NEW YORK (Billboard) - As Aretha Franklin celebrates her 68th birthday this month, she shows no sign of slowing down.
She plans to sing arias this summer in three charity concerts with former Secretary of State -- and accomplished concert pianist -- Condoleezza Rice. In September, she’ll start holding master singing classes in Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of her native Detroit; she hopes to bring the effort to New York next year.
The legendary singer even reports making progress in conquering her well-known fear of flying, saying that she plans to take a short flight in the near future -- “probably Chicago or Cleveland” -- and work up from there. That could eventually clear the way for her to perform again in Europe for the first time in years. “Hopefully this summer,” she says optimistically.
And nearly seven years since the release of her last nonseasonal album, “So Damn Happy,” Lady Soul is releasing a new studio set -- surprisingly, on her own label, Aretha’s Records. Franklin expects it out by the first week of April.
The timing of the album’s release comes not long after Snickers began airing a TV ad starring Franklin and Liza Minnelli, who are shown poking fun at their diva reputations.
But during a phone interview with Billboard, Franklin showed nary a trace of divadom, instead fielding questions in a forthright manner befitting a veteran performer who also happens to manage her own career.
Billboard: Your new album is called “A Woman Falling Out of Love.” What inspired the title?
Aretha Franklin: It was just a relationship that I had been in that did not quite finalize itself the way that I hoped it would. You have relationships -- some work, some don’t, you fall in love, you fall out of love.
Billboard: Billboard first reported that you were working on the album in late 2006. Why has it taken until now to release it?
Franklin: I’ve been really heavily into concerts, doing some writing and various other things.
Billboard: When were most of the sessions for “A Woman Falling Out of Love” recorded?
Franklin: In the last three years, off and on between concerts, between commercials and so on.
Billboard: You’re releasing this album on your own label. Why did you opt against working with a major label?
Franklin: I was with Arista, and unfortunately, Arista and I could not come to terms. Clive (Davis, chief creative officer of Sony Music) wanted me to stay and I wanted to stay, but we just could not come to terms on what things should be. So, I just decided that it was high time for me to do my own thing. I certainly had enough experience over the years to do my own record label. Of course, I’m not exactly fledgling. You don’t come into the business being a fledgling label with as much experience as I have.
Billboard: Was it basically Arista or no major label at all? Surely, you could’ve gone with another label.
Franklin: No, I really preferred Arista to the rest of the labels. I did talk with a number of people who wanted me to be on their label but I just felt that Arista, Clive and I have such a wonderful and great relationship that it was more the label for me.
Billboard: I remember hearing that you were working on an album of arias.
Franklin: Yes, I am working on some arias. Speaking of the arias, I am going to be doing three concerts over the summer, myself and Condoleezza Rice. Ms. Rice is a consummate classical pianist, and (since) I sing the arias, I thought that we could do something, a bipartisan effort for our favorite charities.
Billboard: What is it about opera that you find so moving?
Franklin: I love the melodies, and I find that without even knowing who the composer is, I seem to gravitate to Puccini melodies. Some of the Mozart piano sonatas I like a lot. We’ve always had some classical music in my home from the time that I was a child. I’ve always heard it and it’s always been there. And as a growing artist, I now seem to appreciate the classical side of myself as well.
Billboard: You’ve managed yourself for years. Why do you like to take such a hands-on approach to your career?
Franklin: Because I think I know what I want more than anyone else. My brother Cecil was my manager for many years. Since he passed (in 1989), I have not had a manager. So it just became kind of necessary that I become a little more involved than I customarily would have. It isn’t anything that I am thrilled about doing.
Billboard: It’s a lot of work.
Franklin: Well, you have to be involved, and sometimes I want to be involved because I am very particular when it comes to my projects and what I present to people.
Billboard: During the past decade, some of your contemporaries like Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples and Al Green have recorded albums of traditional soul that evoke their classic early work by consciously avoiding contemporary production touches. Do you have any interest in recording an album in that vein?
Franklin: I don’t know that I would. I don’t right now, anyway.
Billboard: Why is that?
Franklin: Just don’t. I have very specialized things that I want to record, and that’s what I’m recording. And that was the other thing that was so attractive and appealing about putting together Aretha’s Records. Instead of having a lot of spoons in the soup, there would only be one spoon and that would be mine, of course. And I’m a pretty good cook.
Billboard: You did more recording sessions with the late Jerry Wexler than with any other producer. What was it about his approach that appealed to you so much?
Franklin: Probably something that he said often, (which) was to just let me sit down at the piano and do it my way. He was not interested in imposing his ideas and things on me. He wanted to get behind me and promote what it was that I wanted to do.
Billboard: How much of a change was that from your years at Columbia?
Franklin: That was a huge change, because at Columbia, I was a very young artist at the time and John Hammond pretty much selected all the musicians and songs. He did almost everything.
Billboard: How would you describe the kind of control you had over your own work during the latter part of your career before you started your own label?
Franklin: At Arista, it was similar and I appreciated, certainly, the arrangement that Clive presented to me, and that was where we both had an equal amount of control. I very, very much appreciate the brilliance of Clive Davis. He was certainly -- he is certainly -- one of the last great record men out there.
Billboard: You haven’t recorded an entire album of spirituals since “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” in 1987. Any plans to do another?
Franklin: Oh, absolutely. That’s a given, and I will always do that. Those are my roots and my foundation.
Billboard: When might you do that?
Franklin: Oh, probably early next year.
Billboard: It sounds like you’re going to have a pretty busy schedule.
Franklin: I always do.