Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ’Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’
Marsha Ambrosius has a voice that can slice through any noise, lyrics that can match any emotion, and live shows full of emotion. Some shows may dissolve you into tears, while others may be too shocking to ever forget.
“The first line is, ‘I hope she cheats on you with a basketball player.’ Every guy in the crowd was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s the worst thing you could ever say to me,’ Ambrosius recalled to REVOLT. “I was like, ‘It’s not that bad.’ Then, I thought about it and I was like, ‘This is great. I love what it does to people.’”
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Ambrosius talks a surprise Prince encounter, her internal conflict over performing after her grandmother’s death, and how her fans supported her through her pregnancy. Check out the chat below.
What was your first live show like?
I remember doing this talent show in my old secondary school in the U.K. I wanted to do a Jodeci record. At the time, it felt like no one knew who Jodeci was in London but me. But, they had this song called ‘Stay.’ I remember getting my girls together, we formed a group, and I think at least three members of the group were named Natasha. There were three Natashas, a Kelly, and me (laughs). I remember playing that intro [to ‘Stay’] that I was so ever inspired by because DeVante Swing is one of the best producers in the game. That moment stuck with me. I thought, ‘I want to do this for real.’
You’re a world-class talent, but everyone has to make mistakes to be great. What are some early mistakes you made performing that have helped you become better live?
I smoked a lot of weed in the early 2000s. I had just moved to Philadelphia. At the time, the producer I was working with introduced me to that life (laughs). It was not healthy for me and my vocal skills. It was very creative. But, as far as performing and trying to sing like that? Uhhh, yeah, Nah. I think I’ve been so isolated, as far as what the music industry was supposed to be or the facade that people give about it. I thought it was all weed and alcohol. I had been a basketball player prior to being a musician and being an artist. So, I didn’t know anything about weed and alcohol until I started performing, was out in the United States, and trying to be part of what I considered something.
I remember taking a shot of Hennessey. This was by accident because I really thought it was cranberry juice (laughs). There was a segment of the show where it was my solo moment and I was singing this ballad ‘Feelings.’ That song on Hennessey is a whole other feel, and as great as it was for the audience, it was death and destruction of brown liquor for me (laughs). So, never again will I be high or drunk onstage (laughs).
You first started touring as part of Floetry. What are some things you had to adapt to being on the road?
You’re constantly on the go and you lose the concept of time. On the road, your time is for soundcheck, getting ready for the show, getting onstage and trying to get to the next city. The tours I’ve been a part of since the very beginning have been back-to-back-to-back, nonstop shows. Taking care of yourself while doing that is what I had to learn the hard way.
What was the dynamic like touring as part of a duo?
With any group setting, you have to rely on other people. That’s whether if I was in a group or a solo artist with different band members. You have to figure out how everybody functions and how everybody lives. You have to ensure that when you’re on the road, you set certain boundaries, rules, and hopefully, everyone moves in a hygienic and timely fashion. There are so many factors to it that it’s easier to move by yourself. If you’re sitting on that tour bus and you’re waiting for that lobby call that nobody else made, you’re still late even if you were early.
What were those Floetry rehearsals like?
Oh, those were easy. Floetry shows we could do with our eyes closed. There was such a synergy in the music and content that we had. At the time, we didn’t step on anyone’s toes. It was, ‘You know what the song structure is. You know where each piece and compartment fits. So, it was seamless. We had Spanky, Jeff Bradshaw, Terry, Brown Boys and so many musicians. We were kids and we were hungry for it. We had nothing to lose and I feel like we played like that in the beginning. It was such a free feeling that I carry that from then even now.
What was the first show where you both felt you finally made it?
I think it was the Constitutional Hall in D.C. I remember performing ‘Feelings’ on the keys for the first time. It was something different about that performance. There was another performance, also in D.C., at the 930 Club. That show got to the point where we were like, ‘Should we end the show or should we just stay here all night and do this again, and again? I don’t know what’s happening or what vibe the crowd is on, but I don’t want to leave.’ That was definitely a definitive moment.
Another one would be performing at SOBs in New York time [in 2013]. I still say that shit was way ahead of its time. I think bar for bar, I saw the look of death and destruction in each guy that was watching me say these words to them. The first line is, ‘I hope she cheats on you with a basketball player.’ Every guy in the crowd was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s the worst thing you could ever say to me.’ I was like, ‘It’s not that bad.’ Then, I thought about it and I was like, ‘This is great. I love what it does to people.’
Is there an example you could give of how much work you put into them?
I and DJ Aktive went out on The Grey Goose ‘[Rising Icons] Tour with Miguel’ [in 2011] and I remember constructing that set in such a way where everything had to be precise. There were talking points, video clips, the lighting cues had to be on point, and it was all contingent upon how the crowd was going to respond. Rather than a band band that I usually have, Aktive and I had to plan out the show to what city we were in. So, we were in The Chi trying to play Common, trying to play Kanye, and really trying to play anything Chicago-affiliated. It was all catered to the fans.
The precision is in knowing where you’re at. Sometimes you have to freestyle. You might have to slow your set down based on the crowd’s energy. With the type of performance I’ve worked to give over the years, the timing is all energy and the response. I’ve always made sure Aktive or any of the musicians I’ve used are comfortable with that type of timing. Some musicians want a click track and want to know, ‘Four bars in, I’m playing this part.’ I’m like, ‘Nah. That’s not how this works. The crowd might not be ready for that yet. You might have to be ready to feel these moments, and make it brand new each and every time.
The songwriting is the same, the feeling is never the same. I’ve sung ‘Far Away’ and have been happy about it. I’ve sung ‘Far Away’ and broken down in tears. It’s all about the feel.
What album has the most songs you perform?
It’s even stevens with it. I may possibly do a tour where I just perform a particular album in its entirety. By the times I’m done with three songs I love from Friends & Lovers, or three songs that I love from NYLA, or the three songs I love from Late Night, Early Mornings; I want to do three more from that same field. But, we’re going to be here for three hours if I do that. So, I play off what the audience wants to hear. But, I never want to give people what they expect either. So, I’ve kinda constructed a setlist where you get sort of get everything and still walk away feeling like, ‘I have to go see her again because I know she is going to do such and such.’ I could do 100 songs and people would be like, ‘Oh, but you didn’t do...’ and then they’ll name another hundred songs. There’s no one album that defines the show.
Have you ever went through a personal hardship and a show helped you get through it?
I remember when my grandmother had passed away in 2003 and I had a couple of shows to do before I was heading back to the U.K. to attend her funeral. I remember walking into these venues and I knew they didn’t know my grandmother like that, so they didn’t know how much I was hurting. It was very much, ‘Oh, I feel so bad for you. But, go ahead and sing. Sing! Sing!’ It was almost like it was a requirement. At that moment, I realized this was so above me. I thought of what I have to do, how I have to feel, and how I now have to conduct myself. I wanted to kill everyone in there. I was like, ‘You wouldn’t do this to me if so and so died.’
I said, ‘I can’t sing like this.’ They didn’t know my grandmother. She wasn’t their Aretha Franklin. She wasn’t anyone famous. It was my grandmother, and I had to mourn in that big, huge way while trying to please a crowd. I felt like I had to. If I sat down and just said, ‘I can’t do this,’ I might’ve been supported by the right one. The wrong ones would’ve been like, ‘I don’t know what she’s on,’ or whatever it would’ve been. You think that way sometimes.
Have you ever made songs based on how you think they’ll do live?
I think so. There are a few songs that are only supposed to be performed live that I never get to feel when I’m in the studio... That’s kind of how ‘I Hope She Cheats’ ended up being recorded. I freestyled it live, I ended up recording it, and it took on a life of its own.
What is the most memorable thing a fan has ever done for you on tour?
Oh man. There’s too many. My fans are amazing. I’ve had people show up with tattoos of my name and my likeness on them. I’ve had fans show up when I was expecting my daughter and they literally gave me a baby shower at the show. My fans are absolutely ride or die. When I had Nyla I didn’t want for anything. They gave me a stroller, a car seat, diapers, subscription to Amazon where it ships things the same day. I didn’t need anything because my fans were there for me and us. It’s incredible.
What are some fun things you’ve done during your downtime on tour?
We’ve hit up Disney World. We’ve done haunted houses (laughs). We’ve done the, ‘Everybody let’s go to the sex toy shop and get silver bullets.’ We’ve even gone to the mall and done regular shit (laughs). I’ll tag people on Facebook or Twitter wherever I’m at and tell them to meet up with me and people show up. Six Flags was one of the funniest ones because I went on a million and five roller coasters just so people could ride with me (laughs).
How has your tour rider evolved?
So, I’ve accumulated what is a mini-bar. Actually, it’s not a mini-bar. It’s a full bar service in the house if you need a drink. My husband and I don’t drink. It’s gone from turkey burger sliders, wings and pizzas to, ‘I’ll take that salad, carrot sticks and baked potato chips (laughs).’ I have a sweet tooth, so Sour Patch Kids are still on there. There’s also Essentia water.
How do you factor fitness into your touring?
I stay in hotels that have gyms. I stay in hotels that have a basketball court nearby, so I could get some shots up. It got easier now because I want to stay fit and healthy. It’s not like these gyms or anything else wasn’t available before. It’s just that it’s now something I seek out. We’ll check in early, get into the gym, and then you can eat a little cheat meal without feeling guilty.
You’ve worked with so many great artists. Who are some of the biggest who have popped up at your shows?
It’s been everybody (laughs). Whether it’s Patti LaBelle sitting there cheering you on and coming through Philly, hitting the afterparties afterward, with the most jokes I’ve ever heard in my life and great Mac N Cheese. There’s nothing that can beat that feeling. One of your absolute idols admiring what it is you do. I honored Anita Baker at the BET Awards a couple of years ago, and she and I hadn’t seen each other prior to that. I’ve been to her concert, she’s been to mine and has supported me publicly. She’s tweeted to me. That’s wild to me.
I did an impromptu three-song set at the Chateau Marmont in L.A. and Prince strolled through because he heard I was coming. He sat there with his cane at the bar like, ‘What’s up?’ We talked it up for a couple of hours and he left like the wind (laughs). That’s still wild to me.