Jamila Woods looks relaxed when I meet her for our interview in September. She tells me that she just returned from a six-week writing residency at Civitella Ranieri, a 15th-century castle in Italy’s Umbria. Interesting timing this close before the release of her third record Water Made Us, but Jamila enjoyed the break. When she applied to the program in 2019, things still looked a lot different. In that year, the artist released her second album LEGACY!LEGACY!. Looking back at the time, many things did not go as planned for the singer. Jamila had quit her job and was going to dedicate all her time to music and touring when the pandemic hit.
The new record Water Made Us was written during the pandemic but Jamila Woods emphasizes that she was not one of those people who was “hyper-productive” during that time. Struggling to find a structure in her days, it took her a while to figure out the story of the album. During this time, Jamila met the musician and finally, co-executive producer of the album, Chris McClenney, and together they worked on the shape of Water Made Us.
“I just knew [the album] was about love and relationships but that is such a broad topic,” Jamila Woods says to me. Listening to the final project, it does seem like there is a very clear thought behind the structure of the record. Each song recounts a moment in a relationship from a highly personal perspective and they come together as a mosaic of an evolving love. The opener Bugs is about acceptance and learning to love even the things that annoy us about our partners. Wreckage Room is a piano ballad about severing the pieces of a broken relationship. Tiny Garden featuring Duendita is about nurturing feelings until they grow – not into a “big production” but rather into a “tiny garden”.
“We were trying to create the experience of a cycle of a relationship through the album. I wrote down all the stages that I personally go through, and we structured the album based on that.”
All About Love
Water Made Us is an analysis of love and loving, making the songs the most personal until now. Jamila Woods explains to me that through the process of writing, she returned to teachings about love that helped her grow and learn. Citing Abraham Hicks’ writings on practicing love and love as action from bell hooks, the record tracks personal growth in that subject matter. “I also want to center gratitude”, Jamila adds. “It helps to just enjoy the way you are relating to another person and all the things you are going to learn about yourself in that exchange”.
On the record, Jamila puts theory into practice because as she says: “You can read all the teachers and thinkers, you can read everything bell hooks wrote about love, but at the end of the day, you need to synthesize it into your own way of life and love. You just gotta try. And I don’t want to try it just halfway. Headfirst. That is the energy I want to carry with me all the time”. The song that channels this energy is Headfirst. It is the last song, but it stands for a beginning, for an all-in and headfirst kind of beginning.
“It’s not gonna be a big production
It’s not butterflies or fireworks
Said it’s gonna be a tiny garden
But I’ll feed it every day.”
– Jamila Woods “Tiny Garden”
Building on the LEGACY
The cyclical nature of Water Made Us is also reflected in Jamila Woods’ entire musical catalog. The water theme connects to her debut HEAVN and the conversations on LEGACY!LEGACY! paved the way for the intimacy of Water Made Us. Like each song of the previous album, the title of this one is inspired by a Black artist. It is lifted from a Toni Morrison lecture in which she talks about the memory of water and how the Mississippi River was pushed to flow in a different path but sometimes floods the areas where it used to run. Because the water remembers and a body of 70% water remembers what used to move it, expressed in the short interlude I Miss All My Exes.
LEGACY!LEGACY! paved the way for Water Made Us. Just like the thinkers, activists, and artists that it is dedicated to echo in everything Jamila Woods does. Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and Octavia Butler in their activism shaped and continue to shape the world. The singer traces the fine lines of a tattoo on her forearm. It reads “otherwise chaos” a quote from James Baldwin referring to the importance of the artist as a disruptor of illusions of peace. “I feel like this record is in the spirit of the last one. Because it is still drawing from the writers and thinkers that I center on LEGACY!LEGACY! but it is less explicit. All of it is still gurgling in me all the time. It still comes out in everything I do.”
“This record was scarier to share. On LEGACY!LEGACY! I had those like blankets and layers of protection because I love Nikki Giovanni, I love Sonia Sanchez. There was this sense of carrying them with me and having their protective energy over me. all my albums are personal and vulnerable in different ways but ‘Water Made Us’ feels more laid bare”, Jamila says about her relationship to the records. While LEGACY!LEGACY! was more of a narration of herself through the Black artists and activists that shaped Jamila, Water Made Us is as she puts it “narrating myself to myself.”
Feeling the Big Things
To get from LEGACY!LEGACY! to Water Made Us, Jamila Woods released two transitory singles: Sula and Boundaries. She describes them as, “little bridges” into the headfirst kind of current release. “I am dipping my feet into talking about these kinds of things,” she explains. “With both songs, I am keeping the person outside. The album starts when I realize I want to dig deeper and understand this pattern. I asked myself, what is it saying about me?”
Those bridges did not guide her over the water like one might expect. Instead, they lead right into it. Into the ripping tides and the serene calmness of the ocean on a windless day of this force of nature. In an Instagram post, Jamila Woods explains that waterfalls are her favorite shape of water. The misty air, the relentless stream, the power of the water manifesting in its rapid downfall. They are beautiful, exhilarating, and humbling at the same time. Is love a waterfall then? The artist looks away like she always does when answering a question. She ponders, and for a moment slips into a different world while her many-ringed fingers trace the seam of her pants. When she finally speaks, it is with decisive clarity. To Jamila, waterfalls, and love are connected. “One of the major lessons that this project is teaching me is surrender.”
“I think that a lot of times there are all these overwhelming, massive feelings. That is very scary for someone like me who has grown up in spaces that made me have to manage my emotions and how I express. The lesson that I am learning and that I continue to learn is that it is okay to feel big things. It is okay to sit with your feelings without doing anything and just letting them be. And that is harder than it sounds.”
One thing that helped Jamila Woods in the process of allowing herself to feel big things is spirituality. It also marbles the record with pieces like the interludes Let the Cards Fall and Libra Energy. Through tarot and singing in her grandmother’s Baptist church, spirituality has been part of Jamila Woods’ life since childhood. “I have an intuitive way of looking at the cards. To me, they are a tool for understanding my intuition, really”, the singer elaborates. To love you need to understand yourself and be willing to learn about yourself. Tarot, rituals, and spirituality can be a way of doing that.
Jamila Woods explains that she is also incorporating spirituality and gratefulness into her daily routine. For a while, she would pull a tarot card every day and look at it as a message for the day ahead. She also pays attention to the planets and the way they align. An important lesson she learned from that is rest. Recounting her journey from the airport to the location of our interview this morning, she says: “When I drove here this morning at 7 am the moon was still out. And I just asked myself: why am I rushing?”
“I am always shaping and reshaping my ritual practice and what it is that I do every day. I get bored very fast. But I have those prayers that are like a collage of different things. They are inspired by the prayers that the main character in Octavia Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower’ has. I say all these things that I feel God is and that I’m a reflection of that. And then gratitude and then praying for people who I love. Sometimes I sing the Lord’s Prayer because I grew up in my grandma’s Baptist church.”
Towards the end of our conversation, Jamila Woods cites the words of Jessica Dore saying: “The power in a prayer is not just the prayer but like the generations of people who have sung or said those same words before you”. There is something profoundly powerful to that sentence that connects across generations. If LEGACY!LEGACY! was an homage to the generations who sang and spoke before her, Water Made Us is Jamila Woods carrying this legacy within while making room for her own prayers on love.
Water Made Us is out via Jagjaguwar.