How Tracee Ellis Ross Made Her Secret Pop Diva Dreams a Reality for 'The High Note'
Tracee Ellis Ross couldn’t celebrate the release of her first single with the people she loves in person, but that didn’t stop friends Michelle Obama, Lena Waithe, and Janelle Monáe from popping into an Instagram Live party with 10,000 other viewers. Even Ross’ mom, the inimitable Diana Ross, couldn’t be kept from her daughter’s big night.
“It was better than I could have imagined,” Ross says the next day, calling from her Los Angeles home. “Strangely, due to the pandemic, I actually was able to share the moment in a way I don’t know that I would have thought to do otherwise.”
Ross’ musical debut is done exactly as the star had always hoped: through a project that combines her acting chops with a lifelong dream of flexing her vocal talents. The song “Love Myself,” co-written by Sarah Aarons and Greg Kurstin, is the lead single from her upcoming film The High Note and sung by Ross’ character Grace Davis, a legendary, fictional diva who is ready to get back into the studio instead of performing the same old hits every night.
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Ross, like Davis, is not a woman who fears much when it comes to her career, but making time to properly record and put out music made her anxious about pursuing that dream with every passing year. Between starring in long-running shows Girlfriends and Black-ish, running her hair company Pattern Beauty and her work as an executive producer, she was just too busy to give a singing career the attention it deserved.
“You don’t just jump off the cliff,” she says. “And if you’re not a singer, how do you work with the right people? How do you find songs while you still have another career happening?”
Ross always knew it would take a special type of film or maybe even a Broadway musical to help her explore her secret desire. The right script was hard to find, until her manager and agents sent her what will now be screenwriter Flora Greeson’s first movie. She chased the film for eight months, eventually partnering with Focus and Universal who rushed to get it shot during her short hiatus between seasons of Black-ish.
“There was no time to be afraid, but I was terrified,” Ross admits.
In 90 minutes, The High Note has a big world to create. When we meet Grace Davis, she is a touring diva being pushed into a Las Vegas residency by her label and manager (Ice Cube) even though she has been writing new songs. Her overworked assistant Maggie, played by Dakota Johnson, not only admires her boss immensely but thinks her own budding chops as an aspiring producer could help them both.
Alongside Aarons, who wrote all the original music for the film, Ross and director Nisha Ganatra shopped around for the right producer. Within 24 hours of meeting with Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins last February, they hired him.
“We started working immediately,” Jerkins recalls. It was a new experience to “work backwards” as he describes it. Aarons had charmed the team, having presented them with songs she had written in past sessions that she felt would be a good fit as well as new material inspired by the script.
“I had already written ‘Love Myself’ with Greg Kurstin before I knew about the film,” she says over e-mail. “I played it to Nisha and she seemed really excited about it. I ended up changing a few lyrics to make sure it had the maturity it needed for the character.”
Jerkins and Aarons collaborated carefully on the sound, working on what would make sense to chart a career through pop history succinctly. In the studio, Ross offered her own input on the characterization of Davis, pulling from experience. Together, they had to help make Ross’ nascent musical experience match the same confidence and history of her acting career.
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For Ross, it wasn’t so much the act of singing and performing that caused her to tense up.
“Was I going to be compared to my mom? ‘Cause I can’t be her,” she explains. “I’m not supposed to be her! At 47 years old, the magnitude of my mom’s career — her gifts, her talents, who she is — still was blinding me to allowing myself to try something.”
Ross had her own legacy to worry about as well, unsure of how people would respond if her singing career wasn’t as successful as her acting career. “Let’s be honest, we live in a world that is incredibly judgmental and really specific and prickly. They don’t give people the chance to try new things. You either gotta be great or you’re garbage. It’s not easy, especially when you’re established at a certain level, to try something new you might not do well at.”
Thankfully, Ross’ passion for performing live — and comfort generally with making a fool of herself when needed — helped her loosen up in the studio. Johnson joined the pair during the recording sessions as well, even though her character doesn’t sing much in the film.
“I consulted with [Dakota] early on and gave my two cents on how a producer would handle things to make it more realistic in the film,” Jerkins says, adding that some of his advice turned into a bit of a plot point.
“If you see the artist is not connecting, you might take the time to go into the vocal booth, turn the mics off, and talk to the artist. It’s funny that became a piece in the movie.”
Now that Ross has shed Grace Davis, is she ready to get back in the studio again? “I think there is an itch,” she admits. A room that was locked away has now been opened, and she wants to explore her own sound now. “I’m curious: What would Tracee songs be? That would be a really fun journey for me.”
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