“I came home” – Solange takes NME to the heart of Houston

Her jazzy, elliptical new album, ‘When I Get Home’, is an homage to her hometown of Houston. During a tour of the city, and at a screening of the record’s self-directed art film accompaniment, Solange Knowles explains that she found some much-needed “safety and comfort” in the project

Solange has an enviable gift for swearing. It’s partly her Texan drawl, suited so well to swears, those hard consonants a pleasing contrast to her languid speech. But it’s also enjoyable to hear somebody so composed drop an F-bomb in the otherwise wholesome SHAPE Community Center, part of Houston, Texas’ Third Ward district, once home to her and Beyoncé.

She’s greeted like a true star, the 200-strong audience whooping as she breezes into the modest hall, which is decked with simple plastic fold-out seats, and sits onstage to face cowboy hatted interviewer Antwaun Sargent, with whom she strikes up an easy back-and-forth.

It’s Saturday night, 36 hours after her fourth album, ‘When I Get Home’, was dropped at short notice. Where its predecessor, ‘A Seat At The Table’, was outwards looking, celebrating her place in the world with catchy hooks and spoken-word skits (“There’s so much beauty in being black”, her mum, Tina Lawson, notes in one), this new album turns the gaze inward.

It’s filled with clipped, repeated motifs, most tracks clocking in at less than three minutes. “This [album] is far more insular,” she tells Sargent. “It’s far more about feelings and frequency. With ‘A Seat At The Table’ I had so much to say. And with this album I had so much to feel.”

“With ‘A Seat At The Table’ I had so much to say. And with this album I had so much to feel”
– Solange Knowles

Solange speaks with poise and precision, her uninterrupted flow punctuated only with the occasional expertly delivered “shit” or “fuck”. Along with a dozen other journalists, I’ve flown 5000 miles for this 40-minute Q&A, which is preceded by a screening of a 33-minute art movie Solange has made to accompany the album. (No matter that the film became available worldwide on Apple Music before we even left London, or that this Q&A is live-streamed online; when Solange calls, you get on the flight.) The film, like the record, is elliptical and impressionistic, with contrasting images– Solange draped in a diamond headdress, kids in a paddling pool – melting into one another. Both are an homage to Houston.

A still from ‘When I Get Home’

“After I was touring the last record, there were things happening to my body, to my spirit,” she says. “Things got out of control. Sometimes, when you go through something like that, you crave things that remain the same. At any given time in my life I can come back here, back to Houston, to the Third Ward, and have these anchors. And so that’s what I did; I came home.”

Like many of us in times of personal crisis, she returned to the place that knows her best.

That sense of repetition, of feeling old ground beneath your feet, shaped the ‘When I Get Home’ album, which she recorded in a rented house in Third Ward, near her childhood home.

“Repetition at this point in my life has brought me so much reinforcement,” she explains. “A lot of reinforcement to my mind and my body and my spirit.” The album opens with a jazzy, sub-two-minute track on which Solange croons, “I saw things I imagined”, no less than 15 times. It’s perhaps an ode to childhood creativity, which she hopes to summon once more at 32.

“When I sang ‘Things I imagined’ the first time,” she tells Sargent, “I didn’t believe it. But by the eighth time, it’s coming into my spirit, into my body. So much of this whole project is about my body. It’s one thing to feel with your spirits and another to actually feel it with your body. Repetition is a way to reinforce those mantras.”

‘When I Get Home’, then, is in part about feeling unmoored from yourself and the need to re-centre.

“With ‘A Seat At The Table’ I had so much to say. And with this album I had so much to feel”  – Solange

At the SHAPE Community Centre, a fixture of her young life, she shares a vivid, spirited anecdote from childhood: “When I was 10, there was a woman at the church who was so anointed. This woman could tell you anything that was going on in your life. That sounded terrifying to me. I thought, ‘Don’t look me in the eye!’, as if my 10-year-old life had so much tea.

“One night, she came over to me. She was slow motion walking – I was like ‘Nu-uh!’ – and started to pray for me. And she told me about my little 10-year-old life. It was so overwhelming – my 10-year-old mind didn’t know how to process that. Some people call it The Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost scares the shit out of me because it feels like something completely out of my control. Which is why The Holy Ghost appears in the film, and he actually shows his face. So much of this project is about confronting fear, not running from it.”

The movie surfaces similarly striking and haunting imagery, inviting the viewers’ interpretation. Tonight, Solange links that anecdote to her 32-year-old self. “I have a problem with silencing my brain,” she says. “A friend told me: ‘I think you’re just afraid of what you’re gonna see and hear when you actually get quiet.’ And that scares the shit out of me too.”

Returning to Houston, making an album about her hometown, writing her childhood fear into her film – all of it’s about coming to terms with yourself in adulthood, a universal theme.

Solange and Beyoncé spent much of their childhood and adolescence in their mum’s hair salon, the Vita Mutari Salon in the south-west of the city. “I got to go to a black woman’s hair salon every day and hear the stories of women,” she tells Sargeant. The ‘When I Get Home’ film is being screened at the salon, too, and at some of Solange’s other Houston haunts.

These include The Project Row Houses, a set of Third Ward shotgun shacks repurposed as artists’ residences; the Houston Museum of African-American Culture, adorned with contemporary artworks; and the Emancipation Gym and Park, which in the early 1900s was the only municipal park African-American people could socialise in, according to segregation laws.

En route to the screening, with the other journalists summoned on this trip, I was ferried about these locations in a glitzy minibus that you might more readily associate with a hen do. We stopped at the Unity National Bank – which, miserably, remains the only black-owned bank in the whole of Texas (population 28 million, black population around four million) – and where Solange and her sister apparently keep their money. For all its obvious social significance, you’re still looking at a bank, thinking: ‘Huh. Flew 5000 miles to look at this bank’.”

The day of the screening, and the day afterward, I managed to see some of Houston for myself.

My personal Houston must-sees, after 72 hours in the city: pizza by the slice at Frank’s, a fast-food joint filled with Texas-themed movie posters; a rummage through the crates at Sig’s Lagoon, a two-storey record shop with the best Little Richard collection conceivable; and a night out in Montrose, a gay hotspot 10 minutes’ drive from downtown’s silver skyscrapers.

The latter seems so un-Houston, so unflashy, a set of bars on a cluster of dusty roads studded with pissed-up blokes in cowboy hats. There’s a rumour I ended the night in a leather harness in a sex shop attached to one of the bars, Ripcord, through this remains unsubstantiated.

The thing about Houston is how long it takes to get around, how sprawling the city feels, how you could write a novel in the time it takes to cross the road. You wonder how a sense of community could thrive on this enormous grid. Yet that’s what ‘When I Get Home’ is about.

A still from ‘When I Get Home’

For Solange, clearly, that sense of community is forever entangled with cultural identity. “I’m excited by this Texas renaissance of young, black people’s experimental work,” she tells Sargeant at the SHAPE Community Center, comparing this to the view of Texas she encountered from strangers around the country when she was travelling as a dancer with Destiny’s Child: “People would be like, ‘Y’all ride horses to school!’” She laughs it off dismissively.

“One of the most exciting things to me is to be able to connect with Texas artists and filmmakers who are really shifting the nature of how we are experiencing [our state].” She name-checks Terrence Nance (with whom she co-directed the ‘When I Get Home’ film) and visual artist Jacolby Satterwhite (“who’s not from Houston, but he’s just fuckin’ poppin”).

Her Texan reclamation also encompasses a lesser-told American narrative; one she feels is overlooked.

“It was important to me to be a small a part of telling the story of black cowboys,” she explains of their presence in film. “I did a Calvin Klein campaign that centred around Americana. I remember getting the mood boards and seeing [their] interpretation of Americana. Not even on any controversial shit, it was just funny to me because all of the first cowboys I saw were black.”

There’s a hum of recognition from the room. “Growing up here, you’re gonna see black cowboys on the street. I don’t know who John Wayne is – I don’t know what his story is.” A ripple of laughter; a man in a cowboy hat whoops.

This is about recounting history, and who has the opportunity to do it – for, as Solange puts it: “I will always be a black woman. I will always work from this black woman’s body. And I don’t even have to express this; it’s just a part of me. It will always be in my work.”

The ‘When I Get Home’ film is Solange’s auteurist vision – just like the record. And it’s important to her to communicate through both mediums.

“I need these different mediums to speak to what the other one can’t,” she says, referencing a school production of The Wiz – the cult 1970s Motown film that retells The Wizard of Oz from an African-American perspective – that she starred in as a child. “I was looking at photos on the way here from that production, and I was thinking about that experience. That was one of the first times that I had to understand and emote these other parts of myself that I couldn’t understand or emote through dance or music. The film is an extension of that.”

“I just feel joy. That’s what home does for you” – Solange

Solange is a visual artist (her work’s been exhibited at the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim in New York) and filmmaker, but most people know her predominantly as a musician. This, though, is limiting: “Speaking my truth, it is rather difficult as a producer to be reduced to just a songwriter.”

She meticulously executive-produced ‘When I Get Home’, editing one drum sound for 18 hours: “We’ve come a long way for women but we’ve still got a little ways to go, as we’re able to have that conversation about Rick Rubin, but we aren’t extending it to others. The thing I’m the most proud of about this record is that people have finally been calling me ‘a producer’. That’s my heart and soul, plotting the production.”

Yet that doesn’t mean being an egomaniac. Of the presence of others in the project, she admits: “There are things I can’t do – that I know I can’t do – because that’s not where my strength’s at.”

There’s something we can all learn from this: even Solange Knowles needs a hand sometimes. And although ‘When I Get Home’ is, as she said, an “insular project”, she longs for it to resonate.

“I want to make astounding work,” she says, “but I really want to make work to be discovered 50 years from now. I’m able, at any time, to Google an image of Kelis from 10 years ago and it’ll tell me so much about how I see myself. When I think [of my] creative sculpture, I think of some black girl in 20 years needing to reference a black sculptor who was making work that large. It’s so much about the future for me.”

Wrapping up the Q&A, Antwaun Sargent asks how ‘When I Get Home’ has changed Solange’s day-to-day experience. At first, she laughs this off (“this shit just came out a day ago, sir!”).

Eventually, though, once the laughter in the room’s subsided – it really does sound good when Solange swears – she concludes: “I just feel joy. And that’s something that we don’t get to show a whole lot. I feel joy in a whole ‘nother way. To have something out in the world that is a snapshot of myself at this present time, you truly feel seen. I’m in Houston, there’s like 14 cowboy hats in the building; it’s joy everywhere. It just feels good. That’s what home does for you.”

Whatever got out of control for Solange, coming to Houston clearly brought it back into focus. I was struck by what she told Sargeant about her work on the album: “I feel a lot of safety and comfort in editing.” Home, family, memory, repeated motifs – everything played its part.

During my own travels around Houston, I paid a visit to the city’s Contemporary Art Museum, a weird silver box that hosted an exhibition by local teenagers. A short documentary about the AIDS crisis, a sound collage of hip-hop interspersed with gunshot sounds.

There was also a long, thin strip light, flickering blue. This artwork was named At Last (For Etta James Who Sang The Blues). ‘At Last’ by Etta James – her voice like molasses, that woozy, swooning string melody behind her – played overhead on a loop. “At last the skies above are blue,” Etta sang, over and over, repeating the comforting mantra. And the light flickered on.