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Lizz Wright - "Music is about the journey"

On her new CD "The Orchard" Lizz Wright steps forward with a new palette of songs that reflect her lifelong musical journey and also closes a circle that began with her debut "Salt" and the second album "Dreaming Wide Awake".

Lizz Wright

Like it's predecessor, "The Orchard" was produced by Craig Street. Among the musicians is singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon, who also co-wrote several songs. Also some unexpected names show up, like Joey Burns (g, b) und John Convertino (dr) form "Calexico" or Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on pedal steel an mandolin. If the music on "The Orchard" still can be called "jazz" one might ask. Lizz Wright answers this question in her way: "Just let me sing a song. You can decide for yourself!"

Carina Prange talked to Lizz Wright in Berlin.

Carina: American newspapers gave you the nickname "Miss Right" — without a "W". What is it you personally connect with this naming?

Lizz: Well, I am glad my name starts with a "W"! Because I am not perfect and I am not always very clear. I think it depends on who you talk to. Some people think that I am an artist, who does not have any roots ... who does not sing any one thing, who is not representing her culture strictly.

But as is there are other people who really appreciate what I am calling freedom. You know, the kind of recklessness that other people see in me is for someone else a lot of freedom. So I am glad, that my name starts with a "W"... I think, it's a good representation that maybe I am right... but not quite! I am happy with that place.

Carina: "The Orchard" is your third CD. What has changed from "Salt" over "Dreaming Wide Awake" to the current album? Or, to be more precise: Your approach to the music, in which way did it develop?

Lizz: "Salt" is of course about all of my experiences up to the point I got the record deal. So it's very, very rich in my former life of being in a church and singing choral music as well. Even as a child my life was broad. To sing gospel music and choral music is a pretty wide range. So that's what "Salt" was about. It's about my life—you're hearing a lot more than gospel, you're hearing my new excitement about jazz. You hear all that.

And then "Dreaming wide awake" is really interesting. For some people it was hard to take, because I was definitely doing something new on purpose. But it was something I haven't had the chance to do before. When I was on tour for "Salt" I spend a lot of time alone. And I realized that I was not actually listening to strictly jazz. I was into a lot of singer-songwriter kind of music, into stuff like Jeff Buckley, Damien Rice.... This for example. And so "Dreaming Wide Awake" was about me doing a record that represented the music that I actually listened to. But it was still new to me as a singer and as a performer. So I think, people felt that newness and it was really something to deal with.

Lizz Wright

Now I feel like, with this third record, "The Orchard", I have found the undercurrent, like what is beneath all these little divisions. I think, I found a lot about myself. Even though this record is in some ways also different, I wrote over half the songs. So it is a genuine statement of my openness and my willingness to explore—not just in music—but to explore myself. Which can be scary for some people, you know. And there are moments, where I am like, "wow, how far will I go?"

But when I am having the most fun with music, I am unaware of my own identity. I am just existing in the moment and reacting to what I feel. And with each of these songs, I was reacting to the person, who was in the room with me or the circumstances, that were going in my life at the time. So there is a kind of randomness. There is a kind of nonlinear dream quality to like what I choose to sing. (laughs)

But my connection to everything is very real. I think I have accepted my way of moving and my relationship with music. I think, I have accepted that now. So I hope that people will hear that level of confident acceptance when they hear this music.

Carina: Did recording "The Orchard" also mean a voyage back to your roots, to your childhood?

Lizz: It did. I went back home. I took pictures of the land where I was born. The amazing thing though is that I thought I would make a record about it. But maybe only a couple of songs really represent it — everything else ... took me somewhere else!

I named the record "The Orchard" after it was finished, because I said to myself, I am going to remember the irony of where this started. And where it went ... So that's why I named it "The Orchard". Almost because it seems completely unrelated. I am comfortable with chaos, so I am fine with it.

Carina: But others might have problems with that?

Lizz: I am sure, they do, but you know… I think also in the context of a live-performance it makes much more sense. Because I am not talking. Music and singing especially is such a primal and such a old language. Dogs bark and monkeys do whatever they do. Animals make their sounds and have their movements. And singing is ours.

And when we sing, then we can put the mind to rest. Because the information goes somewhere else and the vibration and the voice goes somewhere else. I think, once I actually start singing, this is not as random as it seems. It is not easy to talk about something that you cannot draw a straight line to, it's not easy.

Carina: The song "When I Fall", what inspired you for that?

Lizz: Honestly? A love affair that made no sense. But which was the most inspiring experience of my life. And it's like, wow, here is this moment, where I feel absolutely happy, absolutely eternal, absolutely beautiful. And yet I cannot have it. I cannot have it as an everyday experience... And I know that, but I am still wanting to go, walking out on the air. I am still wanting to go and take a chance, even though I know this is not the kind of thing you build a life on.

So it's me wanting to take that step into something that I know will not work. But... so I am singing to let myself know that the water will be cold when I fall. And I actually know that. It's like a letter to the lover. I want to, I want you to know that I want to. But I know in my soul I can't. And to try, I will break myself somehow: So I am gonna stand here and sing to you what I want to do. And then I am gonna turn and walk away.

Lizz Wright - "The Orchard"

Carina: What about your singing-technique and your—let's call it "proficiency"—to express and transport moods and feelings?

Lizz: I think, I am becoming a lot deeper... and also a lot wider at the same time! I think, it's because of the deep roots, that I can stretch out. A big tree has roots that go way far out. We keep forgetting them, because we don't see them. All we see is this long tree trunk and all these branches and we are overwhelmed by how wide they are! But the thing would fall over, if the roots weren't just as wide and wider.

So I feel like the things, that I love and the things, that brought me where I am. My own personal experience and the gospel and everything, has laid a foundation for me to do whatever I really wanna do. And it's given me the versatility to dissect. So if a song comes to me a certain way, I realize that because of my experience—I have a color for that. I am having much fun responding first and thinking later!

Carina: How much do you still relate to gospel music?

Lizz: In gospel music, the focus is on what you make people feel and what you feel yourself. What's beautiful about gospel music is, no matter what it sounds like, there is so much different gospel! In it's purest and simplest form, gospel is about giving prayers and thanks for being alive. You know, for your time here, for everything. It's also about worship to God. So you begin communicating on a spiritual level.

That's why a lot of singers who start in the church can sing for such a long time: Because underneath whatever song they are singing, no matter what it is, they are still praying, they are still worshipping, they are still finding that home and that sanctuary. And that's why it is so compelling. Because those prayers are still underneath whatever they are singing. It almost doesn't matter the lyric.

Coming from gospel into jazz, I was drawn by the spirituality, you know, and the nature of jazz. You could sing about what you are feeling, and what you were feeling was sacred. But the way it was delivered, was still… I don't know, there is something very dignified about jazz! So it was just a smooth transition for me from gospel to jazz. Not even a transition, but an opening to let it in—I never felt the needs to divide things. I use jazz and I use music the way people use water: to move things, to wash things, to change things, to transition, to flow. And so music is about the journey, about adventure, about seeing where to go.

Lizz Wright

Carina: Do you compose on guitar as well and will you be playing the guitar on stage some time in the future?

Lizz: I do, I compose on guitar a little bit. I compose on piano as well. You'll probably see me play piano before guitar—I am still more comfortable on piano!

And the other day I started playing in rehearsal, and my friend and co-writer Toshi [Reagon] had never seen me on piano. So she got so angry with me! Because here I am doing auditions for pianists, right!? So all these pianists are coming in and out and touch the same piano...

So we take a break and I sit down and start playing "Salt"... (giggles) And she just screamed. She ran over and she grabbed me and she said, "I'm gonna kill you! You never told me you could play!" Since then she has given me no rest. You may see me play piano soon... (laughs)

Carina: You did have in a way to break out to start your career. To step out of your father's and mother's footsteps—does that mean a life-long struggle? How do you manage that?

Lizz: It's gotten better! When I first started singing jazz, I backed away from my family, because they were still involved very heavily with the church. And I didn't want to bring any shame or confusion to their lives. I knew, that I was in a state of experimentation. So I kept experimenting and I think now I have found a place that I feel very comfortable with.

The beautiful thing is that now I am looking back at my family and they are with me. It's almost miraculous—I didn't try, I didn't expect it. I did not tell them what I was doing. I didn't ask their permission or what they thought or their opinion. I didn't—but they really enjoy the music.

I just played the record for my Mum and she said, she loves every song. And she'll ask me, "Why did you do this? What does this mean?" And we have these beautiful conversations. I think, every song makes a place for life and it's about accepting something. So it's actually been a blessing for my family, something completely unexpected. Yeah!

Carina: You mentioned in an interview with me some years ago: "I think for me, I am getting younger as I age. Because I am becoming more of a light person, I am not so heavy and buried and not so unnecessarily wise…" Are you still getting an even lighter person—or are you getting more thoughtful these days?

Lizz: Hmm, I think, I have understood "lightness" in the past to be about escape. About removal, about lack of weight, lack of roots, a "lack of earth". And now I have come back to earth and to roots, to my own roots, to the things that are painful. And staying there and looking at it and feeling it until it becomes something else. I have learned now that if you stare at something long enough, the meaning of it—or the possibilities for meaning—continue to change. Just like passing clouds by the window, it's always changing.

So I have learned to have more courage and to be more grounded. To say, "I live in New York!" And to be happy about it. You know, my grandparents will never come to New York, they told me: (laughs) There aren't as many trees there... It is not as quiet as Georgia... The churches aren't the same...

But I feel so grounded in who I am, that I now can really be anywhere. And I don't feel like I am just floating. So I get lightness as escape and all that. But now I can be very clear and deal with everything. And just let it be here in my hand. I thank God for that, because I used to be really scared to deal with stuff—yeah!

Carina: If one really wants to get famous in the music world, what abilities and qualities must he or she have?

Lizz: I don't know what they have to have! The music industry is really interesting, I mean. And it depends on what you call success. Some people want to play "their last show" every night. In other words, they want to play the show that they could just… if it were their last one, they would be really happy! And they are, "oh, my God, I felt that, I felt everything, I am so pleased!" And when they go to bed it could be over. That's what I like to do. I think there is success.

There is also a success, when you have a real relationship with your audience. A real one. And it's not about what you can project in a picture, what you can even create with a record. It's about the way you feel with people in a room and what they remember about you and what you can share with them.

So I think, for one you have to decide what success is. If it's just money, then: good luck! Because this business is so ... strange! But I think, the people, who are able to stick around the longest and be here the most, are the ones who love what they do and they love the people they do it with and for. They open their mouth or they touch their instruments and there is the same great spirit. And it has a place in the universe and that's really why they're successful.

I can never really give anyone any keys except: Be yourself ... and do everything with real joy! Whatever you are supposed to do. And whatever success is supposed to come to you, it will come if you are doing things in a way that brings you real joy.

Carina: You were, as you put it, in the process of "searching yourself" at the time we did the last interview. How far has this "self-finding-process" progressed?

Lizz: It's good now. I am a lot more emotional on a personal level now. And affectionate with my life. I have more community and I am able to ... sort of as I was saying before ... I am able to communicate in more personal way, even with the audience. I actually care that people left their homes, paid money, came out to see me. I actually feel that now—and it's very humbling. And I am really thankful for everything.

Lizz Wright

Carina: When you have found all you want to find, will there be still the need to sing songs?

Lizz: There may not be! You are the first to ask me that. But to tell the truth, it is not that music is this mountain, that I have climbed the top of. It's not. It's just that I sing for my life. But if my life is singing, I need to take a break and experience new things.

Right now, with the promotion of "The Orchard", I am gonna be writing a lot more. Because I am actually a good writer. I have been only a singer, just sitting on this pedestal of like, "oh yes, a beautiful voice!" And I'd say, "oh, thank you!" Not having to try, having to work. But I am falling in love with work. I am falling in love with the struggle of really creating something, developing things. That's my plan!

Carina Prange

CD: Lizz Wright - "The Orchard" (Verve/Universal 602517511262)

Lizz Wright im Internet: www.lizzwright.net

Universal Music im Internet: www.jazzecho.de

Fotos: Pressefotos

Mehr bei Jazzdimensions:
Lizz Wright - "The art of soulful music" - Interview (erschienen: 25.10.2005)
Lizz Wright - "Salt" - Review (erschienen: 9.7.2003)

© jazzdimensions 2008
erschienen: 17.2.2008
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