Lizz Wright already spent her previous three albums defying categorization—contemporary jazz stylist? Neo-soul/neo-folk/Americana artist? None or all of the above?—so it’s no surprise that Fellowship, her fourth recording for Verve, would introduce yet another wrinkle into the mix: gospel. It’s even less surprising when you consider that this is a reintroduction, since, as the daughter of a Georgia pastor, Wright listened to and sang nothing but religious fare before fate and/or the Lord led her to Atlanta’s jazz community in her college years. For an artist so steeped in spirituals, Fellowship is a comfortable homecoming as well as a bold and unusual artistic stroke.
Anyone imagining that Wright’s “gospel record” will be a traditional genre exercise will be quickly disabused of that notion, however. At the outset, he unmistakably contemporary and ecumenical title track, penned by Me’Shell N’Degeocello, eschews pie in the sky in favor of earthly reckoning and reconciliation. Toward the middle of the album, Wright does emphasize a healthy stretch of the rousing gospel standards she grew up singing in the church. But other selections are borrowed from the decidedly secular catalogs of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Gladys Knight, topped by even more modern material from Joan Wasser, of the indie-rock cult act Joan as Police Woman. Reclaiming her musical and spiritual roots doesn’t for a minute mean that Wright has abandoned the gospel of eclecticism.
She’s well aware that some explanation behind the album’s loose gospel theme may be necessary. “After 11 years with Verve, they know to say, ‘Okay Lizz, you’re speaking words that are common to most people, but what do you mean with them?’ I realize that words are containers and can mean a lot of things. They know that at Verve as well—especially when I’m talking!” she says with a laugh. “So I told them, ‘I want to do some of the songs from home and some really straight-up gospel, but I also have some other things I need to share that I see as sacred.’”
Wright had taken some time off last year to stay close to home and get back in touch with non-musical concerns, including graduating from culinary school. On her previous album, 2008’s The Orchard, she’d written much of the material, for the first time. But going into the studio in the spring of 2010 for this follow-up, she elected to go with a collection of outside songs again, a la her first two albums, but wanted an even stronger thematic or musical hub. At one point, she considered doing an entire album of Hendrix songs, instead of just the one included on Fellowship. But looking homeward quickly provided the focus she sought.
“I went into this project thinking that it was a good time to sing the songs that I needed in my life and that I felt like my people needed—my friends, my family. I definitely went in there with a more community-minded intent. It’s nice to go into a studio and, for a change, really be thinking about your family—knowing that there’s always gonna be something for the rest of the world, but to really go in there with those people in your mind. It’s the first time I really did that. I couldn’t have made any other kind of record so quickly and with real comfort. The gospel is always in my heart and in my veins, and the voices of my family singing those stories is always with me. It’s easy for me to visit that place and come back with the riches quickly.”
There was never any question that Fellowship would be a mixture of standards known to the African-American church along with some utterly redefining choices. “I definitely needed to represent where I came from, in Georgia, but I also needed to say something now. When I was discussing possibilities for covers with Dahlia Embach at Verve and also with my collaborator Toshi Reagon, we thought it would be great if I did the work of some of my contemporaries, like Joan Wasser and Me’shell Dnegeocello. Because it’s something I hadn’t really done much of—people I really know who are out with me now. I fell in love with Joan’s work while I was in culinary school last year, and it got me through.”
The recording was accomplished in a single month—May 2010, to be exact—which might have seemed hurried if Wright hadn’t been surrounded by musicians that she’d worked with over a period of years, some dating back to her gospel-singing youth. “It was made quickly, but because it really was a gathering of friends, it was something that had time in it. I was met with the grace and generosity of my peers who came and showed up on this record. And in a way, I had more guests and more support that just happened through relationships than I had when I had a bigger budget and more time. So I thought Fellowship was a fitting title.”
Growing up in the Pentecostal church, Wright wasn’t allowed to listen to popular music. Oddly—or maybe serendipitously—the historic night when she really made the leap from her early musical life to her present one involved putting a “secular” spin on a spiritual.
“There are some circles you could draw here that are real. I was really blessed to be able to work on this album with a pianist that I had my very first gig with, one of my best friends, Kenny Banks. He is one of the ministers of music at a Methodist church in Atlanta, and he was right there when I was 19, watching me make the transition from doing only gospel to that first night where I sat in at a club on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta and sang ‘Amazing Grace’—but as a blues. This song that I had known all my life just came roaring out of me with anger and sadness and all my curiosity and these other things that I had never expressed inside of any sacred context. Or really had never expressed in front of people—not like that, not in song. I think that was the first moment that I sang the blues, or had a personal experience of it. Or revelation, I should say,” she adds, laughing at her own use of religious terminology for such a worldly awakening.
“The funny thing about the transition is that I felt that jazz had a sacredness to it. So I was drawn by what I recognized inside of the new adventures in jazz and all the other contemporary music that I dove into since I left home. Step by step, I walked into what I found familiar. And when I first heard what people were calling the blues, I was taken aback, because I had heard that sound all my life. That was how the old women sang in my church—how the mothers sang—and now people were calling it the blues. So really, I’m dancing the pattern back and forth. And I am a lot more comfortable now with presenting the music of my home in its traditional form, because it’s important that I can sing that to my elders and my ancestors. Because that is a part of who I am, and I am at a place in my life where I’m ready to visit and really exalt that.”
Wright has been the recipient of nonstop critical acclaim and ever-increasing audiences ever since her Verve debut, Salt, in 2003. But she’s confounded expectations along the way about what should be expected of an artist who’s known for topping the jazz charts but is far from anyone’s idea of a traditional jazz singer. Clearly that dazzling discombobulation is not about to end with Fellowship.
“I don’t know how to aim at groups. I don’t how to speak to defined ideas or defined groups of people, because I don’t think of myself as living that way. Songs carry stories that I need to tell. And I just pick them up and sing them… At the end of the day, I’m an artist, and what that means is just trying to figure out how to live inside of my own voice, inside of my own life, and find the line with myself while everything is moving and changing. I feel like music has allowed me the opportunity to ask a lot of questions, to open a lot of things, to reconcile a lot of things. My life is very broad and very open. And I think my audience will continue to fluctuate and change. I enjoy singing from this authentic place, because I don’t know how to aim at people.
“If I really wanted to just hunker down and make money, maybe I could go after it. But I think by now people know this is who I am, and if I made a change now, it would really hurt me. People at least show up because they’re intrigued. I don’t want to end up with a bigness that I can’t live inside of. It has to be a wide place, because I’m curious, and I use my voice to explore. So I think I sing to that spirit in people. And it may be a different group of people at a time. The smallest part of my audience may be the ones who actually stay with me from record to record. But I just feel like I’ll have what I’m supposed to have if I really sing what’s inside of me.
“I love mixing people up, too, people who would be not in the same room usually, but they come to hear music. I love that I can sing Your song, that I’ve got a piece of Your song with me, and that people react strongly to different parts. You know, I feel like, in that, my music is really American!”
Although Fellowship may not bear nearly as much of Wright’s own writing as the record that preceded it, it may represent an even greater self-revelation, regardless of its less overtly introspective spirit.
“I’m the one needing to say these things, so of course it’s autobiographical,” she says. “But it is very much a reaching out. I’m at that place in adulthood where I realize that it’s time for me to call my family together. It’s time for me to think about what helps and heals somebody else, instead of always being on the receiving end of support and advice. And sometimes I need to sing songs that people need, and not just things that are beautiful and intriguing or have great poetry. And that’s where I was this time. There are a lot of tools in here. Sometimes you need to sing things that people can climb up on to get over something.” Prepare to get lifted.