Solange Knowles is prowling the sidewalk, trying to sneak into a museum. She’s in Queens, hoping to check out an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art’s outer-borough branch, which, alas, is closed today. But as Knowles, 26, has demonstrated throughout her dozen-plus years in show business, she’s nothing if not resourceful.
”Solange!” shouts a clipboard-wielding art curator who happens to be a friend of hers. ”Come this way!” Inside, the space is cavernous, empty except for a few employees and several giant sculptures.
”You’ll have to excuse me, but I’m about to go nuts taking pictures,” Knowles says, pointing her iPhone at one image after another. ”This gallery I went to in Harlem yesterday wouldn’t let me take pictures, so I’m going to have a field day.”
For the younger sister of Beyoncé — that pop juggernaut for whom Super Bowls and presidential inaugurations are routine — an afternoon at a museum without crowds, guards, and pesky no-photo policies is her ideal level of excitement these days. After spending nearly half her life on the major-label payroll, Knowles moved from L.A. to Brooklyn, where her never-quite-burgeoning pop career evolved into something more interesting — and she became a nouveau-bohemian star in indie-rock and fashion circles alike in the process.
True, her sleek new EP released on the boutique label Terrible Records, is her Solange 2.0 calling card. Powered by its captivating lead single ”Losing You,” the album has won her accolades and a new fan base (including Girls creator and star Lena Dunham, who used the song in the show’s season 2 premiere). Knowles, it seems, has found her element.
Pausing in front of a portrait of the African-American activist Angela Davis, she confesses, ”I dressed up as her for Halloween last year — I just threw it together. That’s kind of how I do things.”
When Solange and her sister were growing up in Houston, Beyoncé was the main focus of father/manager Matthew Knowles’ ambitious plans for pop-chart domination. And to this day, Bey’s remained the object of hyperintense attention — often unwanted, as with the controversy over her lip-synching the national anthem at President Obama’s inauguration in January. (Solange’s reaction: ”I was really surprised because I know that everyone absolutely knows that she’s one of the best vocalists of our time.”) Being five years younger than her sister, Solange had the freedom to develop her own talents with less scrutiny, while also having a uniquely intimate vantage point: ”I witnessed her start her career, from the very beginning in my living room to where she is now. We had a father who learned the business by himself and then taught us all of it. I learned from a very young age how accounting is done at labels and how tour support works and why musicians don’t make money.”
She decided to get in on the act at 13, joining the Destiny’s Child machine as a touring backup dancer. ”I was a child, and we were doing, like, five days in three different continents. All those shows, those wake-up calls, those airport runs, those sound checks, and then doing six hours of publicity every day — it didn’t feel very appealing to me. It’s really kind of insane that that was my life.”
At age 15, she landed her own contract with her sister’s label, Columbia, and in early 2003 she released her debut, a soul-tinged album defiantly titled Solo Star. But the record never quite found an audience, and her contract was dropped.
Soon after, she put her career on pause to marry her boyfriend, Daniel Smith, moving with him to Moscow, Idaho, where he played on the University of Idaho football team. At 18, she had her son, Daniel Julez; by 2007, after three and a half years of marriage, she and Smith were divorced, and she moved back to Houston and then to L.A. with Julez.
She was still writing songs, but mainly for other artists, including her sister (she co-penned two tracks on Beyoncé’s 2006 album B’Day). Her own second disc, Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams, released on Polydor in 2008, fared better than her first critically and commercially — ”Sandcastle Disco” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Songs chart, and the album itself sold 200,000 copies — but mainstream stardom continued to elude her. Frustrated, she parted ways with the major-label world, this time for good.