The New Orleans-bred artist's road to self-discovery through song has earned her a new crop of loyalists
Fire and ice. Funk and grit. Jazz and blues. Rhythm and soul. Ledisi boasts a vocal prowess that promises all of those things. It promises-and delivers. The soulstress has finally, seven years into the game, transcended the indie music circuit to play with the majors. Her third album, Lost & Found, has earned her two Grammy nods (including one for Best New Artist) and a loyal following. In a chat with ESSENCE.COM, the vocal siren talks about walking the red carpet, working with George Clooney, and losing family that fateful day in New Orleans.
ESSENCE.COM: Hey, lady! It's been too long! Lost & Found is still riding high on the charts a year after its release. What does this project mean to you?
LEDISI: The title track is something everybody can relate to at some point in their lives-not being accepted. As an indie artist, I was going through that phase, like, Please, someone, find me. This album is like that great find you purchased at a secondhand store and managed to make feel new. I remind people of so many things that are old but brand-new. And this record feels like something old and something new. I feel brand-new!
ESSENCE.COM: You sound new too-this album is a departure from your signature sound. Were you concerned that it wouldn't be accepted?
LEDISI: I was scared to death that folk weren't going to like it because they preferred my usual raw and uninhibited delivery. I give them that in my performances still and I believe just enough of it on the album. My first album, Soulsinger, was a leap of faith-me leaving everything behind to pursue my singing. And Lost & Found, when I recorded it, I was thinking, I'm still not known; I'm still not good enough.
ESSENCE.COM: That's far from your reality now. How are you handling all the recognition?
LEDISI: (Laughs) I'm not used to it. I am new in the spotlight so things like walking the red carpet are difficult for me. I'm just not a red-carpet person-but I'm trying! I'm still getting used to the camera.
ESSENCE.COM: But you're a singer!
LEDISI: Performing and interacting with an audience feels different in the sense that I'm not the focus, my audience is. But tell me to pose for the camera by myself and, well, it just takes some getting used to.
ESSENCE.COM: Congrats, also, on your film role in Leatherheads. Word on the street is George Clooney handpicked you to play a 1920s blues singer?
LEDISI: Yes! The funny thing is, I had no idea that I was called in for a film with George Clooney. I auditioned for Dreamgirls, as the role of Effie-shout out to Jennifer Hudson, who was phenomenal-and the casting director told someone that they should have me come down for an audition. So I went and sang a couple of songs without knowing what it was for. George had been trying to cast that part for a year. I couldn't believe it, and when I finally got on set, he talked to me like he knew me forever. He was so cool and calls me "Led." In the beginning he pronounced my name "Lee-dee-see (laughs)."
ESSENCE.COM: It's funny how things work out. Were you upset you didn't get Dreamgirls?
LEDISI: I auditioned for Effie probably four or five times in New York and Los Angeles. I even made it to the screen test. I poured my heart out. I know Jennifer, and I went to the premiere and Jennifer was sitting behind me. I said, "You bettah sang!" And she really did shut it down. I was glad Jennifer got it.
ESSENCE.COM: Yes, J-Hud did the darn thang! How much do you think looks had to do with your success, or lack thereof, in the beginning of your career?
LEDISI: What's happening now is that it's helped me grow and be more confident. Before, I wouldn't wear heels, and now wearing four inches is my favorite thing. I've created a style where I can still be natural and have my locks.
ESSENCE.COM: Your song "In the Morning" is about the neglect of a man and its effect on a woman's behavior. Have you ever acted out as a scorned lover?
LEDISI: Yes, but artists should never talk about their boyfriends. If you'd talked to me in 2005, you would've said, "She done lost her mind!" I've been that crazy, deranged girl, and then one day I simply decided I was done with this dysfunctional relationship.
ESSENCE.COM: That's what you call taking the high road. Speaking of relationships, what happened between you and your original writing partner, Sundra?
LEDISI: Nothing scandalous. We are very supportive of one another. We are more friends now than business partners. The business started to get in the way of the friendship, and we did our own thing for a minute. I had to stretch myself, and she's into the independent world. I turned down a couple of record deals when people wanted to sign me, and it got weird. I'd do nothing because I'm loyal and felt like we were a team, so if they didn't want us both, then I wasn't going to do it.
ESSENCE.COM: Timing is everything, and this is your time. I know you're originally from New Orleans and will be heading back for the Essence Music Festival. Is this your first visit since the tragedy?
LEDISI: Yes, and I'm looking forward to performing. Unfortunately, I lost cousins who lived in the Ninth Ward. I can't say I'm looking forward to that part of my trip but I think it is necessary.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you love most about being an artist?
LEDISI: The stories that people share with me about how one of my songs affected them. I've had people say, "This song changed my life when I was going through it!"
ESSENCE.COM: What kind of effect do you want to have on your audience?
LEDISI: I do what I do for the people and myself. I want everyone to leave my shows feeling energized and renewed because it's hard enough living, period. That's why I always end with that song "Take Time," which I wrote originally as a jingle for an airline commercial. We all could stand to slow down and take time out of our hectic lives to know some calm and do something for ourselves. People love that song because everyone can relate to working really hard. But "Alright" is the new anthem, and the lyrics are basically encouraging folk never to give up.
Photo Credit: Vincent Soyez