Mary J Blige: 'It's not just survival... you've to come out the other side of those trials'
As hip hop royalty Mary J Blige releases her 13th album, she tells Craig McLean that divorce has taught her to love and why she's stronger than ever before and why London will always feel like home
It's R&B o'clock at her hotel, meaning Mary J Blige is running late. Some 90 minutes after my scheduled audience with the American singer I'm ushered into a hushed suite.
There, the Queen of Hip Hop Soul is holding court, with three laptop-tapping assistants and an untouched plate of cookies. Blige is in town performing with fellow New York soulster Maxwell as part of a two-month-long double-bill titled the King and Queen of Hearts World Tour.
She's a commanding performer, famed for giving it her all onstage. Are the concerts taking it out of her? "It's a lot," she chuckles, lips closed, impeccably-coiffed platinum-blonde hair vibrating slightly, the fatigue shadowing her otherwise immaculately made-up face.
She sits wedged upright into the corner of a sofa, her body language folded, clenched and clasped. A black Stella McCartney coat is wrapped tightly about her shoulders, her spike-heeled Guiseppe Zanotti boots pulled knee-high. Either she isn't staying long or she's just arrived. A bit of both, it turns out. Blige made it back to the hotel from her Manchester gig at 6am. A couple more appointments in room 239 and she's outta here to another London hotel. The 45-year-old superstar has always felt at home in the city. Her last album, 2014's The London Sessions, was recorded in the city with a host of top-notch British musical talent, including Sam Smith and Disclosure.
Did any of her A-list London pals - Sir Paul McCartney, Kate Moss, Sir Elton John - turn out for her O2 show with Maxwell a few days earlier? "No, I don't think any of them were in town." In any case, "when I'm here I try to focus on the work and not do too much socialising. There's too much work. I still have to record maybe two more songs on the album and wrap it up."
That album, The Strength of a Woman, which we have met to discuss, will be her 13th. To date, Blige has sold 50 million records since the release of her Puff Daddy-produced 1992 debut What's the 411?, and taken home nine Grammys. But for all the soaring highs it's been a career punctuated by challenging lows. Her lifelong trials include (but are not limited to) a tough upbringing in The Bronx, an abusive previous relationship and battles with addiction to both cocaine and alcohol.
When I last interviewed her six years ago - Blige-the-businesswoman was launching a range of sunglasses. I asked how she had managed to turn her life around after that difficult time. "I'm a strong individual," she told me. "I've been a leader all my life but didn't know it until it was time to face that. My faith in God was all I had. I said: 'If God is there, help me'. And He showed me that He was there. Because I had to stop drinking completely for five or six years. And now I'm able to occasionally have some Champagne, or occasionally drink. But no drugs. I'm not doing any cocaine."
At the time, she also credited her husband, Martin "Kendu" Isaacs, who she married in 2003, with helping her through the dark years. But now, after 13 years of marriage, the couple are in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. This might partly explain her demeanour as we chat. It certainly seems to explain the lyrics of her new single Thick of It, a gorgeously melodramatic mid-tempo belter.
"It's been a helluva year/ If I make it through hell and I come out alive I got nothing to fear/ No more crying and trying to bring back the loving when nothing is here/ Let me be clear/ I wasn't perfect but this shit ain't worth it…" she sings.
If that wasn't messy enough Blige has been opening shows on her current tour with a series of backdrop projections of newspaper headlines and screenshots of websites covering stories relating to ructions precipitated by her filing for divorce in July.
"Mary J Blige divorce drama" runs one image taken from gossip website TMZ. "Kendu going for her bank". Isaacs has complained to the US courts about his soon-to-be-ex-wife's concert curtain-raisers. He's reported as claiming that Blige is bent on a "public campaign to destroy" his reputation, and to "shame" and "financially suffocate him".
The legal documents also detail how Blige "opens her show by displaying various images of tabloids pertaining to this dissolution in an attempt to paint herself as the victim and Mr Isaacs as the villain". But this afternoon it looks like Blige is, perhaps belatedly but certainly wisely, taking the high road. Just before we meet I'm warned "no divorce questions". So, I enquire innocently, how did she arrive at the album title?
"Well, I realised that it takes a lot of strength to be a woman," Blige says with an amused chuckle. "And in my life I've had to be the strength for myself, for this woman. I've been the strength for myself for years. And now it's not even about just survival. It's about thriving. Coming out on the other side of those trials, but not all destroyed. But uplifted, and having learnt something."
I appreciate that we can't talk about her personal circumstances. But can she say if she's managed to alchemise those trials into some positives? "Yeah, it's really taught me now to love myself even more, and not doubt myself any more, and not go against my intuition and know what I know," she laughs drily again. Is she still showing those newspaper projections in her shows? "Yeah," she says, blithely.
"There's so many things that have happened to me in the past, I'd say, five or six years… It is what it is. I'm Mary J Blige. I've been putting it out there for years. I'm not gonna stop now." Indeed she's not. In a jam-packed year, as well as hosting an Apple talk show Blige has also filmed guest slots in two episodes of hit American drama How to Get Away With Murder, and shot a movie in New Orleans with Carey Mulligan.
In the Forties-set Mudbound she plays the matriarch of a family who, in defiance of the era's societal "norm", becomes friends with a new white family. "My character and Carey's end up bonding and helping each other in a time of lots of racism. So it was one of those movies: people not quite getting the memo that slavery is over."
She and Isaacs had a home in New Jersey but she's currently residing in Los Angeles. Does she enjoy it? "It's cool," she says flatly. "It was good but now it's not so good no more." Why? "Just everything that's gone on. I'll probably move. I'm not sure where to. London? I would love to but London is just astronomically expensive - eesh," she shudders. "But if things change, I would definitely move here. London just feels like home."
Time's nearly up. I wonder if she has at least had time to take in some of her beloved Brit cuisine - the lady loves her fish and chips. "Of course! From Sea Shell," she says, referencing the high-end Marylebone chippie. She adds mournfully: "No fish and chips in the States." As I rise to leave, I tell her I hope she's at least getting the evening off. She needs it. "No," she sighs. "But I might go get something to eat - Nobu is my favourite restaurant, period. The Ivy's always nice. I like that Italian, Signor Sassi. Or... I might just lay down and go to sleep." The Strength of a Woman (Island) is released on December 9