Chaka Khan, the Queen of Funk, on her new album and side hustles

Khan talks about her recent rehab stint, taking ownership of her career and why she has no plans to retire

By Melena Ryzik/The New York Times News Service
  • Published 1.05.19, 7:26 PM
  • Updated 1.05.19, 7:26 PM
  • 3 mins read
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Chaka Khan (Shutterstock)

It has been 12 years since Chaka Khan released a studio album, but “I wasn’t sitting, twiddling my thumbs”, the singer known as the Queen of Funk said recently. She was touring and stealthily recording two albums. The first, Hello Happiness, out this month, is full of upbeat, powerful tracks that wouldn’t be out of place on a Soul Train line.

In a phone interview from Chicago, her hometown, where she was shooting a TV show and visiting with family, the enduring voice behind hits like I’m Every Woman explained why she wanted to make a danceable record now. “I’m a happier person these days,” she said.

At 65, Khan — who used to play basketball with her longtime friend Prince — talked about her recent rehab stint, taking ownership of her career and why she has no plans to retire. “I can still play basketball right now,” she said, “and I can still drop it like it’s hot onstage.”

Excerpts from the conversation.

Why did you wait so long to release these songs?

I wanted to release them in a good way, and remain a free artiste, not tied down to some large label for 100 years. [Khan said she hasn’t had a label deal for at least a decade.] It was like working for somebody, having a job — no artistic freedom and no say-so with anything. Whereas what I’m doing is very different. I don’t see it as a job. It’s a calling.

Did you have an awakening when you realised ‘this is not fair, I should get more of a stake in this’?

Prince and I sort of came to that conclusion at the same time. We did a CD together, called Come 2 My House. We were both with the same label, I just didn’t put “slave” on my face.

In 2016, you announced that you were entering rehab, prompted by Prince’s death. Was your issue with pain pills long-standing?

On and off. I had a knee replacement thing going on, aggravated by flying and walking a lot, and working. I went to a pain management clinic and I was seeing a professional. I stopped self-medicating. I’m good.

Your career has spanned so many eras, do you miss things from any period in particular?

Working in the ’80s with [the producer] Arif Mardin, in New York, really made my life happen. I really miss him. And he challenged me vocally and musically, and I miss that kind of interaction. The music I did in the ’80s I think was my best music. Working with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea — all the greats that I grew up listening to.

Do you still get the same electric charge out of performing that you did early on?

No, the charge is different, it’s changed throughout the years. But I still am nervous before I go onstage — that’s something that has not changed. You could call it lightweight stage fright. I’m anxious, any day I have to work, and I can’t eat. I don’t really feel comfortable onstage until at least the third song.

What is the next album you have coming?

I’m working on a Joni Mitchell project right now, who’s a great friend. I have her blessing. I’m doing my favourite songs of Joni’s. Not her hits — the songs that have kept me alive on tour. When I’m on the bus, I always put on Joni Mitchell. She would revive me, in a big way — the music, the things she said, the philosopher in her. She’s my favourite writer, singer-songwriter. I don’t even remember when I first met her; it’s been a while.

A lot of people imagine that an artist like you would basically be rolling in it. And what I’m hearing is that you feel like were subjected to deals that cheated you out of royalties. And now you have to restructure.

Absolutely, the story of my life, yes. This is my work, it’s all I have, and I should own it. I now know my worth, O.K. — I really do. And that’s how I’m going to live out the rest of my life, period. I’m not going to sell myself cheap or short. I’m not good old Chaka Khan anymore, you can’t call on me when somebody else said they can’t do the gig — “Ask Chaka, she’ll do it.” I used to be like that, but I’m not doing that anymore. And when you want to hire me, you better have some money. That’s it.