Christened the “Princess of Salsa” by the late great Celia Cruz in the 1990s, Puerto Rican songstress India has a new title, the “Queen of Latin Soul.” And if you’re wondering how she earned it, have a listen to her ninth album, Unica, a collection of bilingual tunes that hit all the right notes. She’s even remade (and salsa-fied) soulful classics like Teddy Pendergrass’ “Turn Off the Lights” for an equally steamy version. I had a chat with the 41-year-old singer about life, love and making music. Here’s what she had to say:
How have you changed with your ninth album?
I feel very in touch with my soul and more spiritual than ever. I’ve matured a lot as an artist. And I’ve learned a lot along the way. I’ve learned that no matter what people say, you can’t swim against the ocean. You have to let it go and go about your business. People will learn to understand you more and see that human side of you. Music is about healing. I was able to heal along the way.
What does the title of the album mean to you?
The record company was able to come up with the whole concept of Unica. It’s difficult for me to think of myself as unique, special, whatever. I’m very critical with myself. I don’t watch concerts once I’ve recorded them. If I watch myself, I panic and freak out about it. I’m not comfortable watching myself...I have to walk away from the room.
What’s your favorite song on the new album?
I like a lot “Turn Off the Lights,” the Teddy Pendergrass remake. We lost him this year and I was a big fan of his music. We kept that soulful edge that reminds of how Teddy used to attack those notes. He was so aggressive. Today when I sit back and listen to it, I smile and I laugh. It’s not a salsa song, it’s a soul song but that’s what made [producer] Sergio George do it . . . The song “Smile” is a Charlie Chapman song that was Michael Jackson’s favorite. I never dreamed of doing it in my genre of music. Tropical music is something uncommon for these classics and Sergio had an innovative vision and I followed him. A lot of Salsaheads may not understand a song like that but after they listen to it, they’re going to catch on to the emotion and feeling behind it. Music is a universal language.
Speaking of languages, I hear you’ve been practicing your Italian lately by spending a lot of time in Italy.
If I talk about how happy I am and it’s going to affect people negatively, I’d rather not tell them. I don’t like to talk about my personal life but sometimes people want to know if I’m happy, if I’m heterosexual, if I’m gay, if I’m weird, if I’m strange. I’m not ashamed to talk about the things that I’m feeling in the moment. I feel like sometimes because we’re judged so much, it scares away the artist because they don’t want to talk anymore.
I want to know why you’re happy.
I’m surrounded by great energy. When I come out to Naples, I have a lot of great friends. I have a lot of female friends that pick me up and we go shopping; we go to the movies; we go to eat great dinners. And I have great gay friends that live for me. I also have a boyfriend who’s a very famous DJ by the name of Peppe Citarella. He’s a wonderful guy and he’s also been a big influence with this project. He’s been really supportive.
Does Peppe dance salsa?
He’s learning. He dances on 2-3 and 3-2. Little by little I’m teaching him the old Afro Cuban step.
Celia Cruz was your musical godmother; what’s the best advice she ever gave you?
Never stop being yourself. Never think you’re better than anyone else just because you have a gold record; just because you’re making money and are able to afford material things doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone. We’re all God’s children; stay humble. She looked at me with so much spirituality.