Q&A with music legend Chaka Khan

Liz Nicholls


Liz Nicholls shares a chat with singer Chaka Khan who will star at Nocturne Live at Blenheim in June & Love Supreme festival in Sussex in July

Q. Hi Chaka, wonderful to talk to you! What’s your first memory of music?

“Hello! I was lucky to be born to parents who are artists. I recall hearing a lot of opera and jazz growing up: Billie, Ella… my father played Max Roach a lot. My mother was a dance instructor, she taught modern and ballet, so we did a lot of dancing around the house. We had a big ol’ Zenith hifi and big ol’ speakers and we all sang, danced and did our chores on Saturdays. I thought everybody did that, haha! We had murals, frescoes on every wall in the house. In our bedroom we had a circus scene. In the kitchen we had flowers, fruit. It was great to grow up with art everywhere.”

Q. You’ve worked some greats in your time, including Prince. Are there any other artists you’d love to collaborate with?

“Well I’ve done some stuff with [the R&B star] H.E.R and Sia and I are doing some stuff together.”

Q. How do you decide who to work with? Do you listen to the radio or stream new music?

“Well they [the collab artists] mostly find me! I’m not on any kind of quest, haha! I don’t listen to the radio, no. I listen to as little music as possible because it’s what I do for a living. I think too much and if I listen to music I have a hard time having fun with it. I don’t go out to clubs any more – when I was younger I did a little bit. For me a fun day is doing absolutely nothing, lying on my chaise lounge watching telly, a movie… passive entertainment!”

“I’m not nostalgic, I’m really a next girl”

Q. Do you feel nostalgic looking back on your 50 years in the biz while curating this year’s Meltdown festival?

“No, I’m not nostalgic, I’m really a next girl! I don’t live in the past, I don’t remember a lot. This is a good thing! The only thing I’m interested in is what’s happening in the moment. All we own is this moment right now. And how it’s going to affect what’s going to happen next. I don’t get caught up in things I can’t do nothing about, like yesterday. But I can influence tomorrow.”

Q. What’s been your personal biggest achievement?

“Getting out of the city and moving; leaving LA is the biggest and best thing I’ve done. I’m communing with nature here in Georgia, with all this beauty here. I truly get rest here, I get silence. And I’ve got my family here with me. My mother lives in the east wing, I’ve got my sisters, my nephews.”

Q. You lived in London for 30 years. Did you like living in the UK?

“I loved it but I’m happy now as my neighbours are miles away! I did a lot of great work in the UK, including with the London Philharmonic and worked with a lot of people I’ve loved for years. I’ve lived in many places; Germany, Switzerland… Why?! Well, I live on Earth, the whole planet, that’s the way I look at it! I’ll be in the UK all summer which will be great.”

Q. So many of your songs have been covered many times. Are there are songs that are so precious you wouldn’t want them covered?

“Well I wouldn’t want any of my songs to be copied or covered if they weren’t done well or with the best of intentions, honorably… I don’t want anybody to do a shlock job! But having said that, music is a free agent unto itself – it doesn’t belong to me, it’s for everybody.”

Q. You’re considered one of the great divas. How do you feel about the term ‘diva’ and do you embrace it?

“I know inside what I am. Whatever everybody wants to say about me, so long as it’s in a positive light, I’m happy. Titles don’t mean a lot to me, they do not define me.”

Q. You’ve achieved so much. Anything you still want to do?

“I can’t think of anything else but believe me that doesn’t stop stuff happening. I’m just very open and willing, that’s all I can do. I’ve been doing a lot of talks with children in schools. We have an open floor and they can talk about anything. I’m looking to start doing some podcasts with younger kids, young adults. That’s half of my job right now as a human being. I love my grandchildren and the focus on young people because they’re our future. We owe them a great deal of our time, energy and respect.”

Q. What advice would you give young performers paving their own way?

“Be true to yourself. Honesty is the best policy, even if it hurts! Especially if it hurts: that means it’s meaningful. This is the best thing you can do for yourself and everyone who’s around you.”

Q. How will you cater to a jazz crowd at Love Supreme festival?

“I’m not doing anything specific! I’m a multifaceted singer, I can sing anything. The best thing I’m doing is getting rid of that Queen of Funk s***. I hate to be boxed in. I do as much as is humanly possible on that stage. And everyone’s happy! I’m going to start implementing strings in my show, so I can do To Sir With Love and Big Spender and all that. I’ll be very happy to be doing shows. And I have my hits. I keep it moving, changing, that’s how you keep it interesting.”

Q. What do you think is most challenging about the music industry today for new singers coming into the industry?

“There is so much that needs to change, it’s horrific. First of all how women are set up to compete with one other. There’s no place for competition in self-expression. But often labels count on us [women] being competitive with each other, which is stupid.”

Q, What advice would you have for younger singers and your younger self?

“I think be honest and faithful with yourself and don’t be afraid. You have to keep yourself clear on what your goals are and stay true to yourself, which is a tough thing to do for young people, I think. I control my life and I’ve never let success run away with me. I’ve taken it and ran. The only thing that could threaten my stability is me. I’m my only threat and my own worst enemy. You’ve gotta follow your own path, trust your heart and listen to the warnings. You can’t argue with the universe. It’s not about that. It’s more about relaxing and knowing that you can handle it and feeling empowered. Knowing you have the power to do whatever the hell you want to do! That’s what it’s about. It really is.”