It’s been 12 years since Chaka Khan released a studio album, but “I wasn’t sitting, twiddling my thumbs,” the singer known as the Queen of Funk said recently. She was touring and stealthily recording two albums. The first, “Hello Happiness,” out this month, is full of upbeat, powerful tracks that wouldn’t be out of place on a “Soul Train” line. For this record, Khan teamed with the singer-songwriter Sarah Ruba Taylor and the producer Switch (M.I.A., Santigold), and served as a co-producer, co-writer and percussionist (she played timbales on the single “Like Sugar”).
Khan writes quickly, in the studio, sometimes from poems she jots down on whatever is handy. “I think with every track, what the song is about is already there before you put the words down,” she said. For this album, “no deep thoughts were necessary. It was a lot of fun.”
In a phone interview from Chicago, her hometown, where she was shooting a TV show and visiting with family, the enduring voice behind hits like “I’m Every Woman” explained why she wanted to make a danceable record now. “I’m a happier person these days,” she said. “My entire life has been challenging and troublesome — and great, you dig? I may go in and out, like everybody else. I’m going through a nice slot right here. I’m achieving some things that I wanted to for a long time.”
At 65, Khan — who used to play basketball with her longtime friend Prince (“I’m not trying to run around the court,” she said, but “I can shoot”) — talked about her recent rehab stint, taking ownership over her career and why she has no plans to retire. “I can still play basketball right now,” she said, “and I can still drop it like it’s hot onstage.”
put “slave” on my face.
You’re known as one of the premier vocal arrangers. Are there artists continuing in your footsteps, or is it a skill that’s dying out?
I don’t know what other people are really doing, as far as that’s concerned. I think there’s a lot of shenanigans going on with vocals these days, actually, but the gift that I got, it’s just natural. I don’t really look the gift horse in the mouth — I just go and do what has to be done, you dig? I give it as little thought as possible. I don’t even really listen to music.
Arif Mardin, in New York, really made my life happen. I really miss him. And he challenged me vocally and musically, and I miss that kind of interaction. The music I did in the ’80s I think was my best music. Working with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea — all the greats that I grew up listening to.
Was Davis abrasive or charming when you worked with him?
Very charming. I don’t know how he was with other people, but he was sweet to me. [We’d] go out to dinner, go see a lot of jazz, go to his house, listen to music, with he and Cicely [Tyson, his wife at the time].
Do you still get the same electric charge out of performing that you did early on?
No, the charge is different, it’s changed throughout the years. But I still am nervous before I go onstage — that’s something that has not changed. You could call it lightweight stage fright. I’m anxious, any day I have to work, and I can’t eat. I don’t really feel comfortable onstage until at least the third song.