With a lauded new set of songs, Beyoncé's younger sister emerges with a vision, sound, and look all her own
Solange Knowles is prowling the sidewalk, trying to sneak into a museum. She’s in Queens, hoping to check out an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art’s outer-borough branch, which, alas, is closed today. But as Knowles, 26, has demonstrated throughout her dozen-plus years in show business, she’s nothing if not resourceful.
”Solange!” shouts a clipboard-wielding art curator who happens to be a friend of hers. ”Come this way!” Inside, the space is cavernous, empty except for a few employees and several giant sculptures.
”You’ll have to excuse me, but I’m about to go nuts taking pictures,” Knowles says, pointing her iPhone at one image after another. ”This gallery I went to in Harlem yesterday wouldn’t let me take pictures, so I’m going to have a field day.”
For the younger sister of Beyoncé — that pop juggernaut for whom Super Bowls and presidential inaugurations are routine — an afternoon at a museum without crowds, guards, and pesky no-photo policies is her ideal level of excitement these days. After spending nearly half her life on the major-label payroll, Knowles moved from L.A. to Brooklyn, where her never-quite-burgeoning pop career evolved into something more interesting — and she became a nouveau-bohemian star in indie-rock and fashion circles alike in the process.
True, her sleek new EP released on the boutique label Terrible Records, is her Solange 2.0 calling card. Powered by its captivating lead single ”Losing You,” the album has won her accolades and a new fan base (including Girls creator and star Lena Dunham, who used the song in the show’s season 2 premiere). Knowles, it seems, has found her element.
Pausing in front of a portrait of the African-American activist Angela Davis, she confesses, ”I dressed up as her for Halloween last year — I just threw it together. That’s kind of how I do things.”
When Solange and her sister were growing up in Houston, Beyoncé was the main focus of father/manager Matthew Knowles’ ambitious plans for pop-chart domination. And to this day, Bey’s remained the object of hyperintense attention — often unwanted, as with the controversy over her lip-synching the national anthem at President Obama’s inauguration in January. (Solange’s reaction: ”I was really surprised because I know that everyone absolutely knows that she’s one of the best vocalists of our time.”) Being five years younger than her sister, Solange had the freedom to develop her own talents with less scrutiny, while also having a uniquely intimate vantage point: ”I witnessed her start her career, from the very beginning in my living room to where she is now. We had a father who learned the business by himself and then taught us all of it. I learned from a very young age how accounting is done at labels and how tour support works and why musicians don’t make money.”
She decided to get in on the act at 13, joining the Destiny’s Child machine as a touring backup dancer. ”I was a child, and we were doing, like, five days in three different continents. All those shows, those wake-up calls, those airport runs, those sound checks, and then doing six hours of publicity every day — it didn’t feel very appealing to me. It’s really kind of insane that that was my life.”
At age 15, she landed her own contract with her sister’s label, Columbia, and in early 2003 she released her debut, a soul-tinged album defiantly titled Solo Star. But the record never quite found an audience, and her contract was dropped.
Soon after, she put her career on pause to marry her boyfriend, Daniel Smith, moving with him to Moscow, Idaho, where he played on the University of Idaho football team. At 18, she had her son, Daniel Julez; by 2007, after three and a half years of marriage, she and Smith were divorced, and she moved back to Houston and then to L.A. with Julez.
She was still writing songs, but mainly for other artists, including her sister (she co-penned two tracks on Beyoncé’s 2006 album B’Day). Her own second disc, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, released on Polydor in 2008, fared better than her first critically and commercially — ”Sandcastle Disco” hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance Club Songs chart, and the album itself sold 200,000 copies — but mainstream stardom continued to elude her. Frustrated, she parted ways with the major-label world, this time for good.
That break gave her time to develop some new hobbies: After her sister and brother-in-law Jay-Z bought her a turntable for her 24th birthday, she started DJ’ing (A Tribe Called Quest veteran Q-Tip was her mentor), and worked as a brand ambassador for Armani, Madewell, and U.K. cosmetics giant Rimmel. ”Honestly, one reason I’m glad about getting back into music is because I’m a little tired of the ‘fashion world,”’ Knowles says. ”It was fun to do, but it’s just a between-albums thing.” She shifted her focus elsewhere, and soon began collaborating with smaller, critically adored artists like the Dirty Projectors and Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes.
Eventually, she decamped for a leafy block in the upmarket but low-key Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, where she and her son could be closer to Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who live in Tribeca. (Many of the Knowles sisters’ wider travels are colorfully captured on Beyoncé’s Tumblr, offering a candid if limited window into their relationship.) Brooklyn living has professional advantages for Solange, too: Her friendship with members of lauded indie-rock outfit Grizzly Bear helped lead to her deal with Terrible Records, which the band’s bassist, Chris Taylor, co-owns. She also met British musician-producer Dev Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange and Lightspeed Champion, who worked intensively with her on True.
”When I pulled up to the studio, he was already there, dressed in a wizard costume,” she recalls, laughing. ”But I’ve worked with Cee Lo before, so, you know, weird musicians become pretty normal.”
”She has a son and was busy with other things,” Hynes says of working with Knowles. ”But when we would write and record, it would be over intense periods, and we ended up just becoming really good friends, which I think then made the project better.”
The results feel charmingly fresh: ’80s synth-pop fitted within a distinctly modern R&B framework. True swiftly attracted a new set of fans.
”It’s definitely the biggest thing we’ve been a part of,” says Ethan Silverman, who co-runs Terrible Records. ”Instead of telling the press, ‘Please, please, please check this out,’ people are coming to us.” Perhaps nothing has captured her new aesthetic as well as the vivid video for ”Losing You,” which has racked up nearly 5 million views since its October debut. Shot in South Africa with director Melina Matsoukas (who’s also helmed clips for Rihanna, No Doubt, and, yes, Beyoncé), it has a bright DIY vibe that stands apart from the slick materialism of most contemporary R&B. ”I don’t usually work on that [small of a] budget,” Matsoukas says. ”But it was important to create something beautiful without being dependent on big budgets or equipment.”
Solange’s liberated new look stems from the fact that she paid for all of it — the EP, the video, even her website — out of pocket. ”Every decision that’s been made behind this record, from the exact color of the album’s artwork to what record stores we put the record in, has been made by me,” she says.
After the museum, Solange heads to Williamsburg, the bustling hipster mecca of Brooklyn, where she’s due to rehearse for an upcoming tour stint in Europe. But first she picks up an order from local comfort-food joint Pies-n-Thighs: fried catfish, mac and cheese, greens, lemonade, and pecan pie.
”I’m such a Southern girl,” she says almost apologetically. ”I plan on moving back in the next year or two, when it makes sense for Julez schoolwise. I think either Austin or New Orleans. Somewhere warm, for sure.” Brooklyn, it turns out, isn’t really too much of her jam (not enough space, too many people), and she wants her son to be closer to his father, who lives in Houston now. Besides, she doesn’t make much hay out of her creative connection to Brooklyn. ”I can write pretty much anywhere,” she says. ”It’s nice for a location to be part of the fabric, but it’s not a necessity for me. I mean, I started writing Sol-Angel in Idaho.” (In fact, she’s already begun working on her next album: ”It’s definitely going to be more of a soul record, and I think I’m going to attack a lot more social issues.”)
”I’ve always enjoyed isolation at times,” she continues, adding that as a child she was prone to locking herself in closets. And anyway, she can always improvise. ”I like creating my own world.”