Since Ledisi signed with Verve Records in 2007 and released the critically acclaimed Lost & Found, the Bay Area-raised singer has been on fire. With a wonderful voice that embraces pop, jazz and soul, this chanteuse who once studied classical music in college has graduated into a full-fledged star. With eight Grammy nominations to her credit, Ledisi has also toured the world, played at the White House and, earlier this year, recorded a duet with Prince.
Recently unveiling her newest single, “I Blame You”—an energetic track that will have you wiggling in your seat—Ledisi has whetted our aural appetite for her soon-to-come album, The Truth. Scheduled to drop in February, the album has less ballads than her previous releases, as Ledisi lets down her hair and brings the fun side of her personality into public view. “The Truth is a celebration of me letting go of baggage and just being free,” Ledisi explains. “It was hard to start, but it was easy to finish.”
EBONY.com caught up with Ledisi in Manhattan, at a recent listening party for The Truth.
EBONY: You recently performed your new single “I Blame You” on BET’s annual Black Girls Rock!, which blew many people away. It was so electrifying.
Ledisi: The first time I appeared on Black Girls Rock! was a few years ago when I sang the Peaches part in Nina Simone’s classic “Four Women.” It was me, Jill Scott, Kelly Price and Martha Ambrosure. That was a hard one to top, but since then I always try to make a lasting impression by taking my two seconds and turning it into something. Because I never know when I’m going to get that moment again.
EBONY: You were dancing so hard in those heels, I kept thinking, I hope she doesn’t fall. That wouldn’t have been a good look on a national television special.
Ledisi: (laughs) That’s another part of me that has always been there, but I didn’t know how to express it before. I love me some heels, but I wasn’t always that person. I used to be really shy, kind of the way I am in the beginning of the “I Blame You” video. I loved being geeky, but I also love putting on a pair of stilettos and a tight pair of jeans. I love being girly, but I do it for me, not for anybody else.
EBONY: I’ve fallen in love with “I Blame You.”
Ledisi: Claude Kelly, who co-produced and co-wrote “I Blame You,” came up with the title and then we started writing it. At the end of the song, I added a scat, because I wanted to go back to who I am. I love jazz, so I wanted to add that element and keep it fresh. A lot of kids never heard scatting before and they’re like, “What is that thing? It’s hot. It’s like beatboxing.”
EBONY: In interviews as well as on stage, you have a very positive vibe that comes across.
Ledisi: It’s funny. I did a show in Chicago recently and I told the women in the audience that we have to empower each other; we have to lift each other. Even if you don’t like that lady’s outfit, tell her she looks good. Keep her up high, because there are enough things in the world to bring us down.
EBONY: If I’m not mistaken, music is something you’ve loved since you were a little girl.
Ledisi: I was raised on it. There were drums in the house, an upright piano and a bass guitar. I played drums first and then piano. Those were my two loves. And my mom was a singer; I wanted to be like her. Whenever my mom felt bad, she played R&B and danced in the mirror. She played all kinds of music including Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and the Beatles.
EBONY: Earlier this year, Prince released a duet you guys did together called “Ain’t Gonna Miss You.” Are you two friends?
Ledisi: Yes, we’re friends. He’ll call and say come hang out, and next thing I’m singing backgrounds or doing a duet. I won’t talk about the process, but we had a lot of fun. Prince is amazing in the studio. I just love Paisley Park, it feels good there.
EBONY: You were born in New Orleans, but raised in the Bay Area. How old were you when you left the South?
Ledisi: I was 10 years old when we moved to Oakland, but once you’re from New Orleans it never goes away. Oakland, I must say, was amazing. I learned about gospel music hanging with the Hawkins family, and the city was also heavy into funk and hip-hop. Like New Orleans, there was a nice mixture of different musical styles there. We had Digital Underground, E-40 and Too Short—they owned that area.
EBONY: Do you have any siblings?
Ledisi: I have an older sister and a younger sister. They love music, but that isn’t their thing professionally. They are very intelligent women. They love art, law and math. In my family, you’re a teacher, an activist or a singer. My stepfather played drums and my real father was a singer who played guitar.
EBONY: You told me earlier that you had a very nerdy side.
Ledisi: I love being into books and studying. I love history and challenges, love watching old black and white movies. I also love watching old variety shows. Back in the day, entertainers had to know how to do everything. They sang, danced and acted. A friend who recently passed introduced me to all of that, as well as theater, film and photography. He taught me how to take photos and get certain angles. I have a very technical side to me.
EBONY: Tell us a little about your upcoming disc The Truth.
Ledisi: This album was just amazing to make. I enjoyed the songwriters and producers I worked with, and I’m just so vibrant and confident right now. I’m happy as hell, but I’m still growing and evolving. Making The Truth was like journaling, because anything I had to say went into the songs, so it was like singing out my journal. I’d been holding so much inside, but I didn’t realize it until it was time to work on the songs.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.