Monday, 5 January 2009

Music Interview - Lizz Wright

Singer knows: Home Is Where the Heart Is

By M.D. Spenser

For Lizz Wright, the truest things begin and end at home.

Before she thought of any songs for her most recent album, “The Orchard,” she held in her mind an image—a picture of home. The first work on the album involved no microphones or backup singers, only a camera crew.

She took the crew to Hahira, Georgia, where the earth is fertile and the history rich. Wright didn’t grow up in Hahira, but she was born there, her grandmother lived there, and Wright went there often.

“I always felt that grandma’s house and her land were home,” she says. “She was a very, very tangible maternal figure for me. Grandma was everybody’s mom.”

With 1,800 residents, Hahira (pronounced Hay-HIGH-rah), is just what you’d expect of a southern American town. People still harvest cotton and tobacco. The rusted hulks of old cars lie about, their wheels removed. There’s a swamp, of course; the dirt is moist and pungent.

It’s a sleepy town, Wright says. When you arrive, nothing pops out at you: You have to quiet yourself to feel Hahira’s warmth and richness. There are orchards everywhere, filled with ancient trees bearing peaches or pecans. Sometimes after church, Wright’s family would pile in the car and drive to an orchard to pick peaches together.

One orchard in particular sticks in Wright’s mind—a pecan orchard beside her grandmother’s house. It belonged to the neighbours and, as a child, Wright didn’t dare go into the orchard; that was someone else’s land.

But she used to peek through the fence. The old pecan trees were bigger than any she’d ever seen; they stood arrayed in perfect rows just as they had been planted all those years ago, and the rows went on forever.

Even today, she says, orchards make her think of her family, her people.

It was to the edge of that orchard (but not inside) that she took the camera crew as she thought about her new album.

“I’m grown now, and I still don’t dare go there,” she says. “But I did use pictures of that orchard to go to Verve and say, ‘I have no words but I have a picture, and this is what I want’.”

She wanted, she says, to capture some of the feeling of home. As an interpreter, she felt she could do anything, as long as she held onto her roots, her story.

Wright, who turns 28 in this month, sang her first solo when she was 6 years old, in church. She grew up on Robins Air Force Base, two hours up Interstate-75 from Hahira: Her father was a minister on the base. Wright knew she would always sing—that singing would be her offering, as she puts it, her way of serving.

But she never expected to sing professionally. The Wright family ran the church the way a farming family handles the land, and she expected to follow her father’s path.

She went to Georgia State University in Atlanta, where she studied voice. As she matured, she felt compelled to explore music other than gospel. She wanted to see if music could be a way of sharing, a means of healing, and whether she could create a concert experience in which there was a bond between audience and performer. She asked people around her for advice.

“Don’t you ever say that kind of stuff again,” one person snapped. “Nobody wants to hear that. That doesn’t make any sense. You keep that kind of stuff to yourself.”

That hurt, but Wright ventured into other kinds of music anyway—primarily jazz but also Blues. She kept her day job, though, until music just wouldn’t allow it anymore. She got involved in a Billie Holiday tribute, had to miss a day at the cafe in New Jersey where she worked, and was fired.

“So I was like, OK, you know what? I’ll try this music thing for a while, because it’s getting in the way of all this other stuff anyway,” she recalls.

She signed a recording deal with Verve in 2002. The following year, her debut, “Salt,” was released. It included a number of jazz standards; Wright’s singing, subtle, textured and true, heralded the arrival of a significant new talent.

In 2005, she released “Dreaming Wide Awake”, a rich and quiet album on which Wright showed herself to be an interpreter of the highest order: She breathed freshness into The Youngbloods’ ‘Get together’ and Neil Young’s ‘Old Man’—making them original and exciting in the way a wonderful new book excites an avid reader.

Even so, Wright’s 2008 album, “The Orchard”—the one that began with photographs of Hahira—was a revelation. “Dreaming Wide Awake” was some collectors’ favourite album of the year, but “The Orchard” is one for the decades.

Wright had become pigeonholed as a jazz artist. The new album would include rip-roaring R&B, shimmering folk and full-throated Blues. She knew going into the project that she would disappoint many people who would think she was leaving her true self behind.

“There’s a certain kind of dignified and poised persona that began to develop very quickly around me,” she says. “And I knew I was, in essence, puttin’ on a pair of boots—which is, ironically, more of going home to me than anything. But it didn’t matter to people; the first thing they saw was what they chose to love.”

In a coffeehouse confession, she told her producer, Craig Street, what she wanted to do next. She was so fearful that, when she recounts the conversation, she mimics herself talking in a crying voice:

“Man, I really want to do this,” she told Street, her voice quavering. “I like jazz, I love it, but …”

… But she wanted to go home.

Many labels balk when their artists want to change a successful formula. But Wright had begun her association with Verve with an ultimatum to the president.

“I walked into Ron Goldstein’s office when I first got signed, and I said, ‘Listen, man, I don’t know what I’m doing. And I don’t want this business to change me. I don’t have to have this. If this freaks me out, I’m not going to do it’,” she recalls.

So there was no question of trying to tell her what to do.

The album that resulted transcends genre. It has elements of Blues, gospel, R&B, jazz and folk; and it’s grounded in an honesty both gentle and brave.

The first words the listener hears are these: “Coming home to your shelter/Coming home where I stay…”

More than ever, Wright’s voice has become a deep and vibrant instrument, richly expressive. But what makes this an album for all time are the songs—originals, collaborations and covers—and Wright’s interpretation of them.

The emotional peaks are ‘I Idolize You’, a scorching Ike Turner Blues about infatuation, and ‘Leave Me Standing Alone’, a sizzling, gospel-inflected original in which the lover is sent packing.

From those two opposite poles of love, as if from the towers of a bridge, the other songs are suspended in graceful arcs, beautifully detailing the nuances of love.

We meet the girl who loses the battle to protect her heart, and is “quite well pleased.” We see love’s risk: “And what if the water's cold when I fall?” Wright asks, as she feels herself falling in love.

We watch her heal the pain of lost love in the waves of the ocean. We understand when the lover leaves but the love remains.

“Love and nature are never all of one thing,” Wright says. “And what I enjoy is the challenge of allowing the nuances around those subtle things to speak at once, the way they do in life.”

There’s little nuance, though, in ‘I Idolize You’, a powerful Blues infused with lust: “If you want some loving, Baby/That I’ll give to you/If you want some hugging, Baby/Oh, I can hug some, too.”

It seems a departure from the delicate textures of Wright’s previous work. But she views it as a return.

Her decision to include the song began with watching “Soul To Soul”, a documentary about a 1971 concert in Ghana by American soul artists. Wilson Pickett performed, as did The Staples Singers, Roberta Flack, and Ike and Tina Turner.

“It was wild,” she says. “It was also very sacred to me.”

Two or three weeks later, Street played her the original Ike and Tina version of ‘Idolize’.

“My first impression was, I’ve heard this voice before,” Wright recalls. “This is what the women sing like in the small churches where I’m from—that fight for freedom and that fight for a place and that fight for acceptance and that fight to take care of the family. And I totally heard that in her voice. So it was because that voice was familiar, I was like—well, there’s a piece of home.”

The album’s musicianship is superb, the production flawless, the song selection sterling, the singing in a class by itself. But something else—something intangible—also contributes to the album’s power. It results from Street’s decision to have Wright and her friend and collaborator, Toshi Reagon, first play the songs live in several sets at a small club in New York.

There is in the best of times a transaction that takes place between audience and performer, one revealed not in applause alone but also in rapt attention, the expression on a face, the energy in the air.

“The audiences really let me know a lot,” Wright says. “For me to start performing them right away made the songs more real for me. It wasn’t about making a record, it was about me and these songs. You know, can I go inside of them or am I letting them inside of me? I always think songs really evolve in a performance experience. Sometimes I love what happens to a song after I’ve been playing it in concert for a while, because I always think that the audience creates the experience along with me.”

Wright enjoys the studio: She speaks with joy of the experience of recording “The Orchard”. There were no hired session players, no drummers you’d never met before. All the players were friends. It was a gathering of her favourite people on an estate in the Catskill Mountains, in upstate New York, looking out the windows at a reservoir, and working together. The creative conversation, Wright says, was amazing.

But if she had to choose between recording and performing, Wright would choose the latter, the effort to create the bond that someone years ago had told her made no sense: the magical exchange between audience and performer where each gives the other something deep and true.

To do that, Wright gets very quiet before each performance.

“I gather myself so actually I have something to release,” she says. “I sit down and think about the stories that I’m inside of at the time. I think about the roads that are crossing in my life. I borrow information from my life or from my imagination. And I get really still and just try to put all that stuff in a big bowl before I come out.

“I ask the band to do the same thing. I don’t like people checking e-mails. I don’t like guests backstage. I like it quiet. If the green room’s dirty, I bring my own cloths and candles and incense. I will go get flowers or send someone to get them. It’s really important, this gathering.”

At a performance last year in London, Wright walked on stage slowly, regally, eyes downcast, hugging herself. Then, from deep within, she sang with eyes closed, caressing herself, sometimes wrapping herself inside a shawl.

Some might wish for a more extroverted performance. But looking inside herself is the essence of Wright’s art. Not a word falls from her lips without having been first filtered through her soul. Those in the audience understood full well that participating in that most private of journeys was a privilege: They returned the favour in ways unspoken.

For her next project, Wright has only a notion in her mind, maybe a picture, a photograph, or a destination deep within.

“I have some feelings, but not towards an exact idea,” she says. “In a way, I’m thinking more about how to move my career experience closer to my heart.”

Because she doesn’t need fame or fortune, or even the music business at all. She says she could walk away, any time, find something else and be fine. What she needs is to keep in touch with Hahira and the pecan orchard and who she really is.

“I haven’t changed a lot,” she says. “I know I could lose this and find a simpler way. I know what I’ve got to do to feel alive and to wake up in the morning and feel good. I know what I’ve got to do, and I can handle that.”

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