Lizz Wright Returns with 'The Orchard' The soulful singer-songwriter talks about her new album, The Orchard, during a studio performance chat. Wright opens up about her music, her life, and what's next for her recording career.

Lizz Wright Returns with 'The Orchard'

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I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Her music is a mixture of jazz, folk and R&B. Lizz Wright, the 28-year-old singer and songwriter from Georgia, is already a well-known name on the jazz scene. Her first album, "Salt," reached number two in the Billboard Top Contemporary Jazz Charts, and her second, "Dreaming Wide Awake," reached number one soon after it was released.

Now she has a new album. It's called "The Orchard." It's available at the end of the month. Joining me for a performance chat right here in our studio in Washington is Lizz Wright. Welcome. Thank you for stopping by.

Ms. LIZZ WRIGHT: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Lizz, I hope you don't mind my saying this, but you're very young, but you already have produced and recorded three albums, and they're all different. Do you think you're still experimenting with your sound, or do you just want to show us everything you can do?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, I guess that is a character of youth, to want to pull everything out of your pockets and count your marbles in front of everybody, but I also am really open. I'm in a really open place and I enjoy openness, and I think part of what I like to do is take things in and very quickly release the first response, you know. So a lot of things I'm responding to or that I'm writing are based on impressions that have just come across me.

MARTIN: I want to talk a little the your roots. Your father's a minister. I understand you started singing gospel and playing the piano in church. How do you think those experiences influenced your sound and who you are as a performer?

Ms. WRIGHT: I love that question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WRIGHT: It explains a lot. The wonderful thing about playing in church, or at least playing in my father's church, was my role in the service was to bring people together and to like bring us all into one spirit, a fellowship and communion, and so music is still very much about communion for me. It's also about worship and giving thanks and just talking about what it is to be human and to be here right now.

And I find that in everybody's music. It affects the way not only that I make music but the way I listen to other people's music. I really wonder how their hearts feel, and since, you know, the voice is my world, sometimes I wonder how people are feeling based on, like, what comes out of their mouth or just the way it makes me feel.

MARTIN: And instrumentation is interesting. For your first album you used the piano as the main instrument. For the second, the guitar. For the third, was there a particular instrument that formed kind of a core of a sound?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, I think for the third record it had more to do with leaning back on the blues and soul and, well, we really used a combination of guitar and piano.

MARTIN: Why did you name the album "The Orchard?" And beautiful cover art, by the way. It's very dramatic and a little ominous, I think.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you. Honestly, there's an orchard that's near my grandmother's house, and it's on the other side of the fence, a really old fence that's like half vines, really. And it runs back, you know, along a ditch, and I've been looking at it for years and I've never crossed the fence. It's someone else's land, but the orchard is so beautiful because there's these really big old trees, and they hang so far over the lanes, and it's so well-manicured. It just looks like another world.

And I also decided to call this "The Orchard" because this record is more - more than the other ones, I did a lot of writing, and a lot of things were inspired by my everyday life and by the relationships that are very tangible.

MARTIN: You co-wrote six of the songs with Toshi Reagon. I understand that you're also friends. Tell me a little bit about that collaboration. How did it start, and why do you think you work so well together?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, Toshi's an amazing spirit and a beautiful musician. She came into my life through producer Craig Street. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, which I do now, and yeah, that's right, Brooklyn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Brooklyn in the house.

Ms. WRIGHT: And he said I'm going to try. I'm going to try. He said I don't know what's going to happen, but I'll just, you know, I'll bring her by. And I remember when Toshi first sang in my living space and just the way her voice moved through the room. I knew that she was a part of my life, like not just a part of that project. Yeah, it's nice to actually work with friends. I don't know if I ever really did that, work with someone so close.

MARTIN: And you also have included covers on all of your albums. I was just wondering how you go about choosing.

Ms. WRIGHT: A lot of the covers are just sparks that come out of conversations. The people I work with I really enjoy, you know, wandering through their music, and everyone knows I'm the kid. I'm the youngest person I work with. Everybody else is a little bit older than me, you know.

MARTIN: Tell me about it.

Ms. WRIGHT: And so everybody's really happy to expose me to something, and I'm really enjoying responding to it, and the way things are introduced to me is through friends and people who are excited to share something with me. So for instance, like the Led Zeppelin cover came from Toshi. She really has loved Led Zeppelin for year, and she played it for me, a very simple version on her guitar in the living room. So for me it's a sweet song. And then later I learned the weight of it, and I was like oh my God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: There's one cover I think you're going to play for us. It's called "I Idolize You" by Ike Turner. Now, that's a complicated man right there.

Ms. WRIGHT: Yeah. You know, he reminds me a lot of some of the stories that I have lived in and just been around being raised in the South, you know, and my father being a minister, and sometimes, you know, depending on the religion or the particular ideals of a church or something, you know, the women are kind of in this bit of a subjective role, and the interesting thing is some women really love to serve and help and support their men. It's their lives, and when they love it, it's beautiful. But I've also, of course, seen the bad side of it.

For me, this song is a big victory. I was personally really - well, like every woman in the world - touched by Tina Turner's story and her strength, and hearing the original recording of this was really moving because her voice sounds - she almost sounds wild. She's so powerful. It sounds actually quite different in some of the stuff we hear more of, and that voice with that fight in it, with that determination to be alive, to be here and to do what whatever's going to do was so compelling and brought all these feelings back to me. I had to do it.

MARTIN: Well, let's hear it. "I Idolize You."

Ms. WRIGHT: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "I Idolize You")

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) If you want some loving, baby, that I'll give to you. If you want some hugging, baby, well I can hug some, too. All I want, baby, is some thought from you, just a little of affection, yes. You know that's going to see me through. Well you know that you are my kind, and I want you, I want you to be mine. I idolize you, baby, yeah. What a thrill, when the lights are low. I'm gonna scream to you, baby. I'm trying to let you know. All I really want, baby, is some thought from you, just a little bit of attention. You know it's going to see me through. Yeah, you know you are my kind, and I want you, I want you to be mine. Yeah, I said you are my kind, and I want you, I want you to be mine. I idolize you, baby, yes I do. I can't help myself. I think I need you, baby.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. This is Michel Martin, and I'm talking to singer and songwriter Lizz Wright about her new album, "The Orchard." Well, that was hot. That was very hot, very bluesy, very bluesy. Were you feeling something in particular when you were putting this album together?

Ms. WRIGHT: I wasn't sure what I was going to come up with, but I just really let myself be kind of wild and random and see what happened, and I tried to - especially working with Craig Street, you know. I think he's all for that, too, just see what happens and respond first without thought. And then we can always carve a body out of what we've done.

MARTIN: You know, it's funny. You use the word wild and random, but it feels to me very thoughtful, like you were thinking something through. Does that sound funny?

Ms. WRIGHT: He played this for me in his kitchen. He played the original version for me, and I asked him to take out his guitar, and I heard this in it right away. Yeah, it's funny. Sometimes the most intelligent things are just instant and really don't have anything to do with what we think, I guess.

MARTIN: Well, okay.

Ms. WRIGHT: I don't know.

MARTIN: But of course, you know, as I said earlier, that you, you know, the earlier work, you know, you've got your passionate fans about each of your earlier pieces. Do you want to tell me briefly what was going on with "Salt," for example? That was your first album. Still has people with worn-out CDs on their shelf.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WRIGHT: Well "Salt," you know, "Salt"'s about everything that happened getting up and having a record deal. It's about, you know, my life in the church, also like the influence of the choral music, and so - and also I really hear - I guess everyone looks at their life and they decide what's their wild time or the time when they were fighting. I definitely hear myself breaking into a world that I didn't quite understand and singing loud so I can remember where I came from, and I kind of like to hear that fire sometimes, just to remember some things.

MARTIN: Well, how do you feel about singing something from "Salt" for us?

Ms. WRIGHT: I feel great.

MARTIN: Okay, how about "Walk with Me, Lord"?

Ms. WRIGHT: Oh, gospel's always good.

MARTIN: All right. "Walk with Me, Lord." This is from "Salt."

(Soundbite of song, "Walk with Me, Lord")

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) Walk with me, Lord; walk with me. Hold my hand, Lord; please hold my hand. Hold me while I'm on this journey, my Lord yeah. Come and hold my hand, Lord, hold my hand. Take my hand, now, yeah 'cuz I need you when I'm going on without your spirit, yeah. I need you now. Come by here. Oh Lord. Come on and speak to me, Lord, yeah, yeah, yeah. Walk with me. Sanctify me. Walk with me. Oh, walk with me.

MARTIN: All right. I got a hand wave, and I got the hand waving in the air. That was funky. I like it. What's next for you?

Ms. WRIGHT: You mean career-wise or song-wise?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Whatever. Whatever's most important.

Ms. WRIGHT: What I've been talking to the Lord about?

MARTIN: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, we're going to leave here and go to Europe, and then the record comes out in the States on either February 25th or 26th. You know, we're playing hopscotch with the dates, but somewhere around there. And so I'm really excited to be back on the road. It's been a year that I've been off, had a lot of time to just sit and collect and grow a little older. So I'm really looking forward to that, and yeah.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for coming to see us, and everybody who came along with you. We sure do appreciate it.

Ms. WRIGHT: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Lizz Wright is a singer and songwriter. Her new album is called "The Orchard." She joined us from our studios in Washington. To hear full songs by Lizz Wright and hundreds more studio sessions by musicians, check out our new music Web site at Lizz Wright, thank you so much.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you, Michel. Can I say who's here with me? Does it matter?

MARTIN: We would love it. We would love to hear who's here with you. I was afraid to. I thought I'd get the names wrong.

Ms. WRIGHT: Oh no. I feel very blessed today to have with me singing vocals Ms. Gina Breedlover. On guitar and also on my record is Oren Bloedow, and on drums today is Brother Chris - Brother...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WRIGHT: Brother Chris Eddleton(ph), and on keys is John Delly(ph), and on bass Nick D'Amato(ph).

MARTIN: Which song do you think you want to take us out on?

Ms. WRIGHT: You know, a song I really like playing with the people I have with me here today is called "Speak Your Heart." And so yeah, we're going to play that now.

MARTIN: I'd love to hear it. Thank you so much, and thank you, everybody.

(Soundbite of song, "Speak Your Heart")

Ms. WRIGHT: (Singing) I know what you want to say. I see the words behind your eyes. By the time you show me what your heart is, it won't be a surprise. Why do you keep on whispering, talking with your face turned away? You say that love don't come easy for you. What makes you think I ain't afraid? Let me in or let me go. It's time you tell me where you're standing. I won't go down if you say no. Just open up your mouth and say it, baby. Speak your heart. Speak your heart.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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