Lizz Wright has a voice that grabs listeners within the first few notes. Her albums bear this out. Dreaming Wide Awake opens with a spare, arresting version of the normally fluffy pop song “A Taste of Honey.” “Coming Home” kicks off The Orchard with a slow, bluesy feeling and a testament of strength in the lyrics. Wright’s low smoky alto fills these songs with a depth not normally associated with someone in her mid-20s. (Both albums came out in the mid-’00s.)
Now 36, she recently released Freedom and Surrender. While the title could imply two contradictory ideas, the 13 songs prove otherwise. Likewise, the album doesn’t fit easily into any musical genre. It crafts a personal portrait by blending gospel, folk, blues and jazz in a set ranging from originals to covers by English troubadour Nick Drake and the Bee Gees. Wright’s longtime friend and collaborator Toshi Reagon penned the two songs that give the album its name and bookend the set. And once again, that voice stands at the forefront of the songs.
In conversation, Wright casually mentions a recent “compliment” she received about the new album: The board members of the Grammy awards were arguing over where it should be filed. She isn’t fazed. “I think I fall more into the being-an-individual category than the being-a-personality category,” she says. “My approach to all of this [music] is much like that of a painter — and I also write essays. I am constantly taking pieces of different stories and drawing my own theories and conclusions about them.”
Wright’s father is a preacher, and she became their church’s music director at the age of 16. Her Fellowship album included a medley of spirituals (along with interpretations of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton). But her faith offers inspiration for all of her music, whether it’s secular or religious. “I have an incredibly deep reverence for the make and the story and the styles of everybody,” she says. “I truly love the canopy of humanity and all the different kinds of people it takes to make it up. I make music from a place of looking at all of us and deeply loving us.”
She continues, “I also think it’s important as an African American, as a black woman, that I reveal the depth and the breadth of our humanity for all of us. I think we have our own way of touching it, speaking of it and showing it. And there’s something disarming that can happen, by just being authentic without really trying.”
“Surrender,” a slow-burning love song, concludes the recent album with a devotional feeling, thanks to a backing chorus and rich B-3 organ flourishes. When asked if she can replicate that richness in performance without a full choir, she laughs and replies, “Good question,” before praising her bandmates’ vocal skills. In talking to her, though, one gets the impression that her pipes could have the same impact even if she did it alone.