Q&A: Twenty years after her debut, Tamia remains a steadfast R&B voice
Tamia is a rare voice in R&B.
Debuting at the tail end of the ’90s, the Canadian singer-songwriter persevered as R&B became shaped by rap’s rising dominance, making it tougher for veteran genre purists to be seen and heard.
“I remember when R&B singers sang the song and the rappers did a hook. Now singers are just doing the hooks. And, actually, some rappers are doing the songs and the hooks,” the 43-year-old said with a laugh.
Twenty years into her career, Tamia Hill is deep into a second act that sees her enjoying success on her own terms.
She’s gearing up for a fall tour in support of her new album, “Passion Like Fire” — it’s out Sept. 7 via her Plus 1 imprint and eOne Music — and she’s got one of the hottest songs on the adult R&B charts right now with “Leave It Smokin,’ ” a seductive neo-soul throwback that’s becoming her most successful single since her breakout 2001 stunner, “Stranger in My House.”
Singing since she was 6, the Windsor, Ontario, native arrived under the guidance of Quincy Jones and had earned three Grammy nominations before she released her self-titled debut in 1998.
Despite a current R&B landscape that favors experimentation and hip-hop edge, Hill has remained one of the few steadfast talents who rebukes trend-chasing, and her new album sees the singer playing directly to her strengths.
The follow-up to 2015’s “Love Life” (her highest charting album to date, it hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart), “Passion Like Fire” is more of the sultry, grown-up R&B-soul Hill has delivered effortlessly for two decades now.
Ahead of the album’s release and supporting tour that will take her across the U.S. (she plays the Novo at L.A. Live in October), the performer discussed longevity, the evolving state of R&B and the 20th anniversary of her debut.
All of your albums have a warm familiarity without ever feeling formulaic. What inspires your process?
It really is kind of organic. When I feel like it’s time to get back to recording, I unplug from everything, and that’s when I start thinking about what I want to write about and what I may want to sing about. For me, it’s always about the melody and the song. It’s never about working with a certain producer or chasing a certain sound. It just has to really feel good to me. And that’s all I worry about.
How do you maintain that?
Well, I never record any song that I don’t love or like. Some I fall in love with more than others, but I don’t go into the studio and just record songs all over the place. If I don’t like the song or if I don’t believe in it, I don’t record it. The toughest is going over the songs you love and seeing what speaks to you in the moment. If they don’t make a cohesive album, I hold on to them.
For example, I recorded “Stranger in My House” and “Me” at the same time. Both songs I really loved. But “Stranger” was this big record, so I decided to only put it on the “A Nu Day” album  and I saved “Me” because I felt like it was too much of a good thing. I kept it and used it later [on 2006’s “Between Friends”].
You’ve been in this 20 years now. How much has changed in terms of how you navigate the industry?
It’s funny, we were getting the booklet together for the album and I wondered, “When’s the last time someone looked in a booklet or held a CD?” Those things can be found online now, which shows you how differently we’re consuming music now. It’s interesting. The way we released a few songs this go-round was new.
We put out “Leave It Smokin’ ” as the single, then we did a soft release of “Deeper” and put out “Today I Do” for my wedding anniversary [Hill has been married to former NBA player Grant Hill for nearly 20 years]. Before, you would never do that, you would never release things unless they were for sure singles. There was no taste test like, “Here, take a listen.” But we consume music completely different now.
Was that difficult for you to adapt to?
Not at all. Actually, for me the frustrating part is having an entire project that you love and some songs — because they weren’t singles — never get to see the light of day. So I like this approach.
What would you say has been your key to longevity?
It started with getting involved in the writing process. I have to be out here selling this music, it has to come from me. I have to be able to connect with it, and it starts with being a part of the writing process. I’m really proud of the fact that I stand behind the music that I’ve put out over the years, and I co-wrote on this album probably more than any other. The most important thing has been independence. This is the fourth album I’m putting out on my own label. Independence, that’s the key — and learning as much as you can about the business.
The 20th anniversary of your breakout single, “So Into You,” was this year. How has it been seeing the song’s endurance?
I just performed for [BET’s] “Black Girls Rock” and they requested I do a little bit of it before the new single. I’ve loved seeing other artists perform it over the years. Childish Gambino did a cover. I just saw Kehlani perform it and she’s only 23. Its like the people playing my stuff back when “You Put a Move On My Heart” came out and the first album, now their kids are listening to it too. I’m not that old myself, so it’s a pretty amazing feeling to know that you have a song that has stood the test of time. It is such a great song and, really, it all starts with a great song.
For more music news follow me on Twitter:@GerrickKennedy
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