LOS ANGELES, Calif. – When the Grammy Award nominations were announced in December, Tamia’s mind was elsewhere.
For one thing, the velvet-voiced Canadian R&B singer was on tour. She runs her own record label, so touring means more than strutting across a stage every night — she’s equally as focused on the minutiae of promoting gigs, shuffling gear from one venue to the next and managing the staff that helps her.
And there was more on her mind. Her two daughters, for instance, or her husband, NBA star Grant Hill, whose own demanding schedule necessitates that the couple stay in constant contact, their calendars as tightly cojoined as the interlocking teeth of a zipper.
So when she was roused out of sleep at her hotel after a long day of rehearsals by her producer Claude Kelly around 10 p.m. (don’t judge; she does have young kids) by the news that she had been nominated for two Grammys for “Beautiful Surprise” — her first album in six years — her first instinct was that it was a joke.
“I think I even told him: ‘Stop playing,'” she recalled, noting that she then verified and called her tour manager to tell him the news. “He immediately said: ‘I’m calling everyone. Come downstairs. We’re partying on the tour bus.’
“So I immediately got dressed and went downstairs and partied on the tour bus for the rest of the night. So it was good.
“I really wasn’t even thinking in that realm about Grammy nominations,” she adds. “I was concentrating on the tour. And obviously I have two kids and a husband and trying to juggle all of those things, certainly that wasn’t on my mind like that. But that was the best wake up call that day, for sure.”
These nominations — for best R&B album and song, for “Beautiful Surprise” and its title track respectively — are not the first in Tamia’s long career.
She was singled out for three nominations back in 1997, when she was a three-octave ingenue whose “You Put a Move On My Heart” was working a move of its own on the hearts of listeners. That year, she soared into the glitzy Grammys tucked under Quincy Jones’ wing — and while that’s an enviable spot for any fledgling R&B singer to find him or herself, Tamia certainly didn’t have autonomy over her career at that time.
She was in her early ’20s, and very much along for the ride.
“I was so young in the business,” she said.
“I’d just really gotten started and I’m not even sure if I really understood all that it took to get Grammy nominations, and what it meant from your peers to be recognized.
“This time around, it was that much sweeter to be recognized for the work I’ve been doing.”
And that’s in part because she now has ultimate control over every element of her career.
Although each of her first three albums were certified gold, she split with her major label after 2004’s “More” and released 2006’s “Between Friends” independently via her own label, Plus One Music Group. She subsequently took time away to have her second child in 2007 but released “Beautiful Surprise” the same way.
Of course, Tamia had been used to being a prized asset on a wealthy major record label back in the days when major record labels were still wealthy. The last time she hit the road on the dime of a major imprint was 2004, when she toured with Missy Elliot, Alicia Keys and Beyonce.
“It was a fun, amazing tour,” said the singer, who took her husband’s last name of Hill. “But I could tell you that I was with a major label and I don’t know how much it cost. I don’t know if I ever got paid. I just sort of got on the bus.
“This tour,” she says, referring to a recent jaunt, “I know how much it cost me, how much everyone was getting paid, what I needed to do to make money, and all these things. I mean, there is a lot more involved in it.
“But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think it’s important to know all facets of the music business, and certainly it’s important to keep track of your money and where it’s going and what’s coming in … to be the one to be able to make decisions on where the money is being spent.
“The artist doesn’t want to know those things,” she continued. “The artist in me wishes she could just go onstage and sing, but I can’t do that. And overall, I’m much more happy that I can understand all aspects of it before I get on that stage.”
With no “big machine” behind her, Tamia’s career now feels like a more modest mom-and-pop-type operation, a love labour that isn’t necessarily lucrative.
And without a massive marketing budget, her success relies upon “one person telling another person telling another person telling another person” about her latest project. That’s part of why she’s so thrilled about the Grammy nominations, a coup for any artist but particularly one who makes music without the implicit validation of a massive corporation actively backing her work.
“We’re just like the little engine that could,” said Tamia, who grew up in the inner city of Windsor, Ont.
To some degree, however, it seems Tamia relishes not only the autonomy but the demanding nature of her dual roles.
“I think she actually enjoys all the wearing of the different hats and the stress and the problem solving,” said her husband, Grant Hill, chatting before a recent Los Angeles Clippers game.
“Just to be a career woman, to juggle the career, the running of her label, being a mom, being a wife, that’s not an easy thing to do…. Each one on its own is difficult, but to do all those things at once — you know, it’s pretty amazing.”
Of course, given that from time to time both parents can be trekking around the continent simultaneously, theirs is a unique union.
The Hills are meticulous in their scheduling. They also grasp opportunities to spend time together when they can — for instance, the past U.S. Thanksgiving when a fortuitous coincidence had Tamia playing a show in New York around the same time Grant’s Clippers were taking the court in Brooklyn.
The whole family came in and spent the holiday together, before their careers again intervened, and the girls came along with Tamia to see her perform her next date in Washington, with their grandparents looking on.
“Oh, we’re crazy,” Tamia laughed when asked how they manage. “We’re certainly unconventional. It’s a lot of scheduling. We have a lot of calendars.
“I think as a working mom, you’re constantly juggling things,” she added. “And sometimes you drop the ball but you pick it up and hope no one’s looking. And you start juggling where you left off. You just hope no one saw you drop it — you pick it up and sneak it back in.”
In the video for her buoyant ballad “Beautiful Surprise,” Tamia cavorts mostly solo, cooing the song’s decadently sweet lyrics — which could have flowed from the pen of a starry-eyed first-time lover — until she and her husband are reunited for an intimate moment together.
Tamia says that she told Hill that he’d better take that opportunity to appear in one of her videos, since he might not want to associate himself with one of her scorned-lover screeds — like “Stranger in My House,” a top 10 hit Stateside after its 2000 release.
And Grant admits that he tends to prefer her more upbeat tracks. He admires her ability to write vividly identifiable love songs — “I think she’s able to cover all the different feelings and emotions that come with love, so the heartbreak, the disappointment, the betrayal, the excitement, the love. All the highs and lows,” he says — but notes that the lyrics are so real, some people presume they’re autobiography.
“I enjoy the upbeat ones, because people automatically assume — with ‘Stranger in my House’ or ‘Me,’ songs like that — that I did something to create that drama,” the seven-time NBA all-star said with a smile.
“So not all the negative songs are inspired by me. At least I don’t think they are. I hope they’re not.”
Tamia’s work ethic is perhaps particularly impressive when one considers that she’s been dealing with health challenges for the past decade, since she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003.
She’s been an active spokesperson for the inflammatory disease (which affects the communication between nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord), sharing her story in the hopes of inspiring others. She wants her tireless drive to serve as an example of what’s possible with the condition, although she acknowledges that she must stay aware of her limits.
“It’s been an interesting ride with MS — I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. If anybody had any doubt about how I’m doing, I think seeing me do 30 cities with as many as four shows a night singing live — I think that sort of squashed any doubt about how I’m feeling and things like that,” she said, adding that prior to this interview she’d just wrapped playing two hours of tennis.
“For me, the diagnosis of MS was sort of a wake-up call, to not run myself into the ground, to stay balanced mentally and physically, to sort of listen to your body, know when you need to rest, and know when you can push yourself and you can keep it going. I just try to live in a balanced way, and that’s been working for me.”
Asked if she plans to take time off following her next tour dates (the specifics have yet to be announced), she’s emphatic: “No way!”
She re-entered the music business gingerly after her maternity-inspired hiatus, writing songs slowly with Kelly without necessarily knowing the end result.
Part of what inspired her comeback was the desire to show her daughters that there was more to their mom than they realized.
“They (didn’t) recognize me as mommy the singer, they recognized me as mommy the chauffeur,” she said, laughing. “Every now and then I have to let them know.”
Her husband will be rooting for Tamia from afar when she attends the Grammys in Los Angeles this weekend, since his Clippers will be in New York.
So Tamia’s bringing her daughters along, allowing them another glimpse at their multi-faceted mom doing something quite out of the ordinary.
“They’ll be excited to go to the Grammys,” she says. “It’s like a once in a lifetime thing, right?”
Well, for most people.