Lizz Wright: looking back

    The southern-states singer talks about her family, including the preacher father who wanted her to marry someone like him

    Lizz Wright

    Lizz Wright, who was born and grew up in America’s Deep South, the daughter of a church minister, and now lives in Chicago, has been variously described as a jazz singer, a blues singer, a soul singer and a gospel singer. She herself prefers to describe what she sings simply as American music. “I think that’s probably the best description,” she muses. “[Those kinds of music] are the tributaries that make up American music and so living in the mid-West in a great blues city and being from the South and having lived in the [Appalachian] mountains for some years this is the patchwork of sounds that actually resembles my life.”

    On her new CD Shadow Wright sings about family, bereavement, love, memory and the inexorable passing of time. The death of her grandmother inspired her. “I really appreciate this opportunity to share what it was like losing a big love in my life and I am grateful that I got to wait until I was able to work with the moment as an artist,” she says. “And grief is more beautiful than I thought: we think of it as just a sense of loss but it’s such an honour to realise how much space a great love takes up in your life.”

    On the lovingly sung Root Of Mercy Wright sings of a tree that was profoundly significant to her grandmother. “I remember being told she’d go there and pray when she was overwhelmed,” she says. “When my grandfather died she had a houseful of children and it was a really tough time. And just down the dirt road, under this tree, was a place of peace where she could step away for a while. It was a kind of sacred place and the song is a celebration of her as the matriarch of the family.”

    There’s a parallel between Wright paying tribute on Shadow to her grandmother and the fact that in her career previously she has toured in a tribute show to Billie Holiday, contributed to a tribute album to Ella Fitzgerald and performed in a tribute concert to Marian Anderson. She explains why it is important to her to honour women who have gone before her. “It’s the recovery of a sacred tradition to honour your elders and ancestors. I’m really thankful for what great artists and great women have left for me and thankful for the world they’ve moulded for me. And I’m thankful to have my turn to leave it better for someone else.”

    In Sparrow, Wright vividly recalls a violent, disturbing storm that she and her sister witnessed as children. The vocals of Beninese guest singer Angelique Kidjo, singing in Yoruba, erupt into the song at different points, to spectacular effect. “I love her so much,” smiles Wright. “I sent her [the song] and said ‘I want you to write and sing what you want in these [specific] places.’ She’s so intuitive and fast and what she sent back was stunning – she weaves a prayer that’s very much in sync with the lyrics so her contribution is really masterful and loving.”

    Wright wrote (or co-wrote) five of the songs on Shadow. She describes how she presents a new composition to her musicians: “I’ll give them a demo and also a lead sheet of the basic chart. Also, I share lyrics with them because I think it’s important that instrumentalists are invited to participate in painting a picture and giving spirit to a sentiment. When they’re invited to play that way there’s just always so much more they can give and it creates this kind of generosity.”

    As well as her own compositions, the album includes Great American Songbook, Americana, soul and folk songs. A highlight is a version of Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes?, which the composer most famously recorded with Fairport Convention. “Joe Henry [who produced Wright’s 2017 album Grace] introduced me to Nina Simone’s and Roberta Flack’s versions and I listened to different recordings Sandy Denny did and also Judy Collins was a tremendous reference. After Covid it’s such a good time to be singing this song. It will always be relevant and that’s great writing.”

    ‘Music has been my way to both work with my father and to escape him’

    As a girl Wright was musical director in her father’s church and she has spoken of how crucial that was in her musical development. But surely life as a minister’s daughter must also have felt very constrained. Wouldn’t she have wanted to escape from that? “That’s all very true. Music has been my way to both work with my father and to escape him. He has been proud of me over the years and also frustrated with me. He always hoped I would find a man like him and I always prayed to Heaven I wouldn’t!” she laughs. “But from the distance of time I can appreciate him. It’s weird how in these great relationships you get the chains and you get the open road. It’s not all one thing.”

    Wright believes her upbringing has contributed to her performance skills. “I learned to communicate with people from watching my father and other ministers preach. I watched them make the people feel loved and seen and uplifted and spoken to and heard so I’m trying to get to all these things.”

    Wright believes also that, as a young woman, studying opera at Georgia State University for a year was formative as well. “It was an extraordinary blessing! I’m so grateful for the classical technique because I’m able to pull a lot of colour and power out of my instrument using air and placement and I’m really thankful for what classical music does to turn a voice into a real instrument. It’s really important to have those techniques if you want a long career.”

    Wright is delighted by the early response to Shadow. “Because this record is so personal I’m very touched by people’s openness to it. The willingness of people to be with me is such an honour. It’s really a blessing.”

    Shadow was released 12 April 2024. Lizz Wright performs at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam on 13 July.