The Lizz Wright Interview

Body & soul

Lizz Wright (photo by Jesse Kitt)
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Lizz Wright at NYC's Highline Ballroom in 2015
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Lizz Wright
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Lizz Wright has traveled far and wide since the release of her debut album, Salt, on Verve a dozen years ago. A vocalist of deep composure and luxurious timbre, she draws equally from jazz, R&B, Southern folk, country blues and the singer-songwriter movement to which she belongs. But her foundation lies in rural Georgia and the gospel church, a legacy she directly addressed with her album Fellowship in 2010.

Her potent new release, Freedom & Surrender (Concord), pivots toward a more sensual sort of uplift, without dislodging Wright from her essential bearings. It’s an album born of emotional hardship and inner transformation, made over a period of two years with the help of veteran producer Larry Klein.

I met Wright, 35, in the atrium of a Manhattan hotel on the eve of her show at the Highline Ballroom, which kicked off an extensive fall tour. We talked about her journey, the art of singing and the bonds between the body and the spirit.

There’s a sense on this album that you are standing on solid ground but also going outside of your comfort zone. Does that ring true?

Yeah. And I am outside of my comfort zone because I’m comfortable enough to want to explore.

That sounds like a Zen riddle.

I feel very good. I really do see music as art, and I want to take pieces from different places in my life and present them to the world. And the only insurance we really have is a process that transforms us in the making of the thing.

Your father was a minister and a church musical director. How would you describe the depth of that influence? It seems like something you’ve carried with you, no matter what you’re singing.

Absolutely. The church as a musical institution puts such a great emphasis on emotion. That practice of “feeling on purpose” is really, really huge in church. So yeah, you’re right, I have experience with that, and it hasn’t ended; I don’t think it ever will. All of us artists and musicians who come from the church have these kinds of effects. You can’t stop caring about having a real experience yourself, and you can’t stop thinking about what you’re making other people feel.

And emotion is reciprocal in the church. The audience is not abstracted, it’s not distant. That feeling lives in the room.

You’re so right. I tell audiences, “Anything that happens, happens because of everybody in the room.” I come from believing this, and I think it’s really true. Any piece of art is finished by the person who’s experiencing it.

You also came up singing with other voices. There’s something really important about that, in terms of what defines you as a singer.

No one’s asked me about that, but it’s very cool. I have a lot of experience singing in choirs, and with choral music, too. I had amazing choral teachers in middle school and high school. And my father, who could not get enough of church, would have us do these little mini-services at home, all the time, called “Family Devotion.” We would sing songs in the hymnbook, in harmony-there were five of us in the immediate family-and he would choose a Bible story. He would read the passage, and he would go back and assign roles to each of us. So this whole thing of storytelling, and singing in harmony, and sharing the music and the story in communion, is a very big part of my life.

The first time I heard you, I was struck by the vibrant physicality that your voice has even when you’re very still. Is that something you’ve thought about consciously?

Yes. Singing is very physical to me. I’ve been trained, of course, to sing properly, to use diaphragm, body alignment and placement of sound. I’ve studied classical technique under really great teachers. But I care a lot about what’s happening in my body while I’m singing. I’ll talk to the band about this sometimes, too: While you’re playing, try not to clench. When I did my first residency recently at Berklee College of Music, I talked to the vocalists about what’s going on in their bodies when they’re singing. People can actually feel that.

“People” meaning listeners?

Listeners, yeah. Accompanists can feel it too. It’s a real practice to decide where you want your body and your mind to be, and to try to design your way to get there. Because you become the threshold for everyone’s experience in the room. So we did yoga poses-hip openers, side openers-at Berklee. And I told them, “These are some of the poses I do before I go onstage.” Because when I’m singing and I start to get tight, I know exactly where it’s happening. So unlocking my body and softening my mind before I sing is really important.

That must have a distinct impact on your sound.

Singing is really aerobic. Even when it’s straight tones and stuff like that, to keep a tone alive and healthy and really aligned, it takes a lot of energy.

In the studio, in order to sing some of the more vulnerable, breathy things and keep the phrases upright and strong all the way through the lines, I was doing push-ups and holding long planks [an abdominal exercise] right up at the mic. I’d come right out of a plank and then sing something like “Here and Now.” I can’t sing that too many times or I get completely dizzy.

Which is interesting, because that is not an effortful-sounding song.

I don’t like to feel a vocalist working hard.

So, strain or pushing…

Yeah, I don’t like feeling an aggressive demand on the audience to respond.

But if I’m understanding you correctly, that preference would seem to run counter to some of the celebrated aspects of the black church-like the call-and-response congregational thing. Am I misunderstanding that?

No, you’re understanding. The thing is, you have one of two heightened experiences. One that I would call genuine is where you are provoked by real emotion that you let build like smoke or steam. And you are propelled, instead of just cranking out and projecting.

So it’s the difference between “the spirit moves” and, like, pushing a button.

Exactly. And it’s nice to be patient enough to let it build up. That is what keeps me from being bored. So I’m thankful for this practice of trying to commune with the present. It’s not easy, and you could almost learn your way out of it with technique.

What were your first encounters with secular music?

[laughs] When you asked me that, the first thing that came to my mind is when I discovered Michael Jackson. They had a life-size poster at the little trailer where we had our preschool in Georgia. I was there with my sister or brother. We were folding towels that night, and we started singing: “He rocks in the treetops, all day long…” We got hurt. I took a spankin’ for Michael Jackson. A good one. And I wasn’t sorry. He was so beautiful to me, and that song sounded so happy, and I couldn’t believe my parents had a problem with it. So that’s the first encounter with secular music I remember. But I was very lucky because the contemporary gospel movement of the ’80s and early ’90s moved me through school. I had my version of disco, R&B, everything. My friends would be like, “What is that?” They didn’t even notice that people were talking about God.

It’s interesting to think of that as a prism through which everything gets filtered. It’s not a style with impermeable borders.

It was even kind of sexy. I remember this one song, by Commissioned, called “Hold Me.” It was one of my favorite songs. I still hear it in my head, all the harmonies, everything. I think one of the reasons why I find myself now living in this place where the sacred and the sensual meet is because of the contemporary gospel movement. The music could be so sensual and so powerful. It was really about an almost human relationship with God.

That’s a point made by David Ritz in Respect, his recent biography of Aretha Franklin.

I grew up with her sound, and Amazing Grace was the first gospel album I ever heard from end to end. “Wholy Holy” is probably my favorite song on the planet.

What other albums were important to you as you began thinking, “I want to sing”?

When I was at Georgia State University, I went to Atlanta and asked musicians who to listen to. I had a notebook, and I kept everything in the notebook, from charts to recommendations to a reading list. So I was listening to Abbey Lincoln, A Turtle’s Dream-it’s one of my favorite records. My absolute favorite record-I can’t believe people don’t talk about this record-is Ella Fitzgerald’s Sunshine of Your Love. I have bought that record for so many people, and broken it so many times myself. Anyway, those two, Shirley Horn’s Here’s to Life. I listened to a lot of Nancy Wilson too. I listened to everybody, but I was really, really caught by Abbey Lincoln. I loved that Abbey wrote so much, and I loved that she sounded a lot like the mothers in the church. I’ve never been far away from home, musically speaking. Which is pretty cool.

As your career began to take shape, did you feel a lot of external pressure? Like, “Who is this a reincarnation of?”

Yeah, people were seeking comfort and confirmation through their projections.

It seems like, for vocalists in the jazz tradition, especially, that’s a reflexive thing people do.

It’s a bizarre thing, because it sends an unspoken message, one that’s certainly not intended, which is that you don’t deserve to be new. I mean, I’m humbled that this even works, because I never really gave in to trying to conform. I think I get really, really boring when I conform. I can surrender-that’s different. But conforming, it just takes the light out.

Someone once asked you in an interview what was the low point of your experience, and you said, “Right after I signed to Verve.” How is that?

Because I knew that I didn’t know enough to be in control. I knew that I had to survive years of paying dues and following and learning, and I couldn’t stop the fact that I learned in motion. I could not be ahead of my decisions. I had to use that kind of immortal power of my 20s to just live through my lessons. I like to design things, I like to have time with them. So that was hard for me.

That first album of yours, a lot of people said, “Norah Jones.” On this new album there’s a duet with Gregory Porter, someone nobody knew 10 years ago. It feels like the climate is different now. Do you agree?

I don’t try to control how much my work is influenced by the times. I like to do a lot of work in the woods alone, or in front of the beach, or in a really quiet conversation with another writer. So as far as what’s going on in the industry or in the times or with my contemporaries, I don’t know. One thing that I’m excited about is that so many of us are writing now. I’m excited that Gregory is writing, Cécile McLorin Salvant is writing. Laura Mvula. Somi. There was the Norah era, and everything was cozy, fireside jazz, which was really sexy and comforting. And then there was this heavy tribute period: Play it safe, bring it back, make people feel good about what definitely worked. It was almost like buying insurance for record labels. I got in on that; it was fantastic. A great time to share beautiful research. And that fed me, but I also have a lot to say.

And the writing, even just with the artists you mentioned, is so varied.

It’s like watching designers walk around with their own designs. These people wouldn’t sound the same if they sang other people’s stuff. Sometimes I have to think about what Gregory’s talking about in a song. He lives in his language.

Do you feel a particular affinity with Gregory because of-well, first of all, growing up in church? And the fact that your music is jazz, and folk, and gospel, and soul, and it’s not like you’re changing lanes to get there.

Well, thanks for seeing it as not changing lanes. Some people swear I just drive sideways. [laughs] Yes, Gregory and I are both children of praying mothers, as I like to say. When we finally met, it was in a really sweet awkwardness. People at various labels had been saying, “You guys are the musical pairing of the century!” We both were like, “Uh, hi.” It made me imagine what the first few moments are in a room when people have arranged marriages. Then I wrote this song, “Right Where You Are,” with J.D. Souther and Larry Klein, and I heard his voice. It means a lot to me that he made time to do it.

Two of my favorite tracks on the album, which arrive side by side, are “The Game” and “The New Game.” Which brings up a spirit of play but also a notion of rules to subvert. Did those songs come from a similar place?

They came up in the same garden but not connected. I wrote “The Game” with Jesse Harris, and it was just about the sweet insanity of really belonging to someone.

We’ve been talking about the spiritual and the sensual. There’s a couplet in there: “The light that lingers after love is made/Is worth the price we pay.”

Yeah.

Whatever feeling you and Jesse were trying to conjure, it’s very present there.

Mmm-hmm.

And so “The New Game” is different.

Oh, really different. For me, it’s the warrior inside who had to stand herself up.

“Tender-hearted, but a soldier.”

Yeah, absolutely. Get back to work, get back to your calling.

Why was that an important flag to fly?

Because I fought to surface. I fought. I finally was made real by my own incredible bout with disappointment and depression and not-knowing. I speak of it as a kind of weird privilege. I had just been sailing in this kind of immeasurable grace all my life. I was flying all over the world and being celebrated by strangers. But then I hit this place where I needed to make something that was bigger than myself, and I had an idea about how I was going to do it. I moved to the South and I was with someone I loved deeply. I did everything I knew to be right, and it didn’t work. And I finally failed in a big way. I needed that. I needed the opportunity to be empty again. I’ve kind of learned to live on quiet answers that have questions in them. I think artists go through this thing where we have to find new life because we just work something to the end, and we have to go down low to our dark place and ask ourselves, “Who are you now?”

Right-what’s there when everything else has been cleared away?

Yeah, and to go into your own silence and your own darkness and be willing to see what’s waiting there for you, and figure out what you want to climb back up the hill with. On one of my saddest days, I remember sitting on a rock and looking out into the woods in front of my house. I imagined this creature emerging from the mountain, almost unburying itself, and just roaring. That’s what my soul felt like. I feel like I’ve lifted my arms and just been tearing roots off. I fell into such a state of retreat that I had to fight to surface.

When we talk about freedom and surrender, they’re bookends to the album, and speak to each other in a certain way. When did that become clear?

We already had a sequence when we started looking for the title. When we were trying to find a title for the record, Larry said, “How about The New Game?” But that didn’t feel right. I said, “I think we did what we set out to do, and a good way to draw attention to that is to name the album Freedom & Surrender. There’s a conversation between those two words.” They were already bookends.

It’s interesting, too, because “Freedom” is by Toshi Reagon, and in that song you sing, “If you call my name, I’ll answer.” Surrendering to the call is sort of a gospel idea, but you’re addressing a person. So there’s surrender in “Freedom.”

Absolutely. Something good is happening when they’re superimposed and you can’t pull them apart.

Can we talk about you and Toshi? Because that’s been a really productive relationship. What is at the heart of your creative bond?

Georgia dirt. [laughs] We’re all from Georgia: me, Toshi and her mom [singer and social-activist Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon]. There’s a sound, and there’s a treatment of rhythm that’s cultural. When I heard them sing and play music, I felt at home. I said, “OK, there’s definitely God working in my life, because I came all the way out here to be lost on purpose, and I’m embraced by home.” I don’t even understand the grace of life to bring me something like that. That’s the kind of wonder that can make me silent for a whole day.

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