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‘This is the sound of a relationship with the people’: Lizz Wright, grounded by food and community

Lizz Wright
Jesse Kitt
Lizz Wright

Twenty years ago, vocalist Lizz Wright released her debut album Salt. Recently, she joined me to talk about her new album Eclipse, inspired by the 2020 pandemic, her new hometown of Chicago, and its connection to her roots in Georgia. She’ll perform songs from her new album at the Schomburg Center on Monday, March 20 for their 2023 Women's Jazz Festival.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Nicole Sweeney: We are here to talk about a brand new album, but I have to go back because your debut album Salt came out in 2003. That's 20 years ago. Your baby is 20 years old. So it can have a cocktail. How does that feel?

Lizz Wright: Yeah, it's amazing that I have done anything consistently for that long, because I'm an Aquarius and I'm a unicorn. I have always labeled myself as being all over the place. But I think music is the place where it's a language that keeps me whole. I remember being in school, being super tall, having gigantic feet and hands, thanks to my daddy and just not being able to relate to people. So this really has been a trusted language, a trusted way to relate, and just find my place. So I'm super grateful. That's what I am.

The album Salt, I think I know when I say just that word alone, it brings back so many memories. Do you remember even just getting to that first album? That's true, it's like really having your first child. It's like you remember the steps. You remember hearing it for the first time on the radio. Do you remember all of that?

Oh my goodness. I really do.

Were you in the car somewhere and it just came on?

Wow, I just had a weird memory flood through my mind. I don't remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Salt on the radio. I do remember, however, the very first time I ever heard my voice at all on the radio. I was singing a song with a choir and the song came on a gospel station. I was still in school at the time. I think I was in high school or finishing middle school. I crawled underneath the kitchen counter into a ball and just went into a fit of giggles. It was weird.

It's interesting to hear yourself outside of yourself. 

The way it sounded in the house, it just created this loop of life and reality that… I don’t know. I always thought of voices that come through speakers as kind of coming down on me and almost having like some kind of relationship dynamic where I'm always looking up to the voices that I hear. So to hear my own coming down on me, I was like a spiraling little puppy. I just ran underneath the counter into a ball and just laughing.

But you're used to singing. That was just a part of your growing up, right? As natural as the air we breathe, that's what singing is to you.

That's true. I've been so sensitive and just so worm like, in that in that I've been so affected by everything and everybody so much. I've always been like that. I always been a kid, and yet when I sing, I feel like I'm being really clear, “Everybody's okay.” They understand what I'm saying, and it's always created an experience of belonging and space. I'm just really thankful for this way to relate to people because, I really don't know what I would do without it. I think I just have a level of sensitivity that would make functioning quite difficult. I considered it last night even when my team kind of forced me to do a little shout out about the show in Durham tonight. I said maybe I should just sing it. I really don't like talking on camera. But it [singing] has been this way to relate to the people, and it always has created this feeling of belonging. So even more than feeling like someone important or famous, I've always felt like I belong to the people and this is my offering. When we come together, this is just what I bring to the table where we all bring our offerings and where we all feast. This is what I got.

What I love and have always loved about you is our voices are in this little lower register. I don't feel like we really get to hear, as often as I'd like to. It's so sensual and you mentioned warm. It really feels like a hug. Your voice has always been like that. Was it like that as a baby? Because I have to tell you, my family always shares stories with me that when I was a baby in the store, and I would ask for things and people would be like, “Who said that?

That's actually really funny. My mom has a similar memory she shares with me. She says that one time I just started crying about something that I wanted and, in the store and my voice was low and I just sounded like somewhere between a cow and a bee [groans deeply]. But I had pigtails and it was just the whole little plats and everything. She said that one time this lady turned around to her and said, “Oh, wow. What an interesting voice. She's probably going to be in broadcasting or something. What a wonderful, interesting voice your child has.” But I could imagine this little girl with plats and carrying on in the store [groans, deeply].

It's funny because people always ask me, do I sing? And I'm like, “Nope, broadcasting,” I missed the singing bug. But you know, it's the calling. You just can't help but to let it be a part of your life, which is why we’re even talking today. Twenty years after Salt, you have a brand new album. So much has happened in 20 years, right? Like life.

The irony of my first record being named Salt is really hitting me right now because when I'm not on stage and I'm not recording, I am actively a chef. I'm a cook in Chicago and I have a tiny little cafe inside of a school. I see my neighbors and I’m cooking and it's just really interesting. Then I leave to go on tour and I leave a really beautiful team there, really talented, to take care of the community. I love this dynamic now because I grew up always being in touch with my neighbors, always knowing who they are.

But you're from Georgia?

Yes, so I finally have it all back. Dad used to grow food in the backyard and bring his extra goods to church and give them away out of the back of the truck. I remember the missionaries with their broad hats, they always thought that the things that were yellow, like melons and different things that they weren't ripe. Dad’s like, “No, no, I got lots of varieties. Look, those are red ones here and this is yellow meat.” He would just give people a little tour of what he could fit in the back of the truck. All of that and then looking back at the name, Salt, it just carries so much meaning and history for me with my family. I love it. I get a lot from serving people and really knowing them. It’s always gotta be from a grounded place for me to keep going.

I can relate to that. One, when I used to live in Atlanta and did radio out there, being from New York, it was always interesting how we would say “Who's sayin good morning to me? I don't know them.” Because people from Georgia, they are neighborly, right? They say, “Good morning. Hello. How are you sir, ma'am?” I had to get over that ma'am thing. It doesn't mean anything with age. We'd be like, “I'm not old enough to be called ma’am.” But Georgia really is such that that city or that that state if you will, and then even certain cities are just extra neighborly. Which is so cool that you are feeding people now. How did you get from Georgia to Chicago, because that's another great city.

It is a great city. You know, there's a lot of, as you know, a lot of Southern migrants and children of migrants in Chicago. You have the children of farmers first, second, and third generations, living this life, but having inside of them this relationship with the land. Inside of this urban experience, I'm able to keep myself sane by just really knowing who's around me and where they're from and preparing foods with the kind of time and care that make people feel at home and recall something that the city can invite you to forget. It’s beautiful. I love Chicago especially because I have seen more activity and engagement and agency and a more diverse span of people in education, business, politics. It's not easy, but some things are more durable, doable there. I have seen people put their hands on their visions in ways that I've not seen anywhere else. It's a pretty interesting and beautiful place to be serving folks. Now it's a funny thing because they'll come in and some folks like you look just like that girl that sings some songs and “What's that child's name?”

It is the funniest thing. But I've always wondered, “Can I love, can I speak, can I minister with my mouth closed?” Like do I have more than one way to get this out? Is it such a thing that it can translate before I make a sound and before I'm known? I just wanted to make sure that a personality or reputation hadn't gotten in front of just the spirit of whatever I'm supposed to be doing.

It's just nice to recall growing up and growing food, and now serving people. There's so much inspiration. I'm not about to run out of music. I just recorded another 12 songs for the next studio record, two weeks ago. I feel like this is my cycle. This is a return to home for me to have both.

Food and music, they’re very similar. I'm someone who loves to cook. I'm in the kitchen about five days out of seven.  Onions, garlic, shallots. I'm very particular about food, but it is about putting love into it, and sometimes the simplest of dishes and ingredients make the best food. And that's what music is about. There’s definitely that connection. I understand that not only are you in Chicago, aren’t you in the south side of Chicago?

I am.

Come on now.

I am on the South Side . I have to say that when I came out there, I was terrified. I’d heard such things. But when I got there, I just fell in love with children and people. Again, the sense of agency. I mean, these are the children of farmers and of people who came up north, and you can feel that hustle. You can feel that drive and sense of vision. Just the way people network and try to get through things together is quite unique in Chicago. I'm happy to feed them, you know.

Nice. They need you.

I'm delighted that I'm needed and I'm thankful for the folks that I serve who have no idea who I am. Now I serve people who drive trucks, who are on the local news station, and they don't care who I am and it makes me happy that I get to be a part of their days.

That helped a lot throughout that time where the world music just came to a halt, didn't it? That you were still able to connect with people in some way. Did that help to inspire this brand new album?

It did actually. I went through a few things. I remember when the lockdown started, now I guess it's exactly a couple years ago. because it was in March. I remember closing things down. But also we were in the middle of a grant to remodel a new space on the same side of the other side of the same building. Obviously you have to keep working to keep drawing the grant. So we were in our pajamas with drills out and hammers, drawing and changing the plan. The lockdown provided a lot of information that was during the time where everybody was like wiping off groceries. It was the most paranoid peak of that. I was like, “You know what? Grocery shopping and getting things you need to eat really has become very stressful. So why don't we change the model of this cafe and put a teeny little mini market in the front where people can get artisan foods, local foods.” They can get a half dozen of farm eggs and it's not a big deal. I can even manage how many folks are in here at a time. It made me really want to bring security and pleasure back into our daily routine. Everything got to be such a production and such a concern. It's fun and I'm super grateful.

Speaking of music during that time, it was quiet and we were sort of waiting by the phone and I did have the experience of realizing that I have to sing for my well-being. I have been doing it, but because my eyes were so focused on the people, it's always been something I've projected and just given away. At a certain point I was going nuts because I wasn't singing and it wasn't because I needed to be entertaining or to be celebrated in that way. I just needed to release sound. I did have this life-changing experience of going into my little prayer room and singing before I went out to work. I sang with the intention and focus that I usually do, and there's people around and I just started weeping. I was lost. I still get emotional when I think about it. I could still feel the air change. I could feel my ancestors. I just felt such kindness and warmth around me. I just was like, “Oh, right, okay.” This is what's been happening. I do know it doesn't belong to me, but I do know that I've been just blessed with some ability to call this. I don't understand it. I don't really know.

It's hard to put into words.

It is, but I'm just humbled by the fact that it is. It was nice to be stuck in a situation where I was kind of eclipsed by my own medicine. And I needed to receive it. I had to receive it. There was nowhere else to put it, but back in me. I'm thankful for it. It really inspires this new studio album, which I just decided to call Eclipse. I'm excited to test some of the songs in my live performance along with things that have been in my catalog and things that I've never recorded, but that I always sing. Right now it's really cool. The relationship with the audience is fun because I have learned to bring songs to them before they go to tape just to make sure that they're alive in a room. Because if that's happening, they're probably worth recording.

Yeah. It's like testing out a song in the car. I gotta hear it in the car first. I gotta turn on the engine and it's gotta be a whole thing before I really hear it.  It’s just different experiences to music, because it's so personal. I think the pandemic, as horrible as it was, I'm one of those people where going to get groceries, my daughter was maybe two at the time, was so hard. I had to plan just to pick up food. It was the craziest of times, but it also led to some good things and I feel like music came out on top. Because I think the best kind of music, especially jazz and the blues and gospel, during the darkest of times we were able to pull the light out from that. That's what we're getting from this new album. I understand you own your own your own masters for the first time, which is a big deal when it comes to musicians, isn't it?

Yes. I jokingly say to my closest friends that we were talking about being woke, now we're talking about ownership. It's so true. What's beautiful about ownership is that everybody in this business who's really doing it for love, whether they're an engineer, musician, or even a manager. If they really know the power that we hold as a community to make things right, they participate.

It’s been a joy to tell people, “Hey, this is my first budget. Tell me how to do right by you.” How they respond is amazing. I think everyone generally understands that justice is not always something that comes from a great deal of rhetoric and campaigning and, and finding an enemy and just really zoning in. Sometimes it comes when we work as a collective and we are in a spirit of collaboration and we create justice as a beautiful opportunity. It just turns the wheel of who's driving and what's on top and it can be very gentle in its most powerful reality.

I am so grateful for everybody I'm working with. I'm having so much fun. I drove across town in my own truck to go record, which I've never done before, because one of my favorite engineers just moved to Chicago. I’m overwhelmed at the grace of it. I feel very tiptoey and surprised at how easy it is to do certain things with a certain amount of research and joyful courage. There's so much of what you need is between those things.

Will you be showcasing some of this new music on Monday, March 20? The Schomburg Center is having a women's jazz festival celebrating amazing women. I love that they're doing that. How do you feel about showcasing this? As you said, you usually like to let the audience get a sneak peek first. So how do you feel about Monday and sharing it with people.

I'm excited. I'm surprised that I'm selling tickets on a Monday in New York. I love New York. I I will always be a secret New Yorker by and by. I haven't even changed my phone number. Of course, I'm the artist and my name is on everything, but this is the sound of a relationship with the people. This is the sound of relationship with life and with time and everybody knows that. I'm really happy to be more open about even the value and the power of the audience in this dialogue. I love it.

I'm thankful, I have to say, especially to Craig Street. He produced a couple of my records in the past and he made me aware of this opportunity to bring the songs in front of the people and see what life they have in a room without the perfect. He took me to all kinds of spot in New York to do that, which was really a great test. It's like if you have less instruments, less people, less production and the song still lives and speaks, you need to carry that with you. I'm stoked. I love the Schomburg. I've been there a couple times with Toshi and her mother, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. I just have a beautiful relationship with the space itself, so I'm really glad to be there. And on a Monday night, you guys have a lot of faith in me.

Well, look, New Yorkers don't let anything ending in “day” stop them from getting out to enjoy life, right?

It's so true. This I love. I'll love it forever.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Nicole Sweeney is a Queens-born, Long Island-raised music lover. Growing up in New York with West Indian parents, she was surrounded by all types of music every day and the influence of jazz was constant.