Lizz Wright: The Artist as Gardener

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On Shadow, Wright has taken the words of vocalist Nina Simone to heart — that an artist must reflect her times.

(Photo: Tony Smith)

Twenty years ago, Lizz Wright emerged as an astounding new voice in music with her superb 2003 debut, Salt, spiced with Georgia soul, blues and jazz.

She revealed seasoned originals, smart covers and overall a confident know-how of the deep, comforting root of song. In her liner notes, she wrote, “Thank you to the Unseen Spirit that is lighting my path.”

Wright has been guided through a remarkable career as a refined, soulful original, working with a variety of esteemed artists on various celebrity projects and especially on her six studio albums for Verve and Concord. She’s become renowned for her deep contralto and personal composing style, her career formed by expressing beauty and espousing dissatisfactions. She’s shy but also bold and spiritually attuned in her music, traits that owe much to her Georgia heritage.

Wright operates her own Blues & Greens Records label. A trained chef who graduated from New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute in 2009, she founded and manages her own wellness restaurant and café (honoring George Washington Carver). She has embarked on learning the business of art in her diverse Chicago community in the city’s historic Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood.

And, best of all, after the enforced quiet of COVID, she returned to the studio to record Shadow. It’s an invigorating masterwork of growth and acceptance in the wake of a pandemic that forced everyone in the arts world to reconsider their direction. To Wright, that meant giving credence to the primal words of Nina Simone, who once remarked that it’s an artist’s duty to reflect on the times.

“The power of Shadow is me leaving the door ajar,” says Wright in a phone interview during a break from cooking. “It was the dark room. We all went in there. And even though my grandmother died, I came out to see how beautiful grief is and how there’s an underside of the light that is love. The shadow is a haven. It’s safe. It gave me the freedom to write about everyday things, not just the extraordinary. This is what resonates with people. And I’m thankful that I have a new relationship with the shadow with my band and producer. I was not alone.”

Shadow guests include vocalist Angélique Kidjo, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, harpist Brandee Younger, Hammond B-3 ace/pianist Kenny Banks Sr. and violinists Trina Basu and Arun Ramamurthy, who join with such core band members as Chris Bruce and Adam Levy on electric and acoustic guitars, Rashaan Carter on bass and Deantoni Parks on acoustic and electronic drums.

Wright embraces Shadow as an eloquent opening of an inspiring new chapter. But on this particular late February day, she confesses that she’s having a moment of anxiety. It’s not about the music, but the tulips.

Not only is Wright the founder and proprietor of the Carver 47 restaurant and café at the progressive secondary school Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy (founded by her wife, Monica Haslip), she’s also in charge of the outdoor garden.

One side of the space is dedicated to growing greens and herbs, while the other side is devoted to flowers. “I don’t have most of my tulip bulbs in the ground yet,” Wright says. “I usually put them in during the fall, but this year I’m doing that now. I have so many bulbs that I get from Wisconsin that I can’t find the time to plant them all. I think I need to lock myself in, turn off my phone and go out to the garden. I’m running late. A few are already an inch above the ground.”

She says her passion for gardening is an important part of her identity. While she served as the choir leader at her father’s church in Georgia, she also ran the tiller to help her dad get the garden ready. But in Chicago, she’s happy with the luxury of raised beds. “Growing food has been like a return home, planting with my dad my entire childhood,” she says. “And singing in his church gave me the longing to do what I’m made of. Being close to the people instead of being above them gives me a rhythm that is very healthy. I’m returning to who I am and giving myself what I need.”

On her past recordings, Wright has used the services of such esteemed producers as Craig Street and Joe Henry. For Shadow, she enlisted her longtime bandmate, guitarist Chris Bruce, who she worked with closely to create a collection of five originals and six covers of songs that connect deeply with her. “Chris was the power and facilitator to see if I could relate to them,” she says. “We had been through the process of putting an album together a couple of times, but as the sole producer he made this exciting. He’s so tech-savvy. He brought that to the sessions, which went quickly. Less than a week — five to six days.”

Bruce started working with Wright on her 2005 Dreaming Wide Awake album and has been in her band ever since. He affirms that there’s a deep level of trust between them. “My biggest role as producer was to find a way to enable Lizz to fully express her ideas,” Bruce says. “That’s not the way it usually works when a producer brings in songs already determined. We worked closely together. We’d discuss songs to see if she could relate to them and whether or not she’d like to tackle them. Since she has such broad tastes, we tried to include as much as we could, going back and forth with what we were listening to.”

When Bruce and Wright first started the project, he came up with music for the new-love beauty “Circling.” Bruce is glad it made it onto the record because at one point it didn’t seem like it would work. “Lizz loved it, but she couldn’t find herself in it,” he says. “But then because she loved Joni Mitchell so much, that proved to be the reference point in terms of inspiration. She created an intimacy with her vocals. It became a very personal statement.”

Bruce also brought “Sweet Feeling” by Candi Staton, which they played as a blues. “I love the sacred music of the blues,” says Wright. “My dad loved Candi, and I didn’t know she was more than just a gospel singer. Chris showed me her blues side. The more I came to know about Candi, the more I realized that she blazed a trail for me.”

One of Wright’s favorite engineers, Ryan Freeland, had just moved to Chicago. They set up shop at his Stampede Origin Studio, which made recording much easier. “I just got in my truck and drove 20 minutes to get to his house and help him christen his basement studio,” she says. “I felt at home. One day Ryan invited us up to his living room to hear his daughter play her recital music. We were all friends.”

“Originally the record was going to be recorded in New York,” Bruce says. “But Lizz didn’t like the idea to have to relocate for every project she had to record. It was good for me, too. I’m originally from Chicago, and this was the first time I’d been back there to work on a record for decades.”

As for the subject matter of Shadow, Bruce references the difficult period during the pandemic. “When we first started talking about the project, it was titled Eclipse,” he says. “But then it became more transformative of how to rethink how we’re feeling and how to live. To Lizz, it became an album of reawakening.”

Wright opens Shadow with “Sparrow,” a rhythmically vibrant tune that tells a story about an alienation with her younger sister. It references the genuine sisterhood they experienced when as youngsters a horrendous storm with howling rain was endangering their home. She sings, “We’re going to rise up singing.” Angélique Kidjo shares the sentiment with her hyper-energetic Yoruba vocals.

For Wright, this was a compelling new compositional style inspired by Americana music upstart Caitlin Canty. “I got intrigued by her storytelling writing style,” Wright says. “She’s got a song about a storm coming through a town. And I thought, you can write like that? And that took me back to my own experience, and how, much later, my sister wasn’t talking to me. I was in that period where I had no control of what I did. So to relieve myself of a kind of clog in my heart, I just started writing. And I let it all out about recalling this storm and asking my sister for grace. I’m not perfect. I love her in my heart, and I always will. So I needed to write this song that focused on what I was feeling to exist beyond a conversation we couldn’t have at the time.”

Wright played her the song and it helped alleviate the issues. “She was really stunned and really happy,” she says. “She couldn’t believe that I remembered that story. Everyone’s emotional makeup is different. But you have the same blood, the same family stories. I learned to expand my idea of understanding what loving her is. Sometimes it’s atmospheric, prayerful. She’s on her own journey. And she’s challenged me about love and loyalty.”

In an ever-changing world, the drums-and-bass rhythm of “Your Love” solidifies Wright into her ancestry, especially connecting it to her grandmother. “She’s the great love of my life,” she says. “She taught me how to love. I want her to know as a spirit that I got it by singing the words, ‘All day walk around singing.’ I recall who she is. After her husband died, she had to care for all her kids and became this flinty, playful, determined, desperate, focused woman. She had her own way of doing things.”

On bass, Ndegeocello sets the groove. Wright’s history with her goes deep. “She’s been in my musical orbit for many years,” she says. “She’s been a beautiful light to watch throughout my career. I respect and admire her for her freshness and boldness. She continues to expand the notion of what women can do in this business as an artist. She’s always gone where she needs to go. I’m always curious about where she’s going next.”

Wright dreamed of recording a song on the album as a duet with her, but Ndegeocello had to back out. Instead, she surprised the team by sending the bass part for this song. “I didn’t ask for it,” Wright says. “But I’m excited we got it. It’s a gift.”

Much in the keeping of family-story songs, Wright delivers the short, powerful tune “Root Of Mercy,” about a family tale of her grandmother retreating to an old oak tree alongside a dirt road in Georgia where she would pray when life became insufferable. “This song is not only about faith, but it’s a piece of American history,” she says. “The Black matriarch has been revealed in some ways, but not in this light and not in the light of reconnecting to nature. I always think about these kinds of historical stories. I’m not a filmmaker, but I do have the ability to create a moment where listeners can know that this is American history. People have been kind to let me sing something that’s so personal.”

Wright sings to the heart of Sandy Denny’s Fairport Convention tune “Who Knows Where The Times Goes,” which had been introduced to her from the long list of cover suggestions Joe Henry had given her to consider for her 2017 album Grace. “It’s serious and heavy and it terrified me,” says Wright. “But the song itself is so beautiful. I listened to it a lot, and I held on to it until this album, where it’s wonderful.”

Formerly in Norah Jones’ breakout band, Levy wrote the arrangement with strings to Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate On You,” a standard Wright sings with fresh effect. “Adam is one of my favorite guitarists,” she says. “He came up with that arrangement instantly. Joe introduced him to me when we were working on Grace in Pasadena. Adam told me he came out of semi-retirement from touring to work with me. He’s been such a surprise. He’s one of the best guitarists out there.”

One of the album highlights, in terms of the cover tunes, is Caitlin Canty’s folk-flavored “Lost In The Valley,” a song that Wright swoons over. “I love her lyrics,” she says. “This develops like a silent film, and the melody allowed me to use Trina’s and Arun’s violins to get the colors and sounds from that part of my life in the mountains.”

The blockbuster of this set is Toshi Reagon’s dynamic “No More Will I Run,” a song that booms with Kenny Banks Sr.’s Hammond B-3 grooves. “This song represents a significant moment for me,” says Wright. “I sang this in my first show after the pandemic in Colorado outside of Telluride. It grabbed me by the throat, and I got thoroughly emotional. And I wanted to share with the people that it’s time to stop running, to try to find a place where they don’t feel over-identified and have to try to fit in. I’m done with the running. That’s what it means to me.”

Wright groans that some marketing people are saying that this may be her best work, or that it’s career defining. “I just say that this is a portrait of where I am at this moment,” she says. “I’ve finally cleaned and dried my wings to know what I can do. I just got out into the open field. It’s about fighting the storm and witnessing the currents and tides at the moment. I’m feeling deeper in myself, which is what you need to reach the audience.”

She says that Shadow is not about getting a lot of “likes” and social media “followers.” That’s not the mission, but the album represents to her a fun session with a caring musical family. “Every record for me is like an essay,” she says. “I’m talking about something. I’m presenting a slideshow of something that I’m feeling, with different versions of the same image.”

As for her garden, which she has to leave behind when she’s touring, Wright says, “I have a small team that helps, who love the rhythm of service. They’re like another band I’ve put together that is in constant rehearsal. I appreciate them.”

She says that her commitment to good soil and its upkeep has changed her music. “In a way, it’s a return to home,” she says. “I’m made up of a lot of odd choices. But it’s like all those aches and pains and longings that I’m gardening into and singing about are pointing me in the right direction.” DB



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