On the phone from her home in Santa Monica, Chaka Khan ponders the question of when she first discovered her love of music. It doesn't take her long to decide that she can't remember, exactly.
"I must have been born with that," she says. "I think I've always had it, uh-hmm."
Anyone who's heard Khan sing—whether with her '70s funk band Rufus or as a multiplatinum solo artist in the '80s—would likely agree that she must have entered this world with a God-given gift. It didn't hurt that she was heavily influenced early on by the likes of Aretha Franklin.
"She was one of the many singers that influenced me," points out Khan. "My mother and father were very well versed in their music stuff, and they both loved a lot of different genres of music, and I heard everything, from opera to, you name it—to jazz. And [Peruvian soprano] Yma Sumac—you probably don't even know who she is. Bird lady," she adds with a laugh. "I heard a lot of amazing artists from my mother and father, 'cause I was born into that."
"And we'd always sing together," she adds. "What I recall about that is, we would all be cleaning up the house on Saturday afternoons—everyone had a chore—and they'd put on something. My father loved jazz—Ella, Billie, Sarah, whatever, Nat, whoever—and my mother put on some opera singers, and she put on some jazz too. And then somebody would put on some funk, and rock. I listened to everything. And we all used to sing together and clean up."
Over the course of her musical career Khan has received 10 Grammy Awards and sold an estimated 70 million albums worldwide. So what would she say is the most important quality about herself that has led to all that success?
"Oh, I'm sure it took more than one quality," she replies. "Ya gotta really have intuitiveness, in your decisions, and you have to follow your heart, and you gotta trust that. You know, my coming of age in my career for the most part was really motivated by men—I mean more men than women—and so I had to fight through a lot of psychological, musical, and physical battles with men, you know, in order to sustain."
That theme of female empowerment comes through loud and clear on Khan's latest single, "Woman Like Me", which was released just last month. "She's more than a body, more than an ass in some jeans let's be clear," sings Khan in the opening verse, "More than her makeup, more than the lace front that she chose to wear/She is your sister, she is your mother, your daughter, your girl/Better remember, it was the woman who brought you in this world."
Khan says she hopes to have "Woman Like Me" included in her set by the time she plays her upcoming Labour Day show in Vancouver. The fact that her concert is a double-bill with fellow American soul crooner Patti LaBelle might make you think the two will perform a song or two together, but that ain't gonna happen.
"I don't do anything with Patti LaBelle," confirms Khan. "She has her show, I have my show. I mean, what would we sing together? It's like, 'What would that sound like'? I don't think we've ever sung together, that I can recall."
A quick visit to YouTube and search for "Patti LaBelle and Chaka Khan" easily unearths a 2016 clip of the two performing Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" together, which clearly wasn't a memorable highlight of Khan's career. But the nixing of any possibiiity of a Khan/LaBelle duet happening isn't all that hard to take knowing that Khan's set will include such funky Rufus gems as "Ain't Nobody", "Tell Me Something Good", and "Do You Love What You Feel". She says it's "the old standbys" that go over best at her shows.
"We do 'Do You Love What You Feel' as our opening," she says, "and people are still there for that. I got like five generations of music, easily, in my set, and I see five generations of people in the audience, which is amazing. I'm so blessed, and that is such a blessing to see that. I mean, if I didn't have to sing I'd be happy to just come and show up and look at 'em."
Chaka Khan performs on a bill with Patti LaBelle at the PNE Amphitheatre on Monday, September 5, as part of the PNE Summer Night Concerts series.