Fantasia Barrino on going independent, 'American Idol,' and making a 'rock soul' album

Fantasia Barrino

Fantasia Barrino Associated Press

Fantasia Barrino is in the middle of touring arenas and theaters across the country, but when I get her on the phone she’s unwinding at home in North Carolina.

“I saw we had three days off in the schedule, and I said oh yeah, I’m gonna go home, go in my kitchen, cook for my kids,” says Barrino, a mother of two, initially sounding exhausted from weeks of giving it her all on stage. “It’s weird, when I’m tired, I get my energy back by coming home and being a mom. I never want my kids to grow up and say, my mom was very talented, she did some great things, but she was never there.”

In 2004 Barrino won the third season of American Idol, at the height of the reality TV phenomenon’s star-making power. Within a few months, an unknown 19-year-old single mother became a pop star with a #1 single, and she’s only cemented her status as one of the most respected soul singers of her generation since then. But Barrino’s seventh album, Sketchbook, begins a new phase in her career—having fulfilled the contract that was part of her Idol championship, she’s started her own label. Rock Soul is both the name of her label that released the album in October, and the musical ethos that informed the songs.

Although Barrino released the holiday collection Christmas After Midnight on Rock Soul in 2017, Sketchbook is her first full-scale release of original songs as an independent artist. Taking a gamble on both the business side and the creative side has worked out well: The album has topped Billboard’s R&B Albums chart for two weeks, and the lead single “Enough” peaked at #2 on the Adult R&B chart, her biggest radio hit in six years.

“’Enough’ is a ballad that embodies Anita Baker or Prince, a ballad that men and women enjoy,” Barrino says, noting with pride that the usually female-dominated gender balance at her concerts has begun to shift. She gets more animated and excited as the conversation goes on—so much so that she doesn’t even wait for me to ask a follow-up question, taking over both ends of the conversation for a moment. “Ask me why-- well, here’s my answer. I think it’s because it reminds you of the music we used to listen to. It is all live instruments on that record. Nobody’s playing live instruments on the radio anymore, everything is so boxed in, so we went against the grain.”

Eschewing the beats and loops that contemporary R&B producers like Jermaine Dupri and Rodney Jerkins provided on her early albums, Barrino locked in with a group of musicians including members of her longtime backing band to pursue her rock soul vision. One of the performances that helped her advance through the competition on American Idol was of Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and Freddie Mercury inspired her again when the band’s biopic was released while she was recording Sketchbook. “I stopped studio sessions and we went to go see Bohemian Rhapsody five times, my band thought I was crazy,” she says. “I got a song called ‘Warning’ that is straight Queen, when you hear the guitar licks, you’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, shoot.’”

If American Idol was a performing boot camp that required Barrino to sing several genres of music, she’s only proven to be even more adventurous in the past 15 years: She sang jazz with the National Symphony Orchestra and opera with Andrea Bocelli, and she starred in the Broadway musical of The Color Purple. But as a major label artist, she rarely got to explore her full range as a musician on her albums. “Don’t get me wrong, I have great relationships at everyone over at RCA,” she says. “They just tried to lock me into this R&B genre. There’s nothing wrong with that, because I’m soul and I will forever be soul, but there were so many parts of me musically that the world did not know about.”

When I express surprise that “Bad Girl,” a piano-driven waltz, had leaped ahead of the album’s three singles as the current most popular song from Sketchbook on streaming services, Barrino sounds vindicated. “I should’ve bet everybody and got me a couple Chanel purses and some shoes from everyone, because I told them, I said ‘Bad Girl’ is the one,” she says, calling it her own “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” a James Brown classic she recorded a cover of in 2016. The string section on “Bad Girl” was comprised entirely of female musicians, as is the band backing Barrino on The Sketchbook Tour. “The industry can be very male-dominated, especially on the road, so to see a bunch of women come out and do their thing, I just get a kick out of it.”

As much as Barrino speaks of Sketchbook and the tour in support of it with pride, she also states, a little elliptically, that she won’t be doing anything else like this again in the future. “This is my last tour,” she says. “There’s something different that I must do, that I won’t talk about now.” Sketchbook, like her past albums, closes with a gospel song, and if I had to guess, I would say she might be on the verge of an Al Green-like turn from secular soul to full-time worship music. But all Barrino will say for now is that she’s committed to making this final run of shows special. “I’m gonna take it out with a bang.”