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Anita Baker Talks About What Shapes Her Songs

ANITA BAKER is like most parents: She sings songs from the movie ''The Lion King'' with her toddler son, and she wants to be there when her 11-month-old takes his first steps.

But unlike most parents, she is watching her children grow while they, and her husband, accompany her on a tour to promote her fifth and latest album -- ''Rhythm of Love'' (Elektra).

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Ms. Baker, the singer-songwriter whose sophisticated, soulful music has earned her seven Grammy Awards and the nickname ''Queen of R&B'' (Rhythm & Blues), is back from a four-year hiatus. Two babies later, the petite contralto is at center stage again -- juggling her family life and her longstanding musical career.

''It's the easiest thing in the world to me in terms of priorities,'' she said in an interview before a recent Boston concert. ''But it's not very easy for the business people around me. Consequently, I've changed managers after having been with the same management team for 11 years.''

The issue was Baker's request for longer breaks between concerts and for booking those concerts one month -- rather than eight months -- in advance. ''They did not understand that things had to change,'' she says.

Fortunately, Baker's music -- a successful blending of gospel, jazz, blues and pop -- has not changed. Nor has her style, which, like that of Whitney Houston and Sade, typifies a genre known as ''quiet storm:'' smooth, emotional vocals and acoustic-driven instrumentals.

Her latest album has sold more than 1 million copies since its release last September, when it spent four weeks at No. 1 on Billboard magazine's Rhythm and Blues chart. Like its multimillion-selling predecessors -- ''Rapture'' (1986), ''Giving you the best that I Got'' (1988), and ''Compositions'' (1990) -- ''Rhythm of Love'' was also produced by Baker.

''It's not my typical album in the sense that I like to take one particular style of music and basically just maintain it throughout the record. I didn't feel the need for the continuity this time, so its quite a mixed bag, actually.''

''For example,'' she explains, ''the title cut is contemporary, the most contemporary thing I've ever done.... It was about my trip away and about things I found out about myself, and it was a very intense time and the song needed to be intense and edgy.''

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The album, some of which was recorded at Baker's Detroit home, is often subtler than her previous works. It includes several of her trademark Rhythm & Blues ballads, which showcase her deep, rich voice, as well as her version of Carly Simon's ''You Belong to Me'' and the classic ''My funny Valentine,'' done in sultry Baker style.

Baker says she writes songs ''as the inspiration comes,'' not necessarily with an album in mind, which is why she uses material written by others as well. ''I would make far more money if every song were my own,'' she says, ''but I don't write to fill up the album with my songs.''

True to her previous work, Baker's latest lyrics rarely stray from what she calls ''the ultimate passion:'' love.

''I wish that my muse was more varied. People [say to me], 'With all that's going on, how can you not write about socio-economic issues and political issues?'

''I can only write what is in me, and when I hear the music ... it speaks to me, and that's where it tells me to go every time.''

Raised in Detroit by a minister and his family, Baker says she was exposed to gospel music and the '70s Motown sounds, but that her biggest influence was jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.

''There's a feeling that comes over me when I hear her voice; it's like watching mercury in a glass -- you know it's a very dense liquid, but yet it's very smooth and very light.''

Baker, who is often compared to the late Vaughan, says she doesn't try to imitate the singer, but she does pay homage to her: ''I try to evoke her flavor as often as possible.''

She was also inspired by watching performers on the Ed Sullivan Show. In concerts, she dons wigs and sings snippets of songs by Tina Turner and Diana Ross -- telling listeners in Boston that the latter was ''the first woman I saw that looked like me on that screen.''

Baker has become an example to others over the past decade. She says she has always tried to control how she and her music are presented, and she doesn't look on that as inappropriate.

''If you have your own agenda and your own style and you don't easily conform to what the masses are doing, you're looked upon as being difficult,'' she says. ''Whereas I think of it as just being an individual.''

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