Attaining grace: Lizz Wright talks about sharing her voice and her story

John Mark Rafacz
January 10, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Some of the finest singers don’t fit nicely into a box that can be labeled with the name of a single genre. Lizz Wright, who will make her Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State premiere Feb. 5, is one of those vocalists.

“I tend to enjoy and aspire to make music that feels like a portrait of a place, a moment, a story — something that I suppose could be tucked into a genre if someone insisted,” Wright said.

Gospel was the bedrock of Wright’s musical education. She was once the music director of a small church for which her father was pastor. Later, at Georgia State University in Atlanta, she sang classical repertoire. At The New School in New York City, she studied jazz and spirituals. On her own, she explored folk music and the Great American Songbook.

Through an inimitable instrument that a New York Times reviewer described as “a smooth, dark alto possessed of qualities you might associate with barrel-aged bourbon or butter-soft leather,” Wright dresses her performances in America’s cultural fabric.

A Chicago Tribune reviewer, reflecting on a Wright concert, expressed awe at her ability to make everything sound good. “Even if she had been singing the Yellow Pages (do they still make those?), she would have proved compelling,” he wrote. “For starters, there was the character of her alto, a plush, supple instrument that sounds luxuriant in its lower registers, unforced in the middle and appealingly rounded up high. … And then there was the forthrightness of Wright’s art. When she stood stage center, opened her arms, looked straight at the audience and allowed those sumptuous sounds to issue forth, there was no question that she believed every note she sang and made the listener feel the same.”

The Georgia native, who will perform at Schwab Auditorium, brings vibrancy to songs by some of the most talented songwriters of today and yesteryear. From her debut album “Salt” to her latest release, “Grace,” Wright earns acclaim as one of the most venerable vocalists of her generation.

On “Grace,” the singer summons her southern heritage to explore the web of story and song that binds together the many traditions at the soul of the American South. The album’s landscape brims with Wright’s interpretations of classic and contemporary songs by Ray Charles, Allen Toussaint, Nina Simone, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, k.d. lang, Bob Dylan, Frank Perkins, Mitchell Parish, Rose Cousins and Birds of Chicago.

“Lizz Wright has reached a musical maturity — stylistically, interpretively, emotionally,” asserted a JazzTimes critic. “On ‘Grace,’ … Wright raises her richly burnished voice heavenward for an inspired exploration of spiritualism.”

In an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts, Wright delved into her musical choices, her upbringing and her next project.

Question: Your music doesn’t fit nicely into a single genre. Much of the best music doesn’t. Have you deliberately sought to avoid labels in your career?

Answer: I have not intentionally avoided genres as much as I’ve tried to create pictures, ideas or moments that were strong enough to get lost in and explore for the two to three years that I’m on the road with them. Perhaps there comes a point where the habit of encapsulating a project into a known tradition or cultural reference starts to shave off some of the humanity of the artist or might not speak to the intelligence and openness of the audience. I understand that genres serve a great purpose, though. I’m just not called to attend to them as much. My family taught me to open and share stories and to use them to get to know the world.

Q: Gospel music was the foundation of your youth. Is that the music that’s still dearest to you?

A: There’s something grounding and transcendental about gospel music. Singing it feels like standing in front of the ocean and talking to it like it’s kinfolk. I feel seen and understood. It always has me singing something we’ve all felt or want to say. There are a lot of prayers, tears, hope and blues inside of the gospel tradition, so its offerings are vast, even in the simplest hymn. I’m grateful to have come from this tradition.

Q: The album ​“Grace”​ seems like an expression of a spiritual journey. What were you seeking to achieve, personally and professionally, on the album?

A: I wanted to state and explore grace as a spiritual and political position, a posture, a response to the times.

Q: ​“Grace” includes an appealing and eclectic mix of songs. How did you go about choosing which music would be on the recording?

A: Records can be anything, I suppose, but I like to work with producers who see them as long essays addressing or illustrating something. This record traced a long conversation I’ve had with my friend Joe Henry. We’ve always shared an expansive dialogue. He has always welcomed my intentions and imagination.

Q: Have you met all of the living songwriters represented on the recording?

A: Yes. This time I can say that I’ve met or communicated with them all at some point. I was so excited to connect with them! It needs to happen each time I cover a song from now on — that I reach out to show respect to the artists.

Q: You do a lot of touring to countries beyond the United States. How do foreign audiences react to your style, which brings together a patchwork quilt of American influences?

A: Sometimes it’s easier for a distant listener to really hear what I’m saying in the music and to see my voice and story as a central part of the American experience.

Q: You’ll be making your Penn State debut. Will the concert include only music from ​“Grace​,” or will backlist material be included?

A: I will feature the “Grace” project, unrecorded material and a few songs from the rest of my catalog, as well. I’m most excited about finally living out my dream of playing in my own band! I’ve hired a circle of heroes.

Q: How many band members do you travel with, and what instruments do they play?

A: Four musicians travel with me, playing electric bass, piano and organ, electric and acoustic guitars, and drums.

Q: Besides music, what are you most passionate about?

A: I’m a devoted (and slightly obsessive) cook. I love waking up and serving my neighbors, especially when they have no idea who I might be to others in the world. To be able to speak to others in subtle ways, using just my hands and attentiveness, is weirdly invigorating. I feel kind of busted when they tell me I look just like this singer.

Q: What can we expect from your next album, and when is it scheduled for release?

A: I’m excited about the next project and the crew that I’m working on it with. We’ve just moved the recording session back from this winter in order to use live performances to work through and test the new material. I’ll have dates soon, but this approach to the process has made both recording and touring a lot of fun.

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Last Updated January 10, 2020