Ledisi: Turned Loose On The Musical Playing Field

The voice at the other end of the phone is Ledisi, unmistakably melodic even in her natural speaking tones. Speaking hours before her sold-out show at London’s Jazz Cafe [last month], I’m all flu’ed up and disappointed that I can’t attend. To console myself, I’ve been watching the New Orleans native’s stunning live performance of “Endless Love” at UNCF’s An Evening Of Stars tribute to Lionel Richie, broadcast at the top of the year.

She possess vocal chops that I suggest may intimidate other vocalists about sharing the stage with her. Now the disappointment is Ledisi’s as she exclaims, “There’s still singers that won’t perform with me because of that reason! I’m hurt by it…”

“I used to look for acceptance from my peers when no one was giving that and now that they are it’s great, I appreciate it so much – but I don’t see any of that.  I just see us all doing what we do. We’re all individuals and we all have our own individual gift and when we share together it’s great.”

She adds, “I wish more singers thought like that – that we’re all in it together… I’ve performed with singers that are incredible – I didn’t even wanna get on the stage, of course – and they’re like ‘Get your butt up here!’ It made me even better just because they’re humble and confident in who they are and not thinking about that. That taught me to let all that stuff go – everybody is different, at every level, it doesn’t matter.”

“I loved back in the day they had healthy competition – like [legendary jazz vocalist] Sarah Vaughan. You can read the biographies… I study a lot of what the ancestors did. They would study each other, come to the shows, hang out, sing with each other, ‘Oh I can sing better than you, blah blah blah’ – making jokes about it. It was fun. I wish we all hung out even more; you learn more. I don’t compete with anybody, I don’t have a reason to. I’m having fun. I’m in awe of them for what they do.”

And the public are in awe of Ledisi. Released through Verve Forecast, her latest album Turn Me Loose (2009) garnered a warm critical response, earning the versatile singer two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album & Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “Goin Thru Changes.”

“I think in the beginning I was a little nervous because people don’t like change a lot. They like the same old… I’m one of those people but I know that change is inevitable and you have to do it. I just went along with the ride and prayed that they loved it – and eventually everyone loved it, especially the Grammys.”

SoulCulture: Do you bear audiences’ general resistance to change in mind when creating?

Ledisi: I did that when I had writers block before beginning Turn Me Loose and that’s why I couldn’t write anything – because I was focused on that. That was the first time I was ever really focused on pleasing other people when creating because of all the pressure of competing with myself on previous recording, Lost & Found.

My writers block [lifted] when I heard the song “Them Changes” by Buddy Miles. It sparked energy that my particular music, soul music, is in every genre of music not just one particular style – and that’s when it all made sense to me. That I can’t focus on trying to please everyone. I can do my best and hopefully people will love it… and luckily I have a label that’s OK with that. So that’s what I did; I stretched out, took a risk, did a lot of things you’re not supposed to do, had fun doing it and didn’t think about it, I just went with my gut feeling – and the response has been what it is.

SoulCulture: I’m glad you say that – that diversity very much part of the premise of Soul Culture.

Ledisi: Awesome, we need more of that. You know what… I’m not doing anything new: this is stuff that Prince does. When I heard Buddy Miles it made me listen to everything. Otis Redding, Prince, Jimi Hendrix. Just everybody, any style of music.

“Blues is in everything. R&B is in everything. Rhythm and blues is in everything – and rock too. It’s all jumbled up together.”

SoulCulture: That’s a conflicted discussion topic; the issue of categorisation.

Ledisi: That’s what gets us in trouble, is the labels. But we need something to put it in so people will buy it. Like any kind of product. You have to have a name… I don’t care about that though – I can’t focus on that. That’s someone else’s job. My job is to make music that inspires people and gives them something. or lets them know they’re not alone, or whatever. That’s my job. with all the marketing… That’s why I don’t get into that. I can’t. I tried it.

SoulCulture: Presumably that was earlier in your career?

Ledisi: Oh yes, we weren’t as good as it is. What saved us is the fans – the live shows, word of mouth. That’s what our marketing was. We didn’t have money for marketing, none at all – it’s easier now than when I first came out.

SoulCulture: Is that business woman aspect of you still there?

Ledisi: I’m so happy that I started out independently because I have done everybody’s job – even down to the graphic designer for your flyer. I’ve done all of it. No one can tell me that I don’t know any part of the business, I know every aspect of it. Now i’m learning even more being on the major label side of things. I’m a hard worker, I’m a nerd, I love learning stuff.

“There’s a lot of things on both sides I don’t like and a lot of things I do like – both major label wise and independent wise. But it doesn’t matter; the whole point of it is: is the product good enough for people to buy and listen to? That’s my focus.”

SoulCulture: You’ve released five albums and been nominated for Soul Train, BET and Grammy Awards, but everyone’s concept of ‘success’ is subjective. What is your proudest accomplishment to date?

Ledisi: My proudest accomplishment right now is that I’m able to make the music I’ve been able to make and that people are responding to it. I’m still my free self from when I first started, I’m even more free now because I’ve created my own lane – and the respect from my peers is amazing. That’s all I’ve really, really wanted – that and for my like minded spirits [fans]. They’re so great to me, they’ve gone on the ride, that blows my mind every time.

“Success is being able to still be your true authentic self at any level.”

“It’s still having good people around you. if you don’t have the right people around you everything else can fall apart. They have to be there when you’re broke, when you’re in the middle – which is me, semi-broke – but I’m getting there!” she says, laughing. “It’s not about money, it’s about how’s your spirit, how’s your self love, how’s the people around you. Do you love yourself? Can you imagine if more people did what they loved to do… everything would be cool. Oh my god we’d have better surroundings.

“I have been where I didn’t want to ever perform again live – that’s how much I did not want to sing my music any more – because I wasn’t making any money. I’ve had promoters do the most… I’ve always had to adjust to the situation and not the situation adjusting to me, and that has been the worst for me – where I’m uncomfortable and I’m still trying to sing and be my best where the audience can’t see those things. I’ve slept on the floor. there’s no where else to go after the floor but the streets, so I was grateful to be on the floor.”

“I’ve never ever let those things stop my dreams. I’ve had those lowest of low moments but I never gave up – and why? because even when I gave up on me I had a good person around me – which is my mum – and a couple of other friends telling me never give up  That’s what I mean about being careful who you have in your circle. That’s a big big big thing – because when you lose yourself how do you find yourself back?

“Having great people, having faith and just being a person who loves themselves; you have to love yourself first. I’m having a good time. Through my lowest moments I reflect, ‘What am I missing, what’s the lesson?’

“I cry, I get mad all the time – I wanna quit all the time!” she admits, “but days like this where there’s sun out and there’s a sold out show tonight and people wanna talk to me… I remember coming here in 2004 and nobody wanted to really talk to me. So it’s a different playing field [now].”

Creatives reading this may find solace or inspiration in Ledisi’s advice on pursuing your dreams:

“Whatever you’re doing, just love it. If you don’t love it, find a way to do something you love to balance it out until it outweighs the thing you don’t really wanna do.”

Turn Me Loose is available to buy now via Amazon UK and Amazon US plus usual outlets.



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