Solange: For myself, owning my body is really important
Her brilliant third album was both a critical and commercial success, but Solange is still as focused on art as she is on music. Here, she talks about the influence of her mother, retaining control of her appearance and where she will be going to next
Solange Knowles is a hard woman to pin down. This is true of the 31-year-old Houston native's work as a musician and songwriter, and in particular of last year's magnum opus, A Seat at the Table: a third album that was both political and resolutely personal. But the same quality that means her work evades simple definition makes the more basic aspects of her day tricky to pull off - like meeting someone who is supposed to interview her, for example.
I have flown to Los Angeles to meet her in the same location as today's photoshoot. But, by the time I arrive, she is nowhere to be found. I try in vain to reschedule our conversation to later in the afternoon - we were originally supposed to be talking at 11am - to no avail. From midday until 8pm, I sit in a cafe in Silverlake, trying to make things work. They do not. In the end, I manage to get hold of her on the phone, as we are both in taxis heading for our evening flights out of LAX. She jokingly puts her failure to make our meeting down to the intricate, time-consuming braiding work she has had done for her most recent look - visible in our shoot - adapted for her brief Orion's Rise tour that closes at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California, on Sunday.
"Girl, blame the braids," she says between light laughter. "Blame the braids!"
This summer, I saw Knowles headline the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago with a set largely made up of the songs from her latest album - "a project on identity, empowerment, independence, grief and healing," she says. Her performance was astounding, acting as both a celebration of black joy and a soulful depiction of black political identity. A fierce dedication to speak to her audience was apparent during Don't Touch My Hair: specifically dedicated to the black women in the audience who - myself included - blissfully sang along.
Braiding is important to Knowles. It is an "act of beauty, an act of convenience and an act of tradition" - it is "its own art form", she adds. Every black woman has a personal journey with her own hair, and for Knowles it began in her mother's salon, which was a refuge - "a spare bedroom so to speak" - for her as a young girl. Growing up there was pivotal.
"I got to experience women arriving in one state of mind and leaving in a completely transformed way. It wasn't just about the hair. It was about the sisterhood and the storytelling. Being a young girl who was really active in dance, theatre and on the swim team, the salon was a kind of safe haven."
By five or six, Knowles' five-years-older sister Beyonce was already well on her way to becoming a global superstar: their father, Matthew, quit his job as a Xerox sales manager to manage her group, Destiny's Child. Solange, who had already shown a passion for singing, was not far behind her. At 15, she filled in for a backing dancer on one of the tours for her sister's group, sang on their 2001 Christmas album and straight after that began working on her own music: her career also overseen, initially, by her father. Her debut album, Solo Star, came in 2002, two years later she got married and had a son, and by the time she released her second album, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St Dreams, in 2008, much had changed - not least her marital status: she got divorced in 2007 (Knowles married her current husband, video director Alan Ferguson, in 2014).
Questions about Knowles' older sister are, I am told, off limits. The elevator incident from 2014, too - when leaked security footage showed Solange in an altercation with her sister's husband, Jay-Z - has been discussed as much as it ever will be ("We had one disagreement ever. Before and after, we've been cool," Jay-Z said in an interview with Rap Radar in August). But the rest of her family is another matter. Our conversation is peppered with mentions of her mother, Tina, who - along with her father - provided interlude tracks on A Seat at the Table (on Tina Taught Me and Dad was Mad respectively).
In fact, the name of her current tour is taken from a recent discovery about their relationship. "I had some revelations, in terms of my parents finding out they conceived me in Egypt after visiting the Giza pyramids, and connecting to that and the constellation of Orion that aligns with Giza," she says. The Orion constellation now has a permanent standing in her life, with recent Instagram posts showing it tattooed in delicate line work on her inner right arm.
Knowles' mother was born Clestine Ann Beyince in 1954, in Galveston, Texas. Yet it's specifically her Creole heritage that has had a profound effect on her youngest daughter. Knowles recorded parts of the album in New Iberia, Louisiana, which was the former home of her maternal grandparents who were chased out by the Ku Klux Klan. Now a resident of New Orleans, she credits the region with her creative process.
"It can be colourful. It can be vivid. But one of the things I immediately think of when I think of Southern storytelling is its slower rhythm and slower pace. I think of times growing up when I would hear an aunt, an uncle or great aunt tell a story, taking you through all of the different twists and turns and valleys and rivers of it. And as a writer I think that has really kind of influenced my pace. I really kind of take my time through the process."
Visual art is as much of an outlet for Knowles as music, and she has recently exhibited at Tate Modern and the Guggenheim in New York. As part of her performance art at the Guggenheim, she made calls to tear "the f***ing walls down" and that due to what she perceives as a lack of diversity in the arts, "inclusion is not enough". Body politics is also something that she has been contemplating. "To be honest, owning my body this year was really important to me," she says.
"That can mean a lot of things. That can be in the physical form - wanting to have control over my physical body - and also wanting to have control in the way it is presented to the world.
"And it isn't always easy. I often lose opportunities based on my will to want to navigate through that ownership of my body in the most authentic way. And I really kind of attained a lot of that from my mother."