Lizz Wright came into the world as the daughter of a pastor in small-town Georgia. The family business led her to a love of gospel music, which flowered into a love of singing.
Her incredible vocal range and control, compounded with passionate curiosity, propelled her to Atlanta, where she studied voice at Georgia State. Since graduating, she's released four albums and established a career as a lauded singer-songwriter with an ear for the classics. She's recorded jazz, blues, gospel, R&B and folk tunes while remaining mindful that singing the style isn't as important as singing the story of the song.
We caught up with Wright at her home outside Asheville to get a better sense of the story behind the singer.
Atlanta is my musicness. The Atlanta jazz scene in particular was very warm to me. I would literally walk around with a notebook and pad and ask musicians all kinds of questions—about who they thought were important vocalists, and why and what their contributions were—and my curiosity was welcomed. I studied classical voice at Georgia State University, but they didn't really have a jazz studies program for undergraduates, so I just beat the streets at night, after school.
I am always working on the equation of life on the road [versus] grounded life at home, because I need to hear and know the stories of other people. They're filled with enough truth, drama, twists and turns, and all I really have to do is pay attention. Only to a certain extent do I want to live a life removed from routine and from cycles and from accountability and from a depth of emotion. I really am working on always finding the right rhythm of how much time to spend on the road and how much to spend at home. Ironically, every time I hang out with my grandmother, I write something. I can't speak for other people, but the way I'm wired, I need family. I need to talk, I need to sit, I need to watch and I need to learn.
Subtlety is where it's at. All the nuances of how we hold our tempos—not just what tempo you play at, but how you sit in it—says a lot about where you're from and how people talk where you're from, what you're listening to and how you feel. I was really blessed on the record Fellowship to work with Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and her daughter Toshi, who's one of my best friends. They totally understood what I was going after for the gospel medley. In fact, when Dr. Reagon heard it, she nearly insisted on singing on it, which was something I didn't even have the audacity to ask for. But [she understood and could] expound upon it from a historical and a personal point of view. People from Georgia, we sit in our time in a certain way. When we sing a gospel, we sway in it in a certain kind of way. There's a feeling that comes along with the way we sit in time that you can't just learn somewhere.
A lot of people go to New York and they come back saying, "It chewed me up and spit me out," but I have to say, New York was a very nurturing environment for me. I met a lot of really cool musicians. There's such an abundance of color and input in New York, just so much stimuli—creative and emotional and physical—that people almost don't hold you to sticking to the story of where you're from. It's totally expected and acceptable that you be curious about sounds from other places and that you learn what you love. One of the best things I ever was told was just to spend some time there. It's one of the best dues I ever paid.
The beautiful thing about gospel music to me is that it just has to reveal some universal truth that's helpful. It has to be helpful. And really, I like gospel being more supportive than directive. I feel that because of the way my life has turned out, I have to find that undercurrent of universal truth through the stories in the songs, and then offer it in this very indirect way and let people work with it. I'm not really into the kind of gospel that's very directive and can begin to be divisive. When the dogma gets specific, somebody gets left out. For my work, I'm trying to see how much I can reconcile, how many people I can fold in together who otherwise, besides my music, might never be standing together in the same room. I love that.