Beyoncé Knowles interview: Independent woman

IN THE new film Cadillac Records, which tells the story of the pioneering Chicago blues label Chess Records, Beyoncé Knowles makes a memorable entrance.

Playing the singer Etta James, Knowles is introduced to the label's co-founder Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) in a hotel room, where she sprawls across the bed and snaps: "Don't be looking at me like I ain't wearing no drawers." She then curses at everyone in sight before hiding in the bathroom, where she unleashes the voice that resulted in a long string of classic R&B hits for James.

It's startling to see Knowles – one of the few pop stars left with a wholesome, good-girl image – swaggering and swearing through her performance. But her mother, Tina, who vets all the scripts that are submitted to her, flagged up this one as a good choice, noting that the hard-living, emotionally scarred James could be the role of a lifetime.

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On the top floor of New York hotel, Knowles says that when she read the script: "I said, 'I have to do this movie,' but I was terrified. Was I really ready?"

Previously, Knowles's most significant role was in 2006's Dreamgirls, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination. Her study of the life of James and her work on the film not only resulted in a new dramatic range, it also altered the direction of her new album, I Am … Sasha Fierce, released last week.

There was no guarantee that a woman who appeared on the cover of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues could be convincing as the heroin-addicted daughter of a prostitute, whose powerhouse sound conveyed a lifetime of heartbreak and defiance in songs such as At Last and Tell Mama, incorporating a blues attitude into a wide range of pop genres.

"I was surprised at how much Beyonce threw the glamour out the window so easily and so joyfully, and embraced the unattractiveness of being strung out," said Darnell Martin, the writer and director of the film, due for US release in December. Though the role was written with Knowles in mind, Martin said she was impressed by how far she pushed herself into the darkest parts of James's life. "She was really excited about (that rawness]," Martin said. "She really wanted to dig in and get real."

The climax of Cadillac Records – with a dishevelled James saved from an overdose by Leonard Chess in her empty, ghostly house – makes for an impressive contrast with the Beyonce who strides through the hotel room door, talking quickly and smiling broadly.

On the day after the presidential election she was decked out in an "Obama-inspired" outfit – a navy blue double-breasted suit and a red-white-and-blue-striped tie. Knowles, 27, cut a publicity trip to Japan short to be in New York to watch the election results with friends at home.

"I fell asleep literally with tears in my eyes, crying and smiling at the same time," she says, seated cross-legged on a couch. "I almost feel guilty talking about the record, because there's more important things going on."

The album marks an ambitious step for the Houston-born Knowles, who – as a solo artist and as a member of the trio Destiny's Child – has sold more than 75 million albums worldwide. It's a double-disc set: one CD, I Am, is a ballad-heavy set of relatively spare, introspective songs; the second disc, Sasha Fierce, takes its name from her onstage alter ego and shifts the focus to more uptempo dance tracks.

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Knowles says she recorded more than 70 songs for the project and decided during the editing process that she didn't want to reconcile the two approaches into one disc. "There's my personal life, my sensitive side and then me as a performer, sexy and energised and fun. Artistically it was more fulfilling recording and writing for I Am. But if you went to see Tina Turner, and she did all intimate ballads, you would be disappointed. She's a great singer with great musicians, but you have certain expectations."

The album may represent a more personal effort than her previous releases, Dangerously in Love (2003) and B'Day (2006), but a Beyonce record remains an epic undertaking. Knowles helped to write and produce almost every song, yet no fewer than 32 songwriters and 19 producers are credited on the deluxe edition. Still, in a bold move for current pop and R&B these days, there isn't a single guest performer anywhere on the album.

In the middle of recording, Knowles signed on for Cadillac Records. To research James's addiction, she spent some time with women staying in a rehabilitation centre in Brooklyn. She had only six days on set in New Jersey to shoot her scenes, so she began rehearsing with Brody before the filming.

"I didn't anticipate her being as connected with the role as she was," Brody has said. "She had her game on track. I think this meant a lot to her." Knowles said that Martin and the other actors made her feel secure enough to delve into James' demons, allowing her to elevate the role beyond her own expectations. "For the first time, I was able to feel that out-of-body experience in a movie that I feel onstage," she said. She put on weight – 15lbs (7kg) – to match James' size and added a rougher physicality to her movements; she sings two songs associated with James with absolute confidence and authority.

The film takes its share of liberties with the chronology and the details of the Chess era but strong performances capture the label's innovations and its legacy. As she learned the history of Chess Records – which added amplification and urban sophistication to the Delta blues on recordings by giants like Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and helped to usher in the rock'n'roll era with artists including Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley – Knowles says she felt an extra obligation to the project as a musician: "I realised what an important story it was, especially for my generation. We don't know where rock'n'roll came from, we don't know that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones got their inspiration from people like Muddy Waters and Little Walter."

Knowles didn't speak with James – who, at 70, is still touring – until after the film was completed. "She's just the same, she's honest and no-nonsense," Knowles says. "And I know that in some interviews she was like, 'I don't know if she can play me.' But when I met her, she said, 'You are a bad girl,' and I know that's the ultimate compliment from her."

Things move at perpetually high speed with Knowles – hours after this interview, she headed for Britain and the MTV Europe Music Awards. Next year she has a 110-date tour planned, including a week in Las Vegas; a Spanish-language version of the new album; and the release of her first non-singing role in a film, the thriller Obsessed.

Knowles says that her husband, the rapper and label executive Jay-Z, whom she married in April, has been an influence on her growing multimedia empire. "He's brilliant, and I'm very proud of him, and I've learned so much from him. But even before I met Jay, I've always been in control of my career."

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Above all, she hopes that she will be able to look back on this moment as a turning point, both personal and professional. "When you're a pop star, it's a little conservative, you always have to stay in a box. You have fans that are five and fans that are 65, there are so many people wanting so many things. But Etta James was the queen of rock'n'roll, soul, R&B, jazz… she did it all and she always made it her own. After playing her and singing her songs, I thought, it's time for me to challenge myself and do whatever I'm inspired to do. I know you have to make a transition into being legendary, and I knew that it was time. And I'm ready."


• ETTA JAMES was born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles in 1938 and by the age of five was singing with her local Baptist church choir. Aged 12, Jamesetta formed a three-girl doo-wop group, The Peaches, and they released a single in 1954. After James's second single was a hit in 1955 she toured with Little Richard – and acquired a serious drug habit that would shadow her for decades. James enjoyed a revival in 1996 when her raunchy version of Muddy Waters' I Just Wanna Make Love To You was used in a Coca-Cola commercial. Now 70, she still performs.

• Born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore in 1915, BILLIE HOLIDAY had a tough childhood. Aged ten, she claimed to have been raped and was sent to a Catholic reform school for two years. In her memoir Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday said that by the age of 15 she was a prostitute and had briefly been jailed. In 1930 she began singing in Harlem nightclubs as the jazz age flourished. She died in 1959, the result of a long drug addiction, penniless in spite of the unique talent that made her the most feted singer of her day.

• MA RAINEY, 'The Mother of The Blues', was born in Georgia, US, in 1886. As a teenager in a touring Vaudeville troupe, she watched a girl in Missouri sing a sad song about lost love in a poignant style and then used it in her own act. Rainey later claimed that she christened this style "the Blues". She is also known for bringing Bessie Smith into the spotlight. Rainey retired in the early 1930s, and died in 1939.

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