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Issue 1084

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Feature

LEDISI: ITâS ALRIGHT

Ledisi
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The very first time I heard Ledisi I was at a party in Malibu. UK producer Steve âThe Scotsmanâ Harvey was the host and if memory serves me well, a then-unknown Donnie was there too.

Brenda Russell was in attendance and I recall standing outside, watching the tide roll in (thanks, Otis) as we mused on matters such as her long-ago work with Maurice White and his impact on me personally and such. Steve â who I met many years before in Los Angeles (his home since 1990) when he was part of a short- lived group (the name of which escapes me) who recorded for A&M â had decided to showcase the talents of Ledisi and Donnie, specifically. The Bay Area-based singer/songwriter sang âGet Outta My Kitchenâ and all I remember is everyone was just blown out of the window! I was standing next to Brenda and we just looked at each other, like, âwho is THIS?â

Fast forward a few years to the release of Ledisiâs debut âSoulsinger,â an apt title for the album and we were in touch since we wanted to sell the CD at Soul Music.com. I loved the record and the follow-up âFeeling Orange But Sometimes Blue" which we also sold at the site until Led and musical partner Sundra Manning stopped having any more made. Nowadays, it sells on e-Bay for âstoopidâ money! Sometime after that, Ledisi â who I had now seen in concert in L.A. and watched as she laid it out and wore us all out with her dynamic soulfulness â asked me to update her bio for her website and it was, like, âof course!â

Then a few years ago with some friends, I produced a benefit for The Minority AIDS Project, a tribute to the late Phyllis Hyman. Ledisi agreed to participate along with Lalah Hathaway, Thelma Jones, Alyson Williams, Eloise Laws, Everette Harp, Kim Yarbrough and NâDambi and it was an amazing show: I still get chills when I recall Ledisi putting her all into âLiving All Alone,â interpreting it in her own inimitable way and now I just wish we had taped it!

Next encounter: Iâm doing a tribute to Nina Simone (one of my primary musical inspirations) and Ledisi is on hand and we duet on the old blues song, âTrouble In Mindâ and all I can say is, donât duet with Ledisi unless you want her to push you on and on and onâ¦I was singinâ in ways I never knew I could. She participated in another show we did in 2006, singing with Gordon Chambers on a medley that included âO-o-h Childâ and âYoung, Gifted & Black.â She was, as always, amazing.

Over all these years, we talked, often at length about music and life. I saw Ledisi on a show with Chaka Khan a couple of years ago and at that time, she was really heavy into debate about signing with a major label. She shared that, as much as she loved the total creative freedom that came with releasing her own records independently, there was a ceiling, a place beyond which her music simply didnât get to be heard. The trade-off was that being with an established label might take away some of that all important liberty that a multi-faceted artist requires. I remember those conversations well and Ledisi really did agonize on what to do and I understood well the conflict, having seen many a great artist end up with a less-than-satisfying recording situation as a result of corporate interference and the overriding industry tendency to place commerce before art.

With an abundance of airplay from her fine cover of Lutherâs âMy Sensitivityâ for the Verve âForever, For Always, For Lutherâ project, that label became the main contender and it didnât hurt that Ledisi had formed a strong bond with Verveâs then-in-house publicist Jâai St. Laurent-Smyth, known for her own sensitivity to artists and passion for the music. Ledisi began working on what would become her first Verve album in 2006 when parent company Universal decided to essentially fold it, leaving their new signing somewhat in limbo land. For a while, it seemed like the rug had been pulled; good peeps like Jâai were gone (although happy to say she now has her own company Inque Public Relations and Ledisi remains one of her clients) and Led had to wait until the dust had settled to finish the project.

She performed a few months ago in Los Angeles at the Temple Bar to a rapturous audience and included some of her new material and the crowd went wild. Finally, finally, almost two years after she started the process, âLost And Foundâ hit the streets in late August, shortly after Ledisi had wowed television viewers with her participation in a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, now available on CD and DVD. When she and I finally spoke on the phone, it was almost like I knew the back-end story but in her own words, Ledisi tells itâ¦

Recording songs for the new album: âRex Rideout (the albumâs primary producer) and I had half of the record done before the company was involved. We recorded a lot and actually there are a lot of songs yâall havenât heard yet. In fact, the whole record was pretty much done when the changes happened at Verve, except for the tracks I did with (producer) Jamey Jaz. After we thought we had finished, there was long time when we didnât do anything. I wrote some more just because I wanted to and I was happy there was a pause. Then the record company wanted a few more songs which I worked on with producers like Mano and Lorenzo⦠Writing and recording was a natural process with everyone I worked with, nothing planned, kinda like hanginâ out with your friendsâ¦â

The final selections for the album: âMy manager Collin Stanback - who Iâve known since my âSoulsingerâ days and who I worked with on this yearâs Earth, Wind & Fire project, âInterpretationsâ â helped with the sequence. At the last minute, there were some songs I didnât want to let go of. Everyone had their opinion and so many people were passionate about what should go on the record. Finally, we had sixteen tracks and they felt natural. Now I feel itâs a really cool record with all the drama that went on during the making of it! I played the sequence and I was like, âah!â I was happy. I had to let go of some things including a song called âLet It Goâ. The title, âLost And Foundâ â¦hmmm, there was a last pause as I personally cleaned a lot out of my lifeâ¦â

The title track: âWell, âLost And Found (Find Me)â represents me coming into alignment, musically, spiritually, mentally and personally. I heard the phrase in different environments. I was in the studio with Rex and I normally donât play the piano so I was like, âRex, donât listen!â I had been doodlinâ with the song for about three years and Iâve always thought of myself as more of a pop writer. Anyway, I thought âLost And Foundâ was one of the most depressing songs but Rex was like, âYou have to record it!â When we finished it, we got the violinist Karen Briggs - who I know from her work with Soul II Soul and Yanni â to come in and play on it and Iâve always been a fan so I was thrilled when she did. It turned out to be the second to last song we didâ¦â

Other songs on the album: âLetâs see: âUpside Downâ: âThatâs a song that was written before âSoulsinger.â I was thinking, âOne day, Iâm going to meet Chaka Khan and weâre going to do this as a duet.â Well, I did get to meet her of course - and many times - but we didnât sing together so I put it on the album. âBest Friendâ is a true story. It was originally about one person and then it became about a different person. Am I still crushed? I got crushed! I guess other people can relate because the song always gets a huge response when I sing it in my show. âAlrightâ â yeah, well Iâm still asking the question, âwhen am I going to have money to pay the bills?â! âTodayâ is about a new beginning, waking up renewed, knowing everything is going to be coolâ¦itâs for all us regular folks! âThink Of You,â thatâs one for the hip-hop headsâ¦â

The song âBeen Hereâ: âThat has a real story to it. I was in a Thai restaurant, talking to my mother and I said something like âIâve been here all the timeâ and I was, like, âthatâs a song!â I said, âcan I have the food to goâ and I started writing the song on my way to Rex Rideoutâs house and then we laid it down. I didnât want to come off bragging but itâs really how I feel. Iâm here and Iâm asking, âwhere yâall been?â I wanted to include a little bit of me in a live setting so what you hear on that track was recorded live in two
different placesâ¦â

Reflections: âI think it would have been harder for me to do what Iâm doing now if there hadnât been the âSoulsingerâ or âFeeling Orangeâ albums. My original audiences for those albums started it all rolling. Now with the new record, weâre getting a response from people who never heard of me. Now Iâm on the radio more and I have a good team around me. I think now that every decision was the right thing. I took my time to sign to a major label but it was definitely the right thing. I started from the ground up like most hip-hop artists and maybe Iâve lost folks along the way. I know not everyone is going to like the ânewâ Ledisi. But Iâm at a different level now and Iâm proud of the album and how everything is going.â

Having seen Ledisi at an AOL taping in early October and then a couple of days later at B.B. Kingâs club in Los Angeles, I can say without any hesitation that she has lost none of her magical presence as a live performer. She remains a rarity, a contemporary artist whose musical integrity is fully intact, who connects with everyday people because there is an honesty and authenticity which has always been there and hasnât changed. The musical settings on âLost And Foundâ may be more polished but the realness is still there just as it was on Ledisiâs first two albums and while capturing the full essence of her onstage energy hasnât yet fully happened on record, sheâs still one of a kind â and as I referenced in a poem I wrote last week, sheâs doinâ it and bringinâ itâ¦and for me, itâs alright!
Words DAVID NATHAN

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