Smitty: I must say that it is a great day at Jazz Monthly.Com as we have the pleasure to finally welcome to JazzMonthly.com an incredible singer. She sings with such brilliance, such a deep voice, a strong voice, and with so much soul. Her great new record is called Lost and Found and you must hear this fantastic project. Please welcome one of the most soulful vocalists on the planet, Ms. Ledisi Young. Ledisi, how ya doin’, my friend?
Ledisi: I am fine, thank you. Thank you for that beautiful intro. I’m like hmm.
Smitty: (Both laugh.) You are so welcome and that is straight from the heart, my friend, because I just love your style, your music, and what you do for so many people around the world with your wonderful music. It’s just incredible.
Ledisi: Aww, thank you, thank you.
Smitty: Oh, you’re so welcome.
Ledisi: And my face hurts. I’m teasing. (Both laugh.) I’m so embarrassed right now. This is so sweet.
Smitty: I’m just so excited to talk to you because when I listened to your project—everybody knows about your Soulsinger project and Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue, but this one, it’s 16 tracks and, I mean, it’s just nonstop, just brilliance from beginning to end.
Ledisi: Oh, wow.
Smitty: And I feel so much of your passion for music, for singing and for your audience by the way you have arranged these great songs and the way you have presented them to so many people. It’s just a great project.
Ledisi: Wow, thank you. I didn’t do it alone, but thank you. (Laughs.)
Smitty: Yes, and I know you’ve got some incredible supporters with this project and we’re gonna talk about some of those as well because you have really just done such a magnificent job with this and you’ve got some great people. You know how to pick ‘em. How’s that? (Both laugh.)
Ledisi: Well, when it comes to music, I pick ‘em really good. (Laughs.)
Smitty: Oh, yeah. You’re totally good. But let’s back up.
Smitty: Take me back to when Ledisi first started to sing and just yourself being captivated by the whole essence of singing.
Ledisi: Well, you know, honestly, I watched my mother. I’m a big fan of my mom and when I was little, she had a band and they would perform in the living room. We had that one tract house because I’m originally from New Orleans. It was a house that would just go one long line. You had the living room, our bedroom, their bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, done, you know what I mean? That’s the whole house.
Smitty: Yeah, oh yeah.
Ledisi: But in that house was an upright piano, a full drum set, a bass amp, guitar amp, and reel-to-reel and all these vinyl records everywhere with this big microphone, and my mom would be in our bedroom and the band would be in the living room recording to an eight-track, and I would just watch my mom record and I got the bug when I asked her to do one line and then they played it back. I was like ohhh, you know what I mean? And then seeing her perform live, I mean, with all of that, watching my mother, she never—even when she had so much going on in her personal life, when she sang, she would sing like it was the end of the world. Never seen her mimic, you know, take a break and just kinda halfway do anything.
I mean, looking at her perform and through whatever, she always gave it 110 because you never knew who was in the audience, and she was a true professional, never letting her personal life get in the way of her performances, and I watched her. I would be the one with the big eyes, real skinny and dark, and watching everything, and everyone would say “Get your eyes out of my mouth.” (Both laugh.) Because I was always looking at everything and everyone and studying, especially my mother. I admired my mom and I still do because her strength is impeccable, and I’m not just saying that.
I just watched her as a professional in the music industry and never fully getting her credit. She would write songs with the band and wouldn’t get her credit for that sometimes, and her and my biological dad, I found out later that they wrote a lot of songs together and one of them was stolen from them called “Pillow Talk,” and then just watching their history of music, I just loved singing, just watching it and hearing it and the rhythm, and even my stepdad taught me a lot about rhythm because he played the drums even if we had to go to bed. We got used to hearing the sound of rhythm while you’re sleeping because it was that crazy. (Laughs.) So we had it all throughout the house, always music, but never gospel. I never heard a lot of gospel music like most of us traditionally, sisters like myself growing up in the church. I didn’t grow up in the church listening to gospel music and stuff like that. Kinda backwards.
Smitty: Yeah. So when did you form your first band?
Ledisi: Oh, Lord! I won’t tell you when, but I will tell you, yes, I did start my own band. (Both laugh.) You know, you’re trying to sneak some dates on me. You know I’m not gonna give you any dates! (Both laugh.) You have to look that up, but I will not confirm.
Smitty: Oh, my Gosh. You’re just so funny (Laughs). Okay, so tell me about your first band.
Ledisi: Well, the first band that I formed was actually a lot of fun and it was during the whole acid jazz time, dating myself again, but I wanted to start my own group because I didn’t agree with some of the business stuff they were doing and I would get like five dollars at the end of the night, and it was a great band.
But when I performed back then in the band I was with, they didn’t have words for me. They just send you the groove, now make up something, and so you would never get the same thing every time we performed. I would make up words on the spot and then I got tired of that and I wanted a real band where I can write songs, and I wrote three songs and the rest were covers, and we only had probably 30 minutes worth of material, and we’d sing the same material and change the words on the second set. (Both laugh.)
Until we grew with more and more songs, and then later I just grew at a time and then met up with this horn player who knew Sundra [Manning] and she and I got together later on in the band, and all the time she was in my band, I never worked with her, but one day I said “Hey, we should do some songwriting together,” and we just started writing songs and asking the band to come in the studio and record some of the material, and just really growing as an artist and developing my sound live for a long period of time and then finally putting something on tape to hear back was amazing for me because I always knew I would record, but I didn’t know when and what. I was writing my own songs at home and she would write over the phone with me and help develop it even more, and that’s how LeSun Music came about and that’s how Soulsinger started to form.
Smitty: Wow. Well, that’s incredible because your voice is so unique and so strong in that when anyone hears you, it’s totally identifiable and it’s so inspirational that I know back then you must’ve garnered so many compliments and so much attention with your voice because it just commands attention.
Ledisi: Well, back then….I know performing live, when I first started out, I was pleading to be heard. People would come to the shows because they liked the energy, but I hadn’t really developed a sound of my own yet, so I was trying different things and I actually sang lower, which was funny. Back then I would sing lower and rougher, kinda like a Tina Turner kind of vibe. I would sing lower, but I also had jazz chops from studying jazz music. But, really, I was begging and pleading for people to love my voice, and then one day I just got tired of begging the audience. I would just sing softer, I calmed down, had the same energy but not caring about the audience, really, because if I fed off of that, then I would leave miserable every night. (Both laugh.) Because most people, when they see something they can see every week, they’re kind of like “Oh, I’ll see it next week.”
Ledisi: And when they get there, it’s about partying and not really about the art of the music. We had a lot of listeners, don’t get me wrong, especially at more of the sitdown kind of clubs, and there is where I really developed my sound. But I never expected people to like my voice, never. I just did what I did and I wanted acceptance, but I never looked at it like they really liked me. I thought they were there just to hang out, honestly.
Ledisi: And that sounds weird, but that’s true. That’s how I felt. Until Soulsinger came out, then I was like “Oh, okay, they are buying the record.” (Both laugh.) “They do want to hear me sing.”
Smitty: Yeah, the proof’s in the sales, huh?
Ledisi: Mm-hmm, yeah, man. I was like “Oh, okay.” (Both laugh.)
Smitty: So what did your mom think when you put your first record out there?
Ledisi: Oh, my mom was so proud and she was really proud of us both, that two women had gotten together and put out a record and produced it and fought hard for that. Very rarely you see women getting together period and doing anything together without arguing, you know what I mean? (Both laugh.) And having catfights, going “Meow,” you know? (Both laugh.) So that was a really powerful thing in itself. I mean, I felt like we were doing something different but still the same old thing, meaning independently putting out something but really different because it was two women.
I thought that was powerful and we got along and we shared the spotlight, but it was tense because later on, as we sold more and more records, it was hard to keep up independently and no one really liked the record. This was before the whole Jill Scott thing came out and around the Erykah Badu time. Nobody got it. They didn’t understand what I was doing or what Sundra and I were writing about. I mean, I had deep songs on the record and it was all over the place. It wasn’t really structured yet, and I didn’t want it structured, I wanted it theatrical and really real. A lot of those songs I didn’t want on the record, honestly. There were poems and things I had hidden away, so I took a chance putting that out there. And it was a great chance because without that record, without that great start, even though we did it independently for a long time in doing the work of a record company with only two people, it was a lot, but we learned so much from it.
Smitty: Yeah, I think it’s a great experience in a way. I mean, it is a lot of work and when you later sign with a label, I think you have a much better understanding.