A five-year recording hiatus didn’t stop Lizz Wright from reclaiming a spot at the top of the Billboard jazz charts with her new release, “Freedom & Surrender.” It’s a fresh start for the 35-year-old singer-songwriter – with a new label and producer – but the CD finds Wright returning to her roots as a preacher’s daughter from the rural South. Wright says she had to summon the “warrior person in her soul” to overcome doubts about her musical career and obstacles to making the record.
“There’s a lot of fight in the mind and the soul to surface again and try to figure out why you want to keep working and why you want to keep doing your art,” Wright said in a recent interview. “I just felt a part of me that was fighting for light and fighting to surface again and I gave voice to it.” Since her last recording, the 2010 gospel-themed “Fellowship” with mostly covers, Wright had gone through a divorce. She moved from New York and eventually settled in a mountainside community outside Asheville, North Carolina, within a few hours’ drive of her hometown of Hahira, Georgia.
Wright balked at the suggestion of her then-record label, Verve, that she do another album of covers. “If I looked at my relationship with the music and with the people – neither called for me to be exploring anyone else’s statement,” Wright said. “I had experienced enough to where I wanted people to know and at least feel something about where I had been.” Wright found a supportive partner in Grammy-winning producer Larry Klein, known for working with strong-willed female singer-songwriters including Tracy Chapman, Madeleine Peyroux and ex-wife Joni Mitchell.
Klein had been thinking about doing a record with Wright since he first heard her rich alto voice, drawn by the combination of her delicate jazz sensibility and her raw natural talent reflecting her roots in the church music she grew up with as the daughter of a Pentecostal minister. “I found that her previous records had beautiful subtleties and were very kind of smoky and muted sounding, which I loved,” said Klein. “But I thought there was some other territory that she hadn’t explored – a more energetic and aggressive side that is still organic to who she is.” That fresh territory emerges on the new album in new tunes such as the soulful, funk-driven “Freedom,” written by longtime collaborator Toshi Reagon, and the country blues “The New Game,” co-written with Klein and David Batteau.
Just before Thanksgiving, Wright was cast adrift after releasing four albums on Verve, starting with her critically acclaimed 2003 debut, “Salt.” Wright kept working with Klein during trips to Los Angeles. Soon after, the independent Concord label agreed to release the album. Then last February, just before she was to go into the studio, Wright’s car slid across an icy mountain curve near her home. A young bell-wood tree stopped her from plunging down a ravine. “When my feet got on the ice again, I was very determined to make this record,” she said. “Since then I have really been enjoying little things and I’ve been living for little wonders that are common, but still amazing.”
Wright says her challenge as a songwriter is to strike a balance between being autobiographical and expressing universal feelings that resonate with her audience. “I think as singers and performers we are ambassadors of the human experience,” she said. “I don’t want to get bored just talking about myself.” Wright says the opening track, “Freedom,” is about independence, individuality and finding one’s path, while the closing track, “Surrender,” co-written with Reagon, is about acceptance, reality and aligning yourself with whatever is real for you. The folk-based “Somewhere Down the Mystic” offers “impressions of my Appalachian life,” she says, conjuring the mystical feeling that she gets walking a mountain trail near her home.
She traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to work with country rock songwriter J.D. Souther (The Eagles) on the tender waltzlike ballad “Right Where You Are,” which she performs as a duet with Grammy-winning jazz singer Gregory Porter. The album has two covers. Her darkly brooding version of Nick Drake’s “River Man” draws on her impressionistic jazz side, while she turns the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” into a slow ballad, inspired by the gospel music of her youth. Wright says she conceived the album as a “wide canvas” – on which she uses different musical styles as colors to create a cohesive multilayered work of art. “I call myself a singer-songwriter influenced by the gospel and jazz tradition,” Wright said. “Naturally because of my lifestyle and love for nature there’s a lot of folk and Americana there because that’s just my life.”-AP