"Music lives in that place where anything can be picked up. It can become a different statement in someone else’s hands than in my hands. The fact that it can be passed from hand to hand is something beautiful, almost spiritual. It means different things in different places and I approached this record as if there is no history. I was just a voice, and I loved it." Lizz Wright
Please join JazzReview in this most insightful interview with Lizz Wright. Her comments and philosophy of life will surely astound you.
JazzReview: How did you get started in the music business?
Lizz Wright: As you know, I started in church. Atlanta, Georgia is really where I got started.
I was really interested in jazz and I was just studying it and would go to some jazz sessions trying to learn as many standards as possible. During that period, I sat in on the Atlanta Jazz Festival. They have jam sessions at night in the clubs after they have the show in the park during the day. I met some musicians from the group, In the Spirit, and from there I ended up sitting in with them. It ended up being a 3-year relationship. The first time I sang with them I had two songs and had to add Amazing Grace, which I didn’t know. I didn’t have another standard ready. It kept going. I really grew a lot from working with those guys because they played in church on Sunday and in the clubs during the week. So they knew exactly where I was coming from. I think I grew mostly when I was with them.
The next thing I knew, Ron (the person who sponsored and put the group together) had sent a couple demos to Verve. They had me come down there to do a showcase (which is kinda of like an audition). That’s’ how it started.
It was a bit of a rocky start because I wasn’t necessarily ready to sing and to be productive on that level of being a recording artist. Since then, I have had a chance to grow and find my way, which is unusual, but it’s been great and a blessing.
JazzReview: It has been said that this album reflects who you are right now. Gve us some insights to what you mean. Is it where you are presently or is it a phase in your life that the album takes you on?
Lizz Wright: I think the main difference between, as far as my personality and state of mind, from "Salt" to making this record is the fact that instead of trying to fit in a genre and trying to explain who I am, which is nonexplainable or: 1) because I don’t know( laughter) or 2) even if I knew, who's to say I can capture it in words exactly who or what I am.
I’m only 25 with little experience in music. I’m just growing and having fun. I think the difference between where I was when I made "Salt" and where I am now is that I’m very comfortable with the fact that I’m growing. I just haven't found my place yet. I’m okay with that. I’m enjoying the search. I’m enjoying the questions. I’m enjoying not knowing, instead of interpreting it as tension or something to be upset about.
I had such a good time making this record because there were some songs that I decided to try right in the studio. I’ve never sang any song that remotely expressed any kind of sensuality, so all of that really helped me open up.
JazzReview: Tell us how you develop such a great feel for jazz. Your voice is very full-bodied.
Lizz Wright: The ironic thing is [when] I started working on "Salt," Tommy LiPuma was wise when he looked at me and said, 'You know Lizz, you’re really not a jazz singer.' At first I was deflated and I was like, 'Wait a minute...This man is right." (laughter) Because reading books, comments or opinions of what jazz singing is, there are no two people who agree about what jazz is anyway. What I enjoy is taking a song and stripping it down until it’s just a feeling, and finding something that I can identify with...or just giving myself to a lyric and imagining what it would be like to sing something. For example, when I did Don’t Explain as a part to the Billie Holiday tribute, I had to use my imagination. I’ve never said, to a man 'Don’t explain.' I’ve never said that to a boy. (laughter) What does it mean? (laughter) It’s really beautiful. Jazz is for me like a doorway that kind of opened up. It opened up my whole world. It was like walking outside and jazz was the door.
But I would say I’m not necessarily a jazz singer, but it will be present in all that I do, just like gospel. I consider myself more of a singer/songwriter. As far as the voice, it carries all the stories of where I’ve been and what I’m doing. So if it sounds full, that’s a great compliment. That’s how I want to live life. I want to live life, take it in, and let it back out.
JazzReview: Excellent! Please keep thinking that. What’s your favorite song on the CD?
Lizz Wright: It’s difficult to say. I enjoyed Stop a lot and probably the song that I can identify with on any given day is Dreaming Wide Awake because in the end, I just believe we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously at the end of everything. I like the idea of life being a dream, and in a way, it is. Dreaming Wide Awake is beautiful. It’s about how sweet life is. By dreaming, we realize that it’s not going to be like this forever. I love the fact that we actually go to sleep and wake up every day. It’s almost like a small death, and we wake up and a new sun is out. We’re experiencing a day that’s never been here before. I think life is magical and the story in Dreaming Wide Awake embodies that message.
JazzReview: Three of the eleven songs on Dreaming Wide Awake were either co-written or written by you. How do you select a specific song to be used?
Lizz Wright: It’s a process. Craig Street [producer] and I made a copulation of ideas and we swapped music. We probably swapped 40 or 50 songs between the two of us until we had this nice base of songs that we both really like for different reasons. That’s a great process because a good producer is a musician at the same time. The producers are also story tellers. They see what you’re trying to put together and it's really fun collaborating.
As far as the songs and which one is going on the album, it kind of happened after we had recorded more than what we needed. We looked and recognized the body of work inside of what we recorded, and [we]had to remove a couple of things. It can be difficult to tell exactly what you’ve created until it happens, and then it makes itself known to you. For me, at least that’s how music is. It’s the same way with a song. The process is to bring together a big pile of music and see which I react to, and we cut out a story of what we recorded.
JazzReview: Who were your early influences or inspirations?
Lizz Wright: Up until the age of 18, it was all gospel anyway. The contemporary gospel movement really influenced me and that was mostly the artists out of Detroit, like the Winan family, Hawkins family and Commission. These artists started taking on the sounds of R&B, soul, blues and jazz, but still sang the gospel. It really got me through school. I wouldn’t have made it with just quartet music or the spirituals. I was just a kid. But the great thing about the contemporary movement, you still had the message of gospel in all these different colors and moods. I think that probably got me ready and open to jazz. So when I heard it, there was something familiar about it, it was still spiritual. I have to say, that movement really influence me and after 18, of course, and into high school, before that I started listening to Marian McParland’s jazz piano show. That was my link to jazz and after that, I went to Atlanta to see and hear it live.
JazzReview: You are still quite young. Have you given thought to going into gospel?
Lizz Wright: Well, the way I think, the way I cook, the way I am (laughter), I love to pull up to all kinds of things at once. I love to cook an idea from three cuisines. From one meal it’s amazing to see how things work together. That was a good thing about being in New York. You get an idea of how things are connected and that’s my interest. I could never say I’m going into jazz or gospel. The only thing I can say I get into is just growing as a singer/songwriter. That’s what I consider myself.
I definitely look forward to bringing back some gospel and finding gospel I didn’t know about. Even in making the album, I told Craig Street there is no gospel you can bring me that I haven’t heard before. And sure enough, he brings me all kinds of stuff. ( laughter) He brings me some front porch stuff I never heard and some stuff I’d heard my grandma sing a couple of times. I’m excited. Its fun now. I’m out in the world in a way. I look forward to going home musically. I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.
JazzReview: What does jazz mean to you when you’re singing your songs as well as you do, and you’re telling a story? What does it mean to you when you’re singing a song like Trouble?
Lizz Wright: Although I would consider this record more folk, I still say what jazz is to me, or what I feel I bring to jazz, is an awareness of time of where we are in time. I think sometime when people complain in general about how music doesn’t satisfy them like it used to or we’re still playing stuff from the old days, I think we’re also suggesting we’re not happy with the way we’re living...ecause music really reflects time. It marks time. It’s like making a painting out of an everyday pose or an everyday occurrence. And if we don’t like what we see, then maybe we’re not liking how we’re living so much and we have changed over time. What I like about jazz is, if I hear something that was recorded between the 30's -60's, I feel what it was like to be there. And that’s the only (besides a great photographer with a lot of texture) music where we feel a period of time that’s already passed. That’s what I think is amazing when you hear someone like Abbey Lincoln or Billie Holiday. I feel like I’m there. I could only imagine what it felt like to be around them. That’s what jazz is to me. It’s like the music of time. It’s how we show where we are. I know that’s very broad in a way. It has to be.
JazzReview: Lizz, I have a copy of your touring schedule.
Lizz Wright: Yeah, can you fax it to me? (laughter) I haven’t looked at it yet.
JazzReview: This is amazing, you are touring from 2/6 through 8/11 nonstop.
Lizz Wright: Honestly, I haven’t seen it. I only look at it a week ahead. I look at the tour schedule to see how much organic food to sneak in my luggage, (laughter) but other than that, I tend to look at what’s in front of me. Otherwise, I will get overwhelmed. The good thing about this is it forces me to pace myself and do little things for me...like bringing silly things to make me happy and pictures. This has taught me to really take care of myself.
JazzReview: How does your family feel about your music career? Are you from a musical family?
Lizz Wright: Yes, my entire family sings. They are very proud of me. It took me a while to find my way. But my Dad and my mom came together to a show( I think they have been to two of my shows) last year in Jacksonville, Florida and they saw that it all came together. Like my experiences in church and playing in clubs, they saw I was kind of finding my way and they were comfortable with it. Since then, they are very excited. They easily know where I am in the world and it's fun. It’s actually brought my family closer together. They are all more aware of each other.
JazzReview: Although you’re new to the music industry, what advice would you give someone else embarking on a musical career?
Lizz Wright: I would say one key to success is doing this because you just have to do this, because it pulls you out of bed every day, and because it brings you great joy. It has to be really natural to you. If you want success, you have to keep doing the same thing many times and only something that you truly love can keep becoming new to you. Do what you love.
JazzReview: What other projects are you going to be involved in? I know the CD will be released in June.
Lizz Wright: Actually, Verve is doing an amazing job promoting this album, so at this point, I’m busy just promoting this record. We just did the video photo shoot out in the desert of California and I have been asked to do a song with Toots. I’ve also been trying to catch up with Odetta to do a project with her, which may be already completed. It was a pleasure meeting her.
For the time being I’m gearing up for the road and putting the band together. Honestly, my own personal project is to make time to play the guitar, to continue writing. Whenever it’s possible, I like to go home to be with other writers or go to New York and hang out with some writers. I’m constantly working.
JazzReview: Lizz Wright will be touring across Europe and America throughout this summer and fall in support of this album. Check out more at Lizz Wright’s website or Verve.