By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
NEW YORK – For more than 25 years, Anita Baker‘s voice has been one of the most distinctive and beloved in R&B. She does not take it for granted.
“I have as many pictures of my vocal cords as I do of my children,” Baker says, laughing. “I have a great ear, nose and throat doctor, and we look at them — if there’s some redness, maybe I’ll take a little time off.”
Luckily, Baker and her throat are in good form at the moment, and the 54-year-old singer is poised to release her first studio album in seven years on Oct. 23. The single Lately arrives Tuesday. Like other tunes on the collection, Only Forever, it exudes the elegant but earthy warmth that has made her singing, for millions of fans, synonymous with romance.
“I’d love to be the political voice of my generation, but that’s not my gift,” says Baker, taking a breather in the downtown studio where she’s laying down final tracks for the album. “Typically, the theme of my albums, if there is a theme, is, ‘How does it feel?’ And that always leads to love songs. It just does.”
The love songs on Only Forever do cover slightly broader territory. “Lately, I’ve been writing odes to my family,” Baker says. Her younger son, Ed, 18, starts college next month; like brother Walter, 19, he’s studying music.
“So I’m an empty-nester now,” Baker says. “There’s a song, Free, that just came through me, watching them go out into the world. I want them to hear my voice and to have advice readily available to them.”
Her sons’ decision to enter into their mom’s famously risky profession hasn’t been a source of anxiety. “I’ve always encouraged them to follow their bliss. My father worked on assembly lines in Detroit while I was growing up. Every day, I watched him do what he needed to do to support the family. But he told me, ‘Life is short. Do what you want to do.’ ”
Baker continues to apply her father’s counsel in her own career. For Only Forever, she “initially recorded everything live to analog, to be true to my soul. To me, (digital audio software) Pro Tools should be an editing device, not something used to create music. But I also want to be an artist of this time, to embrace 21st-century recording techniques. And with amazing producers, I was able to balance those goals.”
Essence entertainment director Cori Murray expects that the classic sound suggested byLately will resonate with fans “who have been waiting for Anita to come back. Her popular songs were true love songs, not drama-filled or begging her man. Even if she sang about heartache and pain, there was a beautiful sweetness.”
Fans may want to soak up that sweetness while they can, as Baker says that Only Forever ”is probably my last commercial record. But I have a gospel album in me, a jazz album.”
There are simply “other things I want to say. They’re right in here,” she says, touching a spot somewhere between her vocal cords and her heart. “And I’ll say them.”
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