Marsha Ambrosius: From Grind To Glory

On a Wednesday night in Philly, Marsha Ambrosius is clunking around her living room with one high heel pump on and the other in her hand. Dressed in a loose-fitting striped blouse, leather shorts and lace leggings, Ambrosius is statuesque, preparing to hop in the blacked-out SUV waiting in front and be whisked away on a two-hour car ride to a club appearance in Washington, DC.

“Yo! I’m gonna miss American Idol,” she says with a laugh in her Scouser/London/Philly hybrid accent, “I wanna see what happens. I love Steven Tyler.” It’s less than two weeks away from the debut of her first solo album, Late Nights and Early Mornings, yet Ambrosius still finds time to revel in reality TV.

“I wonder if Modern Family is a rerun tonight,” she says aloud with inquisitive inflection. The jovial Ambrosius is into sitcoms too. Her demeanor is welcoming, and completely unassuming. Smiling brightly behind widening green eyes, “One second,” she says to me, turning quickly to a mirror over her mantle to primp her curly mane, then sitting on her couch to face her laptop. “Ok Nieci,” she says to the screen, referring to her teenage cousin in Liverpool, Shenice Williams whom she had apparently been iChatting with the entire time (a talented pianist in her own right, Williams performed with Ambrosius at Dingwalls in London, back in December). “We’re out of here.” The “we” is she and I, the driver and security. There is no entourage, no glam squad (this time) around, no rep.

Climbing down the stairs we walk past Michael Jackson. His eyes are piercing through a RIAA plaque on the wall Ambrosius received for writing his hit, “Butterflies” marking over 2 million copies sold. It’s striking as if MJ is hovering there, a quiet cosign of Ambrosius’ talent. Not that anyone who has heard her vocal calisthenics or is at all familiar with her songwriting would need convincing.

The Songstress of Grammy nominated soul duo Floetry, Ambrosius made R&B music connoisseurs and passersby alike pay close attention to her melodic embellishments and revealing lyrics. But even with critical acclaim and having written for or worked with everyone from the King of Pop to Mary J. Blige and Jamie Foxx (Prince even brought her on stage with him during a stadium gig, to sing with him),  Ambrosius has still been flying under the radar.

Cruising down the highway we talk a little about how all that is possibly about to change. Leaning into the leather backseat and crossing her long athletic legs, the former basketball player zones out briefly. The Whispers are playing on the driver’s satellite radio station. I only meant/ just to wet my feet/but you pulled me in/where the waters of love run deep. This song seems fitting for a woman who calls herself an athlete first.

“I’ve always loved music, but I am a basketball player first. ‘I wrote “If I Was a Bird” [on Floetry’s gold debut album Floetic] when I was depressed over the torn ligaments in my ankle. I knew I wouldn’t be able to play at the level I wanted to so music became my creative outlet. I never thought about life without basketball. I needed a plan B.”

In 2006, after three albums, the other member of Floetry, Natalie Stewart, left the group to pursue solo endeavors. The two were friends who met on the basketball circuit in England. They were initially solo artists, Ambrosius a singer and Stewart a poet who collaborated from time to time to rave reviews. They were invited to the United   States to perform, first to Atlanta,  GA and then to Philadelphia,  PA and fell into what would become the new era “sound of Philadelphia.”

This was a soul movement where talent like Jill Scott, Kindred the Family Soul, Musiq, Bilal and Jazmine Sullivan just to name a few, would take the stage any given night at Black Lily, an unprecedented (and never quite duplicated) weekly event held by the Jazzyfatnastees .

“Everything was happening so quickly, Ambrosius says, thinking back. “We were friends prior to being coined as ‘a group’.  We are very different women with very different creative and personal outlooks. By the time 2006 came, we were probably both ready to spread our wings. I had been approached numerous times by various labels over the years, but opted to stay.  With Natalie leaving Floetry at the end of 2006, I was left at Geffen to figure out what would be next for me. ” Floetry’s last appearance on stage together was December 2006 in Manchester.

McFadden & Whitehead come sliding through the car’s speakers now [I really want to ask the driver what station this is, but I don’t]. I know we’ve got a long long way to go/And where we’ll end up/I don’t know/But we won’t let nothing hold us back/We gonna get ourselves together/We gonna polish up our act/And if you’ve ever been held down before/I know that you refuse to be held down any more/Don’t you let nothing, nothing, nothing/stand in your way Ain’t no stopping us now…

More sounds of Philadelphia, a town that has now been Ambrosius’ home for over a decade in every way imaginable. “Philly reminds me of home. My family had a hand in helping me choose a place where I was comfortable. Landing here and meeting [Hip Hop personality] Yameen Allworld, [producers] Andre Harris and Vidal Davis who are my brothers till this day, the cobblestones on random streets; I just relate to it. I’ve connected with Philly more than I have any other place ever.”

It’s unseasonably warm for February and Ambrosius cracks the window so she can paint her fingernails. Teena Marie (Lady T) is playing on the radio this time. Searching in the darkness/for a piece of me/I can feel this for sure/I’ve been here before. The satellite must be set to some mystical Marsha mix because again the music is timely. It can be applied to the obvious, the looming release date for her first solo project after finding some success but not creative freedom, in a group: “I’ve had this experience before but, never like this. It’s just me. This is all mine.”

A month prior Ambrosius gave a spellbinding performance of Lady T’s “Portuguese Love” at the BET Honors award show. In person, the audience, a mix of who’s who in entertainment and everyday people reacted very favorably, with Jamie Foxx, Ne-Yo, Lalah Hathaway, Hill Harper, Boris Kodjoe and many others coming over to congratulate Ambrosius afterward.

But when BET aired the show a few weeks later, something was amiss. The audio playback sounded low and slightly awry. It was not the same performance we in the audience had experienced live. Nonetheless the reaction across social networking seemed mostly positive with viewers pleased with her rendition although there was a faction who felt she had missed the mark. I’ve been here before… Ambrosius has certainly been to tonight’s destination before, the Maryland/DC/Virginia (DMV) area of the U.S. is one of her largest markets. She visits at least once a month.

Arriving at the club Ambrosius is immediately flanked by her production manager, Doug Harris and her road manager, Mike Brown. Hurriedly escorted inside we are pressed into a “media area” where there is a step and repeat and a throng of photographers and fans clambering to get a picture of the rising star. An event coordinator attempts to shuffle us into a too-tight elevator. Smiling and shaking her head, Ambrosius opts to take the stairs. “Yeah I just couldn’t do it. It was too tight in there. Plus I can get some exercise real quick.” I have no problem with this as an overstuffed elevator is not my idea of fun either.

It’s no secret that Ambrosius has lost a great deal of weight (36 kgs/80 lbs to be exact). When asked how she did it, she is quick to remind us that it has been nearly six years since she has been in the public eye (with Floetry’s last music video shot in 2005).

“I was an athlete. I would eat a lot of calories because I was working out at such a high level daily, I’d be burning the energy off. Switching lifestyles from sports to music is a 180. You go from moving about constantly to being holed up in studios for days and weeks at a time eating pizza, and burgers and other fast food. Moving to Philadelphia (home of famously delicious “cheese steaks” and other tasty treats) I quickly gained weight.

“It was always about the music for me [being nurtured in that unique “new sound of Philadelphia” soul collective helped reinforce this, as nearly all of the female singers whose careers were launched out of this platform were powerhouses, no rail-thin pop tarts in the bunch], never about image. There was never any pressure on me to look a certain way and somehow I got lost.”

Ambrosius says she wanted to find herself. She wanted to get back healthy.

“When I found that I was unable to run up and down the basketball court with the guys like I used to [she would often still play the sport after her injury to decompress], I knew it was time for change. I just wasn’t myself.” Crediting Cook Yourself Thin, Weight Watchers, counting calories and Nintendo Wii (she even posted YouTube videos of herself using the video game) with her transformation, “It was something I had to do for myself.”

At the top of the stairs we are guided behind a velvet curtain into a VIP area of sorts that looks more like a circus. There are many interesting characters milling about including an unidentified woman wearing a painfully undersized bustier and an inexplicably long wig (think Rapunzel). There is also a handful of promo “models” off to the side drawing on each other with body paint.

“What is happening right now?” Ambrosius and I share a nervous laugh as we make our way to her designated seating area. This event is a joint appearance with Q. Parker of R&B group 112, and he’s already in the room seated across from us. The two exchange pleasantries and quickly retreat to their corners. This may have been a roped off area but it is most certainly not private. There are photographers everywhere and one of them has what seams to be a floodlight attached to his lens. Every time he takes a picture it feels like being tailgated at night by an aggressive driver with his high beams on.

A petite woman with glasses on shows up to share our space. Turns out, she is the cousin of singer/songwriter Sterling Simms (with whom Ambrosius penned her current single “Far Away”), and living in the area she’s just here to see the performance. This is classic Marsha. She’s all about family: yours too. Led to yet another area of the club we are seated on a couch at the side of the stage. Q. performs hits from 112 and new music to the approval of partygoers as well as Ambrosius. “I LOVE 112,” she shrieks, “You have no idea.” Soon we are all giggling like schoolgirls and singing along to 112’s smash hit “Cupid” as Q performs it for the umpteenth encore. Next a Go-go band performs a medley of Ambrosius’ songs in a lumbering “dedication”, including “I Hope She Cheats On You With a Basketball Player”, the power ballad. The moment is indeed surreal but Ambrosius loves every minute of it, rocking to the Go-Go beat with a satisfied smile. “Awwww bless,” she says, cheeks red from grinning.

Taking the stage, Ambrosius joins the band in a super slowed-down version of “Far Away”. Instead of admonishing the band to “pick it up”, she remixes the ditty to a smoldering groove. Both “Far Away” and “I Hope She Cheats” have been causing a lot of controversy for very different reasons. The content of “I Hope She Cheats” a bitter and witty rant about an ex’s new lover, is deliciously naughty, sassy and humorous. Some fans felt that it was an extreme deviation from Ambrosius’ earlier music. But most supporters recognized Ambrosius’ usual raw honesty immediately and have stayed the course.

She has certainly gained many more fans with her newfound mainstream airplay. “I never had that before, being played on the radio in between a Nicki Minaj and Rihanna record,” Ambrosius reflects. “Far Away” with its explosively honest video focusing on bullying, homophobia and suicide has garnered loads of attention, with most people applauding her bravery in showcasing a subject that many still consider taboo.

“When I wrote the song in 2008 [produced by Just Blaze] along with Sterling Simms we were all going through personal turmoil. I was breaking up with a boyfriend at the time, and Sterling had recently lost a family member. When I write I tend to draw from the emotion in the room. Around that same time I had lost a friend to suicide. All of these elements added to what made ‘Far Away’ what it is. So in making the video I wanted to tell the story visually that would have been ignored otherwise.”

The next morning is a whirlwind of radio promo. Damon Lott (another Philly guy), a regional director of urban promotion for J Records picks us up with Ambrosius’ management contact, Emily, in tow. I am moving just a tad slow from the late night before, but Ambrosius is chipper, giggling over text messages from a new potential boyfriend. She is used to the no-sleep, early mornings grind. “This is what my album is about. It’s a lifestyle. It’s my lifestyle; late nights in the studio or doing shows, then up early the next morning to travel. Or on the sensual side of things, late nights with that special someone, then up early in the morning with possibly a Belgian waffle. It’s the way I live.”

Station after station Ambrosius meets with on-air personalities, DJs and programming directors. In every building, tens of workers come out of their offices with Floetry stories, congratulations or just looking to take a picture and say hello. If this is any indication of what’s to come, Late Nights and Early Mornings just may be the little engine that could. “It’s nice to be recognized by people in any area of the industry. Outside of the work they have to do, they are fans of the work. I’m very grateful.” The cyclonic day is done and Ambrosius, Emily and I hop a train back to Philadelphia.

When the winter came/you went further south Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman” gurgles through the train station PA system. As soon as we are settled, Ambrosius is once again on the line with her family. This time it’s her mother, and her brother Marvin Ambrosius who is also a singer/songwriter. Ambrosius recounts the day’s happenings and squeals about her burgeoning romance. A close-knit bunch, Ambrosius’ extended family is in constant contact via phone and computer. It’s easy to forget that they are an ocean away, but Ambrosius never does. “My family is my strength. They have encouraged me to stick to my guns about what it is I want to get out of all of this, and to just enjoy myself. As much as I miss them, we speak every single day and  at any given opportunity we take trips to see one another.”

It’s yet another early morning. Ambrosius will once again take a ride to the DMV. This time it’s for a homecoming concert at a university in Baltimore with Raheem DeVaughn and Jesse Boykins III. Just a few days prior Ambrosius and DeVaughn shared the bill at The House of Blues in Los Angeles during Grammy weekend. Ambrosius, the opener, performed a scorching set of hits with her band, and DJ Aktive mixed in with a ‘90s review that left the audience in a frenzy causing a delay in the continuation of the show.

Today her band is low-key, waiting outside to pile into a passenger van. Inside the house Ambrosius’ mobile is glued to her ear as she tries to pack her belongings for the gig. She is deviating between family calls and a mini media junket of phone interviews. You can sense the slightest twinge of frustration in Ambrosius’ normally warm voice. I hear her explaining that the song “Sour Times” on her album is a Portishead cover. It seems the interviewer has not done his research. I’d be a tad annoyed too. “I find it strange that obvious facts about myself that could be easily known are not by people who interview me. It’s refreshing when you admit that you are unfamiliar with me and ask questions, instead of doing research and still not knowing.”

Two days later, Ambrosius’ sits for a documentary interview and gets some much needed rest. Well her version of rest, which is sitting in her living room recording music and constantly engaging her fans via Ustream and Twitter.  On Tuesday she is back in the DMV one last time for another club event, this time to preview Late Nights and Early Mornings in front of a decidedly Hip Hop crowd. Raekwon is also scheduled to appear as well as her labelmate and Baltimore R&B boy wonder, C.J. Hilton.

Briefly signed to Dr. Dre‘s record label, Aftermath Entertainment, and with features on songs with Outkast, Nas, Common, Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne, The Game, Fabolous, Wale, Slum Village, Styles P, David Banner and countless other rappers, Ambrosius is almost always considered just as much Hip Hop as she is soul. Leading the way in the recent wave of R&B mixtapes, Ambrosius dropped Neo Soul is Dead, Yours Truly and Yours Sincerely to the delight of her fans. She also released a series of R&B “sextapes” as a prelude to her album release.

“I have a newfound love for social networking,” she says. “Through Twitter, Facebook, my own blog and Ustream I’m able to connect directly with my fans and that’s very important in today’s climate where you need to connect with the people that respect what you do. I have very much kept fans and fam [her Ustream “family”, who call themselves the “Marshians”] in the loop every step of the way. My affiliation with Hip Hop is a natural thing to me as I’ve always been drawn to it and a real Hip Hop ear can always hear the influence.”

In true Hip Hop fashion, Ambrosius learns that her album has leaked online. Visibly upset at first, Ambrosius settles on the fact that in a twisted way this is a good thing. “It just shows that it was highly anticipated. Thankfully so, I have a team of people around me that kept my project close for several months. It was only after the press copies were released, that the project leaked.”

It’s Wednesday again. This time Ambrosius is headed back to Cali. She’s invited to sing at the 4th Annual ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon in Beverly Hills. After some false starts and travel snafus I arrive in LA to find Ambrosius amongst those holding court in the lobby of a swanky boutique hotel.

Groggy from my flight I begin to take notice of who’s actually in the room. Veteran actress Lynn Whitfield, Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams, and singer/songwriter Johnta Austin are among the first people I notice. Before long lifestyle maven Bevy Smith gathers the group around a grand piano and orchestrates a sing-along. At one point Lionel Richie shows up. I pinch myself. Ambrosius is cool and captivating the scene as she sings Stevie Wonder cover versions for the eclectic bunch. Turning to see where in the room I had ended up, she smiles my way and shrugs saying matter-of-factly, “The life.”

The day of the luncheon is crackling with nervous energy. Ambrosius is having her makeup done talking incessantly about Stevie Wonder’s 1972 album, Music of My Mind. Along with Purple Rain and Off The Wall it is amongst her favorite albums of all time. “MJ, Prince and Stevie are my holy trinity of music. I remember being a little girl and “Girl Blue” was my favorite song by Stevie Wonder. The production on that album; I only paid close  attention to in my later years. Stevie had a lot of songs with only a lead vocal, no backgrounds; he made the songs very personal.”

After going over final dress options, Ambrosius settles on a flowery number and nude heels. The atmosphere inside the luncheon is electric. Nearly every black actress of stage and screen has come out to celebrate honorees, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Loretta Devine and Jennifer Hudson. Singer Brandy comes over to Ambrosius to congratulate her on her album, and both ladies out-squeal each other with mutual admiration.

Inside we are seated next to True Blood’s Rutina Wesley, one of Ambrosius’ favorite shows and actresses. Serena Williams walks by, then Anika Noni Rose and Kimberly Elise; Kerry Washington is at a nearby table. “What am I doing?” Ambrosius says in jest, quoting the comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. “I don’t deserve to go after no Elvis!”  There isn’t a dry eye in the house after Viola Davis’ moving acceptance speech about her family’s rise from abject poverty and discrimination, or Angela Bassett’s humble and poetic gratitude after being presented her award from an almost reverent Forest Whitaker

A producer appears at our table to ask Ambrosius if she’s ready to perform. Never answering she rises from her chair and disappears backstage. The next time we see her she is at the keys twinkling a gentle performance of a revamped “Far Away” for the In Memoriam portion of the event while photos of the late Lena Horne, Abbey Lincoln and others glide across a large screen. Standing to thank the shimmering audience for inspiring her over the years, Ambrosius begins to hum. She serenades the sea of starlets with a gorgeous a cappella version of “Miss Celie’s Blues” from The Color Purple. The room erupts with affirmations and sweet sighs of approval; the perfect beginning for her solo journey: in a room full of appreciative peers.

Sister/you’ve been on my mind/Sister/we’re two of a kind/So sister/I’m keepin’ my eyes on you/Oh sister/ have I got news for you/I’m somethin’/I hope you think that you’re somethin’ too

Yes Marsha, we do.

Marsha Ambrosius’ new album, Late Nights & Early Mornings, is out now via J Records.

Purchase: iTunes UK / US; Amazon UK / US.

Marsha Ambrosius online: Twitter / Facebook / Web / Ustream

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