The year? “Oh I don’t know … late nineties” says Ledisi, “I hadn’t even recorded my Soulsinger album. I was performing at a club called Café Du Nord in San Francisco, opening for Eric Benét on Valentine’s Day. Mary Mary we’re singing backgrounds for him. And I was so excited, because after the show he told his label Warner Bros, ‘you’ve got to check out this girl Ledisi Young!’ Later, he brought a rep along from Warner’s but nothing happened …” Ledisi’s voice trails off. These disappointments used to happen so often in her early career that she’d forgotten all about it, until Eric Benét jogged her memory when they worked on his own Lost In Time project (Ledisi mimics Eric: “hey Led, don’t you remember I brought the label to you? You never told the press about DAT!”). It was a small window of opportunity – Benét also offered to write for her – but Warner’s closed it.
Over a decade later and America’s First Lady Michelle Obama is addressing an event held at The White House, a programme for mentoring young women and Ledisi – now a 4 time Grammy nominated artist, signed to a major record label (Verve/Universal) – was asked to appear in support. “The room was filled with different kinds of women – like astronauts, or ambassadors and then there was a little ol’ singer like me,” laughs Ledisi “and the First Lady does a speech about three women that didn’t give up. And I was one of the women that she spoke about! I’m sitting in my chair going ‘Oh my god! Uh hah!’”
You’ve got to go through it, to get to it. And after a long career slog, Ledisi has reached “It” – the music industry promised land; including chart topping singles, numerous award nominations, target hitting downloads & a Blackberry contacts list with direct lines to American royalty, the likes of The Obama’s & Stevie Wonder. Only the other day, Ledisi’s Facebook status read: “OMG! Met the Queen, Ms. Aretha Franklin and she sang Pieces of Me back to me!!!! *Passing Away*” Franklin returning the compliment made by Ledisi in covering her little known 1965 Columbia single One Step Ahead, the bonus track on new album Pieces Of Me. One Step Ahead is a favourite with Ledheads, devoted fans of Ledisi, who have been there since the beginning, attending her first UK gig at the Subterranea in London or purchasing the independently released, (brilliant) debut solo album Soulsinger from Soul Brother Records in Putney. Tagged onto the end of the album, One Step Ahead is somewhat of a departure to the rest of the album, which finds Ledisi’s incredible vocals attacking a more R&B slanted sonic setting than she’s previously attempted. From Coffee to Coffee, a song title shared by both the classic Soulsinger debut and the hit new album – chart topping vs. hard hitting (the new take uses Coffee as an analogy on how Led likes her men – strong, tall and dark – the original a call to victims of domestic abuse to remove their spoons out of their mug and face up to changing their way of life). Ledisi understands that not all of the purists will approve.
“What I hope for is making a body of work that transcends different generations or that anybody can find something on it that they like. I used to worry about what people think but now I can’t. It’s exhausting. I actually feel that I’ve always had freedom on every album I intended to make – it was only when I started worrying about what other people thought, that I allowed myself to not be free. Then I couldn’t create, I didn’t wanna create – I wanted to quit because I was busy listening to everybody else’s chatter …” Surprisingly, given the accepted wisdom that major labels have both eyes fixed on the bottom line, Ledisi felt under greater pressure, creatively when she was still an indie. “They wanted me to stay in a Soulsinger lane, whereas the Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue jazz people wanted me to do jazz. The record industry wanted me to do straight pop in order to sign me and to look a certain way. So I had all these voices telling me how horrible I am – as I am right now. So can you imagine having all that coming at you and people around you wanting you to stay as you are? You wanna grow but you feel stunted. I was miserable – but I didn’t show that.”
It got to her. After Feeling Orange, Ledisi embarked on a hiatus, appearing sporadically only on other artists projects (and its rumoured, recording an entire project with producer Steve Harvey) yet it wasn’t until she signed to Verve, getting her big break, that Ledisi re-entered the game. “A little way’s after Feeling Orange I was throwing the CD’s at the audience to love and now it’s one of the CD’s that is a little harder to find, but everyone wants it – its crazy! I nearly left the business and took 3 years to make Lost & Found (her Verve debut) but when I finally put it out the Soulsinger fans thought it was too soft. And now I’m like ‘wait … you guys like In The Morning? But you said you didn’t like it when Lost & Found came out?’ And I’m like, ‘You’re killing me! Cause you didn’t like it before!?’ Can you imagine how that feels for an artist? I felt like ‘ah man, how am I gonna please everybody?’ but I now know I can’t, so I’ve stopped that. There’s no way I’m ever gonna be who I was – every album is different and I’m gonna always change. Not to fit something, it’s a natural thing for me. I love that everybody has their own Ledisi version that they want, an go ‘I want you right here’ or ‘we love you, but here’ and now I just say to ‘em ‘ok I know – stay there, I’m gonna go over here, and when you’re done loving that? Try and come over here ok?’”
Sales figures for Pieces Of Me (a #8 Billboard Album Pop hit) rolling off Nielsen Soundscans printer justify the continual switch in creative direction as the audience gathers in numbers. But fame, aside from the music, brings its own baggage.
“You know what? It’s very small I promise you (laughs) but its’ about the way I have my locks! They really go crazy over that whole thing. Whether they want it down or want it up or they ask me if there is a deeper meaning behind my hair. That blew my mind – I’m not into all that. Its funny cause when I wore my hair down, no one cared about what I look like – they were just like ‘Oh she sounds good but her image is weird!’ But now they pay attention and they either love it or hate it. That’s just so minimal.”
Does Ledisi now feel pressure to keep up appearances?
“Sometimes I do, like today for the interviews (taking place in a dark studio at Wise Buddha in London’s West End back to back: first up Jazz FM, then Manifesto, Colourful, Horse & Hound etc., Ledisi apologised on arrival for wearing sunglasses indoors “You should wear your shades too,” she said “then we can look fly together.”) I was like ‘do I need to look the part?’ but figured no, I need to be comfortable because it’s a long time to sit. Everybody saw me at the show last night in my glam glam but now they’ll see me more laid back. So yeah it’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way – though I know it’s not just about my hair, it’s my chubby cheeks and my big eyes” Ledisi cracks up, “but when they talk about my hair, I’m like ‘is that really all ya’ll see? Come on now – You didn’t notice me singin’ up here giving you blood?!’”
A pivotal moment in Ledisi’s career came just prior to the release of Pieces Of Me, and after the slop influenced Turn Me Loose had hit the charts (a huge hit in America, where they love a bit of heavy slop guitar ala Tina Turner – not so in the UK soul scene, probably why Ledisi asked the crowd at Bush Hall after Knockin’ “Are ya’ll scared of guitars? Don’t be sacred of a geetar”) when she was chosen to sing the prestigious last “Peaches” verse on the Nina Simone classic Four Women, along with Jill Scott, Marsha Ambrosius & Kelly Price, as part of the Black Girls Rock! Show on BET. It was a personal performance that almost shut down Twitter, with the artist’s peers tweeting loud & proud. The equivalent of Ledisi’s own Moonwalk, her voice reaching sounds that a trumpet would struggle to make. Finding the notes between the cracks of the keyboard, notes Marvin once pondered even existed. After THAT performance, everyone knew who the hell Ledisi was.
“It was amazing, every artist that performed on that song helped to make it what it was – and for me, that was when I reached the younger audience. It was the turning point of my career.”
One of the celebs who lined up to praise Ledisi, was none other than Patti Labelle, who was quoted as naming Ledisi “as the new her” according to Urban Daily Magazine in America. Ledisi has found herself hobnobbing with the superstars.
“I’ve been to the White House several times, and once I did a Motown Tribute Special and Smokey Robinson & Berry Gordy were there, all the greats, Martha Reeves and the President & The First Lady. But everytime I get in front of them I just FREEZE. I don’t know what to say – any celebrity that I love, I freeze up. You’d be shocked like ‘Oh man, Ledisi? You becoming a groupie? YES!” She laughs, “I can’t get the words out all I say is “errrrr uhhh err” but I want to ask so many questions, so my brain is going ‘Ask, Ask!’ but my mouth is going ‘NO, NO … Shhhhhsh!’
Surprisingly, for anyone that has witnessed Ledisi’s strong, confident stage persona Pieces Of Me addresses a social anxiety affliction that Ledisi has always had to deal with, shyness. One of the reasons Ledisi’s debut Soulsinger was so powerful was because of her frankness, lyrically, expressing her own suffering as an abused child on the harrowing Papa Loved To Love Me. Pieces Of Me connects the two.
“It’s a very intimate song, but people are surprised when they find out it’s about me being very shy. They don’t know how nervous I get before I perform or when I meet somebody knew. I ask myself is it ok to be open here? You know, but I still walk through that. Like in my show when I talk about walking through my fear. That’s what Pieces of Me is about. I get that feeling all the time still, because of how things went a long time ago in my past. But I can’t let the past affect my present, so I’m always fighting against that. The song describes me, as a woman, to a T. I loved writing it, it’s how I feel, because I will love you, once we become friends and I’ve known you forever I will stay with you. I’ll fight somebody for you. I’ll give you my money – ‘here are you OK?’ That’s the kind of friendship or relationship I have. I’ll stay with you and make it work as long as I can, until you say I can’t. And then I’m horrible,” she laughs “people yelling get off Ledisi! She’s still on my leg!”
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