After more than a decade outside the recording studio, Nnenna Freelon returns with Time Traveler, an album she describes as a love letter to her late husband. Chris Charles / Origin Records hide subtitles
Chris Charles / Origin Records
Chris Charles / Origin Records
Nnenna and Phil Freelon were a power couple: he was the chief architect of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Cultureand she was a Grammy-nominated jazz singer, composer, actress, and playwright. They enjoyed an exciting, fulfilling life with work, travel, friends and family.
Phil Freelon passed away in 2019. Now Nneenna has launched a new podcast to share her grief and recorded a new album dedicated to her late husband. she describes Time traveler as a love letter to Phil, whom she met on the porch of a mutual friend in North Carolina in 1978.
“He was my heart,” she says from her Durham home. “He was my soul mate.”
After Phil was diagnosed with ALS in 2016, Nnenna took a break from her music career to take care of him until the end. On her first album in more than a decade, she reinterprets some of the songs they enjoyed during their 40-year marriage, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Time After Time,” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” “.
“I’ll say a little prayer for you – that’s a song when you’re in a place in your life,” she says. “But when you’ve seen the loss of your great lover, it feels very different.”
She sings the lyrics to this song with a melancholy fullness of soul: “Together, forever / This is how it must be / Living without you / Will only mean heartache for me …”
Freelon says that music was important to her in order to process losses.
“Music is like a time traveler who takes you back in time,” she says. “They can exist in the past and present, just like in a science fiction film.”
Freelon says before he died she asked her husband to let her know he was fine as soon as he left. And he did it in different ways. He left her a voice message on his cell phone: “I love you so much. The sound of my voice will give you fond memories of our time together.”
Origin records YouTube
Freelon included this voice memo on the title track of the album she wrote in his honor. Phil also left little notes in random places and more. “I only moved things, tried to clean, just to do something,” she recalls. “And a picture fell out of a book and it was a picture of him standing in front of a bridge. I had never seen that picture before. You know, little things you just can’t make up let you know that there is life beyond what we understand is life on this side of the veil. “
After Phil’s death, Freelon lost her younger sister to cancer. Her dog also died. She says that singing and recording again was her way of dealing with all of this grief. She lived alone in the house she once shared with Phil, and the pandemic gave her the quiet time she needed.
“Time became both an enemy and a friend because it was very, very lonely and it seemed like the hours would go on forever. No need to do anything, even get out of bed,” she says. “And slowly, slowly, I began to look at the time I had and try to find containers to put my heartache in, and that is exactly what this record is ultimately about.”
Freelon’s youngest son, Pierce Freelon, contained a song his mother originally wrote and recorded on his new album years ago, Black in the future. He says he has seen his mother grieve in different ways over the past 18 months.
“She kind of got into the pupa and produced this mighty butterfly warrior,” he says. “I’ve heard her describe grief as a shapeshifter, and I really saw that through her. You know, some days it just means sobbing up your sleeve. Some days it means I have to get out of here and gardening. ”Some days it means,“ I’m going to write music and poetry. ” “
On Great sadness, a new podcast produced by Nnenna Freelon in collaboration with North Carolina Public Radio, the singer tells stories from her life. The weekly series starts on June 4th. Freelon, who views the podcast and Time Traveler as companions, says grief has made her more creative, compassionate, and willing to take risks.
“The fact that I can create something in this room of grief,” she says, “is a superpower to me.”