Mary J. Blige on Her New Documentary, Sam Smith, and Anne Hathaway’s Rapping Skills
The London Sessions, a new documentary about the recording of Mary J. Blige’s 2014 album of the same name, just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film follows Blige working through a reinvention with fresh London talent like Sam Smith, Disclosure, and Emeli Sandé. Blige is intensely reflective and personal throughout the documentary, musing on her past while ushering in her newfound growth and creativity. “Me taking responsibility for me, forgiving people, and just moving forward,” she told us was the key to her personal development. “That’s the hardest part and shows you what you’re made of.” We spoke to Blige at Manhattan’s Smyth hotel about meeting Amy Winehouse’s father, what it means to be a strong woman, and Anne Hathaway’s rapping abilities.
In the documentary, you work really closely with Sam Smith on a few songs and you describe your connection as “locked in.” Why was it so easy to work with him?
I think it worked so easily because Sam is a very rare person. He’s very rare because he’s not afraid to let people see who he is. His vulnerability is what draws me to him; he’s just honest and real. I love that. I can really work with people like that.
There’s this moment in the documentary where they ask you what your greatest fear is and you say it’s “getting stuck.” What do you mean by that?
Just being stagnant and redundant, doing the same thing over and over again—it doesn’t feel good to me. You end up being miserable when you’re stuck in a place where there’s with no creativity, no love. So I’d rather go through the pain of changing. We all get stuck because we don’t like to go through the pain of change. So I’d rather go through the pain of change, which hurts like hell, than to be stuck.
A particularly moving scene in the documentary was when you met Amy Winehouse’s father for dinner. What was the motivation behind that?
It was because I loved Amy so much and I really wish I could’ve said all of those things that I said to her dad. I really wish I could’ve gotten a chance to hold her and tell her how great I think she is.
In the film when you hear the song “Doubt” for the first time, you break down and say it’s a “song from God.” Why is your connection to the song so strong?
Because that’s where I was in my life—I had just come back from [America] and I was going through hell. [If] you saw the last four, five years of my life it was just horrible, [there was] something on the news every day—just so public. So it left me in a place where I began to doubt myself. Then that record came and it just recharged me and just spoke to me. It helped me to get back up.
Why did you choose this album for the basis of your documentary?
I’ve been doing this for a while now, consistently in the United States. Consistently with the normal producers that I do it with but this is something different. I went to another country and [recorded] with a bunch of producers from London. And I needed my fans—we have a connection and a friendship—I needed them to understand why I did it, how I did it, so they’re not confused. They’ve understood everything from the last fifteen years, so they’ve connected with that. With this one, I think I needed to bring them in.
You’ve also done a lot of acting in your career. Was it different shooting something so true to life?
No, I put away my shyness like I do with acting, so people could see me uncut and see me through this storm I’m coming out of.
And how do you feel at this point now that the album is out and you’ve gotten past the storm?
I feel great. I really understand what I’m made of. The term “strong woman,” it used to be like, “Yeah, I’m a strong woman.” Now that means something for real because that’s exactly what I am. I’m a strong woman and that’s what I learned in that dark place, I learned just how much I can take.
This summer is the 20th anniversary of your hit “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By” with Method Man. Do you have any special memories of that summer?
I just remember Method Man being one of the nicest, most talented, supportive people I’ve met in a long time—especially for a rapper. I remember the video like it was yesterday. I remember how supportive he was [during] the video; he was just beautiful.
And I was wondering if you caught Anne Hathaway’s lip-sync of your song “Love” on the show Lip Sync Battle?
I did, she killed it! I was like “Go Anne!” Who knew? She nailed all of the bars. It was great.