What was the impetus for the new album?
The inspiration was just my basic love for a good song with words that I can relate to [and] find a story inside of -- even if it's not my own personal one. Just hearing the songs the Beatles did around the same time I was trying to find my way as a soloist and performer was very inspiring.
'I'm Looking Through You' was not one of the big hits, but when I was getting this album together, I looked at the words of the bridge. When they get to the part where they say, "Why, tell me why did you not treat me right?" Do you know the next line?
"Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight."
How profound is that? And you have to remember, these were not old, seasoned, kicked-in-the-butt-too-many-times guys getting together after having a few drinks. These were kids!
Everything. The arrangement that I did for the song is aimed at everybody. But I wanted the album to be especially available to young lovers of music. It's their time, so it's addressed to them. Not only to them, but to them in terms of the way the music is laid out, it's in the fashion of hip-hop.
Why did you cover 'Isn't It a Pity'?
I didn't do George Harrison's melody; I only did his words. [Someone I know] said to me, "Listen. Some people in my social group want to do a tribute to George Harrison. Would you be interested?" I said I would, so I did 'Here Comes the Sun,' 'Isn't it a Pity,' 'Something" -- about five or six songs. 'Isn't It a Pity' was the last song I chose. There's not a lot of melody in his performance, for me. When we decided to come up with a new melody, I was little hesitant. But I love the way it came out.
There are different stories of what 'Killing Me Softly' was about. Can you shed any light on that?
The song was written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. Charles Fox is still here, Norman isn't. They wrote the song for a young [singer] named Lori Lieberman. She was a big fan, as I am, of Don McLean.
Don was working at the Troubadour, where we all went to perform back in the '70s, and [Lori] goes to see him. Norman and Charles have written a song for her called 'Killing Me Softly With His Blues.' By the time she comes back from seeing Don McLean, she was just moved. So she goes back and tells Charles and Norman about this experience and they sit down and rewrite the words. And they basically tell her story.
I heard it the first time [on an airplane and] I broke out all the blank paper that I had, made my own scores and started to write the song down. I could actually hear myself singing it. When I got to Kennedy Airport, I called Quincy [Jones] before I got in the car and I said, "Listen. You've gotta help me find Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel." He said, "I know Charlie and Norman! What you want, baby?" The rest is history!
'Feel Like Makin' Love' was also a big hit and that was a little jazzier.
Gene McDaniels called me. I was still living in Virginia with my Mom and he'd call me on the phone and say, "Ro, sit down. I got it." [Sings the first line of the song] I said, "Where is it? I have to have it." So he sent it to me with just him playing guitar and singing it on cassette tape.
I did it once. I remember Gene being in the studio and he said, "Ro, can you just sing it one more time?" I said, "For what?" He said, "You know, maybe put a little more voice in it." I said, "No. That's the way I feel. I feel just like that girl. That's not the way I feel all the time!" [Laughs]
That was a first take?
Yeah. One vocal take. And Ralph MacDonald looked at [Gene] and said, "That's it, she knows what she wants!"
How about 'The Closer I Get to You'?
Mtume and Reggie Lucas were a part of my working band then. Mtume came to me and played it for me and I said yes. I thought it was beautiful. And I knew that we needed Donny [Hathaway] in there. Donny was in Chicago, he wasn't moving for nothing! So we sent him the track and he put his part on and sent it back and we put it together. Joe Ferla, great engineer, is the one responsible for putting it together and making it work. It was just one of those things that was meant to be.
On a different note, you founded the Roberta Flack School of Music, which is one of the humanitarian projects that you have going on.
And a very important one. My school is in the Bronx. When I was getting ready to do it in Harlem, that didn't work out. Enter these people who were looking for a space themselves to start a charter school. They decided that they would look for the property. They found [it] in the Bronx, 55 thousand square feet. They gave me two rooms, which we call the Roberta Flack School of Music. This is a real music program, where they learn to read music, write music, play music. I give them the chance to do all of those things, and to perform. It's not something that you can do on a large scale, especially in a charter situation; it has to be specialized. So we make the music available to the entire school and it goes pre-school through 12.