A conversation with an R&B classicist and rising star
When an emerging artist draws comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald, she’s bound to raise a few eyebrows. One simply does not invoke “The First Lady of Song” without a damn good reason. But as Burlington audiences will soon discover, there are more than a few good reasons why Grammy-nominated soul siren Ledisi is viewed by many as the brightest star on the horizon of modern R&B.
Nominated in 2008 for “Best New Artist” — which she lost to Amy Winehouse — and “Best R&B Album” for Lost & Found — which she lost to Chaka Kahn’s Funk This — Ledisi has been hailed as the future of R&B. Oddly enough, “the future” sounds a lot like the past.
Ledisi is the first true R&B artist to sign to legendary jazz label Verve Records, which was essentially founded as a vehicle for Fitzgerald but also embraced some of the most influential jazz musicians in history. Though her music appeals to modern audiences — she is also compared to neo soul diva Erykah Badu — Ledisi is firmly rooted in the classic sounds of a bygone era. Performing with a 12-piece ensemble, her hypnotic live shows are already becoming legendary.
Seven Days recently caught up with Ledisi by phone, in advance of her headlining performance at this year’s Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.
SEVEN DAYS: Is it true what everyone always says about the Grammys — that it’s “an honor just to be nominated?” Or did you really want to win?
LEDISI: Well, I think everybody wants to win. I know I did. But when I didn’t, it didn’t bother me so much. I’ve always said that I feel like I won going in. I was just more concerned with finishing the record, more than anything. And getting back into the industry.
Just being able to finish the record — which took three years — and everyone received it really nicely. And then to be nominated was just like, “Huh?” You know what I mean? I won just finishing the record and by people starting to know who I am. And people going, “Oh, my God! Who is this girl?” The record’s been out a year and even more people are starting to get to know it. So it’s all good. I won, even though I didn’t win.
SD: Do you feel the Grammy Awards are still as important a benchmark as they historically have been?
L: I think so. I think I can say that even more now, since I’ve been [nominated]. I don’t know . . . there are so many artists that haven’t been nominated and I didn’t know that. Gerald Levert, who had never won, finally did this year. There are a lot of people who’ve been around a long, long time . . .
SD: I guess, in that sense, then, it really is an honor just to be nominated.
L: (Laughs.) It really is! They only pick a few. And here I come out with my first major-label record and be nominated. So that’s huge.
SD: What are your thoughts on the current climate in R&B?
LEDISI: Wow . . . it’s changed a lot. But I feel a current coming back around to what it was and what it is now. The mixture of it being hip-hop or being whatever . . . I think people are starting to turn to the regular old classic soul music. It’s an exciting time, in that people are using live instruments and live drums. Not so much MIDI, like it’s been before. And that stuff is cool. I mean, I like it all. But I think it’s coming around. I don’t know if financially it’s coming around (laughs). But I know that musically it’s an important time right now.
SD: What does it mean to you, personally, to sign to a label like Verve?
L: My whole thing is to do things the hard way. And I’m signed to a label that is historically a jazz label. And I’m doing it in R&B, so that’s kinda weird. But it seems to work. They were the ones that came back around and said, “We want to sign you.” And I’d had rejection letters from even them.
It’s a great thing to be in a position where I’m changing things a little bit and they’re changing things a little bit because we’re helping each other out. I like Verve. They have a great history, and so far, so good. We’ll see where it goes from here. But right now, it’s really nice.
SD: You mentioned “changing things a little bit.” What sort of changes?
L: Well, I think for a label that is known for jazz music to have an artist who is jazz-influenced . . . I’m an R&B artist and I do R&B music. I think for Verve, the closest to that would be Incognito, who had a jazz vibe underneath all the soul music. So they’re learning how to market someone like me. They’ve never had someone like me. And I’ve never had someone like them, either.
SD: Do you think that’s why Verve initially passed on signing you?
L: I don’t know. Probably. I wasn’t there when they said no, I just got a really nice letter saying, “Thank you, you’re great. But no thanks” (laughs). I have no idea.
SD: So what brought them around?
L: I did the [Luther Vandross tribute] Forever, For Always, For Luther record and I sang “My Sensitivity” on that, which had a great response from radio. I had a great fan base that came to the show and were going bananas. I think they [Verve] kinda got it. I helped them see it. They had to see it for themselves. Coming out to see it makes a big difference. Everyone needs to see it. There’s nothing like being in person . . . not to mention having a “blessed talent” to make it happen (laughs).
SD: And how is the live show different from the record?
L: Live, it’s about me and the audience. It’s not about me just playing something and analyzing it. It’s about you coming and experiencing it yourself and me experiencing you. I’m very involved with my audience. I give them what I would want to see. And I give it all.
It’s a whole other kind of energy. I’ve been told it’s a religious experience. That it’s uplifting, that it’s inspired. Ignited. And I hope to pass that on when I’m in Vermont.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just go with the flow and I want people to like me. And if they don’t, that’s OK. You can’t please everybody. You just do your best and have fun with it. And I’ve managed to carry that attitude in everything I do. I’m just really blessed to have that kind of energy go on.
I love new audiences especially, because a lot of them have that “deer in headlights” look. And I used to think, “Oh, they don’t like me.” And my friends were like “No. They’re leaving with their mouths open, like ‘Who was that?’” I get really nervous a lot and crack jokes and people will be like “Wow, she’s funny.” But it’s really just me being nervous.
But I’m honest and forthcoming. And I’m a risk taker. I say things people are afraid to say. And artists should be. They should say the things that regular folk who have to get up and do things every day, that they wish they could say to their bosses or to whoever . . . that’s me. I’m a risk taker and I have fun.
SD: Speaking of risks, your previous recordings have touched on some controversial topics such as incest and abuse. How important do you think it is for artists to weigh in on those types of conversations?
L: Everything that people can relate to is important. But we have to be careful with the power of music and what we can do with it. We have to make sure that what we say can be said in a way that’s healing.
If you listen carefully to all my recordings, even if it’s a negative thing like incest or a breakup or abuse, there’s always a light at the end of the song. I always say that there’s always a way out or a way to be better. Just don’t focus on the one thing that’s been bad . . . There’s so much more to learn and grow and love and experience. But we hold on to the past so much. I always want people to feel uplifted. Even that relationship that’s not working or that job that you may not like, there’s always a way out of that when you’re ready. It’s scary as all get out. But it’s worth it.