Divahood can be an exhausting occupation.
Just ask Whitney Houston, who recently postponed two dates on her first U.S. tour in five years because of strain on her celebrated vocal cords.
“I have a bronchitis situation, and I have allergies,” Houston explains hoarsely, while catching a break in her hotel suite here, the 10th stop on a tour that includes shows tonight7/29 and Friday7/30 at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles.
“The air quality is not good on the East Coast these days. I can’t get enough air, and my bronchioles shut down. But I sing anyway. I’m one of those people who will push and push. I should pace myself better.”
Of course, there are rewards to being a workaholic. Houston’s 1998 album, the double-platinum “My Love Is Your Love,” was put together in just a couple of months and has earned arguably the best reviews of her career.
The project--her first nonsoundtrack album in eight years--finds Houston, who turns 36 next month, collaborating with younger artists such as Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, Faith Evans and Wyclef Jean, and mixing the lavish ballads that have come to be her trademark with more funky, hip-hop-savvy fare.
Houston, who still lives in her native New Jersey, has also kept busy acting in films, including “The Bodyguard” and “The Preacher’s Wife,” and contributing to soundtracks. All the while, she has had to field rumors casting aspersions on her marriage to hip-hop singer Bobby Brown, who is the father of her 6-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.
In an interview two days after singing the national anthem at the WNBA all-star game in New York City, the singer, who is being accompanied on the tour by her daughter, discusses her relationship with Brown and Clive Davis, the Arista Records president who is widely credited with guiding her success. Houston also reflects on the challenges of touring, music, motherhood and the recurring tabloid reports about her marriage.
Question: You’re such a winning live performer, and yet this is your first tour in five years. Why the gap?
Answer: Touring takes a great amount of discipline. You must get a certain amount of sleep to sing, and it’s difficult, because when you get off stage, you’re wired. By the time you cool down, it’s 6 in the morning. Then you’re up again trying to do another gig. Then you have to get food in, and if you have kids, you have to be Mommy. It gets heavy at times.
Q: How would you rank singing live compared to, say, recording or making movies? Which of these pursuits do you enjoy most?
A: Singing [live] comes first, not recording, not making movies. Singing to people I know actually go out there and buy records--not distributors, not retailers--is what makes it worthwhile.
Q: Which songs do you especially like to perform live?
A: I love “Saving All My Love for You,” because it’s mellow and intimate but with a strong, strong lyric. “The Greatest Love of All” is one I love very much because it’s a kids’ song. I know it inspires a lot of young people. I like to do the old stuff live, like “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” because it brings back lots of great memories of when I was very young!
Q: So what do you look for in a song now, at the advanced age of 35?
A: Passion. Any form of passion but mostly love. Diane Warren wrote this incredible song called “I Learned From the Best” [on “My Love Is Your Love”], with lyrics like, “Baby, I learned the way to break a heart / I learned from the best / I learned from you.” That’s passion. That’s a song you could kill.
Q: What other music are you listening to these days?
A: I’m an old-fashioned girl. I still like Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.” I still love Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” And I love gospel. I listen to the Winans constantly. I like things that lift me up, inspire me.
Q: Does hip-hop inspire you? Your current album incorporates hip-hop and contemporary R&B; textures.
A: My husband inspires me, and he’s the hip-hop king. He’s very aware of what’s happening in music, and when I set out to do this album, I took his lead. He said, “You want to work with people who are comparable to you.” Like Rodney Jerkins [who co-wrote and produced the current hit single “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay”]. I’m from church, he’s from church. His father’s a minister. He’s also an accomplished musician.
Then [Brown] said, “You love Missy Elliott’s stuff. Call her.” I said, “I don’t know. I mean, these are the new people who are hot, hot, hot, and I’m 10 years behind them.” But I called, and Missy was floored. She wanted to do it. And Faith. I love Faith. Wyclef came in at the last minute. He told Clive [Davis], “I’ve gotta get on this train.” Again, Wyclef’s from church. His father’s a preacher too. All these people have the same kind of background as me.
Q: Let’s talk a bit about your background--family background, musical background. Your mother, Cissy Houston, was obviously a big role model in both respects. What other artists influenced you?
A: Mom taught me how to sing, the right method . . . how to breathe from my diaphragm, how to go from my chest [voice] to my head [voice] without missing a breath. She also said, “Listen to Aretha. Listen to Barbra. Listen to Gladys. Listen to Dionne. Listen to Ella and Sarah, and Dinah.” So those were my teachings.
Q: Speaking of Clive Davis, who signed you when you were 19, he has gotten a lot of credit for steering your career. What’s your working relationship with him like, and how much input do you have in choosing your material and directing your career?
A: Clive has always been known as the man who can pick the hits. That’s his expertise, and you can’t take that away from him. He knows what song I’m gonna kill, the way a designer knows what dress is right for a person. I remember that I didn’t want to sing [the 1988 hit] “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” at first. I thought it was just tired. But he said, “Listen, you have to trust me. This is going to be your seventh No. 1 single, I guarantee it.” And [he was right]. Those are moments when you appreciate Clive.
Then there are times like [the 1992 film/soundtrack album] “The Bodyguard,” where I’m the one who says, “You have to trust me.” “The Bodyguard” was mine, that was my baby. Clive didn’t want me to do it. He didn’t like the script, because he thought it wasn’t fleshed out enough. He thought [Houston’s character in the film] was like a doll. I said, “I’ll flesh it out.” So he allowed me to do it. But I kept the music to myself for a long time. I didn’t want anybody to hear it. I was very careful.
Q: From the way that you described the process of putting together your current album, it seems like your closest creative advisor right now is your husband. Would you say that’s true?
A: Bobby is my partner. He’s the man I wake up to every morning and go to sleep with every night. And he’s very strong in his decisions. I’m sorry, but a man has a sense of this business that a woman doesn’t have. Men get right down to it. We have to go, “I don’t know. Let me think about that.”
Q: Your marriage has been the subject of a lot of rumors and speculation. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about your relationship with Bobby, and your personal life in general?
A: That I’m gay; that my husband is a womanizer; that he’s a wife-beater. People are domestically abused every day of the week. I have friends who go through that, and it’s not a joke. Gettin’ your ass whipped by a man hurts, my friends tell me. I don’t know whatthat’s about. My husband never put his hands on me a day in his life. I have a father and two brothers who would kill you if you put your hands on me.
Q: Has the gossip made you reluctant to do interviews?
A: It’s just sad, because I talk to people face to face and then I read the interview and go, “What is that? Who is this?” Nobody gets it right. You wanna make it hard for my kid to go to school? You wanna make me fight? I didn’t get in this business to talk about my life. I’m an entertainer. I sing.
Q: Well, then, how do you feel about some of the criticism you’ve gotten as an artist, for instance, accusations that your songs and your style are melodramatic?
A: I do sing melodramatic songs! I think it surprised people when I was young doing it when I was 21, with the voice of a very mature woman. Wearing gowns. (Laughs.) It was like, who the hell is this? Where does she come from? Now, after 15 years, I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore.
Q: Does it bug you that there seems to be a critical bias against singers, especially divas, like yourself, who don’t write or produce most of their material?
A: We don’t get enough credit, do we? Producers and writers get the big money, the continuous residuals. That’s why on my albums, I always put, “Whitney Houston: executive producer.” Because I’m producing me. That person behind the board just gives me direction. I don’t sit down with a pen and paper and write. I can, but I don’t. It’s not my forte.
Q: Do you have any aspirations to get into other aspects of the music business? Have you ever thought about starting your own label, as some other stars have done?
A: Yeah, I have and I don’t want it. It’s too much trouble, too much responsibility. Musicians are temperamental. My husband and I have a television company, Brownstone. We produced a show, “Cinderella” [starring Houston and Brandy that ABC aired in 1997], which was really successful. Now Disney has commissioned us to do another one.
Q: Speaking of works in progress, your daughter, Bobbi Kristina, has joined you on stage during many of your recent appearances. Are you encouraging her to follow in Mommy’s footsteps?
A: She wants to do it. I would love to say to you that it looks like she’s gonna be a lawyer or a pediatrician or a ballet dancer. But it’s none of those. You can always tell a singer by the way they hold a microphone, and she holds that mike with confidence. She’s a little diva-in-training. If there’s ever gonna be another me, it’s gonna be Bobbi Kris. There ain’t gonna be no more after that.
Whitney Houston headlines today and Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City. 8:15 p.m. Tickets for today’s show are $45 to $125; Friday’s show is sold out. (818) 633-4440.