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Jazmine Sullivan speaks on her struggles, spiritual growth, and her sultry new release, ‘Heaux Tales’

Heaux Tales, Jazmine Sullivan's new release, is deeply inspired by the conversations women might only have with each other.

Jazmine Sullivan.
Jazmine Sullivan.Read moreMyesha Evon Gardner

The ladies were having a girls’ night. Philly artist Jazmine Sullivan’s mother, Pam, had invited some friends over to her home for a small get-together. Included in the gathering were Jazmine’s godmother, Anitra Sasser, and a relative of Sasser’s, Donna Anderson.

“They came over, and they drank and they was eating, and Donna had something to say,” Sullivan recalled with a laugh of the conversation, which she captured on her iPhone for her new project.

Anderson held nothing back: “Women think, ‘Oh no I don’t trick, I don’t ho, I don’t do none of that …,’ ” she said. “Even if you married, you have tricked in your f— marriage. You have sex because you know what your husband is going to give you what the f— you want the next day.”

On Sullivan’s new project, Heaux Tales, Anderson’s words (and the laughter and cosigns that followed) are one of the EP’s many interludes and set to the kind of organ playing you’d hear in church when the preacher really gets going.

“Donna had a sermon to say,” Sullivan said by phone, hours before the Friday release of her first project in six years. Heaux Tales is deeply inspired by conversations like that one — the stories and desires that women might only admit to one another, and the friends and elders in Sullivan’s circle who’ve been that honest with her.

“I feel like there’s a stigma around a woman desiring things and money,” Sullivan said, explaining why she selected that conversation in particular. “And we as women are made to feel bad about our desire, for wanting nice things, and making us feel like we don’t deserve it. And I think we even internalize it ourselves, where we feel bad about actually wanting it, and Donna was like, ‘Girl, we do it all the time anyway.’”

Sullivan’s new music is a testament to the vocals and songwriting she’s refined over the years, talents that command a respect that only comes when you’ve left listeners deeply awestruck.

With the voice that can sound like a goddaughter to Kim Burrell, or Mary J. Blige, or Brandy, or Aretha, sometimes all in the same song, Sullivan has been widely known for her vocal virtuosity since her first album, 2008′s Fearless. Around Philadelphia, she was known well before then, the kid who made a name for stunning the Apollo at 11, then again for performing at the Black Lily as a teenager alongside the stars of Philly’s “neo soul” era, among them JazzyFatNastees, Kindred, Jaguar Wright, and Lady Alma.

Her mother, VIBE tells us, sang backup vocals for Philadelphia International Records. In 2008, Pam Sullivan told The Inquirer’s Dan DeLuca: “I had a few members of the choir over at my house, and I was going over this note that they were having trouble with.Jazmine must have been about 2; she could barely talk. And from her crib, she just blurted out the exact note, with the exact pitch. And everybody just burst out laughing. It was over for choir practice that day. She made everybody look bad.”

In May, Sullivan shared publicly that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer, in a letter to her mom from her Instagram account. She said in her interview with The Inquirer that her mother’s experience with inflammatory breast cancer “has been a lot.”

“It’s really a roller coaster ride. Things are going well, and out of nowhere things can’t be,” Sullivan said. “But it definitely affected the way that I see life and like time, really. So for me, I can’t see myself taking as long as a break anymore in between projects, because of this experience.”

There’s been confusion over whether Heaux Tales is an album, which it is not. There’s an album in the works.

Before, Sullivan had been working on this new EP and the forthcoming album simultaneously, Trevor Jerideau, senior vice president of A&R at RCA Music Group, explained in an interview Friday. Sullivan had been working with the concept for Heaux Tales for about two years and was close to completing it before the pandemic arrived. Jerideau said initially they were thinking of it as a mixtape.

“I’m a homebody,” added Sullivan, who said she values her privacy and her chill time. “I had been quarantining before this.”

About 98% of the EP was recorded from her home in Philly, explained Sullivan, whom Jerideau called “the boss.”

“I wish I could take more credit on this particular project, but I can’t. Because this is her. This is her brainchild. She actually delivered the songs to me,” said Jerideau, who said they worked on adjustments from there.

Three songs have featured artists, “Pricetags” with Anderson. Paak, “Girl Like Me” with labelmate H.E.R., and “On It” with Ari Lennox.

In the duet “On It,” already a fan favorite, Sullivan and Lennox tell their men, in no cloaked terms, what they want to do to them. Lennox also appears in one of the EP’s interludes, “Ari’s Tale,” which pulls from the time Lennox admitted on IG Live that she had been “literally willing to ruin my career” because of a former partner’s gifts in the bedroom.

Heaux Tales seams together the stories of women like Lennox and Anderson, with Sullivan’s own storytelling. While some songwriters might sing as themselves or offer one consistent persona, Sullivan writes from the perspectives of many characters. Like the betrayed woman who busts all of the windows or the woman forlorn over the rapper who left her as he found success. On one of her new songs, “The Other Side,” she takes on the role of a woman who plans a materialistic dream for herself — including riches, boyfriend-financed butt enhancements, and planned pregnancies through surrogates.

“She is a collector of stories, and she has the vocal chops to see these characters through,” said Lynnée Denise, a DJ and music historian based in Amsterdam. “Imagine if Toni Morrison could sing all the characters in Beloved. … There’s something about Black women, and literature, and characters, and voices, and world-building around Black music that I think that she also is part of.”

Fans have questioned why Sullivan’s commercial success hasn’t matched the soaring level of the acclaim she’s received, at times raising questions of racism, colorism, and sizeism.

“I think, yes, [people] probably would have received me a little differently, if I fit the standard of beauty in the industry,” said Sullivan, who is set to appear Tuesday on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. “But I do feel like things are changing now in society and I’m really happy about like where things are going now, as opposed to when I first started. … I’m happy to still be making music in this time.”

She acknowledged that with her mother’s cancer and the events that have gripped the world and country over the last year, she had struggled to find motivation to work. Moving forward has also been a matter of faith.

“God has brought us to everything,” Sullivan said, speaking of herself and her family. As a group, they went alkaline vegan together to support Pam Sullivan’s health journey. “We have family Bible studies like every Wednesday. So we’ve definitely grown closer to God and grown closer to each other.”

Amanda Henderson, of Northeast Philly, has been friends with Sullivan for 20 years. She shows up on the EP on “Amanda’s Tale,” sharing an unfiltered view on how sensing competition through social media changed her relationship to sex. Henderson was anxious right before its release, but was comforted seeing the reactions from fans.

“People kept saying no one talks about this,” Henderson said Friday. “To see how many people connected to it. … It made me feel at peace. It made me feel so much better. It made me feel like I had company.”

Sullivan is in a long line of soul singers who can come across as sanctified even when they’re talking dirty. Speaking about that duality, Henderson laughed. She thinks Sullivan’s work, no matter the topic, is simply anointed.

“It’s something in that voice and that sound and the notes that she creates that moves you,” Henderson said. “Everyone can feel it, gospel or not. You can feel it.”