Vocalist Cassandra Wilson: 'Thunderbird'

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Cassandra Wilson's new album is Thunderbird. hide caption

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Vocalist Cassandra Wilson draws her inspiration for song from some unusual sources. That didn't stop Time magazine from naming her the best singer in America. Ed Gordon talks to the powerhouse singer about what drives her creatively, and about her latest CD, Thunderbird.

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(Soundbite of music)

ED GORDON, host:

Did you ever wonder how a great singer approaches a song? Well, who better to ask then vocalist Cassandra Wilson.

Ms. CASSANDRA WILSON (Vocalist): I've often described my singing as method singing. It's very similar to that school of acting. I really do find something in my life, an experience that I can tap into.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CASSANDRA WILSON: (Singing) A soft and sleeky you get when you're walking through a crowded space. I hear every word that you say…

GORDON: Time Magazine once called Cassandra Wilson, America's best singer. Of course, few vocalists would be comfortable with that title. Still even Wilson might agree that she's one of the most authentic voices in music today. That's exemplified in her latest project, Thunderbird. Wilson described her new CD and shared with me some of the ways she's able to fuse a song with so much emotion.

Ms. WILSON: The song often will touch you in a way that makes you remember a very specific and incident or a very specific moment or a very specific feeling. It almost happens instantaneously. When you listen to the song, it kind of pulls you in because it taps an emotion, something that's kind of raw that's already there.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CASSANDRA WILSON: (Singing) Tell me where my easy ride has gone…

GORDON: One of the interesting things that I've found is: you are, if nothing else, true to the South in terms of the kind of music you've selected throughout your career and also the interpretation of other songs really has a feeling of that Southern breeze, if you will. That is near and dear to your heart to this day, I would suspect, fair?

Ms. WILSON: It is very much. I really love my home. I love Mississippi. I love the South. I love our way of life. And I think when I left home in my mid-20's I lived in New York for quite a while, and I started to miss the South a lot; and I think that's what you feel and that's what your hear coming through the music.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CASSANDRA WILSON: (Singing) Tell me where my easy ride has gone…

GORDON: You've told of stories throughout your career in terms of how music really bridged the gap for you. You had gone to segregated schools up until high school, correct?

Ms. WILSON: That's right, the ninth grade, yes.

GORDON: Can you share the story with me, I understand that you tried out for Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and that helped really--you bridge the gap between white students who, to that point, you really had no reason to talk to.

Ms. WILSON: Yeah. We had a production, and at that time you had to--it was an integrated cast, and yes, I was chosen as Dorothy. It was really interesting, it was the first time I think that many of us had had the experience of sharing a class together, first of all, but sharing a production together. It was such a wonderful time then. We were learning about each other, and it was a lot of ideas that were exchanged.

GORDON: Because of that, you started to share music with whites in your school, music that you hadn't necessarily been introduced to at the time.

Ms. WILSON: Right. Let me back up, I started playing guitar when I was about 12 years old, and I started playing the acoustic guitar. And I would write songs, but I really was not that familiar with that tradition, you know, the folk music, the singer/songwriting tradition. So as a result of integration, I started hanging out with kids who were listening to people like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, and even Ritchie Havens, you know, I was not aware of. So that was a whole world that was introduced to me while I was going to school with these kids.

Ms. CASSANDRA WILSON: (Singing) In most cases, the eyes have it. But in your case you have the eyes. [unintelligible]through the underground, lost, please advise…

GORDON: This particular project, the latest, Thunderbird, first the title; why did you name it that?

Ms. WILSON: Well, I got that name because I got a Tarot reading while I was in LA. I just happened to go to this party during the down time in between sessions and I met this young man who was I would call him an ecumenical Tarot reader. He read the cards across cultures. He said in the reading that I had seen the thunderbird. Of course, I was intrigued. I didn't know what the thunderbird was. He is talking about the wine? Is he talking about the car? I went back to my hotel and I did some research on the thunderbird, and the more I read about the thunderbird, the more I realized that that reading was supposed to happen, and that there was something that I was supposed to learn from the myth of the thunderbird, and that's where the name comes from.

GORDON: Now, you know if he was talking about Thunderbird wine you should have left it alone at that point though, right?

Ms. WILSON: (Laughter)

GORDON: Let me ask you this, you have a song on the new project called Tarot. Was that inspired from that?

Ms. WILSON: Absolutely. But my songs always have cross-currents happening. There's inspiration coming from several places. This is one of the funny things about Tarot. I have a thing about online gambling. I don't know whether to confess this right now, but I love to play Texas Hold'em. And one of the things about Texas Hold'em is you learn about when to raise and when to fold. It's that song, you got to know when to hold, know when to fold them.

So there's a blending of that reading and this little underlying story about the whole raising on Kings and folding on Hearts, that thing. So that's one of my favorite songs on the album.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CASSANDRA WILSON: (Singing) I went to the Tarot woman yesterday. She looked at my cards and told me what they said. In your future I see fortune and dreams. You were such a restless soul… There's no way to deny it, I can…

GORDON: Do you ever get pressure to try to do something that is what the record industry would consider more commercial?

Ms. WILSON: You know, I've been really fortunate. I have not been pushed like that. I think that Blue Note realized what kind of an artist I was. I was pretty mature when they found me. So they knew what they were getting into. They were prepared for my eccentricities, so to speak.

GORDON: When Time Magazine calls you, quote, “America's Best Singer,” end quote, what do you think when you read that, when you hear that?

Ms. WILSON: I'm stunned. I was stunned when I first heard that, because the first person that pops into my mind as America's best singer is Aretha Franklin. That was the first person that I thought of. So yeah, I'm very honored by it, but I tell you, I keep doing what I'm doing. I don't really get caught up in that.

Ms. WILSON: (Singing) Don't walk away, just a little bit closer than you were yesterday. Eyes on the prize, don't look away, just a little bit closer than you were yesterday. Don't give up, don't give up. Don't look away, don't look away. Just a little bit closer than you were yesterday…

GORDON: Last question to you. I ask this of many, and often I get in trouble because no one wants to tell who their favorite child is. But do you have a favorite song on the latest project?

Ms. WILSON: It varies. I'm sure favorite children do. It depends on which one is working for you at the moment. Right now, I'm listening to Mexico a lot.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Sandra Wilson, we hope that you keep birthing them children for quite a long time. You have so many fans, included in that is me, and we appreciate it and look forward to talking to you again.

Ms. WILSON: Thank you so much, Ed. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Cassandra Wilson's latest CD, Thunderbird, hits stores today.

That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. We'd like to also thank member station WDET in Detroit, Michigan for hosting us today. To listen to the program, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS AND NOTES.

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