Jamila Woods’s Songs Have Many Loves

For many artists, the weeks leading up to a new album are a hectic flurry of promotional obligations, relentless tour rehearsals and omnipresent anxiety. But two months before the Oct. 13 release of Jamila Woods’s “Water Made Us,” the Chicago-based writer and musician was far from the music industry’s antic churn: at a six-week writing residency at a remote castle in Umbria, Italy.

“I’m just grateful for the time to chill,” Woods, 34, said, video chatting from her sparse room in the 15th-century fortress. Half of her chin-length hair was twisted up in pigtailed buns, and seven of her 10 fingers were adorned with chunky, artful rings.

Woods’s music has always been imbued with a literary sensibility — “I’m such a poet in the way that I do everything,” she said, defining poetry as “a way of being and looking at the world” — but on “Water Made Us,” she achieves her greatest synthesis yet between her voices as a poet and as a songwriter. The opening track “Bugs” moves fluidly between laid-back, neo-soul melodicism and precision-cut spoken-word (“Someone will jump fully clothed in the moat you dug outside,” she declares. “It’s not that deep”), while the strikingly compassionate “I Miss All My Exes” is essentially taboo-shattering free-verse set to a serene composition that features her frequent collaborator, the trumpeter Nico Segal.

“She has an amazing sense of language and a way with words,” said the musician and producer Chris McClenney, who co-executive produced “Water Made Us” with Woods. “Every lyric on the album has so much weight.”

And nearly every one of those lyrics is focused on Woods herself, which is a departure for an artist who has so far made her name as a skillful observer of character, history and social issues. Most people first heard Woods’s voice — warm, heartfelt and sincere — when she was featured on gospel-tinged tracks by Chance the Rapper (“Blessings”) and Segal (“Sunday Candy”). Her 2016 solo debut, “Heavn,” was a confident assertion of Black womanhood in a time of political unrest (“Yeah she scares the government,” she sang on the trenchant “Blk Girl Soldier,” “déjà vu of Tubman”), while her 2019 breakout “Legacy! Legacy!” was an ambitious ode to artists of color who came before her. Each song took the name of a different pioneer: “Zora,” “Miles,” “Octavia.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t any Jamila in them. “With ‘Legacy!,’ there’s a lot of songs where I was actually writing a lot about myself, but I’m like, ‘I’ll call it ‘Sonia!’” she said and laughed. “Water Made Us,” which she considers her most personal and vulnerable album to date, found her “shedding” armor. She decided, she said, to “write with myself as the source material. I don’t need to put that layer on top of it anymore.”

“Water Made Us” is all about Woods’s own search for love. She said she and McClenney sequenced its 17 tracks so it would feel “like the cycle of a relationship.” The first few songs have the fluttery apprehension of a new connection. Then comes conflict, in the form of the soulful, keyboard-driven ballad “Wreckage Room” and the heartbroken but hopeful “Thermostat.” The final stretch contains a few of what Woods calls “mantra songs,” for their expressions of accumulated wisdom.

A conversation with Woods is full of such mantras. She has collected the insight of her poetry mentors and writerly inspirations and pocketed them like talismans, ready to be quoted at the opportune moment. One advised her, “Your relationship to your art is the most precious thing, so you have to be protective of it and gentle with it.” Another, listening to some of her early music, offered an observation that rings especially true to “Water Made Us”: “He said, ‘You have so many specific loves,’” she recalled. “I was like, ‘That feels so accurate. I think the way that each person loves and is able to love is so specific, and the attachment styles or lessons we carry into what it means to love someone are so personal.”

Most songs about love fall at two poles: “I love you” and “I hate you.” The refreshing thing about “Water Made Us” is how many variations along the spectrum between them Woods captures — how many specific loves these songs have. “It’s not butterflies and fireworks,” she sings on the gorgeous leadoff single “Tiny Garden,” finding an apt lyrical image of the everyday work that goes into a relationship in the steady care of a green space: “Said it’s gonna be a tiny garden, but I feed it every day.”

She knew water would have to play a part in the album’s cover, and via YouTube she discovered the work of Birdee, an underwater portrait photographer. While finishing the album, they set up a shoot, “and then somewhere along the way I realized I can’t really swim,” Woods said with a laugh. An artist less committed to growth would have returned to the drawing board. Instead, she committed to a week and a half of intensive swim classes in Chicago, passing the requirement to enter the deepwater course shortly before the photo shoot.

The experience provided another apt metaphor for the creative process. Woods recalled Birdee explaining in an interview she’d watched how shooting underwater is unpredictable and challenging. “You can’t control anything, so you have to go into it with an attitude of surrender,” she said. “And that’s how making this whole album has felt.”

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