We recently caught up with Marsha Ambrosius for an interview on Instagram Live. During our conversation, we touched on her history at A Touch of Jazz in Philly, her skills as a songwriter, getting respect from the hip-hop community, being featured on Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”, her upcoming project and much more.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s start at the beginning. You’re from the UK, so how did you end up in Philadelphia and become part of the whole A Touch of Jazz Neo-Soul movement?
Marsha Ambrosius: Simply put, it was by ways of free trips. We got flown out basically. A mutual friend of The Floacist and myself, was living in Atlanta, so that’s how we got there to do the open mic movement that was happening in 2000. So we flew out April 19th of 2000. A friend of mine was playing basketball in Camden, NJ. He had a demo tape of mine, one of a live performance that Floetry had did, it was Nat and Marsh, before we even coined a name for our group. He played it for a promoter in Philadelphia, and that’s basically how we got flown to Philly to then do that open mic and spoken word underground movement. But Philadelphia’s version of that in the year 2000 was meeting the producers from A Touch of Jazz, James Poyser, who I had already met during a writing session in London during the late 90’s. It was kind of like I had an affiliation with Philadelphia prior to even getting there. So that trip solidified the relationships we built with the producers we worked with, the musicians we toured with for years, the rest if kind of history. Shout out to people that buy tickets for other people! Literally just took a chance and told my mom I wasn’t coming home!
YouKnowIGotSoul: Take us back to the A Touch of Jazz era of Philly Soul Music and what it was like being a part of that.
Marsha Ambrosius: To get to A Touch of Jazz when I did was to witness the shaping of what ended up being Jill Scott’s first album, Musiq Soulchild’s first album, Bilal, getting to meet Glenn Lewis. Even though he was Canadian, I met him knowing that his song “Bout Your Love” which was huge in the underground in London, and I said “You are THE Glenn Lewis!” and he didn’t even know how I knew it. Getting to work on his album “World Outside My Window” and getting to do background vocals for Jill Scott at one point. To see all of these things happen. I landed on a wave that these producers…leftovers happened to be “Floetic”!! That magic was still happening. We walked in from London and had “Floetic”. Ultimately, we were in a wave with like 20 year olds with no Twitter or Facebook to tell what was supposed to be correct or anything. We just wanted to be great! From that comes “Hey Andre [Harris], I have this song called “Butterflies”, want to hear it?” Then there is Michael Jackson calling weeks later asking to do that song. I commend the guys at A Touch of Jazz, not only the musicians and producers they are, even still, but they put in 100% into whatever it was going to be. We didn’t know what it was going to be. Years later we can call those things classics. I’m allowed to say that “Say Yes” is a classic.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You don’t seem to even to get the credit you deserve as a songwriter. Where did you develop those skills?
Marsha Ambrosius: My longing for my inner rapper, my lyricism stems from doing rapping back in the day! I wanted to be a rapper! It’s all about narrative and painting this picture. I just happened to find a melodic way to deliver that. The honesty within the pen and being able to paint that picture never changed. So the songwriting was always vivid. There’s too many songs I’ve written where I can see that. “Getting Late”, when Vidal played those keys, this is someone who has 3 kids and baby daddy’s and she’s in love with the second one and doesn’t know what to do every time he knocks at the door at midnight! I just remembered embodying this person that I never met but understood that emotion at 22 or 23 years old at the time. I’m saying these statements over and over again, it’s almost like your hooks are the monotonous portion of your song. If you say something repetitively, that’s the hook. I feel like throughout my songs, I say too much for you to define which one it is, so I just give you the title and let you deal with it! “The Break Up Song”, I never actually sing that. The entire song is the breakup song. I give you the story. My pen has just developed from a rappers perspective and honesty.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You’ve worked with some of the biggest rappers over the years, including Dr. Dre who really doesn’t work with just anybody! How did you get this respect?
Marsha Ambrosius: And we just did something! Dr. Dre has been a fan of mine since he came to a Floetry show in 2005. Prior to that he’d been put onto me by ways of Focus, but I got on The Game’s “Start From Scratch” because they were very much aware of what I was doing musically through Floetry and features I had done. I guess it all stems from being good. Then I became a separate thing from not just Floetry within the group or Marsha Ambrosius the solo artist, I’m also Marsha the feature! I get to be three artists. I think the respect level comes from my affiliation and my admiration for hip hop. Because I allowed my pen and what I do to happen through that, I think rappers just get me. I’m just allowed to do what it is that I do and be a prominent part of that. I like it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Reflect back on your solo debut album “Late Nights & Early Mornings”.
Marsha Ambrosius: Prior to signing and solidifying the deal with J Records, I had already been working on what I thought was my debut project. It turns out it is “Late Nights & Early Mornings”, but the creative control that I had, black female in a very mainstream forward male dominated field. If you’re a female artist, you have to do something exceptional to be exceptional. The only way I’m going to really stick to it is if I’m going to really be myself. The only way I could do that is if I go into the studio, I go behind the piano, and I really shape what I want this project to be. So “Late Nights & Early Mornings”, having executive produced, produced and written most of it, makes that my standout ultimate Marsha album. That is the Marsha Ambrosius album for sure.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s talk about your second album “Friends & Lovers”. The album really never got appreciated like it should have, and was definitely ahead of it’s time for the diversity of sounds you have on there.
Marsha Ambrosius: I remember meeting Da Internz and we just bonded over basketball, over Chicago, and my love affair for the Chicago Bulls and me telling stories of how I met Michael Jordan in 1985. We made music based on friendship. So when we got to the concept of it being “Friends & Lovers”, the songs started happening by themselves. It’s “So Good” and it’s “69” and “OMG I Miss You”. I feel like I absolutely agree that the album was done a disservice as far as what it was supposed to do industry wise. The fortunate thing for the type of artist I am, you can discover it now. Music is relevant to you when it’s relevant to you. I feel like “Friends & Lovers”, the songs “Where Are My Shoes”, “Spend All My Time” with Charlie Wilson, “Love”, “Run”, there were too many things! I feel like I gave them too much! At that point it was when J Records was no longer J Records and it moved to RCA. It doubled the roster, and you wonder when it’s your turn. I feel like the way I’m creative, once it’s done, it’s done. The love I receive have allowed me to not only tour, but tour for years, from things I’ve said or thought 20 years ago! I can sing “Say Yes” now and it still resonates. That’s amazing to me! I remember being in the industry at that time and how it felt. I hated the politics, I was done. I can’t deal with it. I feel like with “Late Nights & Early Mornings” I got a fair shot at being a standout, because you heard “Hope She Cheats” first! That song was a joke! I did that song on Ustream, just having a conversation and freestyling, and then going into my studio to record it. That’s how that song came about. But because of the notoriety I got because of that song, “Far Away” happens. Look at the range. You’ve got “Hope She Cheats” up against Rihanna and Drake and Nicki. Then “Far Away” happens, and that’s Marsha. But I don’t know if Marsha would have got a fair shot if industry Marsha didn’t play the game to have “Hope She Cheats” to do what it did for that. We’ll never know!
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about how you got featured on Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”.
Marsha Ambrosius: You know what’s crazy. For years, and you have to understand that Justin Timberlake’s “Justified” album came out around 2002. We may have recorded it around 2001 or 2002, close to the time of release. At that point, I don’t even think “Floetic” was out yet. The demo is circulating for that album, and Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies” is circulating with this name attached to it, and everyone is asking who that is. With Timbaland inviting me to the studio, they had already written a majority of the song, and they wanted to get a choir in it. We walk into Larry Gold studios A Room, and Timbaland told me to do my thing. We arranged the bridge, I did the pre-hook and layer Justin’s vocals, and at the end I just start ad libbing. It ends the song as the finale. At that time, young Marsha doesn’t realize what she’s doing, implementing an original piece inside a finished song. For me it was just doing background vocals. Years later, I’m getting the respect that people always thought it was Justin. It does say in the credits that I’m on there. I just happened to have the cherry on top that made it what it is.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Are there any of your mixtapes you felt could have been an album?
Marsha Ambrosius: All of them! Except for “Neo-Soul is Dead”, because I was drunk in Atlanta and had no idea how big that was going to be when we put that out the next day! I was joking, I didn’t know it was a thing! That was this ratchet, Grey Goose Pear and Ginger Ale Marsha in the booth, probably high, kids don’t do this at home! “Yours Truly”, myself and Focus put our foot down and said this is what we wanted to do. He has had my back since the day we met. We’ve worked together before we even met and still to do this day. That one definitely is an album, people got it. We went platinum in the streets.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How are you balancing things now being a mother and wife, and still having a music career?
Marsha Ambrosius: Fortunately I’ve been able to have those things close to me. Having met my husband on the road, we’ve remained on the road together. Having my baby girl birthed into tour life. Being pregnant, giving birth, and then going back on tour. She knows no different! I’ve been very, very fortunate in that regard. The balance is just to love it. I’ve chosen the type of fame I’ve always wanted. The music that I’ve created over the course of two decades is to love one day like this. To have that love I’ve aspired to have. “Butterflies” was written from a 15 or 16 year old perspective. To have it now is incredible. During this quarantine time and creating new music under these circumstances is for the same feeling. That desperate attempt to love the way I want to love before I have to leave one day. I create music that people press play on, and can save themselves and others because of it.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What can we expect as far as new music?
Marsha Ambrosius: I was working on what I thought was a quarantine EP and I played it for my day ones, and they think it’s the best album I’ve ever done! I can’t ever do anything half assed. So I said let’s call Dr. Dre and see if I can get a mix done. So we’ll see what happens over the course of the next couple of weeks. But I have recorded a new body of work that started out as one idea, to give back to my roots, and that was coming from the UK, and this admiration for all R&B music that was happening over here in the states, and me wanting to be a part of that somehow and make my mark in that. You have to understand coming from the UK, we had a movement and I feel like the level of respect that black artists didn’t get over there catapulted what they were able to do there after. It’s respecting where our roots came from. There was such a soulful element that ended up in pop culture. So making an album that feels like that was important to me. So pressing play, I can see Liverpool and London, and my family and friends. I feel like this quarantine, the type of longing I’m missing for people you may never see again or can’t see right now, the music that happens because of that, is a whole different “Far Away” or “Chasing Clouds” or “Say Yes”. It’s just different. The music is that much more heightened and passionate.