Lizz Wright goes back to basics for tour, new CD

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday January 24, 2011

Georgia-born vocalist Lizz Wright, the daughter of a Pentecostal minister, recently revisited her roots with the release of her fourth CD, Fellowship (Verve), which offers more spiritual and gospel vibes. Prior to that, Wright rode high on the jazz charts with her first three solo albums for Verve, starting with Salt in 2003.

Fellowship was named as one of the top albums of the year by the Associated Press, alongside such top-drawer names like Kanye West, Eminem, Sade and Taylor Swift.

Wright, about to embark on a national tour, spoke with EDGE from her home in the mountains of North Carolina to talk about her life and career.

Making a LGBT connection

EDGE: EDGE is primarily a website for LGBT readers and Fellowship has a spiritual vibe to it. Many folks don't think there are gays who are spiritual so they won't market that kind of music to us. How does the gay community fit into your idea of Fellowship?

Lizz Wright: I really take people one at a time. I really follow the spark, my spirit, when connecting to people. It can take years to figure that out, how to follow your spirit.

I've learned a lot from being friends with Toshi Reagon [a singer/songwriter who is a frequent collaborator and co-produced Fellowship]. She is definitely a bridge between two worlds that I wasn't sure could co-exist. Toshi lives with a lot of intention and also makes music that is sacred and healing. I once went to one of her shows in Park Slope and the audience was mostly women. I experienced the same feeling and presence I've felt at altar calls. [Laughs] Once you've experienced that, you make it work!

EDGE: I would imagine growing up in a southern Pentecostal church was a very conservative place to be. Has your family come to terms with your choices in life and is this album in some way coming to terms with your upbringing?

Lizz Wright: Yes to both. My parents have come to appreciate what I want to do. I tried to talk to a lot of ministers about what I'm trying to do. Of course, some people would warn me that I was going away from my calling and that there would be consequences. I had to pull away for a while so I could figure it all out. Now they've realized that the spirit is still there, the worship is still there.

Being patient and gracious

EDGE: It seems to me that the first lyric we hear on the album, from Me'Shell's song, "If you believe your God is better than another man's how are we gonna end all the suffering" might be the theology you intend to take with this album.

Lizz Wright: That's something I can stand by. One thing you can get everyone to agree on is that God is love. And if God is love, how can we not be patient and gracious with each other? Love is a complicated gift, but I think God gave us love so we could learn more about the nature of God!

EDGE: Verve seems to have given you a lot of creative freedom on your albums. Is there ever any pressure from them or desire on your own part to go more commercial, whatever that may be?

Lizz Wright: That pressure reaches everybody at a certain point. When I came to Verve, I told them I was from the country and proud of it and that I loved music and what I wanted to do with it. [Laughs] I was twenty years old and actually said that to the president, and he believed me! I want to make a living and take care of my family, but that is all that I require.

EDGE: I love the photo inside of a group of you praying at a table. It's multi-cultural. With your music you tend to cross genres. How does music also cross boundaries such as race?

Lizz Wright: It does it easily. Music comes from and speaks to the same place in all of us. It has created a place for me, it's my reference point. It's the human animal sound, one of the great gifts we have. It's a language with a gentle power and I'm thankful I can speak through barriers of politics and race.

EDGE: I love that you rediscovered an old Gladys Knight tune and I wasn't even aware Eric Clapton wrote such sacred music. It must have been fun picking the songs for this project.

Lizz Wright: I didn't have as much time as I wanted, but so many people pitched in. It brought me a lot of resolution. As for the Clapton song, every time I read that lyric to people, we cried. I can't believe he didn't grow up in the church.

Back to her roots

EDGE: You co-wrote two of the songs. Was it a conscious decision to not write as much this time around?

Lizz Wright: There was a lot of pressure as far as time. The record companies are changing. There is a lot of scrambling. There is less money, less people.

EDGE: Despite the lack of time, it must have been thrilling to be named as one of the Associated Press's albums of the year.

Lizz Wright: That was totally awesome! I'm so glad it came to my mind to do a sacred record, because I knew I could do it quickly and well. You know, I've been following Bonnie Raitt, and I've learned a lot from her about covering other people's material. I realized that was something to be proud of.

EDGE: I was looking at your Kitchen photos on your website and the wonderful photos of food on the album insert even before I read about your finishing culinary school last year. Tell us a little about that passion and how it fits into Fellowship?

Lizz Wright: I moved from New York back to the mountains of North Carolina. I needed some Lizz time, I've been very busy in the biz since I was nineteen. I wanted to be a student again. One thing I wanted to learn was how to grow as much of my own food as I possibly could. I was learning to be creative in a whole new medium. Even at my best, I was in the middle of the pack. But it's nice to have another healing art besides music.

EDGE: Fellowship is your fourth solo album and you are now into a new decade of your life, having turned 30. How do you see yourself as an artist and as a woman at this time?

Lizz Wright: I feel more grounded, less driven by big, sweeping ambitions. I really do leave home to sing for people. I hope that there is usefulness in the music besides entertainment. I think my audience realizes that I do care about how they feel about the message that comes from the music.

EDGE: I'm looking forward to seeing you when you get to New York!

Lizz Wright begins her national tour at The Roxy Theatre in Hollywood on January 26th. Liz Wright's North American tour continues in San Diego, CA (1/27); Oakland, CA (1/29); Santa Cruz, CA (1/31): Seattle, WA (2/1); Alexandria, VA (2/11); New York City, NY (2/13); Annapolis, MD (2/14); Philadelphia, PA (2/16); Boston, MA (2/18); Montreal, Canada (2/19); Toronto, Canada (2/20); Evanston, IL (2/22); Minneapolis, MN; and Grand Rapids, MI (2/26). For more about Liz Wright, visit her website.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).