Cassandra Wilson Takes Flight on 'Thunderbird' Jazz star Cassandra Wilson's latest album soars over a swirling array of musical influences. She tells Debbie Elliott about a work that pays tribute to the Native American spirit and the rich traditions of American music.
NPR logo

Cassandra Wilson Takes Flight on 'Thunderbird'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Cassandra Wilson Takes Flight on 'Thunderbird'

Cassandra Wilson Takes Flight on 'Thunderbird'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Critics and musicians alike have called Cassandra Wilson one of the best jazz singers of her generation. Her smoky, sultry voice pulls you right up close.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. CASSANDRA WILSON (Singer): (Singing) You're the sun in the distance, turning me a pretty golden brown. Smoke and rum is my mission, but happiness is all I need right now.

Cassandra Wilson has recorded more than a dozen albums, seven for the highly regarded jazz label Blue Note. Her latest album, Thunderbird, is a collage of Wilson's techniques. And it's a reflection of an emotional year for the singer. The album kicks off with this song, Go to Mexico. Embedded in the song is a musical sample from the Tchapatoulis Mardi Gras Indians. It's a song that melds past and future, old school and cutting edge. Throughout the Thunderbird album, Cassandra Wilson draws on the personal and the mythic.

Ms. WILSON: Thunderbird means many things, but I like the story about the thunderbird bringing about drastic change through nature. He claps his hands or he flaps his wings and the thunder comes, and it might seem as if it's terrible or horrible, but afterwards there's great calm and it's a beautiful day.

ELLIOTT: Is this album a drastic change for you?

Ms. WILSON: I think so. If feels very tingly. I don't know any other way to describe. When I listen to it, I feel as if there's been some sort of paradigm shift in my consciousness. You know, and it's almost as if I feel - I feel as if I've jumped over the fence, you know, as if I've been kind of just standing on the fence. And now it's just, okay, full-fledged let's just jump out there.

ELLIOTT: You worked with T-Bone Burnett on this, a very seasoned producer. Our listeners might know some of his work, the soundtracks from O Brother Where Art Thou and Walk the Line. What was it like working with him?

Ms. WILSON: He's got a way about him. He's there and yet he's not there. You know, he can slip into a session and say, hmm, what about this? In that kind of a voice, you know, really softly and quietly. Or what about that? And then you start to think and you turn around and he's gone. So he's that kind of a producer. He's hands-on without being hands-on.

ELLIOTT: Without interfering in what you were trying to do?

Ms. WILSON: Yes.

ELLIOTT: You recorded a couple of T-Bone Burnett's songs on Thunderbird.

Ms. WILSON: Yes.

ELLIOTT: One of them is very dark and haunting. It's called Strike a Match.

(Soundbite of song "Strike a Match")

Ms. WILSON: (Singing) Strike a match so I can see if I've been down here before. Where is the floor? What is it for?

ELLIOTT: Where is the floor? What is it for? You sound as if you're almost spinning out of control in a dark room when you listen to this song.

Ms. WILSON: It reminds me of that ride at the carnival where you're in a cylinder and the floor drops. Did you ever take that ride?

ELLIOTT: Yeah. And you're going around really fast in a circle and your back is up against the - the wall. A very creepy feeling.

Ms. WILSON: Yes.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: It's very jarring. But you're kind of drawn to it at the same time, you know?

Ms. WILSON: Uh-huh. That's the point I think you want to be. You want to make it dark but you want to also make it dark and lush at the same time, you know. Inviting.

ELLIOTT: So in a song like Strike a Match there are these layers of emotion. What do you do to get that in a song?

Ms. WILSON: Well, with this one it was really easy for me to go there. It's not hard for me to go there. And you just imagine, you know, circumstances, experiences, remembrances that you have. And you go there. And you have to go there.

ELLIOTT: That sounds hard.

Ms. WILSON: It's hard work but somebody's gotta do it.

ELLIOTT: But isn't it difficult to, you know, especially in a song like this that brings you to a pretty dark place, you must just be emotionally wrung out when you're finished?

Ms. WILSON: Yes. You know, it's almost as if you go into a trance, but it's not really a trance because you - you control it. There's a part of your mind that's always there that's in charge. So that part of your mind just tells you okay, come back. Snap back. Let's go to the emotional space that we need to be in and prepare for that.

ELLIOTT: So while you were making this album you were going through a dark time.

Ms. WILSON: Yes. It was a very difficult time for me. It was the beginning of my mother's Alzheimer's issues, you know. And of course a whole slew of other crazy things were happening in my life. Problems with relationships and, you know, the feeling of being confined and sad and depressed. And learning that, you know, this too shall end, this too shall pass, and that that's just the way of life, is that, you know, you have hills and valleys and you just have to be true to yourself and be faithful and hopeful.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. WILSON: (Singing) From this valley they say you are going.

ELLIOTT: There's several songs on here that are very emotional but one that strikes me is the old ballad Red River Valley. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of song "Red River Valley")

Ms. WILSON: (Singing) For they say you are taking the sunshine which has brightened up that way. Oh why?

ELLIOTT: Wow, your voice. You just hear it so purely and clearly. It's just you and the slide guitar. I think a producer told me you can almost walk into the space between the notes. That's what she could feel when she heard this.

(Soundbite of song "Red River Valley")

Ms. WILSON: (Singing) Come and sit by my side if you love me. Do not hasten to bid me adieu. But remember the Red River Valley and the girl who has loved you so true. Do you think of the valley that you're leaving...

Ms. WILSON: It's always had a very special meaning for me. I love old folk music, you know, songs that speak about the vastness of the heartland or the mountains or, you know, that thing that we have in America, you know, when we are in the middle of it and we recognize the great beauty and there's - there's some sort of melancholy that's always attached to songs like Shenandoah Valley, you know, Red River Valley. Those kind of song always resonated for me.

ELLIOTT: You talked about how this album sort of symbolized you going from one side of the fence to the other. What's on the other side of that fence?

Ms. WILSON: Freedom. Absolute freedom is on the other side of the fence. The freedom to - to sing whatever I feel like singing, not to be afraid.

ELLIOTT: Do you think that this album reflects your impression of what jazz can and should mean? The range that's on this album?

Ms. WILSON: Yes. In a word I do. I have a very different idea about jazz. I think that it - it should be more inclusive. I think that we place too many restrictions on the music and on the musicians. So that, you know, they're unable to be innovative, they're unable to really propel the music into the 21st century.

ELLIOTT: Is there a song on here that you think in particular propels jazz into the 21st century?

Ms. WILSON: Well, yeah. I think that there are some elements in Go to Mexico that are very cutting-edge. Some of the vocal stuff that's used, and you probably can't hear it that well unless you're, you know, playing on a really great sound system, but some of the vocal stuff, there's a sound that's like a backwards - it has a backward motion instead of a forward motion. There's like a line inside of it. (Hums melody) And it's underneath, it's like - it's the background vocals for Go to Mexico. And it comes in and out. But it sounds to me as if it's - you remember the Missy Elliott song where she sang - she sings a chorus and it - it's actually her singing? They've turned it around.

ELLIOTT: And they play it backwards?

Ms. WILSON: They play it backwards. Well, instead of doing that mechanically, I'm doing that vocally. I mean without the mechanics. You know, it's not being turned back. I'm turning myself backwards.

ELLIOTT: How do you do that?

Ms. WILSON: Very carefully.

(Soundbite of song "Go to Mexico")

Ms. WILSON: (Singing) You can go to Mexico. You can go to Mexico.

ELLIOTT: Cassandra Wilson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WILSON: Thank you so much, Debbie. I enjoyed it.

(Soundbite of song "Go to Mexico")

Ms. WILSON: (Singing) You can go to Mexico.

ELLIOTT: To hear more from Cassandra Wilson's newest album, Thunderbird, go to our Web site, That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.