Storytelling Singer/Songwriter Explores Her Musical History

Thursday, March 15, 2012 9:47

An Interview with Lizz Wright

by: Casey Pukl

Lizz Wright has come a long way since she released her debut album, Salt, in 2003. Back then, critics pinned her down as a jazz artist, but Wright knew that she had many more genres inside. Growing up in a household filled with gospel and blues, her influences ran deep. Her latest release, 2010’s Fellowship, explores her musical roots and features performances from her close friends and collaborators Me’Shell Ndegeocello and Angelique Kidjo. While Wright admits that she’s not in any rush to put out another record just yet, she’s still been keeping busy! Read on to find out who she has been collaborating with, what she’s been doing to ground her personal life, and why Anthology holds a special place in her memory.

CP: What have you been up to these last couple of months?

LW: A lot of grounding my personal life. I took my first longer vacation, three and a half weeks. It was nice to have some good peace and quiet for a while. I’ve just been grounding my personal life, really just being here putting the garden back up, and spending some time with friends and family. 

CP: What are you growing? 

LW: I have a bed of mixed salad greens, Asian greens, collard, chard, and beets. I’ve been practicing with different simple greenhouse constructions in my tiny indoor nursery. I’m just trying to learn how to use as little energy, as efficient energy as possible. It’s fun. I love it. It’s good for my mind.

CP: Do you have any new projects coming up in the near future— albums, tours, collaborations?

LW: I have a lot of collaborative projects. It seems to be a collaborative season for me, and I’m okay with that. I’m writing and putting together a show with Raul Midon, and that’s super fun. Also, I’m looking to do a few performances with Geri Allan, a beautiful jazz pianist that I’ve been a fan of for a long time. For the past two years, I’ve been doing gigs with the group Sing the Truth! which consists of Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves, and myself with a really great band— Terri Lyne Carrington, James Genus. That has been immensely fun. I’m being aware of where I am. There are lots of ways to look at it (laughs), but I am not in the biggest hurry to crank out an album. I absolutely love throwing myself into brand new material and building a project from the ground up. I just don’t feel the rush to be ultra present right now.

CP: I’m sure that gives you a lot of time to hang back, write some new material, and get re-inspired.

LW: Yeah, absolutely. It’s very interesting as an artist to try and figure out your personal process for filling up your tank, and also for being a productive person in a business sense. There’s a lot of negotiating with oneself to keep those things in orbit.

CP: Your last album, “Fellowship” received a ton of press and fantastic reviews. I know Downbeat’s Critic’s Poll awarded you “Beyond Album of the Year” for that record. That record was really more of a gospely blues album than your previous releases. Was that something you’d wanted to do for a long time?

LW: Gospel and blues are the same thread in my musical history. A lot of the changes and modes that people would sing in at church, especially the older women, was blues. I just didn’t know it was called that until I left home. I’ve always wanted to embrace that. I think people really took the jazz baton and started running fast with it when I entered the music business because I was so serious about jazz and so blown away by it. The world really caught me exploring it. It’s been interesting. The great thing is that this is a time in the music business where there are several artists who have made lots of albums, and they’re still very difficult to pin. Now, in fact, there’s a bit of a lineage of that. When you think of Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Odetta, you see people who were artists in the way that they curated bodies of songs and stories. I feel like people like myself and Me’Shell Ndegeocello and my friend Toshi Reagon, we are continuing in that way. We are more storytellers than artists who maintain a particular brand.

CP: From the storytelling aspect, is that the most important thing for you as you write? Does that come first? 

LW: It does help. I refer to it often. Songs have all kinds of sparks that start them out. It can be something melodic, it can be born out of a brief exchange with another musician, there are all these things that can spark it. But you’re right— the story is what I refer to. The story is how I build. Sometimes it can be very simple. It’s like the invisible bones that give context to the skin. It’s a list of words that we put together to try and match the music.

CP: Who inspires you?

LW: Wow…

CP: I know. That one is always a loaded question (laughs).

LW: (Laughs) I grew up listening to a lot of the music coming out of the contemporary gospel movement. That would be Winans, Hawkins, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Rance Allen Group. I listened to Aretha Franklin’s gospel record, “Amazing Grace” many many times. And then in middle school and high school, I was exposed to choral music. That was very important. I’ve had big ears for music, especially as stories, for a long time. It also coincided with my father reading all kinds of stories to me. He truly read stories of Uncle Remus, and he had a huge red book of Shakespeare’s plays and he read those too! I never would’ve cared about those things if I hadn’t been exposed.

Going back to the whole storyteller perspective, I feel a lot of freedom with music with how wide my palate has been for a long time. Even being exposed to mostly gospel, it was still incredibly wide.

CP: I think that’s a really interesting thing to hear you say given how much space you are comfortable leaving in your music. You leave a lot of space and room to breathe, and it really feels like you’re comfortable in the silence at some points.

LW: Thank you. I think I learned how to use space from what I’ve been able to do in jazz. I also learned a lot about space from a few musicians in the Atlanta jazz scene. That’s where my love of jazz was nourished. What a great musical earth to grow up in. Atlanta was amazing. It’s pretty familial. People have known each other for a long time. They go to each other’s houses to play, and people watch each other develop over the years as they play. It was a tremendously influential period.

CP: What are you most looking forward to about returning to Anthology?

LW: You know, I really enjoy the audience there a lot. It’s a very mixed crowd. The things they responded to and the things they had to say when we were chatting after the show, I just remember everyone being super personable. They had all kinds of connections to the music that were so varied. I hadn’t gotten a feel for San Diego’s scene until I did the show there. It was really amazing. I don’t often remember particular faces and comments from after shows because it all begins to look the same after a while, it’s like tiny patterns in a rug (laughs), but I do remember a lot of the things people said after that show last time.

I also remember the food being very good!

CP: Seems to be a common trend around here (laughs). We’re looking forward to having you back.

LW: We’re looking forward to it too. It’s always a good time.

Special thanks to Lizz for taking some time out to chat with us! Be sure to soothe your soul with the sounds of her voice at the Spotify link below, and come on out to see her live next Sunday!

Lizz Wright on Spotify

WHAT: Lizz Wright
WHEN: Sunday, March 25, 7:00pm
TICKETS: $12-$49 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile