Solange Knowles remembers the first time she got in trouble—big trouble—as a kid. Her parents, salon owner Tina and Xerox businessman Mathew, always allowed their youngest daughter to express herself through fashion. But on that particular night, when Mathew was taking his family to an office holiday party, he put his foot down.
“He worked a super-corporate job,” she remembers. “And naturally he just wanted us to look nice, and six-year-old me came out in a tutu and tap shoes. He said, ‘No. Not this time.’ It was the first situation where he really gave me a look and sent me to my room. He was upset. It was a big deal.” She smiles at the memory. “When I look back at old pictures, my dad was always smartly dressed, my mom had the most elegant, beautiful style, and my sister was very into the ’90s Cross Colours look, and I …” she pauses. “I just had all of these different things inside me.”
Solange Knowles was born to stand out. And today, on a hot late-May afternoon in New Orleans, she’s looking straight-up vivid. Slightly east of the French Quarter, Washington Square Park is full of all types—construction workers, kids on skateboards, girls hula-hooping. This is a city known for its colorful buildings, bold flavors and oversize characters. So it takes something special to draw the eye: Heads turn when the girl dressed in a bright yellow Christopher Kane dress, turquoise neoprene Josh Goot shell and gold Aldo sandals strolls through the grass with her rainbow-bright bike.
Color-blocking is the singer’s current obsession. The departure from her wildly creative mixed-prints look is just the latest iteration of her ever-changing style. It started back in the tutus-and-tap-shoes days and continued in earnest through her teen years. “I had issues with dressing weather-appropriate,” she remembers. “In Houston, it’s pretty much always hot. But I was mad I didn’t get to have seasonal outfits so I’d wear sweaters and tights anyway.”
There were also thematic shifts. When she started listening to Alanis Morissette, she says, she “went through a goth phase … even though Alanis was not goth at all.” The summer before sixth grade, she visited Tokyo and a Harajuku Girl moment began. “It was not good,” she recalls. “I had on stars-and-stripes stockings with a poufy skirt, two balls in my head, some crazy sweater and platform sneakers. When I went to the Sharpstown Mall in Houston with a friend, people were falling out laughing. It was a hot mess, but I was committed.” Then, when she was 14, she went to Jamaica and embraced the Rastafarian lifestyle. “I was into veganism and spoken word,” she says with a self-conscious flush. “I only wore clothes from secondhand shops and did a lot of meditation. My first album came out during that phase, so there’s unfortunately a lot of photographic evidence.”
These days, there’s less of a theme guiding her wardrobe choices, though she says all of her childhood fashion adventures are in there somewhere. She’s been returning to the colors of Jamaica recently: red, green and yellow pieces from brands like Acne, Marni, Opening Ceremony, Tibi and J.Crew. “It’s interesting how the past comes back full circle and then it becomes more refined,” she says.
Knowles talks about how she’s been “casualizing” her look recently, now that she’s living here in New Orleans with her nine-year-old son, Julez, and her boyfriend, video director Alan Ferguson. The 28-year-old says she loves the tempo of the city and the fact that for all its richness, there’s a more laid-back vibe than in her previous home bases. “I lived in New York and L.A. and they were different worlds I learned to navigate. Fashion and music have so many elements I’m connected to, but they also have parts that I’m not so interested in. I can step in and step out of those worlds. Being in New Orleans gives me space.”
It was on a sugar plantation in nearby New Iberia, her grandparents’ hometown, that Knowles recently retreated for a month to write songs for her upcoming album, due out this fall. New Orleans may be a change of pace, but it has its own distractions. “I have friends who call in the middle of the day and say, ‘Come around the corner for a drink—we’re going to hear this band,’ and I’m just like ‘No, I can’t! … Okay, wait for me.’ So I have to remove myself. As an artist, I lack discipline in terms of buckling down. But if I’m isolated then I have no choice.”
The music is changing, she says. Though she cites Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear as inspiration, she has even more to say about Erykah Badu, Kate Bush and Fiona Apple. “My last EP, True, was about the overall vibe—the message was fun. This one, I really want you to hear what I’m saying. I want you to hear me.”
Though she and sister Beyoncé grew up in a house where Motown musicians were in constant rotation, Knowles says she reacted by choosing a different path. “Any time you’re a kid and you’re told, ‘You’re gonna love Donny Hathaway,’ naturally you’re like, ‘No, I love Fiona Apple.’"
As a child, Knowles studied dance and planned a Juilliard career until destiny—in the form of Destiny’s Child—intervened. Her older sister’s pop group was breaking and, days before a 1999 summer tour, one of the backup dancers got pregnant and bowed out. The younger Knowles was tapped to fill in.
"I had no idea how to dance hip-hop at the time," she says. "I was trained in classical ballet! But it sounded chill and I was going to make a little weekly check and be with my whole family, so I said okay.
"I loved traveling,” she continues. "We were in Europe for a month, and that’s when my musical eyes opened up. There, Björk was on pop radio. She wasn’t some obscure underground thing like she was in America.” Knowles spent the next two years as part of the Destiny’s Child machine until an injury forced her to take a year off from dancing. “Dance had been my everything since I was a little girl and all of a sudden I couldn’t do it,” she says, her voice going quieter. “Some beautiful things came out of that year but also some painful things. I started writing songs because I had all of these emotions that were so real."
One of the first people Knowles shared her songs with was Destiny’s Child member Kelly Rowland. “Kelly’s like a sister. When I let her hear my music, she said, ‘I want you to write for my album.’ That gave me a lot of confidence.” Telling Mathew and Tina was a little harder. “I was nervous to talk to my parents. Part of my mom was like, ‘Please be normal and get a regular job,’ because she had gone through so much with my sister. She knew how strong-willed I was and how the industry was probably not going to be the most supportive thing for a 15-year-old girl.” But they gave in and Knowles signed her first record deal with Columbia. In 2003, she released Solo Star.
The album failed to break out, and Knowles says the whole experience was an eye-opener. “I was serious about my songwriting but not necessarily too gung ho on all the other elements of being an artist—the public nature of things, the lack of privacy, the feeling of always needing to be on. I also felt really misunderstood by my peers and the musical landscape that I was in,” she says. So she stepped out of it.
In 2004, she married her high school sweetheart Daniel Smith and gave birth to Julez soon after. The pair moved to Idaho, where Smith played football for Boise State, and Knowles started living a quieter life, focusing on writing songs for her sister, Destiny’s Child, Rowland and others. “It was chill; I got to be at home with Julez all the time,” she says.
After divorcing Smith in 2007, she was ready to get back into the scene—this time with the confidence to shape her own experience. “I had written all of the songs [that ended up on 2008’s Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams] and I believed in them,” she says. “I felt I was strong enough to put them out specifically how I wanted to. I identify with Sade and Kate Bush and Erykah Badu, who are artists but on their own terms.” Since then, she’s been fine-tuning her creative view—adding DJ and creative consultant for Puma to her résumé and starting her own label, Saint Records, last year. The latter move allows her to let go of some of the major-label sales pressure and concentrate on creating her own left-of-center niche.
Family is a centering force for Knowles—and she speaks of wanting to expand hers once the new album is finished. The day we’re talking in the park is two weeks after TMZ published a leaked elevator video of Knowles getting into an altercation with brother-in-law Jay Z the night of the Met ball at the Standard Hotel. It’s a subject she expects in conversation but one she doesn’t want to focus on. She calls the incident “that thing.” “What’s important is that my family and I are all good,” she says. “What we had to say collectively was in the statement that we put out, and we all feel at peace with that."
She is happy to discuss the values her parents taught both of their daughters: hard work along with unconditional love and support for each other. “We’ve always held each other down no matter what,” she says. “That’s something I’m drilling into Julez now."
“I think about all of those phases that I went through,” she continues, looking out over kids playing in the park, “and the ridicule and whatever that I experienced. And I can’t think of one time where I ever felt like I was going to break. That’s because I had confidence instilled in me by my parents. They didn’t always like it—in fact, most of the time they didn’t—but they never asked me to change.”