The music industry, like any other momentum-bound field in which people can become loyal professionals, tends to bestow its employees with a sort of tunnel vision. The brilliant young artists who enter the songwriting hustle in their teens or early adulthood, shrouded behind the scenes while quietly architecting major hits for the pop elite, are the ones most likely to feel this myopia. Their craft is plied for the highest bidder, and momentum can build over a painstaking period of time in which songs may go to a poorly-fit artist or languish unearthed for years. Maybe they’ll make it to a songwriter’s own album, but few are so lucky as to have a bigger solo mark than the artists for whom they end up writing.
“Right now, I’m sitting on a patio, looking at palm trees and blue skies, and just taking a moment to just go,” says Marsha Ambrosius over a spotty phone line, exhaling deeply, her exhaustion apparent even in her laughs. “Come next week Tuesday, I’m probably not going to sleep for a year, so I have to get my vacation in now The Liverpool-born singer/songwriter extraordinaire, whose near decade-and-a-half in Philadelphia has done nothing to her accent, is in Los Angeles on a break between tours (one opening for John Legend and another on her own, which lands at the Mann Center on August 2nd). Like any conscientious musician in the public eye, she’s using her break to do the most relaxing thing ever – a gating gun of 20-minute phone interviews, one after another, with music journalists. She’s quick, though, to state her graciousness at being in her unique position.
“Well this is my life, I signed up for this part. This is the part I enjoy, because I get to give it away first,” she says about interviewing. Artists who reach these heights – a solo debut that moved over 90,000 units in it’s first week alone, shared songwriting credits with Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson, and membership in a definitive neo-soul group among them – have probably sat through enough of these interviews to know just how a public image gets managed and scripted at every turn. But for Ambrosius, who’s lyrical signature lies in the no-holds-barred exploration of deeply personal scenarios, the exhaustion and graciousness is best understood as nothing but honest.
On Friends & Lovers, her second solo album which dropped this week via RCA records, Ambrosius is continuing to mine this familiar territory to increasingly grandiose and high-energy conclusions – something, she admits, is somewhat borne of her showbusiness lifestyle.
“I do have a private life to manage…or mismanage, but it makes for great music, especially from a distance. To withstand a lucrative career for the past fourteen years, I’ve been on the road. So anybody who I’ve encountered, whether it be love or lust has had to handle that…or not handle that,” explains Ambrosius about the source of her narratives. One could understand Friends & Lovers as a definitive look into the life of a fast-moving recording industry star – a person who, surrounded by the pace of constant movement and creative energy interspersed with frequent performative obligations, grasps for intimacy in fleeting moments.
In this sense, the album builds from 2011’s Late Nights and Early Mornings in scope. Where Friends & Lovers deviates from its predecessor is precisely things start to get especially interesting. The album is expansive in scope, laced with atmospheric tapestries and shimmering synths at nearly every turn. Ambrosius winds through narratives of erotic passion, emotional vulnerability, and every emotion that runs the gamut of her and others’ deeply personal dalliances. Not every song mines this very specific moment of intimacy – some songs, like album closer “Streets of London”, are based in feelings of homesickness and rootlessness – but the album is unified by these tales of people who have entered and exited Ambrosius’s life as quickly and loudly as they entered it. Ambrosius admits great intentionality here, as many of these songs are sequels to songs on Late Nights.
“I speak so much truth through the music, and it’s really about real life, so I really wanted to do songs about what happens the morning after ‘Late Nights and Early Mornings’, and on this record, it’s ‘Shoes’,” she explains before rattling off a few other song connections. “With Late Nights, it was more about initiating the process. With Friends & Lovers, it was about the morning after, not knowing where my shoes are, waking up to someone I didn’t acknowledge anymore…it was diving in head-first and attacking all of these intricate relationships that shaped [the record].”
Few female performers can get away with this kind of candidness, and those who have tried tend to face tremendous criticism or reductive praise; what makes Ambrosius unique amongst her peers is that her honesty is never removed from the emotional core of what sex conjures in people, and her extreme candidness doesn’t really veer on raunch or shock-value posturing. One could describe this as mastery of emotional delivery, although Ambrosius simply chalks this up to an inability to be more subtle.
“I really, truly have no idea to do it any other way. Anything else feels forced or contrived, or like I’m acting like I’m supposed to be me…whereas when I’m naturally delivering what I feel emotionally, it just feels right. Anything else feels contrived,” she explains.
In her defense, Ambrosius’s otherworldly path has repeatedly put her in places that don’t allow her to necessarily see herself with illusion or nuance. Starting her career as the singing half of early-2000s duo Floetry, Ambrosius quickly made a name for herself as a powerhouse vocalist with equal talent in conveying sultry moods and erotic lyrical frames. When that group split up, she sunk her talents into some more of the songwriting that she already did for superstar artists eventually working with Alicia Keys, Kelis, and Lauryn Hill among others. But anticipation around what she had to say next was at a fever pitch when she released Late Nights and Early Mornings to sales figures that many mainstream stalwarts only dream of.
When she made Friends & Lovers, she called on an array of hit-making producers like Da Internz (whose collaboration was integral to forming the album’s aforementioned conceptual direction) to help architect the album’s lush instrumentals and hazy aesthetic. Ambrosius has clearly paid attention to the ambiance-leaning turn in modern RnB, but the mix with her own virtuosic vocal imprint has produced something that feels at home in any era. “I feel like the music that I’ve made over the span of decades are songs that you’ll play decades for now. I wanted producers to understand that these songs weren’t about trends, they were about emotions and feelings that stand the test of time,” she says about the hopes for her music.
Ambrosius’s intense confidence – in her music, the validity of her experiences, and where things are ultimately going – is apparent in everything she does. Ultimately, Friends & Lovers works because of this confidence that she communicates through her songs and live performances (many of which sell out fast), and her candor is redeemed by the very gall it takes to be so open. Nobody knows this better than her, and more than anything, she now yearns for the kind of artistic growth that follows her increasing creative focus.
“I’m trying to Quincy Jones this thing. I feel like I started yesterday, and that there’s so much more to do and so many things to talk about. I feel like it’s a playground now…before, I was so fixated on what I thought this was going to be without allowing it to be what it is. And now, I know what it is, and I can just enjoy it,” she says, her earlier bits of exhaustion seemingly trailing off when she thinks of the future.
As Marsha Ambrosius’s star continues to rise, she may easily become a household name for music lovers far and wide. And nobody knows it better than her.