Maarten de Boer / Artist’s condition
During her decades long career, Tracee Ellis Ross has starred in beloved shows that Black-ish and girlfriends. But as she sees it, her latest role is her most scary yet. IN The high note, available for streaming on Apple TV on May 29, she plays a superstar singer named Grace Jones, who is facing career stagnation. At the same time, Jones’ personal assistant Maggie (played by Dakota Johnson) has his musical ambitions as a prominent producer.
When I talked to Ross the other day, she told me that at the beginning of the movie, Grace is at a crossroads. Does she always do the same song and dance or does she take a risk and produce an album with all new material?
“First of all, it was so identifiable to me,” Ross says. “But Grace Davis is this woman who has achieved tremendous success and she was trapped in something that worked and gave her all the people, places and things but that didn’t give her the fulfillment of what she really wanted to share.”
NPR’s Ailsa Chang spoke with Tracee Ellis Ross about fulfilling a lifelong dream of singing, keeping the gate in the music business and what her mother, singer Diana Ross, thinks about her latest effort. Listen in the audio player above and read on for the highlights of the interview.
On the message from The High Point
What was really interesting about this story is how universally identifiable it is. I am not, and most are not, international icons. So not that part of the story, but the fact that we so often come to this place where we have a dream, a passion, a fire that we want to explore or experience and we either hear the naysayers, the social trait of staying in your lane or the personal fear of what it would mean to take a risk and possibly fail. And I really connected to it personally, with the singing. I’ve always wanted to sing since I was a little girl, and somewhere along the way I hid that part of me away. But also in my life there are so many times I go, “Is it worth the risk for me to do something that I know I want to try?” When you are already practiced being who you are, it is difficult to put yourself in a position where you will meander. Nobody likes to fail, and yet what fails is what makes us grow.
About the relationship between Grace and Maggie
One of the things I love so much is that this is a movie about two women and that they are not contradicted. They are definitely in their roles and in the positions they are in each other, but there is a certainty between them and they are both fighting for the same thing: the world’s idea of who they should be. There are not many female music producers. And Maggie is trying to do something in a world that thinks she should bring them coffee. It is the right place for an attractive young girl in the music world, to be the one who serves the people who are on the board. And Grace, we know what her journey is. So I love that dynamic of the movie because the truth is that it reflects as much and reflects the life as I live and the people I am around.
In people who inevitably compare Diana Ross to Grace Davis
My mother is an international treasure and has had a great influence on my life and many people and has moved us deeply. I think what was really interesting about how this role was written, which was one of the many things that drew me to it, is that we so often in our culture forget that the people who do incredible things, who touch us deeply and have such a big impact on our lives, are real people. That they are people with hearts and fears and insecurities. And Grace was so beautifully written that she was not a caricature of the quote-quote divan.
When I’m terrified of singing
The first fear comes from the idea that my mother has a very large voice, and her space in the world is taken up and she is known for her voice. So to go into my own voice, the fear of comparison, the fear of criticism felt scary and enormous. I had seen other children on my journey in life [musicians] get shredded in terms of comparison, and why would you even try to make that leap? I understood that the fear that I had arisen honestly. It was not something I had done. It was the same way, could I tolerate criticism and discomfort without creating a new wound in itself, and was it worth taking that risk? And it is and absolutely is, because it was a fire that burned inside me, and it is a piece of my identity that for me, on my own personal journey, which is wholeness and freedom, is an important part of me that goes towards that, and not closing the door on any part of myself, although it’s scary to walk through.
On recording in a studio for the first time
The process in the recording studio was crazy. I’m a person who thinks I can sing, but I sing in the shower, I sing with the music in the car, I sing around the house, I sing jokes, all these things. So when I went into the studio with Rodney Jerkins, the first thing he said was, “You have to trust me.” And just me [sarcastically] “Okay sure.” The first thing that happened was that I got scared and I turned off. And what I learned and understood is that singing chords is a muscle; if you are tense, nothing will come out of you. You know when you’re nervous, how you can’t hear, your brain is like, clogged with fear? So I said, “Do you know what? I have to go to the bathroom.” And I went to the toilet – I didn’t have to go to the toilet – and I got down on my knees and I talked with a little higher force and I was like, “Listen I’m terrified and I have to pass this on to someone else.” I’m having a conversation with the little girl inside me. I was like, “This is what you wanted. And I know it’s scary, but let’s get out of our way, let’s just try it.”
And then I went in again. Then I remember when he first played me “Back To Me,” and I said to Rodney, “Not far. You promise me you won’t put any sauce on it?” He’s like, “There’s no sauce on this – I wouldn’t even have had time to put sauce on it between you coming out of the booth and coming in here to hear it.” Not only does it sound good and I stood on the key, it sounded like me! I realized that I realized that my job was not to sound like anyone else. It would actually be weird if I sound like someone other than me. My job was actually to tell the truth through my voice. Yes, I surprised myself and I was really tickled by the fact that it sounds like my talking voice, just a song version of it.
On mom who hears her music for the first time
My mom has not seen the movie but my mom has heard my music and she cried. It was really special. I picked her up in my car and we sat in our driveway because the car is a really good place to listen to music. “Love Myself” was the first one I played. She sat in the passenger seat and looked forward and she has a lot of hair like me so I couldn’t see her face. But we held our hand, and when the song ended she was like “Stop it, stop it for a second.” She looked at me and tears came to her face and she said “Finally. Finally.”
Mallory Yu and Sarah Handel produced and edited the audio from this interview. Mano Sundaresan adapted it for the web.