Soul singer Lizz Wright is starting over. Her new album, Freedom & Surrender, comes after a tough few years, during which she left behind a failed marriage and her own expectations about starting a family. And yet, she found a creative spark in that loss, along with a new kind of voice.
When she spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin, Wright said the key to great songwriting is knowing just how much personal experience to share.
"There's a beautiful, kind of seductive trap in being autobiographical in our writing of songs: We just get stuck in our own syrup, and it's so personal that it almost can be embarrassing to the listener," she says. "Sometimes I'll listen to artists that I love, and I'll be like, 'Oh my gosh. Can I just not be locked in your bedroom with you?' So it's a beautiful challenge to try and personal, and find that universal undercurrent where we are really talking about what it means to be human, where it doesn't smell like my sweat."
Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
Rachel Martin: What was hard about trying to use your music in a way as autobiography — and catharsis, I imagine — and still keeping it universal? Was there a moment when you thought, "I've gone into the syrup. I've gotta get out"?
Lizz Wright: You can feel it! You can feel it when you've failed to surface. But the beauty of that whole process is when you can come up from your murk and see light, and you bring both into the writing. And you know that it's complete when it's balanced, when it's rounded, and it can be received by other people — and be personal, but still open, like a threshold. Like, here's the door to my house, but I'm not gonna lock you in here, or lock you out. Eat some pie, and be on your way now.
I want to ask about the song "Right Where You Are," a beautiful duet that you sing with Gregory Porter. It's pretty much a straight-up love song, and for someone who was trying to move forward after a divorce, it seems like a counter-intuitive piece to include.
Well, I'm so grateful for just the inherent mercy of life. You know, it's not static: We just kind of get carried along the current and brought up somewhere where we have a little more to work with. And I think [it's helped] living in the mountains, and bringing my focus back to the land — which is really where I come from — and enjoying my life around people who really lived based on what's going on around them.
For instance, I spend a lot of time with my neighbor, who's 91, and she's my favorite. She's so cute I can't stand it. She's about four feet and change, and she's got bright blue eyes, and she just taught me to care about little things. So the caring about little things that happen all the time, and returning to this basic sense of wonder, has made it easier for me to return to love without having to think about it.
You used to live in this small town in North Carolina. How does it fit into your music? I imagine it's a big part of what inspires you.
Well, there's a couple different experiences: There's "in town," which is Asheville, a good 40 minutes from me, and then there's the mountains. I really like being on the mountain the most, because I like talking to people about what's growing and what to harvest. And I just ... I don't want so far to fall, and I don't want so far to climb. I just really want to enjoy being present.
The song "Somewhere Down the Mystic" is a story about losing someone, but feeling a connection to a parallel life — the afterworld, if you will. Is there something about where you're from, Appalachia, that that has that quality to it? Do you feel more in tune with things that are beyond this life?
I think living in a way that's close to nature makes you feel like that — makes you feel how thin the veil is between life and death. And I guess there's no point to this song, but one piece that kind of shines through it is that love doesn't really regard that threshold so much anyway. How do we know that love goes anywhere when our bodies fail?
You actually had your own brush with death: You were in a bad car accident. What effect did that experience have on you?
Well, I had this accident a week before I was supposed to record the record; the song was already tracked and everything. But when I saw the 75 ravine over the frozen creek, where my car was held in suspension by this young tree, I had a different feeling for the words in the chorus.
I was actually just super grateful that I finally had an encounter with death. I'm a preacher's kid, I'm big-boned, I have giant feet and I've always been able to run fast, and so I had this sense of, "I can't fail. I'm invincible. I'm made of green juice and concrete; nothing's gonna happen to me." So it was great to walk into the studio with this really tender reverence for my life, and profound gratitude and wonder.
Even though this is not an album of covers, there are a couple of cover songs, including your take on The Bee Gees' 1967 hit, "To Love Somebody" — which, though you wouldn't associate this with The Bee Gees, has some gospel happening in it. Was it hard to sing? It's a beautiful showcase for your voice, but those are long notes, and there's not a whole lot of instrumentation behind you.
The beautiful thing, Rachel, is that I come from a place where, when you sing slow, you give up who you are. You're standing in front of the congregation and people are looking at you, and they can see completely through you. And the whole worship part of the religious musical experience is just that you give it up — you give up who you are. You stand there like a window. There's nothing to do but slow down and be there.