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One-on-One with Ledisi

Ledisi, the Grammy-nominated jazz/soul singer known for hits such as “Alright” and “In The Morning” is hitting her stride.

With the recent release of her seventh album, The Truth, and an upcoming national tour, Ledisi is getting comfortable in the limelight. She shares with JET her musical influences, the best advice she has received and the legacy she wants to leave. Humble, sincere and gracious are just a few of our lasting impressions, but we’ll let you read on and get to know the talented vocalist for yourself.

JET: How is The Truth different from your other albums?

Ledisi: The Truth is more up-tempo this time around. I have a few ballads on it, but it’s very honest and open. It’s about self-love, letting go of love, receiving love and demanding the love you want. It is really about me and I’m not hiding behind any metaphors or relationships. It’s been rewarding to help others hear my story and be lifted, so the response has been great. I’m very proud of it.

JET: So we know you are going on tour with Robert Glasper to promote the album. How did that come about? Have you kept in touch since you collaborated on the song “Gonna Be Alright” from his Black Radio album?

Ledisi: We’ve known each other for a long time. When I was an independent artist, he would play for me in the jazz clubs where we would just make up things on the spot. When Robert was working on the first Radio album he asked me to come in and we had 15 minutes to record. We sat at the piano and then he said, ‘Now, go write.’ So I went outside, wrote for 15 minutes, came back and we heard “Gonna Be Alright.” I wrote it as a nursery rhyme dedicated to his son because I wanted his feeling in the song as well, not just my own.

So now we are going on tour together. He is a Grammy Award-winning producer and instrumentalist and I love him. I felt it’s appropriate to make an event out of this tour so having him open for me on The Truth tour is amazing.

JET: You are originally from New Orleans and moved to Oakland. Have those places had any influence on your music?

Ledisi: Being originally from New Orleans, I studied jazz music, listened to zydeco and everything under the sun; I mix my music up so much is because of my roots. Going to Oakland, I learned about The Hawkins Family and hung out with them. So I learned a lot. It helped me with diction and phrasing and I studied theater in the Bay Area. Everything you can possibly learn is from the Bay Area and New Orleans; it’s a jambalaya mixture of music. You had Tony! Toni! Toné!, The Hawkins Family, Sly Stone. I mean we have everything there, from gospel to funk. Everything is centered around the beat. If they can love me, I knew the rest of the world would love me because there are some picky people in Oakland. They are very proud and I’m honored to be from Oakland and New Orleans!

JET: Do you have any other musical influences?

Ledisi: I try to stick closely to my jazz roots. I always give credit to the ones before me because they made me who I am. It starts at home and I keep telling people that. You are influenced by what your parents like. My mother listened to Dinah Washington, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, African music and opera. I love Leontyne Price. I would always mimic the opera singers then go to school and be the loudest one because I thought in opera you just sing really loud. My favorite thing was listening to what my mom did. She was my Michael Jackson before Michael Jackson came about. I would put my hand on my hip like her, wear my hair like her and do anything she did because she was a singer.

JET: Do you have any dream duets, dead or alive?

Ledisi: I wish I could have performed with Marvin Gaye. I had a show opening up for Ray Charles, but he died three months before that was going to happen. I wish I could ask Sarah Vaughan, ‘How did you do this?’ Or Ella, ‘How do you quiet your fire? How do you be quiet in this?’ There are also other singers who are incredible and never had a chance to fully be vocal about how they felt. I would ask them the questions I wanted to ask. But their music says it all. I would want to sing a duet with Marvin Gaye. Those are the legends; they have stories that I would love to have asked questions about.

JET: What is the best advice you have ever received?

Ledisi: It has been from three people whom I absolutely adore. One is [first lady] Michelle Obama telling me, ‘Don’t change, always be who you are and sustain it. Be beautiful and just be you. We love you. Whatever you are going to be, be that.’ That blew me away. And then Prince told me, ‘Always carry yourself like a lady.’ And what’s funny is that he referenced Patti LaBelle who is the third person who gave me great advice. Patti LaBelle would say, ‘The show begins when you leave the house. Dress.’ She saw me in a pair of Adidas on the plane… she had full makeup on, outfit and slept like this [sits stiffly with her eyes closed and her chin up]. She got off the plane and there were cameras everywhere. ‘Dress everywhere you go and be ready, so you never have to get ready.’ Sheryl Lee Ralph said the same thing to me, but Patti is always dressed. Prince would say, ‘You should see Patti. She always has nails, always has rings and is always dressed up.’ She and I did a show together. At sound check, I was ready. She said, ‘Look at my baby, she’s ready, I taught you so well.’ She was so proud! So I listen to my legends, they tell you that for a reason and now I’m always ready for something.

JET: What is the worst piece of advice you ever received?

Ledisi: I’ve always followed my own feeling. I think the worst thing I’ve done is let someone who doesn’t know about taxes do my taxes. I got audited after that! I’m so grateful for my accountant now [laughs]. That’s before Ledisi was a Ledisi thing. The worst thing I did was listen to the wrong people. You have to be careful whom you let in your circle because not everyone is there for you.

JET: What is your favorite song of yours or someone else’s?

Ledisi: That’s not fair. That’s like picking a child! It has to be anything by Nat King Cole, anything by Marvin Gaye, but ‘I Want You’ in particular, for a reason… I love that song. I love “Wind Beneath My Wings” when anyone sings it really well. When I had to sing it, it was my first recital and I messed up on the modulation. I cried and walked off the stage. My teacher made me do it again, the very next recital and I didn’t want to. He said, ‘No, you are going to go out there and do it again.’ And that trained me for the rest of my life that every time, even if it doesn’t go the way you plan or if you mess up, get back and go and do it over again. So that song just triggers that feeling, that’s why I like it.

JET: You have received eight Grammy nominations. How do you feel about not winning?

Ledisi: When it comes to awards and being nominated I’m grateful, it means my peers are listening to me. To win would be awesome—anyone wants to win. But to be recognized in any fashion, whether it be at a show with an audience coming, or a magazine wanting an interview. This is the part that matters the most, being able to tell the story. The nominations are great, I want that, but actually seeing my audience say, ‘This song made me feel like this’ or you saying, ‘I want to interview you because I want to tell the rest of the world your story.’ It sounds cliché, but to be recognized by the people is a bigger thing. My peers, we’re singers and performers and producers. Yes, we are going to see it. But the world, somebody might have missed my story or might have missed that album or the other album. You’re saying, ‘I don’t want them to miss you, so I’m going to share this story with our JET readers. So that’s the reward. I need that. With an award I’m going to win it and put it on the shelf, but I still have to go out and meet people. That’s important to me. I want longevity.

JET: What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledisi: I want to be remembered for not just my voice, but as a great person. I want people to say, ‘She reminded me of me and if she can make it I can make it.’ I want to be an example like that. ‘She was just a regular girl from New Orleans East and East Oakland and she made a way independently, as an artist, as a singer, as a philanthropist, as a teacher. She made it so I can do it too.’ I want to be known for that.