Saturday, March 29, 2008

Blood Beats Vol. 2 excerpt: Interview with Ledisi

The following is an excerpt from my very first interview with Ledisi, conducted in San Francisco in 2002. I wasn't able to place the interview in a newspaper or magazine, so I sat on it for all these years until I was able to include the full interview in my new book. Between the interview and now I've watched Ledisi struggle to stay on course, battling major-label indifference while forging her own path in the indie world, and she's been a huge source of inspiration... not just for her gift but by her example.
She's now signed to Verve, who released her Grammy nominated 2007 CD Lost & Found.


      Rasella’s supper & jazz club in San Francisco is already packed to overflowing 45 minutes before the night’s show is scheduled to start. The space is crammed with all ages and races – girlfriends and “girlfriends,” couples still in the chemical glow of early romance, those looking to connect and those who are determinedly post-romantic bullshit. If Sex & the City were cast with Negroes and Carrie Bradshaw had dreads and an ass, this might be the show’s nightlife scene. The stage is almost bare: drums, a keyboard. “What does she look like?” asks a guy sitting at a nearby table. His boyfriend fishes an old copy of Ledisi’s self-distributed Soulsinger CD [eventually re-released on Tommy Boy Records] from a leather bag and passes it around the table. Sun, Ledisi’s manager / producer / creative cohort, takes the stage, untangling wires, plugging in equipment, shifting things around on the too-small stage to clear some elbow room. Two bald, good-looking black men climb onstage and position themselves, drummer and bassist. By this time, a glance at a wall clock shows that Ledisi is running late.
      Suddenly the club door flies open and the regulars burst into applause. Ledisi, clad in black jeans and jacket, with a flowing white scarf around her neck and electric shock baby dreads all over her head, seems to fly across the floor to the stage. Grabbing the mike and slowly untwirling her scarf, she sings the opening line to Rahsaan Patterson’s 1997 r&b hit, “Where You Are.” “Baby forgive me,” she croons while smiling impishly, “for making you wait so long…”
      Ledisi is arguably the best soul singer in America. She’s one of the best singers, period. And tonight, performing two sets before a hometown crowd of San Franciscans (and Oakland and Berkeley heads who’ve crossed the bay to see her), she effortlessly proves it. When she sings, her mouth slides all over her face. Her banter and inter-play with her audiences is warm and familial. She jokes and cajoles, dances and clowns. As versed in hip-hop as she is in jazz, she scats and beat-boxes, scratching, twisting and kneading sounds with her mouth. Her voice – thick, deep and rich; playful, sexy and haunting – is pure emotion. When she sings the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” the room falls absolutely silent. Waiters and waitresses freeze in place and listen. The song becomes a hymn of unbearable grief as Ledisi funnels the words through a voice stripped of superfluous stylistic tics. It’s just stark and gorgeous, ridiculous.

      Her self-penned, anthemic “Take Time, a local hit and her signature tune, becomes an extended, audience-participation segment in which her innate theatricality is showcased. The song is about taking a minute to breathe, shrugging off the bullshit that crowds your day and taking stock of what is right in your life, escaping into your own thoughts. Take time / get away / free your mind / and fly away... The breezy chorus is sung enthusiastically by the crowd, then the music falls away and Ledisi goes into a surgically precise comic routine of the 9-5 grind: miming getting in her car and driving through traffic, flipping off crazy drivers, arriving at work, faking bright smiles for boss and co-workers and then rolling her eyes in patented black-girl attitude, juggling phones / typewriter (with the accompanying sound effects) / boss’ demands. It escalates into a frenzy of motion and gestures that brings the crowd to hysterics. Then Ledisi leans into the mike to croon, "Just breathe a minute," so sweetly that a tear springs to my eye. "Just breeeaath... Let it go… the problem’s out of your hands."
      The night’s second show includes a reggae overhaul of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” a cover that conjoins Stanley Turentine’s “Sugar” and D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” (an inspired marriage that can also be found on her limited edition jazz CD, Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue) and a haunting cover of “Almost Blue” that – after she delivers the last crisp note – has her quip, “I can’t sing that one too much… have all my personal hanging out.” The set’s highlight is a wrenching “My Funny Valentine.” When she wails, “Please, why don’t you stay…” the guy next to me puts his head in his hands and just rocks back and forth. The lump in my own throat makes it hard to swallow. The crowd gives a sustained standing ovation. At the end of the set, after thanking her band and thanking the crowd for coming, the last thing she says is, "And remember, be nice to people."
      After she poses with fans and takes photos – chatting and smiling, touching admirers on the arms or shoulders when making a point – we hop in her car and drive to the Castro to an all-night diner.

Ernest: I’ve read that Carmen McRae is one of your biggest idols. She’s not someone who a lot of people, outside of real jazz heads, check for anymore. What is it about her music that grabs you? And who are some of your other musical heroes or heroines?

Ledisi: Carmen has attitude, you know what I mean? I always use Carmen Sings Monk as a reference when I teach ‘cause even if you were blind, you could still feel the words and her attitude. Man, she has great spunk. And Ella for the scatting style and phrasing; she’s just wonderful.

When I was listening to you last perform night, I thought to myself, “Oh, she can actually scat.” Real scatting, not the fake stuff everybody does.

Shoo be doo be doo be doo! Shoo be doo be doo be doo! [She laughs.] Singers nowadays don’t have that in-ya-face kinda singing. I mean, they have it but I think it could be even more, to make people move. Even if they’re [the audience] not there for you, just grab them anyway.

There used to be circuits that up & coming r&b singers and musicians could travel to perfect their craft, learn how to work a crowd. Nowadays someone gets signed while they’re in high school, makes a record, a couple of videos and is then sent out on a tour where they...

Have no idea what to do. And they just look cute and have the nice stylist and, are like, Okay, play the track again. My whole thing is just focused on keeping the old and the new going at the same time, trying to stay where I am as well as use what the people that came before me have done. I mean, how can you just ignore all that? How can you just sit it on a back burner and not acknowledge it?

I hear the Carmen and Ella influences but it’s not necessarily that you sound like them. It’s that you’ve done your homework. You’ve clearly just sat and listened, you’ve studied.

I’m shaking my head, yes. Put that in your notes. I’m shaking my head going, Amen. It’s true. I think every singer should sit and listen. Just listen, don’t sing. The thing is to not just try to be a singer but an instrumentalist as well. Don’t just study and listen to other singers, listen to the band, to the musicians.

Just like Billie Holiday would listen to horn players. There’s a vocal coach in L.A., an elderly woman who's been teaching voice forever, and she says that in the old days kids came to her trying tried to model themselves on Dinah, Carmen, Ella, or Sarah. Or Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, even Little Anthony. She says the ears of kids today are corrupted by what they’re listening to, what they aspire to in their own singing.

Could you tell her to call me so that I feel like I’m not alone? Oh, man. That’s what I said about how can you ignore what was here before you and just deal with what’s going on right now, just to sell records? It’s sad and I don’t think it has to be that way. I’m selling records and I’m still taking from the past and the new. I have the drum influence, the horn influence. I have the ‘20s and ‘30s, the whole Ella and Coltrane eras. How can you not listen to that stuff? I feel like I’m helping bridge the gaps between hip-hop, jazz and r&b. I have young hip-hop kids ask me, what is that you’re doing? I tell them that the jazzy stuff I’m doing is scatting – it’s like freestyling without words. And I give you the scratching and the drum beats as well as doing scats from Thelonius or Bird or whoever, but incorporating my own feeling behind it.

Erasing these artificial boundaries…

And why should I not? We are so lucky in America to have exposure to all these kinds of music. Not everyone is that lucky. I’ll listen to tabla techno, you know what I mean? I jumble it all up together.

What is your goal for your music?

I’m on a mission. I like the way it was. Our slogan is, "Innovators of modern timeless music." It’s innovating modern music with timeless music, music of the past. We’re trying to make music that will last forever. With Soulsinger, people can hopefully put it on now and – even if they haven’t heard it for a year – get the same feeling. Just like when you put on Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin. I’m on a mission to keep that going. That’s why I do it – to heal. And if it makes me rich, then great. I’m still not rich but I’m happy. This is enrichment for me, you sitting here and asking me questions about my music. I’m a star now. I don’t have to be on this big old plateau. I don’t have an ego. I’m not trippin.’ [The waiter comes and Ledisi orders hot water, a grilled cheese sandwich and fries.] Like I said, I’m on a mission to make music that lasts. The same way you put on Tribe Called Quest or Ella or Sarah or whoever.

The best music evokes an era but transcends it.

I wanna be just like them. I wanna die knowing that I left something behind to inspire another person to create. That’s why I teach, to balance it out. In my shows, I’m teaching people to relax and love themselves, to leave going, 'Oh, I can conquer the world now.' That’s how I want my audiences to feel... My goal is to make sure there’s another way. There is another way. The only thing is to stay positive, to stop judging others and try to do your best to stay nice. But know that you will have days when you’re mean. You will be vulnerable. You will have attitude and be scared and unsure of who you are. And at times you’ll be like, Is this rejection because of the way I look? But I don’t care. You see me sweat onstage. You see me cussin’ and tired and struggling through that time of the month. And people relate to that more as opposed to someone who is always cute and pulled together, you know?

I forget if it was Rochelle Ferrell or Patti LaBelle who said that you cannot try to be cute and really sing a song.

For real! Uh-uh! How can you be cute, then? Lipstick all in the microphone! Oh my God! Yes, that’s what real singers do. Think about it: You had Sarah Vaughn wearing a big mu-mu and a wig, and she was blowin’! And when she wore a nice, cute dress, she was just as good but not as fierce as she was in the mu-mu and the wig. When she had that on, oh my God, you could feel the song pouring out of her. I loved it. Those were the best times, when she was sweating and just loose...

The rest of the interview can be found in Blood Beats Vol. 2: The Bootleg Joints.

Buy the book

1 comment:

one soulful negro. said...

god i love this women and the truth she spreads. she stirs me. thank you for posting this interview with her. amazing man!