Marsha Ambrosius Talks New Album ‘Casablanco’: ‘An Avalanche of Music’

As the “Songstress” to Floetry mate Natalie Stewart’s “Floacist,” Marsha Ambrosius first gained fan and critical acclaim in 2002 when the English R&B duo’s debut album, Floetic, struck gold. It also spun off the top 10 hit “Say Yes.”

Ambrosius’ subsequent solo career has also been fruitful with fan faves like “Far Away,” “Run,” “Hope She Cheats on You (With a Basketball Player)” and “Late Nights & Early Mornings” plus two hit albums: 2011’s Late Nights & Early Mornings and 2014’s Friends & Lovers. Skillfully flexing her pen as a songwriter, she co-wrote Michael Jackson’s 2001 R&B/pop hit “Butterflies” and has also created songs for Alicia Keys, Solange and H.E.R., among others.

Now the nine-time Grammy nominee is back on the scene with her first new studio album since 2018’s Nyla. Released through Aftermath/Interscope, the 11-track Casablanco (available June 28; listen here) was executive produced by Dr. Dre and features creative collaborations with Focus…, Erik “Blu2th” Griggs, Dem Jointz, Phonix and DJ Khalil. 

“I didn’t realize how much time has passed until it was staring me in the face,” Ambrosius with her English-lilting laugh, muses to Billboard. “My daughter Nyla is 7 years old now. In the time that’s passed, it’s just been about life and love with me now as a wife and mother.”

Together, the Las Vegas-based singer-songwriter and Dr. Dre have crafted an album that’s both retro and futuristic, drawing from various musical influencers (including her “holy trinity: Stevie Wonder, Prince and Michael Jackson) and styles. The end result — as teased by the singles “The Greatest,” “One Night Stand” and the latest “Greedy” — is a luxuriant sound bath of intriguing tempo changes and orchestral movements capped by Ambrosius’ still scintillating vocals.

“This project was so specific,” Ambrosius says. “And there are so many other gems on here that I don’t want to spoil it because you have to listen to again and again. Every single track is like an Easter egg with gems inside.”

How did the seeds get planted to record an album with Dr. Dre?

From 2005 we’ve worked on different projects together, including 2015’s Compton album. And in getting that phone call from him to work together on that project, we started interacting again in 2020. Then at the beginning of that year, he suffered a brain aneurysm. However, when he was back at home in recovery, he says to me, “I want to get you out to Los Angeles as soon as possible and get back to work. I just want to be inspired again and get creative.” Whilst, I was also going through my own healing journey having gone through my own health scare that I’m thankfully on the other side of. So music became our target and our goal.

What inspired the album title?

The title came by way of the very first song created for the album, “Tunisian Nights.” It was in that moment that we knew what the album was going to be. I’d told Dr. Dre [at one point] that I just wanted to produce and write. I figured I’d done my albums, I’d done the whole artist thing. But once we got this very specific thing that we were going to do, it felt like Casablanca the movie. It was giving vintage Hollywood. It also felt like a serene place, a destination we’d been  transported away to through this music. Then Dre suggested that instead of Casablanca, how about we call it Casablanco so it’s a bit more gangster. And it just made beautiful, mad, mayhem sense by the time we really got into the thick of things with the album.

The press materials note that the project began as a jazz album but morphed into a “genre-bending tour de force.” 

So initially because of the time frame that it was created in, there was almost a desperation in wanting to make what we would deem our masterpieces. We both collectively and individually had done some great things in the music space. But we hadn’t done this. So with the intentions to do something that — if we’re in a pandemic and it’s apocalyptic and so chaotic out in the world — what would be that last album if we had to make a musical impression on what we did while we were here? And that’s what Casablanco became: all of those things that we were going through; every emotion put into one particular space. Casablanco became the genre in itself. Yes, it’s jazz but also R&B, hip-hop, funk, soul, rock … all these things in one album. And we’re absolutely proud of it.

What’s one of your favorite memories of recording this album?

There are too many. But I remember the mood of everyone in the room when we created “Tunisian Nights.” No pun intended but it’s the butterflies you get when you know you’re onto something. Once that piano started … It’s a very haunting intro melodically and lyrically that sets you up for a Charlie Parker moment. Then it goes into a Nas-driven beat that takes you to a Mary J. Blige moment. That’s the only way I can describe it without giving away too many spoilers. I just know that through the madness, it absolutely works. It was like there was divine intervention allowing each person in the room to do what they were supposed to do to make it what it is. I’ve felt that several times over the course of my career. However, it’s rare. I love creating music. I love getting in the studio. I love writing a song or melody. But when they’re great and they’re timeless, it’s a feeling that you can barely describe. God says, “This is yours. Do with it what you will.” And you really have no choice in the matter. You’ve just got to follow your orders.

How would you describe the way that you and Dr. Dre clicked creatively on this album?

What makes it special was the admiration for each other’s work. And it’s the creative freedom that we allowed each other and the boundaries that we were willing to push because we could. He believed in my ability to meet a challenge, and I entrusted him to do the same. It was a musical insane asylum full of musicians who understood the assignment. It wasn’t about conforming to the normality of a conventional piece: this is the tempo, put a verse here then a hook, a bridge and so on. It was, what is the feeling?  How can we elevate this each and every time? There were no boundaries. Yes, it might be a ballad, but I might drop this beat in the same key, and it’s going to make it all make sense.

Beyond having fun experimenting musically, it sounds like you did the same vocally given the various intonations and higher registers you’re hitting.

Wow, thank you. I definitely became who I had to become for each moment. It was like, it wasn’t me singing. I was using my voice to sound like what the moment should sound like, not necessarily me. To sing it like you’re supposed to feel. Yeah, I did some things on this album I’ve never done before. And I’m inspired all over again because of it [laughs].

What’s one example of something you’d never done before?

The song “Wet” [which samples the Dramatics’ “In the Rain”]. When I wrote the verse, I sang the melody as a trumpet solo first. Once I had the melody in my head, then the lyrics just started to happen … happening like I could hear the melody and the lyrics at the same time as if they were the horns. As if it were the undertones of all the instrumentation in one but creating it with a vocal. I do that anyway, but not like this. This was like everything I ever wanted to do vocally.

Some of the tracks are longer than four minutes, even running into five. Was that intentional?

We wanted to get lost in the music. The album starts with “Smoke,” which sets the tone and pace. From “Smoke” on out it’s like an avalanche of music. We’re going to take you from A to Z — and it’s not going to be in a straight line at all. The entire album just takes you on a roller coaster ride. From the usage of George Benson’s “This Masquerade,” masquerade; some Patrice Rushen implemented into “One Night Stand.” It just made sense in the moment. To say it was intentional will kind of be unfair and wouldn’t speak to the actual genius that was in the room. It was like the biggest, best DJ session that you could have in a room. That was the hip-hop in us; very much an MC battle. It was a challenge, and we met the challenge each and every time.

Above all, it sounds like Casablanco was a decidedly fun project for you and Dr. Dre.

It was a party every night. And I’m better for it. This is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in the music space in my career. And I’m sure Dre would tell you the same. This is something that he’s also never done. I’m glad that we’re able to share this particular piece of art. It was a labor of love. Now I’m just thankful that everyone now gets to hear what it is that we’ve been doing all this time.

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