An interview with Chaka Khan: Life, career, and her ongoing love affair with music

The "Queen of Funk" chats with CL leading into her Friday concert at Mahaffey Theater.

In the midst of recording a new album and preparing for a string of live concert appearances, Chaka Khan recently took time out of her busy schedule to discuss her career, upcoming projects and her love of music with me. Phoning from her California waterside abode, Khan seemed relaxed, focused, energized and in positive spirits. Though often referred to as the "Queen of Funk," the songstress with the uniquely sensuous, emotive vocal quality has tackled a range of styles and genres throughout her lengthy career. Starting out in the early 1970's with multi-racial, groundbreaking Chicago outfit Rufus, Chaka and company broke through in 1974 with monster Stevie Wonder-penned chart-topper "Tell Me Something Good." Chaka was in her early 20's and a relative newcomer to the music scene at the time, but her distinctive jazz-influenced pipes helped the band score several more hits before she decided to embark on a career as a solo artist later that decade. This year, with a slew of Grammys, gold and platinum albums and countless other accolades to her credit, Chaka (born Yvette Marie Stevens) now finds herself at the doorstep of a possible induction into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Fresh off a brief stint on Dancing With The Stars , Chaka, 62, has appeared in films, on the Broadway stage, and even shown signs of entrepreneurship via the launch of her line of gourmet chocolates. But it's music that is and has always been her true love and her passion. As a longtime Chaka Khan fan, it was a personal thrill indeed to get her on the phone. I found her to be engaging, charming and thoroughly honest and sincere during our chat.

Chaka Khan appears at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Fri., Nov. 13, at 8 p.m.; tickets are $42.50-$75.50. Click here for more info.

What's a typical day like for Chaka Khan?

Chaka Khan:
I have a studio so I've been in the studio every night...I'm home during the day and at about 7, I go to the studio and work there, do what I'm doing, and then come back. I'm leaving tomorrow, though.

So you're heading out to start your run of shows? 

Yeah, I have a few dates...we're doing New York, Boston...

How do you prepare for that? 

Pack my bag and catch a plane...

That's it?

...and then go to the gig! [laughs] Yeah, it's pretty routine, baby! 

So, you were a very young lady when you started out with Rufus. What were your goals or expectations? Do you feel like you reached them?

Well, I don't recall what my expectations were...I really don't. I just wanted to sing, just like I do now. I think that's my general impetus. But, yeah, Rufus and I, I think we did what we had to do, what we were supposed to do. We milked it, we worked it to death, and then I left Rufus and started my own career in about 1979/1980

What was it like when it was all starting — being so young in the band, getting mentored by Stevie Wonder... It had to be a very exciting time for you.

Well, you know, I had exciting moments but for the most part it's very lonely. I was the only girl in the band so I didn't have anybody to kick it with, really. And the guys all treated me like they were my big brother or my father so it was a pretty lonely existence. People don't realize that...when you're traveling a lot and the lion's share of your time is spent getting there and then sitting in a hotel and getting ready to do what you came to do, what you love to do when you put the hours together, it's like cuckoo in a way. It has to be a calling for you. It can't just be a job for you because it's so much more.

Sounds like you have to have that passion in you.

Yes, you gotta have that passion. But I'm accustomed to that whole way of doing it. When I have my down time or when I'm doing nothing, I like to sleep or watch movies on my telly. But on the road the main thing is to get your rest. That's very important because it can be really draining with all the flying and that stuff.

That band broke down a lot of musical barriers, and toyed with a lot of different styles. It wasn't uncommon to hear you on the radio between a couple of hard rock bands. Did you feel like you were a part of something really special?

Yes, of course. That's something that's really exciting. I really don't have one particular genre. I think I can do anything except maybe some Chinese folk music! It's a blessing and a curse in a way, because they don't really know where to put you in a playlist. Some people are enlightened enough to know that there is no playlist to life. It's just a big beautiful mix.

That said, did you feel like back in those days, radio playlists were a lot looser then they are today ? 

Absolutely not! Playlists then were really rigid and they really boxed you in. If they couldn't find a fit, they would create their own fit for you. It was very contrived the way music was played on the radio. With XM radio now, and with streaming radio now, you can see how varied people's tastes are. And that's a beautiful thing. I'm really happy about that. I like that the artists get to go straight to the people as opposed to going through a big label and all that crap. I'm glad that all the social media is here. The lines are pretty blurry regarding how many CDs you sell because it's not about physical product anymore. 

So you're in favor of that type of direct connection between artist and fans?


You mentioned genres and that's something I wanted to talk to you about in moving on to your solo years. You're so versatile and have covered so many genres. Is this a way of challenging yourself?

Absolutely, because I know that I feel in my heart that I can do this. But the difference in singing R&B and singing jazz is a very big difference. You can be a lot more loose with R&B. Pitch and all that is just a given. You should never sing flat! [laughs] But with jazz, it's more of a cerebral music. It challenges you and your thought process, which I love. I love that.

So, the approach is different?

Everything about it is different. It's heady music. It's a lot more cerebral than it is visceral. So you have to think on your feet.

Well, you're great at it. That BET on Jazz session you did about 15 years ago is fantastic and I still play that a lot. And I love, in particular, the cover you did of Joni Mitchell's "Man From Mars."

Well, you know, that funny because I'm dong a Joni Mitchell tribute album right now. [more on that later]

Do you have a particular favorite genre?

Oh no, I don't have a favorite. You know what my favorite is? Good-ass music!! Good music!

Besides being a challenge, do you feel like your dabbling in so many different genres is an extension of your personal tastes?  


And that comes through in your work.

I'm in love with music. Period. 

You've won several Grammys, had a lot of hits and gold and platinum records...but if you had to put your finger on what it is about your that draws your fans and has kept them around for so long?  

Honesty, integrity...

Your fanbase is very varied. A lot of races, ages and nationalities are represented. You have a huge LGBT following. It's so rare to be able to appeal to so many different groups of people and to have done so for so long...

It probably is, huh? [chuckles] I hadn't thought about that 

And you were introduced to a whole new crop of fans in the 80's with "I Feel For You" and all the MTV exposure. What kind of impact did that have on you at the time?

Well, the impact is that, at any given gig, there are about three different generations there in the audience. And that's beautiful, I love that! And the shows are kid-friendly and honest and straightforward 

As a solo artist, do you feel like you have more freedom as opposed to being part of a band? 

It's a lot more responsibility, mind you but it's also the only way to go. Once you have tasted this kind of freedom, you can't go back.

You've worked with so many artists and appeared on so many different records by other artists, everyone from Prince to Steve Winwood. Is there anybody in particular you've always wanted to work with and haven't had a chance to?

Well, in that category, yeah, but they're mostly dead. Like Marvin Gaye, I would have liked to work with him. But Miles Davis and I were going to do some work. He, I and Prince were going to get together and do so something but Miles didn't last...he didn't make it. However, right now, Sam Smith and I are very good friends and we're chomping at the bit to get together, but he's so busy, I'm so busy so we don't have the time. That's the hard part. 

It's a good problem to be too busy to work with someone you admire.

Yes, it is. I'm really blessed...and I know that. I'm honored and blessed to still be relevant in any way

You always will be.

I hope so! From your lips to God's ears 

Speaking of honors, you're nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. What does that mean to you?  

Well, any recognition is beautiful and of course, it's not the reason I sing. I don't sing for recognition. But it's an honor for me. And you might want to tell people that they can vote more than once...they can vote like 30 times. You might want to get that out there! [She's referring to voting polls that are opened for fan-driven inductions.] But I think that I'm honored and I kind of deserve it. I love that fact that people are getting to vote on it and that's meaningful to me.

Because it's more from the fans?

Absolutely. But we'll see. I'm very happy just to be nominated

You certainly deserve it. You've been blazing a trail for a long time and you've done it with nothing but class and style

Well, thank you!

So you recently had a stint on Dancing With The Stars...

[interrupts] Now it's funny that you mention "class" and "style" and then you bring up Dancing With The Stars ! That's funny! I'm laughing like crazy. I'm like quaking. That was a big faux pas on my part, I gotta tell you. They'd been asking me to do that for years and so finally I said "let me just check it out"... Well, I was totally outside my comfort zone. I am not a dancer; that's not my primary gift at all. So it was not my cup of tea. And I'm sorry. I made a mistake. And I have to go back on there in a week and a half or so for the closing of the season and they want me to do a dance and I said "No...I'll do a song!" I will not be dancing. I'll sing and let the dancers dance.

You also appeared on Broadway — a part in adaptation of The Color Purple. How did that compare to the experience?

Well, I also appeared on the West End in London. I did a play there and I got an award for that one from the BBC. But that is also NOT my cup of tea. I enjoyed it, I really did, but it becomes like a job in a way. Every day you get up and you know that at 4:00 you have to leave for the theater. You know exactly what you're going to be're going to be in the same place, the same dressing room with the same people. And I know people who that have been in Cats since it started! I mean for 30 years. I don't understand it. I don't get it. I'd go crazy.

So you're more fond of an improvisational approach.

Oh man, I'm living for the excitement and the unexpected. That's what living is about.

You mentioned working on some new music. Is this separate from the Joni Mitchell project?

I have a single I'm going to release called "I'm In Love With Myself" that's coming out around the first of the year. And that song speaks to self-image, body image and bullying. We've partnered with some organizations that are against bullying and other organizations like Dress For Success about body image so it's a song about being in love with yourself just the way you are.

And that's an important message. A lot of people need to hear that.

Absolutely. With this "Barbie Doll" thing that's going on now..

And then there's the Joni tribute, too.

Yes, I'm working on that now. In the studio every night that I'm home I'm doing that. And it's fabulous. I'm trying to bring her wisdom to a younger audience. She's kind of hard to understand, I get it. But I've slowed the songs down, I've added a touch of funk to some of them, but it's still very unplugged and my voice is out front and I'm saying the lyrics and I want people to really get it. People I've played it for so far (I've got like six songs down) are just over the moon about it.

I can't wait to hear it.

Yeah, I can't wait to for you to hear it either. She has so much to say and she's my favorite philosopher. She's one of my all time favorite people and philosophers. So i'm so happy and blessed to be able to do this

So, how did you all meet? I don't think I know that story...

God we met so long ago. Let me see...I can't remember. I met her in the '70s don't recall how we met.

I love the song "Dreamland" that you sing on, in her 1977 jazz-heavy album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.

Oh please! You know what? She called me at 4 o'clock in the morning and said [in a deep, Canadian accent imitating Mitchell], "Chaka...come down to the studio right now! You have to come down here!" So I said, finally! Joni and I are going to get to work together I was so happy! Until I got down to the studio and it changed. It was me singing no words at all (referring to the tones and textures she warbles on the world music influenced track). Not a word! Just "Aye aye aye.." and all that shit.

It's a great song, though.

It is a good song...that was Jaco Pastorius in the rhythm section.

Well, she knew how to pick great people to work with.

She does. She's the best. She's no joke, man. A lot of her lyrics go over people's heads. You have to really be an astute-minded person to really get those lyrics. She's the only singer that has sent me to a dictionary. Okay, and that's big for me. I've memorized all her songs and I just want to pick the songs that really made an impression on me and helped me out and saved my life on the road sometimes.

Has it been hard to choose the songs of hers you want to cover?

Sorta kinda... What's going to be hard it to put a mix in of some songs people might recognize. I've decided I'm going to do "Help Me" [Mitchell's most well-known mid-70's radio hit] and someone said I should do "Car On A Hill" and I can dig that. "Hejira," I'm doing that. But "Man From Mars", that's where I live. I live in those chord changes, those dark blue, moody, cobalt blue chord changes...that's where I live. She appeals to me there. She can get dark.

There have been a lot of artists that have come out and sung your praises and named you as a main influence. What's that like? What does that feel like for you?

Well, it's an honor. I'm just honored. but I don't believe them! [laughs hysterically] You know what I mean? It's just hard to take it all in. So I don't even ponder it. I don't live there because I really feel a need to stay connected to the earth and stay grounded so I've made big efforts not to believe the hype but sometimes it's not hype. I can ascertain bullshit from real stuff. I get it, and I love hearing that from people. I'm like "Great! Do your life! Keep doing it! Kick ass!" and that's what I have to say to people. It's not lost on me. I get it...and I'm appreciative, but we have a job to do. We're the dreamers.

But I think what draws a lot of other artists to you isn't just the music...what inspires them is that you've always come across as being very bold, fearless and independent. It's more than just the way you sing.

Oh yeah. There's a lot here!! There's a lot going on, baby! Well I'm glad because, you know, the music does not lie.

It's amazing how vocally you've always been able to switch hushed to a more forceful sound. What do you do to keep your voice in such good shape?

It's a muscle. The voice box is a muscle, and there's a lot of magic involved as well that comes from another place that you learn to plug into when performing. Often I tell my background singers "I'm really hoarse, I don't think I can do this show," and that's when they tell me that's when I do my best shows. I don't know what it is. That's the magical part. On the physical part, you should get your rest, lay off the chocolates and the caffeine products before 6 o'clock, little things like that. I'm sort of an herbalist. I take my herbs. I fast sometimes.

Do you do any special vocal training or exercises?

No. I do nothing. All I do is get my rest and wake up in time for my voice to warm up naturally just by talking to people or whatever I'm doing. I keep it real simple because it is really simple when you boil it down. If this is your calling it shouldn't take a whole lot of preparation and shit.

You'll be here in St. Petersburg on Friday, and I know you haven't been to the area to perform in quite a while. What can the fans expect?  

A good ass, damn good show! And I think everyone will be happy. I took great pains to put together a good mix of Rufus stuff, my early stuff and right up to the present 

One last question. What's the ultimate fun Saturday night record? If you had control of the turntable at a party, what would you put on?

I'd play my own song, "Some Love" (from her 1978 debut solo album, Chaka ). I love that song. My brother and I wrote that. Yeah. That one's killer. One of my favorite songs. 

About The Author

Gabe Echazabal

I was born on a Sunday Morning.I soon received The Gift of loving music.Through music, I Found A Reason for living.It was when I discovered rock and roll that I Was Beginning To See The Light.Because through music, I'm Set Free.It's always helped me keep my Head Held High.When I started dancing to that fine, fine...
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