CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Your love life might be full of ups and downs. But every once in a while, you have to be honest about where the relationship is really going.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TRUTH")
LEDISI: (Singing) We don't even kiss. Can't live on life like this. Turn to face the truth, baby. I don't love you like I used to. You know that we grew apart, scared to leave, just don't want to be lonely. Instead we wasted too much time living lies. It's time to face the truth, baby, the truth about you and me.
HEADLEE: That's "The Truth." It's the title cut from singer-songwriter Ledisi's latest album. For the past decade or so, she's picked up a global following, not to mention eight Grammy nominations. She's on tour now and stopped by to chat with us. Welcome.
LEDISI: Well, thank you for having me.
HEADLEE: So let's talk about this - well, you know what? Actually, let's talk about eight Grammy nominations and no Grammy win. What's that like?
LEDISI: (Laughing) Look, I'm so happy every time I'm nominated because at least I'm being recognized. Every album so far has been recognized. So I'm grateful for that. I would like to win, but, you know...
HEADLEE: I don't blame you.
LEDISI: That's the truth. I would like to. But it'll happen when it's time. So...
HEADLEE: So you've actually said that making this particular album was scary, which is surprising. You've been performing for a very long time, and this is hardly your first album coming off the presses. What made this one scary for you?
LEDISI: Well, it's even more personal than any of the albums. I mean, I'm talking about not being in denial anymore about a relationship that wasn't working. And it was a long relationship, and I'm putting it all out there.
I usually do, but this is my love life. That's - to me, that's personal. Gaining success or wishing for success in my career and how I feel about that is another thing. I don't mind that being out there. But a personal relationship of my own, putting it all out there, that was different for me.
HEADLEE: How does it change the way you sing something or the way you prepare something when it is that personal, as opposed to maybe a love song someone else wrote for you when you're interpreting it it?
LEDISI: Well, most of the songs, usually I write anyway. So it's the same feeling. It's just more intense, especially every night performing that song, "The Truth," because it's, oh, wow, it's so - it's like I relive the moment every time of the awakening. It's - to me, accepting the truth was an awakening, like, OK, this is it. No more denial. No more settling. This isn't working. Pack your crap and go. (Laughing) You know what I mean?
That was hard for me. And then to put it in a song at 3 a.m. in the morning in New York City while I'm almost done with my album - this is the second-to-the-last song and I don't have a title of the album yet. And here we are, I'm being awakened by these words and this situation. And I started writing, and I called my executive producer, Rex - he and I - executive producer Rex Rideout. I said, I have it. I have the song. I have everything. Here it is.
HEADLEE: You called your producer before you let your significant other hear the song?
LEDISI: Of course, and then we weren't together then. I had already did it, but I didn't want to talk about it. I wanted to stay in denial and just kind of skate around it. It was no skating. And the words were so great. I mean, that first line - like a hurricane without warning - that's how you feel being from New Orleans. You got to get it together. Hurry up. What are we going to do? Yeah, that's how it feels.
HEADLEE: You use hurricane, and you're from New Orleans...
HEADLEE: ...That's a pretty powerful metaphor.
LEDISI: Hello. It hit home right away. So for me, there we are. Here it is.
HEADLEE: Were you even present when he heard the song, or did he just hear it when...
LEDISI: No. I don't know what he heard or not heard.
HEADLEE: You don't know if he's heard it yet.
LEDISI: He did say it was a great album, the entire album. So, yeah. I don't think letting go is a bad thing. Sometimes that's the whole point of the truth, is letting go doesn't have to be sad love songs. Letting go doesn't have to be a bad thing. It's a good thing. We deserve happiness. And if you're in something, and it started out a certain way and it ended up another way, you don't have to stay there. And that's my friend. We were better friends. The realization of that is a great feeling.
HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about another one, and this one is entirely the other way in terms of - this one feels like pure joy to me. This is "I Blame You."
HEADLEE: Don't judge the lyrics by the title. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BLAME YOU")
LEDISI: (Singing) People keep asking about this glow I seem to have 'cause I'm just not the same. They say I'm walking different, talking different. Looks like all of me has changed. Magic that's in my eyes, I can no longer hide. When they look at me, what they really see...
HEADLEE: One of the things I really appreciate your singing - it's been true about all your albums - is I never lose the melody. You know what I mean? Very often...
LEDISI: (Laughing) Love you. I love this lady.
HEADLEE: Very often in R&B singing, you - there's - I mean, you're fully capable of putting as many ornamentations as any other person. But I can walk away from hearing your album and actually sing the melody. I know what the melody is.
HEADLEE: How conscious of a choice was that in terms of your style?
LEDISI: I love this album in particular - and all of them, actually - I always focus on if you can whistle it, if you're on the bus, I want to be with you everywhere. If you're at work, and you need to a lifter to get through that extra two hours, that's what I'm thinking when I'm writing a song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BLAME YOU")
LEDISI: (Singing) My mind is frozen, got me open off your love. Can't think of no one else. I smell the roses, doing poses in the mirror. You make me love myself. The magic in my eyes, I can no longer hide.
When they look at me, what they really see is the love you got me feeling, like I'm dancing on the ceiling. I can hardly breathe 'cause you're all I need. So when they ask me why I'm smiling like a fool, I blame you. Oh, baby...
LEDISI: Sometimes artists can be selfish and do what they want and be...
LEDISI: Yeah, and be more expressive in an artistic way. But for me, I'm always thinking about my listener and how I can empower their lives and make them feel better. And it starts with the melody and the lyrics. It always starts everywhere, wherever I naturally go. But it could be the melody, sometimes the lyrics. Like the other songs were the lyrics.
But I told - I wrote that song with Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony. We did "Pieces Of Me," and I told them I wanted something upbeat. They had ballads for me, and I said, that's great. I'm not doing that this time. I want to feel good. I feel good about this change. And they saw me, and they were like, you're glowing, and you feel good.
Yes, I want people to feel that, that love. Even though I let go of love, I feel good about the self-love I have. And now I'm getting the love I deserve because someone's seeing that in me and want a part of that, want to be around it. And that feels good. So to me, letting go, like I said, it's a journey.
HEADLEE: You know, I was not surprised - I think it's very audible to know that you have a background in gospel and in jazz. That's really clear to me. But I was also not surprised to find out that you had a background in classical music and in opera. And...
LEDISI: I loved opera first.
HEADLEE: And, you know, - and here's how it connects back to what I was just saying, is that if you're doing, say, baroque music or something, you have to decide where to ornament. You have to decide where to depart from the melody.
HEADLEE: And your musical feels very intentional to me that way.
LEDISI: Yes, it goes with the feeling of a word, though, too, just like classical music. Where do you want to express that one feeling the most? And I'm glad I learned from that. I studied classical when I was - that was the first thing I heard the radio. My mom was weird, gypsy, loved country, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and classical music.
So I would hear it on the radio, and it'd just sound loud and ring - it rang bells, just the notes. I didn't know what they were saying, but I loved the way it made me feel. So I wanted to be loud. My teachers - oh, no, here she comes again. (Laughing) So that's my favorite thing, and that's where I started. And starting gospel, I learned that later when I moved to Oakland. But in New Orleans, we studied jazz and classical music. That's what I learned.
HEADLEE: Let's hear another cut from your album, and I think it kind of reflects what we're talking about here. This one's called "That Good Good."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT GOOD GOOD")
LEDISI: (Singing) I'm the type of woman knows what she want and ain't afraid to say what I need. I want a kind of man that really understands and ain't afraid to give it to me. Put your arms around me, like you're glad you found me. Say you can't live without me. This kind of love don't come free. Show me your time, your touch. Boy, give me that affection. I need your attention...
HEADLEE: So, I mean, props to you. Your pitch is exact. Your rhythm is exact. I wonder what - what do you hear when you listen to other pop music and maybe sometimes fudging - or sometimes when there's other artists who don't read music, who don't study voice, what's your advice to the up-and-coming pop singers? Does it matter to have that study behind you?
LEDISI: It matters to me, but I don't know. I love it because I'm a studier of music. And not everyone is, and that's OK, long as there's a - what are you trying to get across? What is your meaning? It's always about the lyrics for me first. The melody is someone else. And the rhythm, the meaning and the rhythm - I'm always into the rhythm. I started on the drums, really ironically, so - and then I went to voice, trying to be like my mom. My stepdad play drums, so everything is off of the beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT GOOD GOOD")
LEDISI: (Singing) Your heart, your soul, boy, all of that and then some. Work it till I'm losing my cool. Give me love - that good good - the kind that's going to keep me that. Give me love - that good good. If you can't, then I don't want you there 'cause I don't need no one with me that don't compare. Give me love - that good good.
LEDISI: I always listen for the beat, and what are you trying to get across, whether it be ratchet or not ratchet - long as it's - you know, you believe it. It's really you. That's what I'm looking for - originality, authenticity, is that really who you are?
(SOUNDBITE OF LEDISI SONG, "THAT GOOD GOOD")
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with singer-songwriter Ledisi about her latest album, "The Truth."
I wonder if you feel if there's any extra obligation for you as an R&B singer because you're an African-American woman. I wonder if you feel as though there is some need for you to be a role model.
LEDISI: It's so much pressure to be everyone's boxes, so the only thing I can promise to anyone is to be myself at all times. Even when I wanted to quit the business, it was because I couldn't be myself.
HEADLEE: You took five years off, right?
LEDISI: Yeah, I was exhausted because - I didn't take it off. It just happened that way. I mean, I was exhausted from - I was ready to quit because I couldn't be me. Everyone wanted me to be a certain size or look a certain way or sing a certain way. And I came into the industry being myself. I wanted to stay that way. And when I signed with my label, I said, I have to be me. I know my audience. I know who I am. Allow me to be me. They never changed me, never told me what to do. They've supported me since I've been in it. And here we are, me being me. That's all I can promise to anyone.
As far as being a role model, I'm not perfect. And I display my imperfections on my recordings. All I can do is create music to empower and uplift, and hopefully it will reach more than just old-school. It can reach new-school and everyone. I'm trying to get everyone involved in the beauty of our music, whether it be jazz, R&B, pop. Whatever I do, I just want to uplift, and that's all I can promise. But my life, I'm not perfect. I'm so not - I'm far from it.
HEADLEE: Ledisi is a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter whose latest album, "The Truth" is available now. She joined us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. in the midst of her tour. Thanks very much.
LEDISI: Oh, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
HEADLEE: We couldn't let you go without a little more music from Ledisi's album "The Truth." Here is "Like This."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE THIS")
LEDISI: (Singing) Don't want to be with you. You singing someone else's song. And all the stuff you did before, before I came along. I'm not the one. We can't be one like this.
HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE THIS")
LEDISI: (Singing) ...I'm not to blame. I want to love. I want to love you like this.
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