An illustrious career, music true to her New Orleans roots, Grammy-nominated artist Ledisi is all of herself with her newest release, “The Wild Card”.
Ledisi has long been one of my favorite voices in the music industry. With her effortless fusing of Soul, Rock, Blues, and Jazz genres, it comes as no surprise to me that the singer-songwriter is a twelve-time Grammy-nominated artist with nine studio albums under her belt—six of which debuted on the Billboard 200.
More than a singer and songwriter, Ledisi has also played Dorothy in a stage production of The Wiz; has played “The Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson, in Selma; and has more recently added to her role as an author with her latest book release Don’t Ever Lose Your Walk: How To Accept Your Journey. Suffice to say that Ledisi has held true to her New Orleans roots and carved out a lane of her own.
Never in a million years did I imagine I’d have the opportunity to sit down with Ledisi (over Zoom, of course, because 2020 apparently doesn’t believe in-person human connection is important) for what would become a two-hour long conversation, but I did. And within those two hours, Ledisi became more than an artist; I began to see her as the multilayered person she was beyond her Celebrity and, from her own mouth, my big sister.
On August 28, Ledisi released her ninth studio album, The Wild Card, which she co-produced alongside longtime friend and coworker, Rex Rideout. For this album cycle, which lasted three years, Ledisi says that words were harder for her to find, so she called on some friends—many of them Black women—to help her write on this project. As she shared some of the names with me, the ones that stuck out the most were SiR, Deva Mahal, Sangin’ Sara Williams, and Tytewriter—some very notable names in the underground R&B/Soul scene.
I anxiously started the Zoom meeting and, soon after, Ledisi came on. The first thing she said as she logged on was, “Wow! Look at how beautiful you look. I look a mess so I’m not coming on screen, but you look beautiful.” I nervously laughed because I couldn’t believe she had just called me beautiful and that she joined the call with such light and fun energy. I quickly relaxed. This felt like home for me, and I knew from that moment that we would have an excellent conversation. And indeed, we did. Throughout this conversation, Ledisi and I discussed the details of several tracks on the album, her musical and familial background, her future musical dreams, and much more. Perhaps my favorite part of this interview was the number of Black women Ledisi uplifted throughout the entirety of our time together. Chaka Khan, Minnie Riperton, Yolanda Adams, Rachelle Ferrell, Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah, Toni Braxton, Brandy, Beyoncé, Jazmine Sullivan, Kehlani, Cardi B, Ari Lennox, ChloexHalle, and Megan Thee Stallion are just a few of the women we discussed.
I was lucky to be able to spend such a long time with her, and I’ve done my best to capture such a full conversation in words.
Da’Shaun: Okay, let’s do it! My first question is pretty simple. I just want to know: do you have a favorite track on the album?
Ledisi: I don’t have a favorite song because they’re all experiences for me. Every song had a vibe and an energy, and they live in their own [space], but together they make a mood. To me, picking one feels weird. But I do want to say that Anything For You is a big one because it came from the human experience of caring for your loved one; [knowing that] you’ve given your all to the people that you love.
When I wrote that, Rex Rideout and J Mo, Jairus Mozee, had already written the music, but I didn’t know what [lyrics] I wanted to write on it. So I was in the kitchen one day with Rex and his family; they were talking about his father who had just passed away. And [they mentioned something] his dad said that was so profound, ‘I hope that I gave my all before I leave. I hope I did my best.’ It was such a beautiful sentiment, and I got so overwhelmed … I ran home; I had to write! That’s the beauty of being a songwriter.
D: I love that story. Songwriting is such a gift. Speaking of “Anything For You,” one of the first chords on the song is very reminiscent of D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel?” I know you’ve talked about this album being your version of Soul. Was D’Angelo an inspiration at all for this track?
L: Nooo, I actually didn’t notice until people said it. I looked it up and I was like ‘Oh shoot!’ I was so into what I was singing about that I wasn’t paying attention that closely. Everyone has been referencing D’Angelo’s energy, but it was really Prince’s energy that I was referencing because I’ve worked with him and I’ve always loved that energy of having him around. So when people were saying it, I was like “Oh shoot! Let me listen.”
D: While laughing, I responded, “It was just a beautiful coincidence, huh?”
L: Yeah! It really was. It reminded me of all the things I wanted; I wanted nostalgia. I wanted that feeling of familiarity for people because comfort food is so good—it feels good to have what you want. So for me this album is nostalgia to bring us comfort and to make us feel good. And it came out at a great time. So I’m happy!
D: Let me tell you, as someone who is a community organizer here in Atlanta, I can tell you: it really did come at a perfect time. I’ve been sitting with it since its release—yours, Toni Braxton’s, and Brandy’s.
L: Awww! Wow, that’s a compliment; thank you. Those are great women!
D: I want to walk through the album with you a bit. Is that okay?
L: Yeah, go ‘head! I’m here
D: So the second track on the album is “Next Time”. Ledisi, I love this track so much!
L: Look at your face! You’re so excited!
D: You see how excited I am?! The song starts off very smooth but gritty with the guitar, the high hat, and the organ. Which makes perfect sense because, lyrically, you are giving it to whoever this person is that hurt you! But it changes into a funky groove towards the end. What inspired that shift?
L: The original writer of the song is Deva Mahal, [the daughter of] the wonderful Taj Mahal. She’s one of my good friends and I’ve been a fan of hers [for years]. Before I started working on my project, I asked her, ‘Look, can I have any of your leftover [songs]?’
She sent me two of her playing guitar. One of them was ‘Next Time’ and the other was ‘Stone’. I was driving with my husband, and we’re both huge Jeff Buckley fans. His song ‘Everybody Here Wants You’ comes on and I’m like ‘Man! I ain’t never heard Jeff Buckley do R&B like this! Yes! This is how I want ‘Next Time’ to be [structured].
The band and I listened and learned [‘Next Time’], and then I told the band at the end that I want to do what I do live; give energy to it and just be pissed off! [When] someone does something to you and they hurt you, and you’re like, ‘Ooohh no, I’m not gon’ let that happen to me again. Shoooot…’ That’s the energy I wanted! … The end is like a punch in the face! It’s an ode to my Blues-Rock side, but still Funky—like Chaka Khan.
Stop denying yourself to the world; be all of yourself.
D: Yeah! I describe it in my notes as sounding like a song from a Black RomCom soundtrack. I can see the build-up in the plot where the woman finally finds something to set her off, and now she’s angry. She’s over it, she’s pissed, she’s throwing stuff—very reminiscent of Janet in ‘Why Did I Get Married Too?’
L: Yeah! It’s storytelling, and it’s sonic art, y’know? I’m glad you get it! I need to have you in the studio every time now.
D: Now Ledisi… Imma hold you to that!
We laughed for a bit, and she said again that she would invite me to the studio so that I could “watch the madness.”
D: Okay, the third track is ‘Same Love’. It’s such a sultry vibe, and you sang your face off! I’m not even sure I have a question for this one, I just had to tell you that you were SINGING.
L: We actually brought that song down a half or a whole step. I love that song because SiR originally sang it. It reminded me so much of Minnie Ripperton and just so many of the versions of Soul that I love. It’s a singer’s song, and I knew I was going to sing the mess out of it.
D: And you were absolutely correct because it took me a couple of listens before I even heard the lyrics. All I heard initially were those notes. You were singing in the rafters!
L: Da’Shaun, you are living in my lap! No one else got it. They were like, “Huh?! That’s what you saying?!”
We talked a bit more about SiR and how brilliantly talented and “amazing” he is before moving on to the next track.
D: So many of the songs on this album sound like they came from a jam session, and I know you are so inspired by Jazz. Were any of the songs recorded at/inspired by a jam session?
L: ‘WKND’ and ‘What Kinda Love Is That?’ were more freeform. Rex really knows how to put together a unit for me because he knows my sound, but initially, the guys were all playing ballads and Jazz, and I was like ‘that’s not what I want, I already have all that.’ I had to play them what I was looking for, so I showed them the style of Luther and Chaka and we all came up with something together. I wanted people to roller skate or feel like they could get away, so ‘WKND’ came out of a vibe. ‘What Kinda Love Is That?’ was originally just a bassline that I sang. Brian Collier knows that I love this particular groove, so he just started playing [the drums] based on my bassline. Then Ethan Farmer (bassist), J Mo (guitar), and Marcus (piano), that was the unit. So yeah, it feels like a jam session, but it really wasn’t. It was very strategic.
D: It’s interesting that you bring up those two songs in particular because in my notes to prep for this, I wrote: “Two of my favorite songs are WKND and What Kinda Love Is That? because they are so technical. The harmonies on ‘What Kinda Love Is That?’ are brilliant, the vocal flexibility on both songs are amazing, and the SCATTING is so reminiscent of 40’s, 50’s, 60’s Soul music, and that’s my favorite.”
L: I actually didn’t do as much scatting as I wanted! I was like, “Nope! Imma save it for the live shows.” *laughs* But I knew I wanted to bring that classic Ledisi back. People used to tell me “don’t scat so much, just sing the line” or “why you gotta add a scat line to everything?”, and I would feel bad because I thought I did something wrong. And then when I got older, pssh—*starts scatting*
D: I laughed, and yelled “Period! Never stop scatting, Ledisi. It’s beautiful and brilliant; I love it.”
L: It’s part of me! Stop denying yourself to the world; be all of yourself.
D: And for those of us who are your fans, that’s exactly what draws us to you. There is so much about you that can’t be found in any other artist.
L: And that’s how it should be! And we’re forgetting that because of what sells. So when there’s an artist like me, and not just me—there are so many of us out there that are different [from the mainstream]—we should support them. The legends still do what they do, and I’m still doing what I’m doing—support all of us. Our culture deserves to have all the stuff that’s ours so that it’s available to you when you’re ready for it.
D: That’s so true. I’ve always been a very different, very peculiar person—
Before I could finish, she interjected:
L: Thank God for y’all! Or we wouldn’t be here.
D: So I gravitate towards—I’m a music nerd, I don’t know if you can tell yet or not—
L: Oh, I can tell! You asking about time signatures and talking about phrasing and things. Come on!
D: I’m a musician, I grew up singing in the Church, and I’m a queer nonbinary-trans person, so much of my identity is rooted in these different sounds that are very musical and very technical and melodic—
Interjecting again, she said:
L: Yes, freedom! It’s called freedom, my dear. You’re a freedom mover. I get you; I know who you is.
We laughed, and in that moment, Ledisi became so much more than I ever expected her to be. I did not anticipate being affirmed so strongly in an interview that was supposed to be all about her.
We talked a bit more about the album, this time going over “Stay Gone” and “Where I Am,” but something she said about “Where I Am” really struck me.
L: Tytewriter (Kristal Oliver) helped me write this song. I sang all the melodies and had the hook and what I wanted to say. She helped me finish it because I couldn’t think of words, but I wanted no-nonsense. I really wanted to tell someone off, and I told her ‘I even wanna curse. I want them to know that I’m grown grown this era.’
Ledisi is grown grown, y’all. Get with it!
I lauded her over a few more of the songs, specifically “In It To Win”
D: “In It To Win” is this really electro-alternative sound that I love!
L: I’ve never heard it described that way. I love that! “In It To Win” is me saying I’m not going to dim myself to fit in to what is the standard. I’m of another level; I’m not like everyone else. I’m going to be around for a very long time. That, to me—longevity and sustainability—is winning, and being the star that I am. I’m saying it out loud. I’ve wanted to say that for so long.” She continued, “When I do things, even if people don’t praise me in public, they praise me in private. They never want to give me my flowers, and that’s okay. I’ve accepted—
Before she could finish, I yelled, “No it’s not!”
L: It’s okay! I would love to hear it directly and not as secondhand information, but the legends give me all the things I need. They give me all my lessons. They tell me when I’m right, or when I’m wrong, or when I need to do better. And that’s good enough for me. But I’m blazingly on that song saying: ‘I see you. I SEE YOU. But I also know who I am,’ and I move along. I could easily boast about the gift that I have, but that’s not me. But this song, I got to brag about it just a little bit, and it felt goood.
D: I love that, and I want to talk a little bit more about that. [I want to talk] about what it meant for you to be a Black woman—who are oftentimes told or taught that [they] can not be boastful or braggadocious and that they instead must always be humble—who was able to hop on a track and talk about exactly how brilliant you are and how much of a beast you are. What did that feel like?
L: This song was liberating. It was liberating to be able to finish vocals and send them, and say that I recorded the vocals in my studio that I built. And then to be able to sing it like that! I got [a chance] to be New Orleans in the back and say, ‘I’m already here, I’m waiting for y’all to catch up.’ it felt good to say out loud, “catch up!” It was grown grown.
D: I love that you mentioned “grown grown” again because in my notes, I wrote: “This album is very ‘grown and sexy’ meets ‘free Black girl’. If I had to draw a comparison, I’d say it reminds me a lot of Jill Scott’s Woman and India.Arie’s Acoustic Soul.” That’s in my notes!
L: Wow! I didn’t even think about that. That’s amazing.
D: One thing that I love about you is that you’re a student.
L: Yesss, yes, yes.
D: You’re a student of those who came before you, and you use that as a way to be innovative, and create a new sound but one that is birthed from the people you study. One thing about me is that I love lineage; I love being able to listen to a song and know that a person is [following the legacy of] these other people.
We spoke a bit more about that. About her love for the legends and the people who came before her, and how inspired she is by them, and what it means for her to be someone who is constantly learning from them.
D: Okay, I want to transition a bit. How much time do I have?
L: You’re good, you’re good! I love talking to you.
D: Wooo! Ledisi, you gon’ make my day! I’m telling you.
L: You’re like my little sibling. I can sit and talk about all the nerdy, cool things. And even if it wasn’t my album, I can tell we would do this about any album. We would go in!
While she laughed, I smiled harder than the Kool-Aid man.
D: So you were born and raised in NOLA. Your mom is the lovely Nyra Dynese, your dad is Larry Saunders, even your step-father is a musician. Music flows through you! Tell me what it was like to grow up with artists for parents in such a musical city like NOLA?
L: Honestly, my mom is the root of all of it. My step-father taught me a lot about drums, and that was my first instrument, but instrumentally in my music career is my mother. She was my Michael Jackson—she’s who I looked up to. She was really into music in a way that was colorful. She taught me Nina Simone before I even knew who was singing those songs, and she used that to teach me and my sisters that we’re beautiful and powerful. My father wasn’t there until later, and then I understood where I got it from on his side—the songwriting and the complex things. But my mom also taught him! So she really is a powerful force. And she didn’t push me to be into doing music. She wished for it, but she let it be my decision and just guided me when I was ready.
D: I watched a video back in 2017 of you performing with Kelly Price. You freestyled the lyrics: “I’m so proud of you / working it out, never giving up / being who you are / and you doing your own thing.” It was a special moment for me to watch because of all that Kelly Price has gone through. What does camaraderie, especially amongst other Black women, in the industry mean for/to you?
L: I learned early on from Rachelle Ferrell. When she fell in love with my music she became my mentor, and she would just throw me in positions to just sing with her. She prepared me and showed me that women could get along [in this industry]. I’ve been blessed to be around women that are legendary; women that have paved the way for themselves. And I’ve watched them sustain themselves and build their own lane. Our industry pits women against each other all the time, especially Black women, and I don’t want to be a part of that narrative. So I create an environment of camaraderie wherever I go. We don’t have to all agree—I don’t have to like your music and you don’t have to like mine—but respect is so important. So when I meet women [in the industry], I’m always going to respect their lane, their journey, their sustainability, what they do. And even though I’m a bit of a loner, I let every woman I’ve ever loved or admired know that I’m always here [for them]—whether to talk crap or to remind them of who they are. I love Black women who are singing they face off, whatever they singing.
D: Who are some of your favorite new acts?
L: I love Jazmine Sullivan. I can’t wait to see how she grows as she gets older. There are so many others. Chloe and Halle, they can SING. They’re such great musicians and writers, they’re so talented. Ari Lennox! Woooo, I love Ari Lennox. She just pours it out there. And Kehlani is from the Bay, so definitely; she’s amazing. These artists are all honest in their artistry, and they don’t care what people think, they just go for it.
D: I read an interview of you talking about Cardi, and I love Cardi—
Before I could finish, she blurts out:
L: She’s so dope! She’s the coolest. So incredibly honest and real. [She’s] a really great lady.
D: I would just like to know if that means we’ll ever get a Ledisi x Cardi collab? I don’t know how it would sound, but I’ll sign up for two of my favs on a track
L: Oooh my Lord, I don’t know how that would work, but there’s freedom in that whole combination so I don’t judge it. I’m a huge fan of her music, but also of her spirit. Her artistry is incredible because it’s bold, but I also love her personality and humanness. She’s so pleasant about supporting other women; she respects the space. If she ever needed me, I would say “I’m here.” And listen, WAP is a good treadmill song. I be on the treadmill like ‘Get it, get it! Get it, get it!’
Before I could transition to the next question, she started to sing WAP and talked a bit about how much she loved seeing Cardi and Megan Thee Stallion, who is featured on WAP, together and not in competition.
L: We need to see more of that!
D: At WYV, we are all about celebrating and uplifting—particularly—Black women and LGBTQ+ folks. With all that’s happening right now in the world, how important is it for you to do the same with your music—behind the scenes and otherwise?
L: I just think who you love is who you love, and that has nothing to do with me. But what I do have something to do with is what I’m bringing into the world. What am I creating that builds others up instead of isolating people? We are all seeing right now how hard isolation is. So for me, it’s about creating art and speaking through it, and for me, that’s what it means to do my part to help make necessary changes in the world. That’s where the focus should be. Creators have to create something that can empower and move the needle.
Before we ended the interview, I wanted to make sure I asked her a few fun questions.
D: Girl, when are we getting a Gospel album?
She hollered laughing.
L: The closest you gon’ get is the Christmas album that’s been out for years. Don’t be both’in me!
We really were talking like we’d known one another for years. She continued:
L: I love Gospel music, I think they doing fine without me. I can’t sing with those beasts; I would be so scared. In the studio like, “How do y’all even do that?”
D: Okay, final question: who are your dream collaborations?
L: I’m into producers more than anything. I still want to work with Rodney Jerkins, Q-Tip, Raphael Saadiq, and DJ Camper again. As far as singing, that’s a hard one. Probably Jamie Foxx or Tank or Joe. But there are so many!
After two hours of laughs and deep conversation, we ended our chat singing each other’s praises. We exchanged contacts and hung up. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to talk with one of my favorite artists about music, Black women, love, and so much more. Be sure to buy Ledisi’s latest album The Wild Card!
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