many ways or soundscapes and when you’re deep in the middle of it it’s like, “Aaah!”  and I don’t know if anybody else will get the song like I do or will appreciate it, but I was adamant it had to be on there.” 

“When the day is through, I’m the only one who can call out the thunder,” she sings on the chorus.  

The second single “All the Love in the World” produced by Mashti—a Norwegian living in Denmark —is described as having a deep winter feel to it in the accompanying biography notes.  

“Winter is the most inspiring season for me,” says Ingrid who speaks softly and with a gentle tone. Her pauses giving what she says a poetic air even when discussing the weather. 

“When I married David”—as in David Sylvain, ex-husband, father of Ingrid’s two daughters,  collaborator on their Little Girls With 99 Lives project and former frontman of British group Japan—“and we moved to California and the West Coast for a few years, I couldn’t really get into my creative routine as I rely on the changing of seasons as an artist. The winter is when I’m most prolific, preparing for spring, and summer is then just to relax and enjoy the warmth, so it was very unsettling for spring to be in February and the rest of it just being 100 degrees. The east coast is much more inspiring for me as an artist.” 

As the images on Chavez’s social media show, New Hampshire is beautiful in winter. The vocal to “Snow-Blind” inspired by a track of producer Marco Valentin walking in frozen snow. Indeed, much of Ingrid’s collaboration with Prince was also recorded during winter, Chavez inspiring the infamous epiphany on December 1, 1987 that lead to the creation of Lovesexy (and the shelving of The Black Album). Together that winter, Prince and Ingrid worked on the spoken word project 21 Poems. An unreleased album that included the wonderful Chavez poem “Cross the Line,” later used by Prince on one of his finest productions, the Lovesexy ’88 live show rarity Intermission (a collage with an excerpt of Jill Jones reciting Shakespeare and a Clare Fischer string arrangement). The memorable intro Chavez wrote to Lovesexy with the line “Clap your hands/stomp your feet” would also form the basis of the Prince produced “Heaven Must Be Near,” later released as the first single off her debut album May 19, 1992. 

Stylistically, “Into the Blue” from the new record—produced by Danish musician Peter Musebrink (of the renowned ambient event God Goes Deep in Copenhagen)—is the song that resembles Ingrid’s earlier Paisley Park work the most. 

“Peter told me he got into music because he was inspired by my album with Prince,” says Ingrid. “So I tried to give him a bit more of my spoken word stuff because that’s what I know he likes, and “Into the Blue” is very soft—it’s telling you to close your eyes, to go deep inside. Returning to that dream space.” Ingrid pauses. “It’s very groovy …” she laughs. “That’s what Peter loved about it. It’s music that soothes your soul.” 

The ambient and sultry spoken word sound of Ingrid’s recordings were a lot more influential than they were given credit for at the time. Janet Jackson’s Janet album (released in ’93) bore more than a passing resemblance to Ingrid’s work and in the case of Madonna’s 1990 chart topping single “Justify My Love,” which Ingrid cowrote with Lenny Kravitz, recognition was deliberately suppressed. 

Says Ingrid: “When “Justify My Love” first came out, Prince called me up and said, ‘Ingrid, what’s up with the new Madonna song? That’s you, I know it’s you.’” I had made a deal with the devil to be a ghost writer for a very small percentage of the publishing on it, a situation where I didn’t really know what to do and was kinda talked into signing off on it, but when Prince heard it on the radio and he asked me about it, that was the first time I admitted to anyone that I had written it. It was obvious to him that Madonna was doing me, which is pretty incredible.” 

Mainly, Prince was concerned that when Ingrid’s album did get released that people would assume that she had copied Madonna, not the other way around. 

“He was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was like, ‘Oh man, I know… I’m sorry,’” Ingrid laughs. 

Taking the initiative, Ingrid lawyered up and won back her songwriting credit, leaving her without regrets—particularly given Madonna’s conduct during the session. 

“Lenny took me to the studio when they were actually recording it,” remembers Ingrid. “I heard her vocals, which had already been laid down, but she wasn’t very welcoming to me—she didn’t say anything to me and was very rude. But I was like, ‘Okay, whatever! Lady, I’m just here checkin’ out whatchu doin’ to my song,’” Ingrid says with a laugh. 

Mashti has produced a new, funkier version of “Justify My Love” on Ingrid (the only copy of her original demo was given to a Virgin Records exec) something that may see the light of day at some point. 

Talking about Prince steers the interview to the first single, “You Gave Me Wings.” The lyrics for which came to Ingrid the day Prince died, after learning the news. 

“Christian Ronn had sent me a track that I had planned to write to. So, this day I decided to take a drive, which is what I do with a lot of new tracks and I had my new doggie with me,” says Ingrid. “I stopped to get a coffee and my friend Katherine, who’s married to Andre Cymone, she called and said ‘Have you heard the news? I don’t know if it’s a hoax or not… Prince has passed away,’ and I was like, ‘What?’ I couldn’t believe it. Then I just drove and drove. It must have been like an hour and a half later, ended up at this little café, took the dog outside, and with the song in my head I wrote the words. That’s the song that we have today.” 

“You Gave Me Wings” tells the story of when they first met, the winter that resulted in Lovesexy and May 19, 1992. 

“Every lyric of it captures our freedom,” says Ingrid. “Like when he called and said, ‘Do you want to get back into the poetry album?’ or ‘I want you to hear Heaven Must Be Near…’ All these songs I wrote for you, all these choruses. All the records he made that came from that December, that deep December when we used to drive around all night just talking. All those references are there.” 

A consequence of dealing with the loss of someone dear is that there are also moments of support and beauty within the sorrow. That friend who finds it awkward to ask how you are but does anyway, or a conversation with a stranger with whom you feel an instant connection. 

The tender and affectionate “Light Rays” conveys that feeling and is a stunning piece of writing. The poetry alluring and comforting—a hug when it’s cold out. 

“You make me want to give you my words,” sings Ingrid, in two-part harmony. Like light rays shining through the storm clouds. 

“Prince’s passing happened during the recording but “You Gave Me Wings” became such a big part of the project and wound up connecting me to this bigger family,” says Ingrid. “One that he had created, and though I’ve worked independent of him all these years—I was already in the middle of making a record anyway, so it was already going to be what it is—it was through his passing that I somehow reconnected with it all; that part of my life. 

For everyone who worked with Prince it changed their lives in some way or another, and I don’t think we could express it in the way we can now…” she pauses. “I think a lot us feel that way.”

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