There’s not much that needs to be written about Bobby McFerrin besides his name. The iconic singer has been amazing, delighting and inspiring fellow musicians and fans worldwide for over three decades, always exploring new styles and genres of music, never allowing himself to be defined or confined by any musical convention. His new album, "spirityouall," will be released in May; he'll play tunes new and old at Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium on Thursday, April 18. Current got in touch with the busy musician to ask him a few questions before his forthcoming A2 show.
Current: How have your perceptions about performing for audiences changed over the years?
McFerrin: I'm not sure my perceptions or beliefs about performing have changed dramatically, but what was instinctive and not so well defined has become clearer and clearer over time. I don't like the word "performing." I try not to perform. I try to go onstage and sing the way I sing in private. I want to revel in the joy and freedom of singing so completely that audiences feel it, too. I don’t want them to leave the theater thinking, wow, he can do something I can't do; I want them to leave the theater singing. The next day I want them to make up silly rhyming songs over breakfast. I want them to feel like they can improvise and have fun, in their work life or their relationships. I don't mean to sound overly grand, but if I have a mission in life it's to help people feel the incredible joy of being fully alive in the world.
Your voice seems ever young, ageless. What changes have you noticed as you’ve aged, that we listeners might not pick up on?
I'm drawn to softer sounds. I tend to sing more softly, more gently.
What do you do — and avoid doing — to keep your voice healthy?
Keeping my voice healthy and staying right with myself are intertwined. I get lots of sleep, I drink a lot of water and tea (and very little alcohol), I eat healthy foods, I don't talk over noise in crowds (which sometimes means disappointing fans by not doing meet & greets or signings, which I feel guilty about, but my first priority is to make sure my voice is healthy and flexible for concerts). But just as important, I spend a lot of time in quiet reflection, walking in the woods or reading the Psalms or singing to myself. I try to stay right with myself and my family and my God and the people I work with and the world around me. I try to enjoy it all.
I’ve read that "spirityoual" is an homage to your father, the great operatic baritone. What do the spirituals mean to you? Do they mean something different now than they did earlier in your career?
I grew up hearing my father sing the spirituals, and I even had the unbelievable chance (I was a kid, I didn't realize how amazing it was at the time) to hear Hall Johnson (the great composer of modern spirituals) coach my father [and] talk about how these songs should be sung. All of that still affects me, and the way I sing these songs. But at the same time, I think the reason I waited so long to make this album was that I needed to feel I had something new to say, my own contribution. I couldn't sing these songs the way my father sang them, I could never surpass his achievement. I needed to sing them in a different way.
Your father was the first black man to sing at the Met. Would you share any thoughts about how America has changed for black people in his lifetime and yours?
There are brilliant people who devote their lives to talking and thinking about these issues. I sing. My father sang. His sense of discipline, the pressure he exerted on himself (and his students!) to continually strive for excellence is a part of my foundation. The combination of discipline and freedom that allowed his voice to flow so beautifully was incredible. The ways that I've explored making things up, letting things be messy, have all been balanced by—and made possible by—that foundation. He lived a very aspirational life.
You’ve lived such a full life, and accomplished so much. What dreams do you still hope to realize?
I just rebuilt my home recording studio. I'm excited about writing songs. I think it's important to set concrete goals. But I don't want to talk about them too soon, so I'll keep them to myself. But I do want to encourage people, especially younger musicians, to set goals, to keep their eyes on the road ahead.