The basic facts of Lizz Wright’s background have been publicly rehearsed for going on a decade now. That she was born in tiny Hahira, Georgia and raised in Houston County. That her upbringing was profoundly shaped by the United Holiness Church where her father served as minister. That gospel was the music in their household. That jazz and other such extra-church styles came a little later.
You’d almost expect that kind of background to produce a certain kind of singer who sings a certain kind of song. But the singer revealed on Wright’s first three albums for Verve was a sumptuous contralto who excelled at nuance—not explosive, gospel-y melisma—delivering the occasional jazz standard and, more often, a sensual, rootsy array of modern blues.
Wright sang about going home on her 2008 album The Orchard. But it was on last year’s Fellowship that she really came full circle with a blend of true-blue gospel—a good bit of it just voice and piano—and pop, rock and R&B songs plucked from the repertoires of Jimi Hendrix, Meshell Ndegeocello, Blind Faith and Gladys Knight & the Pips, songs that she happens to find just as spiritual as any hymnbook selection.
Wright was gracious enough to spend half an hour talking music, home and change just before she took off for an overseas tour.
How is the Lizz Wright that we hear on Fellowship different from the Lizz Wright that people heard singing in church growing up in Houston County?
Since Fellowship, I think my family and friends are probably really happy to see that not a whole lot has changed. I still am trying to find my way to acknowledge and address the fact that I feel worship in my heart. I still feel praise in my heart. But I don’t really want to carry a banner of an ideology. I want to do it as an individual and to make sure it’s accessible; to make sure that people know it’s normal to have a need to communicate with God; it’s normal to have a need to worship and give thanks, no matter who you are. As long as I make that accessible to everyone, they can do what they want with it. But I realize now that going into the places of praise and worship and thanksgiving or meditation through music is actually a service, just leaving the door open and let people do what they want. That’s really what I’m here for.
I’d imagine that some of the songs on the album you sang growing up, like “God Specializes,” “Amazing Grace” and the gospel medley. But there are others that probably weren’t part of the church repertoire, like the Hendrix and the Gladys Knight & the Pips number. Is that a fair assessment?
Of course. And I want to pair these things together because, for me, they fit and they were relevant to each other. You know, there was more than one intention folded into the record anyway. I love the idea of singing the gospel and then singing a bit about the life around the gospel. I thought a lot about women and power in the church, people’s understandings—or I don’t know—you could say sometimes lack of understanding about a woman’s role or a woman’s power and struggle to be a good woman and to figure out what that is. I really enjoyed singing [Gladys Knight & the Pips’] “Imagination” also because it had one of the phrases that the old women used to say all the time—“Keep on keeping on.”
People have called Fellowship a gospel album. Do you consider it a gospel album in any traditional sense? Or more like your expanded notion of what gospel music is?
This is definitely my take on what’s sacred. I had a need to honor all these perspectives at the same time, but there’s a message in that. I let it happen. [Laughs] I hope it sounds cohesive. To some it may not be, and I understand that. It’s more a reflection of my life and how I see things.
Was that dividing line between sacred and secular, gospel and blues pretty clear-cut in your experience growing up?
Oh yeah. In fact I didn’t really sing anything that didn’t directly talk about Jesus or repentance until I was older. Except for choral music. I always had choral music. That was always allowed. As much as I could, I listened to all kinds of things. Like I said in interviews long ago, I discovered jazz in Marian McPartland’s piano jazz show on the radio.
I read that.
It felt OK to me. I was like “It’s alright to sing about life. I’m not going to sing anybody off a bridge or anything. I’m not gonna sing somebody up under a bottle.” [Laughs] I just want to be real about what’s going on in life around what we believe and how we’re working with it, because there’s so much music there. There’s so many great stories there. Why in the world would I skip that? And why would I feel that I’m not deserving to address the sacred while I deal with what’s really natural?
So jazz and other styles of music were entering the picture late in high school and in college.
A few years back, an interviewer asked you if you’d like to do a gospel album one day and you said you weren’t ready yet. What got you ready?[Your] twenties are about questions you can’t quite answer and knowing what you don’t want. [Laughs] And then we bit by bit start to craft out what we do want. I just feel extremely lucky that I’ve been able to share that journey with the world, that they actually wanted to hear the back and forth and the spirals that you make in these years.
Did you feel like it was necessary for you to cultivate your artistic identity by doing other things musically and getting some distance from where you came from before coming back around to it?
Oh yeah. It’s necessary to draw a circle around what you think you are doing. And it’s really the circle that reveals more than the dots. [Laughs] And especially coming from church, it can be a little bit overbearing to be the child of a minister and to be in the company of prophets and people all your life. And there’s always someone standing by to tell you who you are and what you do and exactly how you’re supposed to do it and what you see. There is this whole act of taking responsibility for yourself and exploring and giving yourself room to make noise and make mistakes. That’s what I love about the song “Feed the Light.” You can be wrong. In fact, you need to find your wrong to find your right. Your right may have more subtle details to it than you ever imagined.
Do you feel like you’re speaking to people from back home in a more direct way on this album than you’ve done in the past?
I definitely rang some bells that were meant to go straight to my family. And they totally get it. And I also wanted to honor my elders and people that taught me to sing these songs and to carry these messages. I wanted them to know that I get it. I get it and I have it with me and I’ll never put it away. It’ll always be with me. I understand, I’m starting to understand, the value of it. Even if I don’t create exactly what they wanted, I respect it and I love it and it’s gonna live on.
You grew up, went to college and had your first experiences performing jazz in clubs in Georgia. You moved to Brooklyn at some point, and now you’re back down south in Hendersonville, North Carolina. I’m not sure if I’ve missed any moves in there. What’s the relationship for you between where you’re living and the music you’re making?
I went from Georgia and then I lived in Jersey City, New Jersey for a while. That’s where I lived when I made Salt. And then I moved to New York and then eventually Brooklyn when I got my own apartment. And then I went to Seattle from there, and then I went back to Atlanta for a bit, and then I came back to Brooklyn. So there was a lot of moving around. New York was great to me.
Every place taught me a lot. I certainly realized with Seattle that I am a person who loves and needs mountains. If my life could represent an element, it would probably be air or water or a combination of them, because I’m constantly on the move, constantly kind of shape-shifting just to keep up with all the hats I wear for what I do, and also just keeping in touch with my community and my family is really important to me. But there’s just a lot of shifting and I really work on trying to be comfortable with all the transitions that I have to make in my life. Coming home to mountains is actually very helpful. They’re so heavy. They’ve been there and endured so much. And I love to play in the dirt.
I got a lot of great information in New York, met a lot of great people. It’s beautiful irony that I met people like Toshi [Reagon] and Dr. [Bernice Johnson] Reagon, her mother. They’re both from Georgia and they understood where I was from and what it sounded like. It was beautiful that who I am and where I’m from kept meeting me all these places.
The Reagons have become important musical partners for you.
Was there an immediate resonance with them?
There was immediate resonance. In fact, when [producer] Craig Street told me that I was gonna meet someone named “Toshi,” I was fully expecting a Japanese man to be waiting at my stoop. But I did hear him say “she,” so I was like, “Oh, it’s a Japanese woman.” Really, it didn’t explain anything. …So I open the door and Toshi was a revelation on sight. She comes upstairs and takes out her guitar and she starts singing and playing a song. I hear her voice off the walls and what it does and I just know that she is gonna be in my life for a long time.
Is your dad is still around and still serving as a pastor?
He’s still around. And he retired from pastoring but he’s been the chaplain of this men’s prison for 15 years. That’s where his heart was, or is.
Have you sung in church during any trips back home since Fellowship?
I haven’t. I went to church with my uncle the other day, and my uncle goes to kind of a bigger, little more contemporary church. But every time I go to church with my grandmother, she likes to go to some backwoods place [where the] instruments might not be in tune or the floor rocks or somebody’s dancing. And those people always ask me to sing. They never let me get away without singing. And I always end up crying myself into a snot, you know, because it’s so emotional and people are so tenderhearted and just hardworking and honest. And it’s that kind of energy that really fuels me to get back out in the world and know where I come from, and take that stuff out to the Mediterranean and everywhere I’ve got to go [on tour]. I really hold that kind of experience in a high place. That’s where a lot of the songwriting comes from too. It’s very hard to not write when I go down there. For some reason it triggers all this. So it’s time to go home.
Does it feel different to perform your music close to home than it does elsewhere in the United States, or the world?
Well, it’s a little intense to be so open standing over your past. When I sing in Atlanta or… I’m about to make a tour on purpose to go down south and go to Florida and make sure I do these shows that my family can see. Yeah, it’s a vulnerable place. You have nerves hanging out and people know where they’re at. They haven’t forgotten what makes you tick, or they haven’t forgotten stories that you left behind. And just to see their faces and know that they catalog all that stuff, and then you open up and… I mean I play with these things every night. …But to open that stuff in front of people who have real pieces of you in their memory is really vulnerable. But I like to see where my strength is and where my focus is.