Lizz Wright talks about loss, cheffing in the community, and recalls hanging out with jazz legend Jimmy Scott. 

As a serious recording artist whose career is almost midway through its third decade, singer/songwriter Lizz Wright doesn’t take herself too seriously. Describing herself somewhat self-effacingly as a “loopy Aquarian,” she laughs a lot during our Zoom conversation; a warm, melodious rivulet of mirth that flows naturally from someone who is seemingly at one with themselves and the world – someone who projects warmth, humility, positive vibes and gives the impression of being in love with life. But as her new album Shadow reveals, the 42-year-old songstress, a preacher’s daughter originally from Harira, a small town in Georgia, has endured her fair share of trials and tribulations. For Wright, chief among hers is the recent passing of her grandmother, Martha Gray, whom she describes in the album’s liner notes as “a defining love in my life” and who “gave me the backbone to stand and sing in front of rooms of strangers all these years and never feel alone.” 

Though loss is always devastating, especially bereavement, Wright has been able to transmute her pain and grief into honest, reflective music that pays tribute to her grandmother’s love and influence. “I never knew that grief would be such an honour or could be so beautiful,” explains the singer, who reveals the album’s gestation came during a difficult and unsettling time for everyone in the world when the pandemic struck in 2020. It was a period when the once-solid ground beneath Wright’s feet began to wobble and make her feel unsteady. The world she knew seemed to have gone. Once sure-footed and confident in life’s certainties, she was now tip-toeing uncertainly in an unrecognisable and almost alien world.  

“Between Covid and the very slow arc of transition that my grandmother had, I got to exist in a very unstructured space,” she reveals, explaining how the rug was pulled from beneath her feet. 

“Not knowing what was happening with the stages (due to Covid), turning 40 … All those things about being a young female and trying to be attractive, and worrying about what a family structure would be, receded into the background. I just felt like I was in this open field with a lack of answers.”

Wright laughs long and heartily when I venture that Shadow might be her mid-life crisis record. It’s a perception, perhaps, that she hasn’t contemplated, but the singer finds the suggestion an amusing twist rather than an accurate evaluation of what she’s created. The album’s themes of examining relationships, taking stock of life, and wrestling with the cards that fate has dealt, seem to suggest a rites of passage rumination as middle age approaches. Wright, however, sees it differently. 

“No, I think it’s the beauty and the awkwardness of freedom,” she states, offering a different interpretation. “You get the open field and you don’t know where you want to go. Freedom can be cold because when the shelter of all these defining ideas and relationships that were a source of warmth and security go away, you’re left with the open sky and a flat field. You have this beautiful awkwardness to get through and uncertainty, but it’s a gift and it’s weird. I think the beginning of freedom in every kind of story has this element. What I was trying to do was just to bring some grace, humour, and sweetness to that. That’s so much what this record is about.”

Shadow is a beautiful record and arguably one of Wright’s most compelling artistic statements in a career that began in 2003 when she signed to Verve Records, releasing her debut album Salt, which garnered rave reviews and put her firmly on the music map. Though initially marketed as a jazz singer, over the next twenty years, Wright would forge a distinctive style that was an ineffable and genre-blurring amalgam of gospel, soul, jazz, country, folk, and pop influences. 

In some ways, Shadow is the apotheosis of Wright’s singular take on rootsy Americana music. The singer’s mellow contralto voice, whose effect on the listener is like a honeyed, healing balm, is mostly framed by acoustic guitar frameworks supplied by her producer Chris Bruce. A talented multi-instrumentalist and producer from Chicago, Bruce’s credits include Meshell Ndegeocello, Wendy & Lisa, Seal, and Trevor Horn.

“Chris is a really beautifully sensitive man,” says Wright. “He’s very quiet and doesn’t use an excess of words, but he’s deeply thoughtful. Chris has such a sense of style and design in everything he does. He’s super-understated, but it’s always really amazing.” 

She adds: “He did so much for me as a producer that I didn’t expect so it was just a lot to be discovered. It was like the guy who facilitates all of the dreams finally got to speak. He was a real treasure trove of things I never anticipated.”

Given her 20-plus years of experience as a recording artist, is making albums easier now than it was when she started? “It does get easier,” she admits, “but every project certainly presents new challenges. I’m grateful for that. It’s important to keep growing, of course, and this record in particular, presented great challenges – and a lot of fun – in just trying to figure out what we wanted to do. But it was more about discovery than anything.”

She and Bruce collaborate as writers on five of the album’s eleven songs, including the bright opener, ‘Sparrow,’ which is tinged with a subtle but perceptible Afrobeat pulse. It features the world-renowned Benin-born singer Angélique Kidjo, with whom Wright has collaborated before (on the singer’s fourth album, 2010’s Fellowship) and a Nina Simone tribute event.   

“I love Angélique so much,” enthuses Wright, who has a close connection with the African multi-Grammy winner. “She’s a fireball. I call her ‘Honey Bee.’ She’s one of the busiest performers that I know but she cares a lot about people staying connected and she’s very good about staying in touch. She still manages to remember my birthday and every holiday.”   

The versatile multi-instrumentalist Meshell Ndegeocello, who lays down the sinuous bass line on the track ‘Your Love,’ is also someone whom Wright has worked with before. “Meshell is such a surprise,” says Wright. “There was a duet I wanted to do with her, ‘Leather & Lace,’ but she couldn’t do it because she had some other projects going on. I was fine with that and I didn’t ask for anything else but then one day, Chris Bruce, who works closely with her in her touring band, said, ‘Meshell heard ‘Your Love’ and decided to put a bass part on it.’ So that’s how that happened.” 

Another highlight among the original material is the delicate ethereal ballad, ‘Circling,’ where Wright’s voice floats over Bruce’s filigreed fretwork. “It was such an odd little baby,” laughs Wright. “Chris sent me a guitar sketch and I just made up this little movie in my head and then just wrote it.” She adds with a laugh: “It was fun because it showed a different part of my (vocal) register. My old course teacher who used to yell at me to stay a second soprano will probably be pretty pleased that I can still do anything in that register anymore.”

Among the album’s covers are versions of UK folk-rock group Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny-written ‘Who Know Where The Time Goes’ – which appears on the longer CD version of Shadow – and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ ‘I Made A Lover’s Prayer,’ both reworked in novel ways reflecting Wright’s musical sensibilities. The Georgia singer also recasts southern soul siren Candi Staton’s Clarence Carter-penned ‘Sweet Feeling’ into a chugging blues number. 

A more remarkable metamorphosis comes via her remake of Cole Porter’s 84-year-old jazz standard, ‘I Concentrate On You,’ which Wright transforms into a folk-tinged meditation augmented by strings. “It’s always like walking on sacred ground to take on something that people love and know so well,” observes Wright of the Porter classic. “And there’s a tiny threat in it that, like if you don’t follow the melody and every single note, someone will take you to the mat for it. I’ve loved the song for a very long time, and I was really grateful for it, coming from the jazz tradition, being a perfect piece for a record that’s very much about moving through a valley of uncertainty where I’m finding my way. To give that kind of lyrical presence in life to this great standard was a lot of fun.” 

What has she learned about herself during her 21 years as a recording artist? “I’m a lot stronger than I thought,” she confesses after a moment’s hesitation. “Also, I don’t have to do everything, I don’t have to know everything, I have to just keep learning. I think working with great people and putting them in positions where they can stand in their strengths and be generous, celebrated, and feel purpose is a really important part of leadership – knowing everything isn’t possible and it’s not needed. That was a hard lesson to learn. You wear yourself out trying to do and be everything, and you realize that you’re surrounded by this great abundance of intelligence, creativity, experience and compassion. Your job is to be a very humble conductor of that.” 

Wright admits that she’s fulfilled some of the goals she set for herself when she first became a singer. “I’ve checked off a few things,” she states, but she still harbours other ambitions, including progressing as a student piano player. “I still want to keep growing as a songwriter and still want to write music for film. I have the beginnings of all this in front of me now. So if I would just be more disciplined and a soft walker as a student piano player, I’ll get to the rest of the list.” 

Outside of music, Wright realised a culinary ambition in 2017 when she opened a cafe in Chicago’s Little Black Pearl community arts centre. “It’s called Carver 47,” she reveals. “We opened in July of 2017.” 

During the pandemic, the cafe in the Windy City’s Bronzeville area became a vital community hub, serving the local area by donating meals to the infirm, old, and needy. For Wright, food and music are closely connected. In a bold move that may have surprised some of her fans, the singer took a break from music in 2009 to add another string to her bow by studying at New York City’s Natural Gourmet Institute, where she learned to be a chef. “I always wanted a cafe,” says the singer who moved to the “Windy City” in 2016. “I can’t believe that I now have one with an incredible partner (Monica Haslip) and a beautiful team to share it with.” 

She says the venture has brought her closer to her local community and keeps her grounded. 

“Having more involvement in the community and just working and being around education and young people has given me a less untethered life,” explains Wright, who says her extracurricular activities are an escape from but also inspire her music. 

 “I think I was certainly doing that artist thing where I was living out of boxes and waiting to get on platforms, living a waiting-by-the-phone type of life, which is also beautiful in its way too. But it’s nice to belong to people and be in a relationship with all kinds of folks and have to figure it out because that becomes an endless emotional bank to draw on. There’s so much constant learning that I feel like, if I can just hang in there being the sensitive worm I can be, there’s always going to be something to sing about.” 

Another new venture, this time music-related, is Wright’s launch of her record label, Blues & Greens. “After over 20 years in this business, I developed real relationships with people, experts, from different parts of the work and got inspired to be a little more intentional about my place in it, about what I’m trying to do with my opportunities,” she explains. 

Part of her motivation in founding her label wasn’t just to seek artistic independence from the tentacles of major record labels, but because she was aware of the lack of foresight and preparedness by artists in the past that had left them facing penury. By owning her master recordings and taking sole responsibility for her music, she was taking care of her future. 

“My attention was captured by stories of musical and cultural icons and how they were aging – their financial and medical situations, their loneliness, being buried in unmarked graves, stuff that didn’t make sense in comparison to what they left for all of us. By the time they completed these epic careers, they’re like mothers and fathers to all of us when we think of what they’ve done. So watching them come into the resting and receiving part of their lives with these empty room existences really bothered me. I don’t blame anyone, I just think we can do much better.”  

Looking back over 21 years as a professional singer, Lizz Wright has accrued many precious memories but the highlight she treasures most happened right at the beginning of her career, just before her debut album was released. “It was the first time I came to Chicago because I was there for a tribute to Billie Holiday,” she recollects. “I was on my way to the Symphony Center in the back of a car with (legendary jazz singer) Jimmy Scott (pictured right) who was spilling Nacho crumbs on his lap and drinking a Coca-Cola. We were talking about Billie (Holiday) and both being preacher’s kids. Both of us were just giggling. I’m never gonna forget that moment. It’s a crazy and very surreal memory.”

Shadow Is Released Via Blues & Greens Records On April 12th, 2024