Ledisi: Not afraid to change or take risks
Around this time two years ago Ledisi was competing for the best new artist Grammy Award against the likes of Amy Winehouse and Taylor Swift. Though Winehouse won the trophy that year and Swift captured Grammy's coveted album of the year prize last night for her collection "Fearless," New Orleans native Ledisi is still doing pretty well for herself. Her fourth album, “Turn Me Loose,” caught the attention of First Lady Michelle Obama, who told People Magazine she considered the singer one of her personal favorites.
Ledisi just returned from a tour of Japan, where "Turn Me Loose" is No. 1 on the R&B charts, and she was nominated for two Grammys at Sunday's ceremony -- best R&B album and in best female R&B vocal performance for her single "Goin' Thru Changes." Though she lost in both categories, she's still, as she puts it, “on a high.”
Before Sunday’s big night, Ledisi came to the Times building -- her signature reddish-brown twists pinned up high, flowing black dress and red peep toe heels garnering compliments before she reached the elevator. Camera in hand -- she did after all have aspirations of becoming a journalist -- she visited Pop & Hiss to talk about how change was the driving force of her album, how she managed to shake a bad case of writers block and second chances.
What’s life been like for Ledisi lately?
I’m just always speechless just to be acknowledged over and over again. It’s a great feeling. Can I tell you this year has been the most incredible year I’ve had as far as growth. First the Grammy nominations, then Michelle Obama, then you know I’m hanging out at Mary J’s [Blige] party for Essence and I know the people in the room. It was amazing. There were some people that I won’t mention that said, “You never will have a chance,” … it’s like coming full circle. It’s incredible to have that feeling.
You talk about growth, how did that influence the album?
Last year I was contemplating, “Do I make the same choices as ‘Lost and Found’ [her major label debut] or do I take more risks?” And I decided I’m going to take more risks, obviously. I think it worked.
What were some of those risks?
We’re reflected of the times, that’s what I’m told, and a lot of change was going on, not just to me but I had friends that were breaking up from long relationships that I thought would last forever. I had friends that died, and I grew. It’s like you had to grow up fast. Growing to want to work with different people, which I did on my album, I worked with a whole bunch of people. I did a lot of no-nos they said you’re not supposed to do -- different genres on one CD, work with different producers on one CD.
I changed my hair, I changed my physical appearance, a lot of stuff, and I did that only because it was naturally going there. I didn’t plan it. Nothing was planned. It was all just leaping. Everything naturally progressed that way. And trust me I’m not a big person on change, I don’t really like it. Of course change is the theme [of the album]. I didn’t know it would be, but it became that. This time it was more about what was around me. Not necessarily what was going on with me. I did put a lot of myself in it.
You’re from New Orleans originally, a place that has its own unique music identity. What kinds of music influence you?I grew up listening to A Tribe Called Quest and all the hip-hop stuff. I mean that’s one of my favorite groups of all time and people don’t know that about me. They think just because I love jazz music that’s the only style I know about. I didn’t grow up in the church. Everybody thinks that because I have this big voice I grew up around church folk. My family would travel a lot. They would be on the road like musicians, and hippies and I would go with them. I grew up listening to all the soul music, The Beatles, opera. My mom loved country music, it’s the craziest thing.
With artists like Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Ke$ha grabbing headlines for their image and style, was there any pressure from the label, Verve Forecast, to change your look?
Let me tell you I have the best label. They’ve always allowed me to be myself. They don’t touch me when it comes to my music. They let Ledisi do Ledisi because there’s nothing else like me. I’m me. And I was me before I came into a major label. I’ve been Ledisi before all of this so they’re not going to touch what works.
It’s been said you overcame a case of writer’s block? How tough is that as a songwriter?
The writer’s block came because I was focused on trying to fit radio when really all I had to do was just be myself, get it out and let someone else decide that. And guess what? It worked.
As a singer, you have to deal with constant comparisons. How difficult is that?
When you’re a child you mimic something. As far as a singer I would mimic Denise Williams or Minnie Riperton or my mother and what she listened to and she listened to Aretha and Chaka. You need something to compare yourself to. I don’t compare myself to anybody, I let everybody else do that because they need a reference point. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, it’s just what happens.
So Michelle Obama really has you on her iPod?
I wish you could have seen my face when someone sent it to me. I was told and I was like “Hmm whatever, you’re not serious” so they sent it to me. I saw it and went “wow, this is one of the biggest compliments ever.” This is beautiful, it’s like getting an award.
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photo credit: (top) Verve Forecast; (below) Jack Guy / Shore Fire Media