Ledisi: Soulful Siren
Inspired by the freewheeling, early-Seventies funk-rock of late drummer/singer Buddy Miles, ‘Turn Me Loose’ - the fifth album from New Orleans, Louisiana-born contemporary soul singer/songwriter/producer Ledisi - sees her teaming up with respected and seasoned soul/R&B producers like Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and previous collaborator Rex Rideout to merge the old with the new via a groundbreaking fusion of funk, classic soul, rock, blues and hip hop/R&B.
Born Ledisi Young (her first name meaning “to bring forth” in Nigerian/Yoruba), Ledisi - influenced by her mother who sang in a Louisiana R&B band - began singing publicly at the tender age of eight, fronting the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. However, it was after her family relocated to Oakland, California that she first began seriously pursuing a career in music. Starting out by forming her own, critically-acclaimed band Anibade (whose sound mixed classic soul and hard-hitting funk with jazzy overtones), she next went on to release independently two solo albums (2000’s ‘Soulsinger: The Revival’ and 2002’s ‘Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue’), both of which became internationally-acclaimed underground sensations and led to opening dates for the likes of soul icon Chaka Khan.
All of which eventually led to Ledisi, in 2007, signing a major deal with the Universal-affiliated Verve Forecast. Who, later the same year, released her critically-acclaimed third set ‘Lost & Found’. Which, hitting the US R&B Top Ten, prestigiously went on to earn her two Grammy Nominations (including Best New Artist). Meanwhile, with 2008 spawning the US-only release of her seasonal album ‘It’s Christmas’, it has nevertheless been her current, aforementioned fifth album - the boldly diverse ‘Turn Me Loose’ - that has brought Ledisi her biggest success to date; entering the US R&B chart at a prestigious Number One, while - equally-significantly - bringing her a further two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album plus Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
In town to perform a one-off show at West London’s Bush Hall, a literally just-flown-in-from-New-York Ledisi nevertheless proves a welcoming and bubbly interviewee. As she enjoys a breezy first-time chat with Pete Lewis over early-afternoon drinks at a bustling West End studio.
PETE: I understand the diversity of your new, fifth LP ‘Turn Me Loose’ was directly influenced by late drummer/singer Buddy Miles’ 1970 soul/rock classic ‘Them Changes’, which you actually cover as a Bonus Track
LEDISI: “Yeah, I had writers block for about six months. Then one of my oldest friends, when I was round at her apartment, played me Buddy Miles’ ‘Them Changes’ - and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard it BEFORE! You know, I was immediately blown AWAY! Because, as soon as I heard that song, it reminded me that soul is present in EVERY GENRE of music! And that then inspired me to do this style of album. Because I realised that a lotta these people like Prince and Jimi Hendrix had become legends by just doing exactly what they WANTED to do CREATIVELY. Which was something I’d never done fully on a major label. So the title ‘Turn Me Loose’ is basically me saying ‘I don’t wanna be boxed in! Let me be myself as a performer and singer, because I do EVERYTHING! Not just one particular style!’… And I was blessed to work with some great producers who helped me achieve my goal.”
PETE: This album also marks the first time you’ve reached out - and brought on board - so many different “name” producers…
LEDISI: “Yeah - and I chose THEM because they chose ME! Plus another great thing about it was that they each represented a root of every style of music that I LOVE! Raphael Saadiq understands the vintage soul; Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis understand the more MODERN version of that; Chucky Thompson has the more hip hop/R&B element, as does Chief Xcel; Eric and Adam from Fyre Dept. in Brooklyn bring the blues; Ivan & Carvin have a feel for the younger audience; while (long-term collaborator) Rex Rideout is of course my TRADITIONAL R&B man. So you have all these different styles. And because - as I said – all these producers chose ME, it was just a perfect fit all round! Nothing was specifically planned-out - everything just happened naturally. And overall I’d say this album musically represents just the mixture of everything I AM! So in that way it’s really just a newer version of my first album ‘Soulsinger’ - the only difference being there’s not a lotta jazz on this one.”
PETE: Let’s talk about your early days in New Orleans, where you grew up watching your mother who sang in a local R&B band
LEDISI: “Growing up, there was always music in the house. We lived in the upper part of New Orleans - the uptown area - and my mom was my big idol! I wanted to be just like her! You know, we lived in a shotgun house. So her band would play in the living room while she sang in our bedroom, and they’d just record their music to eight-track. So that’s what I used to SEE! And it just blew my mind how you can hear your voice come BACK to you! And then to see her perform live in the park across the street, and the way she’d pull the crowd just by any little stretch of her hand or shake, was just AMAZING! I mean, she just reminded me of this Afro-ballerina in the way she moved - and the crowd would just LOVE it! You know, her energy was always high, never low - even when she felt bad! I mean, she might have had a fight with my step-dad or gone through something really bad... But then she’d just get onstage and act like it never HAPPENED - and sing it out through the SONGS! You know, the crowd would just have their hands on their heads shaking like ‘Wow, this WOMAN!’… And so I always wanted to BE like that!”
PETE: I understand it was after you moved to Oakland, California that you seriously started pursuing a music career…
LEDISI: “I was actually performing in theatre in California when a college-friend of mine asked me to join his group, which consisted of him and two other guys. And it was when I started singing with them that I learnt the art of improvisation! Because I’d basically just make up songs on the spot to whatever groove they were playing! Which is why today, if something goes wrong, I know how to catch it really quick! But then, because they didn’t wanna write the more R&B kinda songs, I decided I wanted to start my OWN band... And I DID, when a club-owner gave me the opportunity to open for (US Jazz guitarist) Charlie Hunter at The Elbow Room! Then from there I started to gig around town - and I soon discovered the more I dressed up, the more people would come to our SHOWS!... So yeah, I just kept going at it for YEARS - and then I finally met a keyboardist, Sundra Manning. She and I got together and started writing for other people - and then one day she was like ‘Why don’t you write for your OWN CDs?’… So we started writing for what became ‘Soulsinger’; I shopped it around; people rejected it... And so, rather than signing with a label, I ended up releasing it MYSELF!”
PETE: So how do you now look back on your early years as an independent artist, when you released your first two albums (2000’s ‘Soulsinger: The Revival’; 2002’s ‘Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue’) via your own label LeSun Records?
LEDISI: “Overall I loved it! I guess the only part I DIDN’T like was that I was constantly broke! Because it was like everything you made went straight back INTO it, and I couldn’t keep up with bills and things. But yeah, most of the time it was great! And I think what I particularly enjoyed was the fact I learnt so much about the BUSINESS side! So now it’s like I know how to do everyone’s JOB! You know, I know what job should have been done there, and what shouldn’t… So yeah, I learnt a lot from working independently… And I guess it’s something I can always go BACK to - if I ever wanted to - later ON in life! Because, in many ways, it’s even easier now than it was when WE first came out in 2000 with my first CD! Because today we have things like the internet to help us out even MORE!”
PETE: So what’s generally in the pipeline for Ledisi right now?
LEDISI: “Well, I’m definitely in writing mode these days, and so I’m already starting work on my next record. And, while I don’t know yet who I wanna finish up with, there’s definitely gonna be a lotta great people involved - both people I’ve worked with before AND new people. And I’d say the overall vibe might be a little happier this time. Plus, with me always having wanted to write for other artists, there’s a lotta things coming in that direction too right now that I didn’t expect - though I can’t really speak on any of it until it’s all solidified... But yeah, I love the element of surprise - and what I CAN tell you is there’s definitely some great surprises coming up!”
Ledisi’s album ‘Turn Me Loose’ is out now through Verve Forecast
Words PETE LEWIS