Interview with Ledisi

Ledisi: Evolution
By L. Michael Gipson

As a newly minted Verve artist, soul singer Ledisi is reintroducing herself to the world. Despite a seven-year career that has produced three critically acclaimed albums and several notable featured performances on mainstream projects like the respective Luther Vandross and Earth Wind and Fire tribute albums, singer/songwriter/entrepreneur Ledisi has remained relatively unknown outside of the underground soul and jazz movements. With the publicity machine surrounding her new album, the very commercial Lost and Found, all of that may be about to change. Now if only we can get the endearingly charming Ms. Ledisi to believe it.

Ledisi: Evolution
By L. Michael Gipson

As a newly minted Verve artist, soul singer Ledisi is reintroducing herself to the world. Despite a seven-year career that has produced three critically acclaimed albums and several notable featured performances on mainstream projects like the respective Luther Vandross and Earth Wind and Fire tribute albums, singer/songwriter/entrepreneur Ledisi has remained relatively unknown outside of the underground soul and jazz movements. With the publicity machine surrounding her new album, the very commercial Lost and Found, all of that may be about to change. Now if only we can get the endearingly charming Ms. Ledisi to believe it.

Ledisi"I'm still like, are they gonna like it? Are they going to buy it?" Ledisi says to me during an intimate interview following the release of her Verve debut. During our hour long conversation, the artist proved refreshingly fresh and vulnerable, openly discussing her evolution as a woman and insecurities as an artist.

"Before a performance, I freak out. I'm always amazed people show up. I'm in awe," says Ledisi. Anyone who's tried to get tickets to a Ledisi show at the last minute knows she needn't be concerned. Still, secretly, I can't help being a little bit pleased that she can still be so humble about her meteoric talent. Vocalists as agile and polished as Ledisi are rarely in awe of their careers; more often they feel entitled to them. Lest you get the wrong idea, Ledisi isn't completely unaware of her talent and its power.

"I know I have a gift and I know now what my purpose is, but I always worry if I'm doing the right thing", she shares. "This is a big role as a singer, writer and producer for anyone who does it. We have the ability to connect with people's mental. It's bigger than me. So, I have to put my ego out [of the equation]."  

After a moment of silent consideration, she takes me deeper into her confidence, "I know I have something...some kind of power here, and I worry about misusing that or saying the wrong thing more than I worry about whether I'll have voice tonight."

The singer had plenty of voice when she stole the PBS show, We All Love Ella, with her rendition of the Ella Fitzgerald classic "Blues in the Night". In a star-studded evening hosted by Quincy Jones that featured veterans like Nancy Wilson, Patti Austin and Stevie Wonder in addition to Ledisi's young contemporaries Lizz Wright and Rueben Studdard, it was Ledisi who received a standing ovation. She also received that golden industry buzz of an overnight sensation.

"It was the heels," Ledisi says with a laugh when discussing the life-changing event. "I thought I did horribly when I got off and then when I saw it, I gasped. They made me a diva! It was great. I had a good time. I didn't fall; all I kept saying the whole time was ‘please don't fall, God, I'm gonna fall'."

The evening which Ledisi described as "being in a singer's Disneyland" was a perfect introduction to Ledisi for a national crossover audience just weeks before Lost and Found launched. The performance may have also done something else for the self-proclaimed "eclectic" artist, an achievement many might have assumed she'd already accomplished with her second album, the jazzy Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue, created with reknown bassist, Marcus Shelby.

"What it did was make the jazz purist accept me-I think-a little bit more," Ledisi says before explaining how she's been snubbed by jazz aficionados after the release of Feeling Orange... "Jazz purists didn't like that album. They didn't view it as jazz. They didn't get it and people wouldn't buy it."

It was Ledisi who turned out to have the last laugh. According to the artist, the now out-of-print album was named Outstanding Jazz Album for 2003 and sells on e-Bay for upwards of $300. To add insult to the naysayer's wounds, the performer responsible for producing a "non-jazz" album will spend her holiday season touring with the Count Basie Orchestra as the featured vocalist.

Regardless of her rising jazz pedigree and astonishing scatting and phrasing abilities, perhaps calling Ledisi a jazz artist isn't an entirely accurate depiction of her style or music. Her voice has been described by Billboard as "Minnie Riperton meets Sarah Vaughn" when that highly reputable rag named Ledisi one of the Top Ten Faces to Watch in 2007. With a sound not quite r&b or jazz but somewhere hopelessly in the middle, Ledisi was primarily influenced by her mother, a New Orleans singer in her own right and a die-hard Chaka Khan fan. But Chaka's fearless wails tinged Ledisi's sound late in life. First trained as a classical singer before studying opera, it would be several years before the worlds of jazz and soul struck an intimate chord with the young vocalist. Given the hodgepodge of vocal styling and influences that resonate within Ledisi, she'd be the first to admit discomfort with that or any other music labels.

 "I stay out of the category thing...I'll let you guys do that," says Ledisi with an uneasy chuckle.

The category of entrepreneur, however, should be one the honey voiced artist readily embraces as the co-owner of LeSun Records. It isn't one that gets honored enough when one considers that the career Ledisi's cultivated over the last seven years is largely a vehicle of her own creation and ambition. Along with LeSun Records co-owner former music partner, Sundra Manning, Ledisi performed, produced and got distribution for first project Soulsinger and Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue without the marketing might of a major label or public relations generated publicity. The work of wearing all the hats, did eventually take a toll on both Ledisi and her friendship to Sundra after several years of collaboration.

"We were doing everything. We were our own manager, producer, record label. It was a lot of work. You lose yourself doing that. You lose your friendship," Ledisi explains. "The way we were going it wasn't working. I had to do something different."

Fans that noticed Sundra Manning is only featured on one track of Lost and Found or thought that Sundra and LeSun Records had been jettisoned for a solo shot at the big time with Verve needn't fear.

"Sundra will always be there. LeSun will always be there. We still have records that need to be heard," Ledisi says making her loyalty to Sundra clear. "Everyone didn't like the song with Sundra, but it's one of my favorites. Adding that song was a must for me, you can't move forward to the present without acknowledging the past."

According to Ledisi, the friends have several albums worth of collaborative material for which they own the masters. Those albums are awaiting a proper distribution deal for LeSun Records. Interestingly, through Ledisi's solo step the two may have managed to salvage something more important than even their music, their relationship.

 "Now we're grown and comfortable, we can get back into it and keep it going. Now that we've got it together, we'll see where it goes," Ledisi delicately states before adding, "Right now the focus for me is this album."

And what an album! A radio-ready r&b album with strong pop and jazz leanings, Lost and Found is the most polished and assured of the Ledisi projects, yet it still manages to maintain some of the raw energy that made her an underground favorite from the start. Producers Mano, Jamey Jaz, Rex Rideout and newcomer Lorenzo Johnson all bring their A-game to Lost. Apparently there was plenty of choice material to choose from as each producer recorded an album worth of material on Ledisi. Ledisi handpicked the best cuts for an album created during a time when Ledisi was serious considering leaving the industry.

"On this album I display all I was going through deciding to stay in this business," Ledisi confides, "Listeners get Ledisi in and out of love in everyway, spiritually, musically, emotionally and by the end of the record, I'm complete."

The album does take listeners on a journey down more mature and sensual paths than previous Ledisi albums. Ledisi says that's because she's calmer than before.

"I'm a grown woman...I'm getting there anyway," she declares with a smile.

Now that she's signed to Verve and has also recently signed to music industry leader, ICM, to manager her bookings, Ledisi is glad to finally have the time to just be an artist. The self-proclaimed nerd who's more likely to be seen curled up to a good book than spending every waking moment in the studio, may also snatch a little time to indulge her more conservative passions.

"I'm not a singer who likes to sing all the time. I like doing my craft, then sitting down to learn and look at people. I like my computer and my books. I'm happy with that. I'm content with being at home."

Still, with a promotional touring schedule that includes such far away places as Japan, Paris and Germany it sound like she'll be doing most of that reading on international flights.

"It's a lot of work. I don't know how the veterans do it so long!" Ledisi marvels after humorously describing the long weeks of travel, hours of back-to-back interviews and the freshness she's expected to have on-stage after exhausting days of promotions and hurried sound checks. "Still, I don't want anyone to think I'm complaining. I love all my work. I put my heart and soul into this album. I just hope everyone enjoys it."

Shortly after our interview, Lost and Found appeared in the top ten of the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Album chart. I don't think this nerdy, eclectic artist has to worry about finding an audience for a long time to come.

 

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