Maarten de Boer / Courtesy of the artist
During her decades of career, Tracee Ellis Ross has starred in popular shows like black and Girlfriends. But as she sees it, her latest role is her most discouraging so far. in the The high gradeShe can be seen on Apple TV on May 29 and plays a superstar singer named Grace Jones, who is facing a career stagnation. Meanwhile, Jones’ personal assistant Maggie (played by Dakota Johnson) has her own musical ambitions as an aspiring producer.
When I spoke to Ross the other day, she told me that Grace was at a crossroads at the beginning of the film. Does she do the same song over and over and dance or take a risk and produce an album with all new material?
“First of all, it was so identifiable for me,” says Ross. “But Grace Davis is this woman who has had great success and was caught up in something that worked and gave her all the people, places, and things but didn’t give her the fulfillment of what she really wanted to share.”
Ailsa Chang from NPR spoke to Tracee Ellis Ross about fulfilling a life dream of singing, gate-keeping in the music industry and what her mother, singer Diana Ross, thinks about her latest endeavors. Listen to the audio player above and read on to learn the highlights of the interview.
Highlights of the interview
On the message from T.The culmination
What really interested me in this story is how universally identifiable it is. I am not an international icon and most people are not. So not this part of the story, but the fact that we so often get to this place where we have a dream, a passion, a fire that we want to explore or experience, and either hear the naysayers, the social attraction, in which we remain your lane or personal fear of what it would mean to take a risk and possibly fail. And I really connected with it personally, with the singing. I’ve always wanted to sing since I was a little girl, and somewhere along the way I hid that part of me. But also in my life I go so often: “Is it worth doing something I know I want to try?” If you are already practiced who you are, it is difficult to put yourself in a position where you will be spinning around. Nobody likes to fail, and yet failure is what makes us grow.
About the relationship between Grace and Maggie
One of the things I love so much is that this is a film about two women and they don’t compete against each other. They are definitely in their roles and in the positions in which they are with each other, but there is a certainty between them and they both fight against the same thing: the idea of the world who they should be. There are not many female music producers. And Maggie tries to do something in a world that thinks she should bring them coffee. This is the place for an attractive young girl in the music world to be the one serving the people who sit at the blackboard. And Grace, we know what your trip is. I love this dynamic in the film because the truth is that it reflects and reflects so much the life that I live and the people I am with.
About people who inevitably compare Diana Ross to Grace Davis
My mother is an international treasure and has greatly influenced my life and that of many people and touched us deeply. I think the really interesting thing about the way this role was written, which was one of the many things that made me do it, is that in our culture we so often forget that these people are doing incredible things that touch us deeply and have such a big impact on our lives, are real people. That they are people with hearts, fears and insecurities. And Grace was so beautifully written that she wasn’t a caricature of this quote-quote diva.
Afraid to sing
The initial fear comes from the idea that my mother has a very large voice and that her place in the world is being taken and that she is known for her voice. Stepping into my own voice felt the fear of comparison, the fear of criticism, daunting and huge. I had seen other children of during my life’s journey [musicians] compared to being torn to pieces, and why should you even try to leap? I understood that the fear I was experiencing was honest. It was not something I had invented. It was like I could tolerate criticism and discomfort without causing another wound in and of itself, and was it worth the risk? And it is and was absolute because it was a fire that burned in me and it is a piece of my identity that is an important element of me on my own personal journey that leads to wholeness and freedom, if I go up to it and don’t close the door on any part of me, even if it’s awful to go through.
Record in a studio for the first time
The process in the recording studio was crazy. I am a person who thinks I can sing, but I sing in the shower, I sing with music in the car, I sing around in the house, I sing jokingly, all these things. When I went to the studio with Rodney Jerkins, the first thing he said was, “You’ll have to trust me.” And I like that [sarcastically] “Okay, sure.” The first thing that happened was that I was scared and switched off. And what I’ve learned and understood is that vocal cords are a muscle; If you are tense, nothing will come out of you. You know if you are nervous like you can’t hear your brain is clogged with fear? So I said, “You know what? I have to go to the bathroom.” And I went to the bathroom – I didn’t have to go to the bathroom – and I got on my knees and spoke with a higher power and said, “Listen, I’m scared and I have to give that over to someone else.” And then I had one Talk to the little girl in me. I said, “That’s what you wanted. And I know it’s scary, but let’s get out of the way, let’s just try.”
And so I went back inside. Then I remember when he first played me “Back To Me” and I said to Rodney, “No way. You promise me you didn’t put any sauce on it?” He says, “There’s no sauce on it – I wouldn’t even have had time to put sauce on it when you come out of the cabin and come here to hear it.” It not only sounded good and I was on the key, it sounded like me! I realized that my job was not to sound like someone else. It would actually be strange if I sounded like someone other than me. My job was actually to tell the truth through my voice. Yes, I surprised myself and was really tickled by the fact that it sounds like my speaking voice, just a singing version of it.
When her mother heard her music for the first time
My mother didn’t see the film, but my mother heard my music and she cried. It was really special. I picked them up in my car and we sat in our driveway because the car is a really great place to listen to music. “Love Myself” was the first one I played. She was sitting in the passenger seat and was happy and she has a lot of hair like me so I couldn’t see her face. But we held hands and when the song was done she said, “Stop, stop for a second.” She looked at me and there were tears all over her face and she said “Finally. Finally.”
Mallory Yu and Sarah Handel produced and edited the tone of this interview. Mano Sundaresan adapted it for the web.