From the sounds of things on the phone, Lizz Wright is going about the business of her daily life while she gives thoughtful responses to her interviewer's questions. There's the ding of a bell as a shop door closes behind her, a whispered "Hi" and, later, the electronic chiming that reminds you to fasten a car's seatbelt.
Eventually, the North Carolina-based singer and songwriter offers an explanation. "You just heard me in the hardware store grabbing a hand shovel, because I'm the school gardener now," she chuckles. "Someone took my hand shovel, and I was trying to reseed some stuff."
Perhaps inadvertently (you never know with a searching mind like hers), Wright has supplied a metaphor for what Grace — her sixth album of Southern-accented, patiently distilled jazz, gospel and soul — represents for her personally. Produced by Joe Henry, it captures her in the act of lovingly shoring up her relationship with the Southern hamlets and resilient inhabitants that shaped her at a moment of great social and political tumult. She spends the exquisite 10-song collection creating generous space rather than offering commentary.
You can feel the emotional weight of that act in Wright's reading of a ballad associated with Nina Simone and written by Carolyn Franklin, sister and songwriter to Aretha: "Seems I'm Never Tired Lovin' You." There's a profound ampleness to Wright's performance, set off by a churchly choir assembled by her longtime pianist, Kenny Banks. She makes herself fully present to the song's tender sentiment, luxuriating in her phrasing, rounding her tone with openness and equanimity.
As she purchased the gardening implement she needed, Wright shared with NPR her thoughts about the great care she and her collaborators took with her new album.
Jewly Hight: You've maintained a rich relationship to the idea of place throughout your recording career. What were you seeking when you set out on a road trip through familiar places in the South during the process of making the album?
Lizz Wright: I started on this record with Joe Henry before last fall, and I knew it would be called Grace or be about grace or something. Then after the elections, and even leading up to them, the tone of the country was almost forcing a change that was really uncomfortable. I was in Europe when the election results came. After that I was like, "I need to remember what I know to be my home, not just North Carolina, but Georgia, and the way people relate and the way Southern people work, the way they cooperate, the way they're in tune with the earth. I need to study that right now for my own well-being, because I know the truth. I know my life." So yeah, this thing that you said I always do all the time was suddenly to correct something that was trying to root in my heart: a fear and a concern.
I've always admired your gift as a song interpreter. I was at a Rose Cousins show a few weeks ago, and when she performed "Grace," for a fleeting moment I felt like I was hearing her sing a Lizz Wright song.
It's so huge, right? I really wanted to write [a song about grace], and then when Joe played [Rose's] for me, and I just cried. I couldn't even speak. That's never happened before. She wrote something that we needed for this time. It's a beautiful, big vessel that can hold a lot of people.
You two share Joe Henry as a producer. You've noted that he's attuned to lyric writing and you're often tuned in to aspects of meaning that are conveyed by feel and interpretation. What kind of guidance did you give him as he searched for songs to bring to you?
I come from a lineage of ministers. The women and the men are teachers and preachers in my family, and a little bit of both those fell on me. So I kind of felt what I needed to be saying, and I shared that with him in a truly random list. I was like, "I need to have something about Alabama. I think I want to write a song called this. And I definitely want to say that." Joe had a long list of songs when we first started out for me to listen to. It's the first time that I've built a suite out of so much music that didn't originate with me.
As far as what you're saying about meaning being conveyed beyond lyrics, Joe Henry just really let me loose in the studio. A lot of those arrangements happened with the band huddling in the middle of the studio floor. A lot of it started with me just making mouth and foot sounds and singing my way into how I wanted to travel through these songs. These guys are so cool; I sounded like a child, but they had no trouble interpreting everything.
You've performed songs from Nina Simone's repertoire in the past, so "Seems I'm Never Tired Lovin' You" wasn't your first time wading in. What spoke to you about that song?
The song "Grace" is in the mind; it's the message and the work. But "Seems I'm Never Tired Lovin' You" is literally the statement of belonging and affection. It's my way of sitting very deep in knowing who I am and where I'm from and where it really is, and not letting my sense of openness and generosity toward it be interrupted at all.
It wasn't at all surprising to me to hear you find your own way of singing that song. Your performance truly sounds inexhaustible. Tell me about how you developed your approach.
I'm a real Otis Redding fan, and I just think he sounds so good. He sounds like he's always at the end of a long day, and he just won't give up. I just love his wearied devotion — that beautiful, beautiful, weathered sound. I was kinda thinking about him, even though I sound nothing like him, that kind of patience and really leaning into the lyric.
You've spoken in the past of nurturing physicality in your performances, sometimes doing yoga or Pilates poses in the studio right before you sing. Did that apply in this case?
Oh, yeah. You're standing in a booth and you're, like, under a hot microscope at a microphone in front of some of your favorite musicians. Time is literally money then, but you're also trying to remember how you feel. You're trying to remember the warmth of affection. You're trying to remember all these tender things that are unspeakable. So it's important to keep your body unlocked and to keep using physical meditation and mental meditation to stay soft and able to access that. It's very easy to suddenly feel that your feet hurt in your boots, and that you really wanna eat now, or you really wanna go home. Your mind can just ramble, and those are the [recorded] moments that begin to get shared and spread across thousands — if you're lucky, millions — of ears. So it's important to stay unlocked.
There are gospel inflections to the piano playing on Nina Simone's version, but that element is largely implied. Part of the way you redefined the song was by bringing gospel elements to the foreground-- the organ and the mass choir. What felt right about that?
I've been trying to get someone to let me put a real choir on their budget for years. [Laughs.] Now that we're approaching 20 years [of music-making], I finally talked someone into it.
Kenny Banks is a wonderful Ray Charles fan, and he's a very active choir director. He plays at Cascade Methodist in Atlanta. I love that sound fresh out of church. I'm not okay with just being close — I wanna be in there. He really went for an old-time gospel feel, of people marching and dancing to the cadence of their singing. You really feel that, that old gospel, rocking feel.
In that song and in your version of Ray Charles's early R&B number "What Would I Do," you thoroughly blend the sensual and the spiritual. It's so much more than simply gesturing toward the presence of each.
I honestly think it's a return to nature to put them back together, and that there is a kind of perversion in separating the spiritual and the sensual. In nature they're both readily available and absolutely inseparable. The older I get, the more I'm trying to figure out how to spend time in nature.
Grace comes out Sept. 15 via Concord Records.