Lizz Wright, Back with 'Dreaming Wide Awake'

Lizz Wright burst on the scene two years ago with her debut CD Salt, and was hailed then as one of the brightest new voices in contemporary jazz. She talks about her sophomore record, Dreaming Wide Awake.

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(Soundbite of "Old Man")

Ms. LIZZ WRIGHT: (Singing) Old man, look at my life, I'm a lot like you were.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Singer Lizz Wright came on the scene two years ago with her debut CD "Salt." She was hailed then as one of the brightest new voices in contemporary jazz. Her sophomore record comes out today. It's called "Dreaming Wide Awake." But this music is less jazz than stripped-down soulful type of folk. It features both originals and some surprising covers, like this, Neil Young's "Old Man."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) Old man, take a look at my life, I'm a lot like you. I...

CHIDEYA: Some record labels balk when a new artist wants to change what worked the first time. Ed Gordon asked Lizz Wright if she got any resistance from her label.

Ms. WRIGHT: No, I didn't. It's funny. I think as far as like just worrying about the hypothetical, I was worse than anyone could have been. Verve--they were wonderful about just letting me find my way, and even though I couldn't explain how I was spending their money, they let me, you know, find my way.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm always interested in people who do remakes and what they bring to the table, and most interestingly, all of the remakes that you've done, you've not copied them in the sense of the original. You really have put your own twist on them.

Ms. WRIGHT: It just kind of happened that way. You know, by the time you strip a song down to just lyrics and the story that's inside the lyrics and the first feeling that that provokes in you, you have something personal, and you build from there, you know, and it kind of unravels and changes shape on its own as we keep rehearsing it and I'm learning lyrics and moving the phrases around, and it kind of happens.

GORDON: Do you find most of your remakes or do people bring them to you? I was pleasantly surprised to hear a "Taste of Honey," which, you know, those of us old enough understand the pop hit that was...

Ms. WRIGHT: Yeah.

GORDON: ...and the take that you put on it is wonderful, and I'm curious, was that one that you found or someone brought to you?

Ms. WRIGHT: You know, I still haven't heard that pop recording yet.

GORDON: Really?

Ms. WRIGHT: I still haven't heard it. I heard...

GORDON: Herb Alpert.

Ms. WRIGHT: Yeah?

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. WRIGHT: I heard a Sarah Vaughan recording of it. She did like this swing version of it, something someone just gave me, and I just--I love the story. It was so sad, and I don't know. I insisted on trying the song at least.

(Soundbite of "A Taste of Honey")

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) Cold winds may blow over icy seas, I'll take with me the warmth of these, a taste of honey, a taste much sweeter than wine.

GORDON: It seems to me that you like songs with a story.

Ms. WRIGHT: I do. Yeah. My favorite singers tell great stories. You know, Abbey Lincoln is one of my favorites, Nina Simone amazing. Joni Mitchell is so unique. And this is the kind of stuff I'm really attracted to, and I did purposely decide that this record, that I wanted to do less singing and just telling stories that brought something out of me.

(Soundbite of "A Taste of Honey")

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) A taste of honey...

Singing a story, you're experiencing it. You're not completely in control. You're kind of following it, and it's happening to you, you know, and I love that. I love using my imagination, like closing my eyes and seeing a place or making up a story inside of a song that wasn't there before, and I'm often daydreaming while I'm singing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) ...don't tell me to stop, tell the rain not to drop, tell the wind not to blow, 'cause you said so. Tell me love isn't true. It's just something we do. Tell me everything or not, don't tell me to stop.

GORDON: Do you like the comparisons you mentioned, some people that you admire--Shirley Horn, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson--just some of the names that have been thrown out in comparison as people try to describe your sound? Do you like the comparison or no?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, I like the fact that no two people agree. I think my best compliment was someone told me I was an enigma. I was like, yah, because so is jazz. You know, so is music, so is life. Anything that you can't describe is probably living.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) Tell the leaves not to turn. Don't tell me I'll learn. Take the black off a crow, but don't tell me to go.

GORDON: You're a Georgia native.

Ms. WRIGHT: Uh-huh.

GORDON: Your dad was a minister. I'm told very strict.

Ms. WRIGHT: He was.

GORDON: No TV.

Ms. WRIGHT: Yes.

GORDON: Did you sneak it?

Ms. WRIGHT: We did, and sometimes when he and mom used to go out to Bible study, my brother and sister and I would be fanning the back of the television, trying to cool it down because he caught us that way one time. It was really sad. And, you know, we had one for a short while, but he sold it, so we got used to listening to radio dramas and music on the radio. And, you know, at first, my parents were like, `Don't play that in the house, you know. It was just too--we don't want that here.' They always kept--it's not so much because they were strict as far as the music. They really kept like a meditative, like, quiet space. The house is silent today.

GORDON: Now take this in the way I'm delivering it.

Ms. WRIGHT: Right.

GORDON: You seem to be a very artistic spirit. Are you?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, when you say that, I interpret that as I'm just living by my instincts.

GORDON: Right.

Ms. WRIGHT: Yeah. I try to. Yeah.

GORDON: If you could not sing, if you could not deliver art through that form, would there be another one that you would attempt, you would want to try?

Ms. WRIGHT: I think so. One thing that I've always enjoyed is seeing people together, and I'm not a great waitress, but I love serving people. Like my last job, I was a barista in New Jersey, when I first moved up to New York. I was in New Jersey for about eight months, and I did it because I liked seeing people. I liked seeing people sit together, you know, and I like serving them. I like interacting with them. I just like it.

GORDON: Do you see singing as serving?

Ms. WRIGHT: Yeah. Yeah. It's the only moment where I don't have to be my age. I don't have to answer to my limited physical experience. I kind of just fall back into the music, and I feel very--it feels very, like, maternal. It's like a giving kind of thing.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) If you hear the song I sing, you must understand, you hold the key to love and fear all in your trembling hands.

GORDON: Lizz Wright, we can't wait to see what you do next. The new CD is called "Dreaming Wide Awake," and for those who loved the first one, even though it's different, I would think that they will love this one as well. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thanks, Ed.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) ...hand. Come on, people, now, smile on your brother...

CHIDEYA: That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) Come on, people, now, smile on your brother, everybody get together...

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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