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From her name to her music to her mission to the circuitous path that brought her to legendary Verve Records for her third album, Lost and Found (in-stores August 28), LEDISI is a galvanizing, all-natural wonder. Wherever she goes, she wows and astounds.
This year, during a gala Songwriters’ Hall of Fame ceremony, an A-list of show business veterans could hardly wait for Ledisi’s rapturous rendition of “Unchained Melody” to end before lavishing her with thunderous applause. In 2006, before a rapt contingent of music business mavens at the Urban Network conference, Ledisi – wedged between a hip-hop act and a tweety bird – brought an audience of astute professionals to its feet with an amazing a cappella performance of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Then there was the PBS televised tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, We All Love Ella, where no less than Quincy Jones introduced her to the stage (adopting her as his goddaughter) where she proceeded to belt out a show-stealing version of “Blues in the Night” that she had previously recorded for the companion CD with the great Phil Ramone producing.
Singer/songwriter Ledisi (pronounced led-duh-see and adopted from the word that means “to bring forth” in the Yoruba language of Nigeria) is the epitome of the performer that – after she earns a standing ovation – people stare wide-eyed and mumbling, “Where has she been all this time?” The lady will tell you – in a voice of equal parts sweet, slightly weary yet triumphant – “Here...all the time.”
Three years in the making, the 16-track Lost and Found (2007) (for which Ledisi co-produced all of the songs with veterans Rex Rideout, Jamey Jaz, and Mano Hanes, newcomer Lorenzo Johnson, and longtime collaborator Sundra Manning) is the album destined to usher a deserving talent into some well-earned limelight. Overflowing with deeply touching songs of love and life, the CD cuts a swath through intimate snapshots of relationships that linger in the mind long after the last note has been sung.
Emotions swing from the soulful swoon of falling in love with your “Best Friend” to a liberating acknowledgement that it’s time for lovers to throw in the towel on the insanely hooky “I Tried” (featuring Errol Cooney on guitar – the chorus reads: “I tried, you tried / We tried…Time to move on!”). “In the Morning” flows like an old R&B LP à la Stevie Wonder or Barry White, expressing a woman’s need for love after the lovin’. On the more contemporary side are “Joy” and “You & Me” that telegraph the bliss of being truly connected to someone. And the smoothly hip-hop-spiced “Think of You” is so reverent that it really couldn’t be about anything else but loving The Lord.
The first single from Lost and Found is the moving “Alright,” reassuring words of comfort, self-love and survival that everyone can relate to. “‘Alright’ came from me just being tired from the ups and downs of my journey,” Ledisi shares. “It came during a great low as well as a great high in my life. I was trying to stay positive and feel like, no matter what, things were gonna be alright. Before I signed with Verve, I was writing and recording songs with no idea where the money would be coming from to pay for all of it. It was tough.”
Already respected and adored by the cutting edge of today’s black-music underground, Ledisi has been one of its most inspiring independent spirits. Frustrated at the lack of interest she was getting from major record companies, Ledisi and her friend Sundra Manning launched LeSun Records in 1999 with Ledisi’s debut project, Soulsinger. She had ears and necks turning with earthy jams like “Get Outta My Kitchen” and “I Wantcha Babe,” but what was most striking was the uncompromised manner in which she covered touchy taboo material such as “Papa Loved to Love Me” (incest) and “Coffee” (domestic violence). Diane Anderson-Marshall of One World magazine marveled that Ledisi was “iconoclastic...to a fault.”
Following her 2002 sophomore CD Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue – which contained her singular approach to jazz for the new millennium – Ledisi’s voice took center stage. Like Chaka Khan without sounding anything like her, Ledisi’s is a voice that always reflects a reservoir of strength even in the most tender of moments. And women related to it in no uncertain terms. In Savoy, Valencia Stewart sang her praises, “It’s easy to mistake one of Ledisi’s electrifying performances for a sanctified church meeting.” In Upscale, Joyce E. Davis wrote, “Her voice reaches and aches...wallows and resonates...the girl is just plain ol’ bad!” And lest you think the men were unmoved, J. Freedom du Loc mused in Vibe, “she’s an emerging singer with a serious jazz jones...miscast in a post-millennial musical climate.”
A breakthrough for Ledisi at urban adult contemporary radio occurred upon the release of the 2004 all-star collection Forever, For Always, For Luther – a salute to soul music legend Luther Vandross. On this album, released by Verve Records via its GRP subsidiary, Ledisi covered the R&B master’s “My Sensitivity (Gets in the Way)” with such tangy passion that yet another layer of audience began to wonder, “Who is this exciting new talent?” It was at this point that Verve – which had passed on signing her in the past – began to reconsider this versatile talent. But the process took two years.
Composer/keyboardist Rex Rideout, who produced Ledisi’s Vandross cover, was instrumental in guiding her through the delicate transition from independent firebrand to major label artist. A veteran who’s worked with pioneering soul-jazz greats from player Roy Ayers to singer Angela Bofill, he understood what would be required from all involved to make Ledisi’s re-launch a success. “When I met Ledisi, I was floored by her,” he states. “Watching her in the studio is like watching a performance. There’s a whole lot of music in this woman. The challenge has been finding the right voice for her – with enough of the fire that got her here yet chilled enough to take her further. That process will give her a solid foundation in the mainstream community. I told Verve, ‘Ledisi will be legendary.’ It’s her time.”
Ledisi took the initiative to bring her artistry to the next level. She left all she was comfortable with in her Northern California support system to take a leap of faith on Broadway. “Living in New York, “she explains, “I was doing things I’d never done before. In Oakland, I had a house and a car. In New York, I had a sleeping bag on a floor in a friend’s apartment and had to walk everywhere!” But the independent move paid off. She wound up being pivotal to the writing and production of the music and characters during the workshop stage of Oprah Winfrey’s Tony-winning stage adaptation of The Color Purple. Ledisi also understudied Tony Kushner/George C. Wolfe’s off-Broadway production Caroline or Change. All the while she was writing and cutting demos in her dressing room, then flying to L.A. - initially at her own expense - to record them properly.
Ultimately, Ledisi created Lost and Found her way - mixing old and new friends in familiar and fresh aural environs. The story was completely unscripted, unfolding in a way she proudly describes as "organic." "The first song Rex and I wrote together ('Think of You') was done in 20 minutes over lunch," she states. "Rex made me feel that not only can I be on the radio, I deserve to be there. I'd already been writing with Mano Hanes, this mystical person who moved down to L.A. from the Bay. After he saw me live at The Conga Room, we hooked up and wrote several songs, including 'Someday,' 'Today' and 'Best Friend.' Then I met Lorenzo Johnson in Washington D.C. He invited me to visit his studio in Maryland where he had all these tracks just sitting around. When I heard the music for one, I wrote 'Get to Know You.' We wrote about 12 songs in four days. None of these experiences were coincidental."
Reflecting on the theme of Lost and Found, Ledisi continues, “During the making of this album, I was in a relationship but not feeling complete. One day I was at Rex's house sitting at the piano - which is a very private thing for me. I never let anybody hear me play. Rex stopped and asked, 'What is that?' I said 'Nothing...just this little song I've been working on for over a year for someone else.' He said, 'Oh, no. That came from straight out of you. We're going to fix that right now.'" That song became "Lost and Found (Find Me)," the CD's title track which Ledisi sings lovingly accompanied by just Rex at the piano and Karen Briggs on violin. "I wanted a Carole King vibe," she explains. "That song for me is what 'Yesterday' is to the Beatles."
Similarly magical was the creation of the under-two-minute interlude "We Are One," a mesmerizing vocal collage sung with acclaimed soul man Rahsaan Patterson. "I recorded it during the same session I did 'Devotion' for the Interpretations: Celebrating the Music of Earth Wind & Fire CD," she shares. "Out of the blue, Rex played this melody and I screamed, 'That's a song!' I wrote the words in the car on the way to the studio. I called Rahsaan to come sing with me, but we only had an hour. The lights were low and we were looking at each other as we sang... Rahsaan is such an inspiration. The first time I saw him was on BET singing 'So Fine' live at SOB's. That song sparked my song 'Kitchen.' I could tell he was an underdog like me."
Voicing her concern about the slicker production of her latest album, Ledisi states, "I worked hard not to lose the essence of who I am by trying to fit into a box. We kept a lot of my first takes because I have to keep things raw. That's also why my original partner, Sundra Manning, had to be on the record." The once inseparable two-against-the-world had a temporary parting of the ways. "Running a record company with just the two of us doing what whole teams do at a label took a toll on our friendship and creativity. I felt like everywhere I looked was somewhere I'd already been. We just needed a break to reconnect with who we are individually. Now we're better friends and business partners. We still own Soulsinger and Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue. Once Lost and Found blows up, we'll re-release them with better distribution. And we're still placing songs from our catalog with other artists (including the poignant piano and voice piece "Missing You," the title track of soul veteran Peabo Bryson's first CD in eight years).
Relating the story of her and Sundra's contribution to Lost and Found, Ledisi continues, "We were working on a (unfinished) project called Carnivale. I've always had a fascination with Ferris Wheels. It's like the world going around and around with all these people sitting on it. So we wrote a song called 'Upside Down,' which is how the world feels to me right now.” If the world is topsy-turvy for Ledisi these days, at least her love life has found solid ground. "The last song I wrote for this CD is 'The One' which I did with Rahsaan's writing partner, Jamey Jaz. It represents where I'm at now – found - in a relationship that completes me and my spirit is in alignment. Having all that, music, my family and a great team of folk around me makes me feel complete."
The same can be said of her connection with her new recording company. "Being on Verve makes me feel like a class act," she swoons. "My all-time favorite Verve album is A Turtle's Dream by Abbey Lincoln...and anything by Ella! All the legends were on Verve and most of them were on the cutting edge. I'm an R&B artist on a jazz label. That makes no sense at all to the average person, but it makes perfect sense to me. Along with my own label, LeSun, and my new production company, LedHead Productions LLC, Verve is the ideal home for me."
"When Sundra and I started," Ledisi concludes, "our motto was ‘Innovators For Modern Timeless Music.’ That means I make my music to be timeless...so it can never be dated."
From singing on Broadway and teaching voice in Berkeley to performing around the globe, having the guts to compose and manufacture her own soul-baring music, and the good fortune of being born in New Orleans (soul music central) to two fine singers (and a drummer for a step daddy to boot), Ledisi extends from roots any artist would proudly claim. Lost and Found marks the next level ascent of a trained, tried and true artist for whom the underground was a nurturing cocoon. Now…watch this black butterfly soar.