Ledisi wanted to make a few bold artistic changes this time out. But just before she started work on her sophomore Verve release, Turn Me Loose, she hit a wall. The singer-songwriter had a bad case of writer's block that stretched for six months. Ledisi was petrified as she tried to figure out how to follow up her 2007 Verve debut, Lost & Found. The album garnered strong reviews and two Grammy® nominations, including one for best new artist.
"It was the pressure of coming back after all the success with Lost & Found and trying to figure out, 'Who am I? Who is Ledisi now?'" says the New Orleans native. "Before, I wondered do people get me. Now it's like, 'Ok, we know you. What are you gonna do now?'" A friend gave Ledisi an album to check out, hoping the music would start the creative juices flowing again. It was Buddy Miles' 1970 soul-rock classic, Them Changes.
"I had never heard it before," Ledisi says. "Once I heard it, I wanted to be able to be free on the new album. On my previous album, I was contained a little bit. But I said on my next project that I was going to be off the chain vocally. I promised to be more honest and talk about stuff that people don't like to talk about. I've always done that. But on this album, I went for everything." Inspired by the freewheeling music of Buddy Miles, Ledisi now had a direction. But she decided to push herself even further by reaching out to different collaborators, something she hadn't done before.
"Usually, I just come in, like 'I want this. Take that out,'" Ledisi says. "This time, I laid back a little more and that was new for me. I wanted to go for the ride. It was frustrating, because everybody had different energies and I had to adjust. They weren't crazy. I felt crazy," she says, laughing. "But I made myself go
through the different changes." Acclaim from Lost & Found boosted Ledisi's profile in the industry. So she was able to secure some of urban music's most respected producers, including Grammy® winners Raphael Saadiq and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
She also reunited with producer Rex Rideout, who contributed greatly to the sound of Lost & Found. But for Turn Me Loose, Ledisi didn't want to play it safe. With help from the four other producers (Ivan & Carvin, Chief Xcel, Chucky Thompson & Fyre Dept), the artist braided brilliant strains of the different sounds she loved while growing up in Oakland, Calif. Rock, blues, classic soul, funk and hip-hop are all fused together throughout Turn Me Loose. Ledisi often merges the old with the new. The funky title track, for instance, updates the sassy grooves of vintage Stax.
As a tribute to Buddy Miles, Ledisi does a cover of "Them Changes" as a bonus track on the new album. The artist flirts with different genres throughout, but her elastic, Chaka Khan-influenced vocals still anchor everything. The approach comes close to matching the let-it-all-go energy of her stage shows. The process of working with different collaborators was challenging initially but ultimately rewarding. "Every step I made, I fought it," Ledisi says, shaking her head. "But I still made the step. I never wrote songs with different people. But what I found is that it's nice. Where I left off, somebody else took over."
On working with Chucky Thompson, perhaps best known for his productions with Mary J. Blige, on the edgy "Everything Changes": "Chucky is like a music box. You can just open him up and all kinds of styles pop out. It was like working in somebody's basement. I love his whole connection with streets and what folks are listening to in the clubs."
On working with the legendary Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on the passion-drenched "Higher Than This": "When you work with them, the song is custom-made to your body and spirit. I feel like I went through college of music and graduated." Lost & Found may have been Ledisi's well-received introduction to the mainstream, and Turn Me Loose is sure to break even more ground. But she is far from an overnight sensation.
Born in New Orleans, Ledisi Young (her given name meaning "to bring forth" in Nigerian) has been singing professionally for much of her life. She started at age 8, fronting the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. Her mother, also a singer who performed in local bands, was an early inspiration. Ledisi's family relocated to Oakland, California, and it was there that she seriously pursued a career in music.
The artist later formed her own band, Anibade, whose sound mixed classic soul and hard-hitting funk with jazzy overtones. She eventually released two indie albums: 2001's Soulsinger and 2003’s Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue. Both became underground sensations and led to opening dates for the likes of Chaka Khan.
Although Ledisi was a seasoned artist before joining Verve, she says she is still finding herself musically. Turn Me Loose is a turning point in her artistic evolution. "During the making of this record, I was asking myself, 'How do I maintain the listeners I have now and be myself as I today? That was the struggle. But I knew I needed to stretch myself and be more open to different people."
After Turn Me Loose was completed, Ledisi had a personal epiphany. "You know, I realized that I'm never gonna fit into a box and it's OK, "the artist says. "All I need to do is focus on my music and just go with it. Go with that freedom voice, the voice that goes, 'Ahhhh.'"