A Lifetime of Connecting Helps Lizz Wright ‘Speak to the Now’
Photos by Jesse Kitt
Music is more than a jingle, more than a product. To committed composers, players, singers, and listeners, it’s an essential form of transmission for genuine feeling and ideas to the human spirit. For Lizz Wright, a magnificent vocalist whose rich baritone manages to hit the frequency of the beating heart, music is even more: It’s an opportunity for testimony.
Amid the many tragic casualties of contemporary culture — when social media invective dominates public discourse, partisan politics shapes perception of nearly everything, and art slips into the background of rancorous argument — music still has the capacity to unify different people with different beliefs. The artist most capable of achieving unification is the one that can imbue personal experience and expression with universal resonance. Reparation of the social fractures of American life might begin with concentrating on such artists, whose work has the potential to remind audiences of their innate and internal connections, rather than their external divergences.
Recently, as I thought about voices with the depth and power to resound across racial and political boundaries, I began to focus on the music of Lizz Wright. Since making her recording debut in 2003, Wright has channeled the diversity of her own experience — growing up a preacher’s daughter in Georgia, studying music formally, and touring the world — to compose and perform music of equal variety.
“I’ve had beautiful experiences and I knew beautiful people as a child,” Wright told me during a recent phone conversation. “Maybe not everyone has had those experiences, and I can try to convey some substance of them in my music.”
Even as she was accumulating her now formative memories, she was using music to both document and depict their essence. “As a child who felt awkward and uncomfortable — I was really tall and shy and had big feet — music was a way for me to make myself clear, make myself heard. I started singing before my dad would preach when I was six years old.”
Music as an emancipation proclamation has remained a constant in Wright’s life: “It is still a way for me to get out from under the constructs that are subtle, and some not so subtle, about what we are supposed to say, and what we are supposed to be. In a city anywhere in the world, I can be treated in a certain way — a way that shows our separation from each other, our hostility — and then as soon as I get on stage this liberating energy opens up again.”
At the earliest stage in her life of song, Wright gained insight into the therapeutic promise of music. Her parents would have her sing to elderly residents at nursing homes, and for inmates at the nearest jail. “Whenever we cannot see ourselves in another person, there is suffering,” Wright said when describing how even as a child she learned of the communal and empathic potential of music.
Even still, she politely bristled when I suggested that she is a “singer of social conscience,” careful to articulate a reticence to “push ideology” through art. A review of her catalog, however, indicates that while most of her music deals with apolitical subjects, she does consistently return to songs of spiritual combat against the institutional manifestation of the constructs she longs to escape.
She covers beautiful songs of social justice, such as “I Remember, I Believe” — the civil rights testimony from Sweet Honey in the Rock — and “Get Together,” the indelible hippie anthem by The Youngbloods. In 2017, she and Maia Sharp co-wrote a song, the beautiful “Painted Sky (Don’t Give Up On Us),” to celebrate the National Day of Racial Healing. The music video features Wright and backup singers performing inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the same sanctuary where Martin Luther King Jr. was baptized and preached his first sermon. “Love sitting on our fingertips,” Wright sings, “Waiting on the edge of our lips / And we don’t know what to say …”
Music, more than anything for Wright, seems to promise the development of a vocabulary to express that which is in most desperate need of amplification. Wright’s reluctance to associate with ideology seems like a resistance to the language of politics and religion. She chooses instead to articulate the lexicon of musicality. It is a lexicon that might prove redemptive for the audience, as music can offer both escape and entry, allowing the listener to break out of the trap of the ego and gain entrance into opportunities for understanding. It’s the same sort of transcendence that makes a sad song effective because everyone has felt sad, or makes a dance song work because everyone has felt an outburst of joy.
The language of musical artistry has many dialects, and through her aspiration to communicate, Wright has explored and enunciated many of them. There is the traditional jazz of her debut record, Salt, and the gospel of her collection of covers, Fellowship. She has also sung acoustic-guitar centered contemporary folk, and her 2015 record, Freedom and Surrender, is full of pop sensibility, most notably on a grand cover of “To Love Somebody.”
The depth and warmth of Wright’s unique voice — full of spiritual pride and what the late Albert Murray called “self-earned elegance” — allows her musical identity to change colors with the ease of a chameleon. On her own song, “The New Game,” she reaches for the sophisticated pop emotion of Annie Lennox, and on her latest record, Grace, released in 2017, she delivers a moving rendition of Bob Dylan’s song “Every Grain of Sand.”
The stylistic diversity of Wright’s records makes each record stand apart, and might result from the variety of experience that informs them, but they do not stand alone. It is as if her albums are all siblings in the same family. They each have their own individual personalities but share some identifiable traits.
“When people comment on the eclectic nature of my style, it is a source of insecurity for me, because I feel like they are saying I’ve gone too many places, but I have to say, ‘This is all real to me,’” Wright says. “Everything I write and record is a reflection of my life and the relationships I’ve had, the books I’ve read, and the music I’ve most treasured. Making a record — making many records — is like building a collage. It is a process of putting together different images in a way that makes a new image.”
Regardless of the stylistic classification of a particular song that Wright chooses to sing, she says that she is seeking to establish “communion” with the audience: “As a minister’s daughter, I cannot help but go chest-to-chest sometimes. There is always a need to speak to the now, which is why I sing some of those direct songs.”
Even when Wright is not singing the “direct” songs similar to her father’s sermons, her underscoring of communion lends her music a social utility. Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that the “medium is the message” in his 1960s analysis of technology. If one can apply his insight to music, Wright’s medium carries with it a message of unity, harmony, and honesty, and as a corollary, the admonition that to manipulate, abuse, or neglect someone who belongs within the harmonic union is to violate the essence of human life.
At a May performance in Chicago, Wright explained to the audience that the greatest gift of music is that it can allow the singer to travel anywhere, enter a room full of strangers, and feel right at home. Through her words, both spoken and sung, her formula for artistry began to emerge: Sing with hospitality so as to create a sense of home — even friendship — among the performer and spectators, and then take advantage of togetherness to break down any walls that prevent the development of an intimate bond.
No matter the lyrical content, that style of singing — especially in an era when too many singers rely on technology, branding, and posture to separate their true selves from their audience, and America finds itself troubled by escalating forms of racial and class division — might broadcast a proposition more radical and redemptive than any political manifesto.