Lizz Wright: Grace against fear and division

Lauded North Carolina-based singer-songwriter Lizz Wright is about to release her new, highly anticipated album GRACE, a deeply rooted, spiritual collection of songs that reveal her close connection to her Southern heritage and candid commentary on the region’s current political and social upheaval.

GRACE is an affectionate refusal of fear and division,” Wright says. “A testament of belonging and trust.”

Lizz Wright has distilled Southern music traditions throughout her career, integrating jazz, gospel, R&B and blues into her musical expression. Still, GRACE reflects some sort of a homecoming for her, as she traces the landscapes from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the lands of her folks in Georgia. Together with photographer Jesse Kitt, she even went on a road trip to reconnect with family, friends and strangers to seek the true voice of the South at the moment.

From a body of about 70 cover songs, 10 various works were selected for these recordings, including wonderful translations of music by Ray Charles, Allen Toussaint, Nina Simone, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and others. “I wanted to respond with rooted affection to the forged tide of divisiveness and distrust that was being relentlessly projected across the media in the wake of the 2016 elections,” Wright tells us.

The album came to fruition with the assistance of an excellent cast of musicians, including pianist and choir director Kenny Banks Sr., guitarists Marc Ribot, Chris Bruce and Marvin Sewell, bassist David Piltch, drummer Jay Bellerose and keyboardist Patrick Warren, while Joe Henry tied it all together as album producer.

Henry and Wright go way back. ”It was and remains an honor to have been Lizz’s scout along the journey of GRACE,” Wright says in a statement. “And in such dark times, we are all as musicians called to answer brutality with wild and inclusive beauty. When Lizz now sings, I am allowed to feel by extension that I am doing something of my part. What a gift that has been to me. What a gift she offers all.”

So true. In this interview, the singer-songwriter elaborated on her forthcoming LP and the story behind it.


Congratulations on your new album. What do we get and what’s it about?

Thanks! GRACE is a documented conversation between two writers and longtime friends: a producer of (mostly) Americana and folk music and a gospel-jazz singer. We are both children of the South — Joe from North Carolina and me from Georgia — with roots in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

This project reflects the unhurried and open spirit of our dialogue and makes of it a space that others can move through. The experience of sharing this environment is the message itself.

What was your initial idea for this album when you started to choose material for it?

I’d been holding the working title of GRACE for over a year before actually starting the project. The executive producer, Joe McEwen, gave me a birthday card a couple of years ago with GRACE on the front, and I guess it got inscribed in my brain. Figured I’d be writing a title track, but Rose Cousins had already heard the call and her song is absolutely perfect. I dropped my gaze and cried when I first heard it.

Great writing can spark an overwhelming sense of relief.

How did you make these songs into your own?

The message and energy that I wanted to share were most important to me. Then Joe and I went looking for material, existing or to be crafted that could bring the message to life. I wanted to respond with rooted affection to the forged tide of divisiveness and distrust that was being relentlessly projected across the media in the wake of the 2016 elections. “A soft answer turns away wrath.”

Can you please shed some light on how you select which songs made the cut on the final album?

Joe Henry is a real wordsmith and historian. We were always working with a mound of strong ideas and stories in the material we considered. I love making records because I think the process makes me a better writer.

We designed a soft outline for the kind of landscape we wanted in sentiment and sonic texture. From there the process was like building a boat in the garage. It was all about clarity and discovery, how the pieces fit the vessel.

What can you tell about the recording process and working with this material in the studio?

This record offered me the easiest and fastest process I’ve had thus far. Much to Henry’s credit, of course. I am also grateful to be approaching 20 years in the music business. I feel more trust for the process and the people involved, so we cover more terrain. We get to new ideas faster.

The sessions were fun and deeply comforting. I’d sing for hours and go to my beachfront rental each night feeling like I had just gotten up from a long night of sleep.

You go way back with Joe Henry. How will you describe working with him for this project, and how did he guide you in the process?

Preproduction sessions happened in Pasadena. He’d greet me at the door looking like old money and walk me to his coffee machine and ask me in an original set of words each day how I was doing and what was on my mind. A few times I realized that just the way he dealt with me made me want to compose something on the spot. Maybe all good friends make us feel this way. I dunno.

We had a great conversation about the Dylan tune. I felt challenged by some of the lines and the fact that there were so many words. Also, Bob is no stranger to misery because he has no fear describing it. What Joe helped me realize without judgement is how genius it is to be able to address sadness and open it to find other things like mercy.

Looking back at your debut full length in hindsight, what are you most happy about and could it have been better?

I am most happy that I’m finally letting myself make one record at a time. I only wish I could have started it with the understanding that a project isn’t a resume for all that I know and can sing. It’s a captured moment that’s open for extended exploration, like a photograph, sculpture or painting. I got there after awhile, but from now on that wisdom is the starting point.

What in your opinion is the ultimate southern album?

Whoa!! How could I choose when I find sweet, iconic pieces scattered across so many projects and artists, classic and contemporary? Is there really one Southern record that every Southerner refers to as the one that sounds like home? I’d love to ask Joe this question. I don’t know how to hang my hat on one place.

And finally, please describe the ideal setting to ultimately enjoy GRACE.

A lot of this material was explored in front of fireplaces, my wood burning stove in Black Mtn and a cracking fireplace in Pasadena. I also heard the creek and cicadas in the background while I checked the rough mixes.

My favorite place to listen to music is speeding along switchbacks, sweeping through farmland and overgrown meadows.

Lizz Wright: GRACE
Concord Records
Release Date: September 15, 2017

Full track listing:

1) Barley – Birds of Chicago
2) Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You – Carolyn Franklin
3) Singing In My Soul – Sister Rosetta Tharpe
4) “Southern Nights” – Allen Toussaint
5) “What Would I Do” – Ray Charles
6) “Grace” – Rose Cousins
7) “Stars Fell on Alabama” – Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish
8) “Every Grain of Sand” – Bob Dylan
9) “Wash Me Clean” – k.d. lang
10) “All the Way Here” – Lizz Wright & Maia Sharp

Lizz Wright and her band will tour in autumn of 2017, presenting a full multimedia production of photographs captured by Jesse Kitt as a backdrop to the live performance of GRACE.

Sep 15 Highline Ballroom – New York, NY
Sep 16 Ridgefield Playhouse – Ridgefield, CT
Sep 17 Shalin Liu Perf. Center – Rockport, MA
Sep 20 Howard Theatre – Washington, DC
Sep 22 Variety Playhouse – Atlanta, GA
Sep 23 Live at the Ludlow – Cincinnati, OH
Sep 24 City Winery – Nashville, TN
Nov 01 City Winery – Chicago, IL
Nov 02 City Winery – Chicago, IL
Nov 03 Lawrence University – Appleton, WI
Nov 10 Exit Zero Festival – Cape May, NJ
Nov 12 Prudential Hall in MJPAC -Newark, NJ

Bjørn Hammershaug

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