Ledisi: A Singer's Second Life

Originally published on July 9, 2011 6:30 pm

A decade into her career as an R&B artist, it's hard to believe Ledisi actually got her start in opera. Beginning at age 8 and continuing through her studies at the University of California, Berkeley, the singer and songwriter spent years honing her operatic voice before switching to R&B and soul. However, she tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz that the two worlds aren't so different — especially when it comes to the skills the singers cultivate.

"I love opera so much," says Ledisi. "I would never go back to doing it, but I love to listen — I'm grateful for it. I studied diction, breathing control, phrasing, why the song means something. You want to bring that across to your listeners."

Ledisi's fifth studio album, Pieces of Me, was released last month. She says that even after five albums, not to mention two Grammy nominations, she still wrestles with plenty of doubt.

"I'm always doubting because I've been told so much that 'You're not the right look,' or 'You're not the right sound,'" she says. "Whether I do jazz or R&B, there are always complaints. I would just listen to the complaints about what I do instead of celebrating what I do, and that I'm different and in my own lane. It took a while for me to just ignore the doubts."

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RAZ: The voice you're about to hear belongs to an R&B singer named Ledisi. She's our music feature today.


LEDISI: (Singing) One call, two calls, three calls, is that what I do to you? Is that what I do to you? You're outside my door, scared to be alone. I know you're addicted too.

RAZ: This track is called "Hate Me" and it's off Ledisi's new record, "Pieces of Me." Now, not too long ago, before she became known as an R&B singer, you'd have probably heard Ledisi singing parts written by Puccini or Wagner. She spent years honing her operatic voice, first as a child prodigy and later at U.C. Berkeley.

But those days are long gone. Ledisi is becoming a star in the world of R&B. And her new record, her fifth studio album, is quite possibly her most personal. Ledisi joins me from our studios at NPR West. Great to have you.

LEDISI: Thank you for having me.

RAZ: So the song that we're hearing, it's called "Hate Me," which I imagine has a story behind it, I wonder if whether you can tell me what this whole record, "Pieces of Me," is actually about?

LEDISI: Well, "Pieces of Me" is celebrating being a full woman. I'm becoming a great woman that I adore.


LEDISI: It takes a while to really love yourself, and so I'm celebrating all those different parts. And I can be very sensual, spiritual, aggressive, which is like the song "Hate Me" and very just exuberant. And I wanted to express those sides.

RAZ: You have been in this business, in the recording business, the entertainment business for a long time. You really started at the age of 8. You had several Grammy nominations, and yet I read that you had doubts even abut this record, you know, as to whether you could ever even make it.

LEDISI: I'm always doubting because I've been told so much that, you're not the right look or you're not the right sound, and, you know, whether I do jazz or R&B there are always complaints. And I would just listen to the complaints about what I do instead of celebrating what I do, and that I'm different and I'm in my own lane and to embrace that.

RAZ: Tell me about your family, because you grew up in a pretty musical family. Your mom was in an R&B band in Louisiana. You were performing at the age of 8 with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra.

LEDISI: Yes. My mom saw that I had a talent, so she would put me in programs. And one of the programs was NOCCA, and only four students per school was able to perform with the New Orleans Symphony. So I was one of the students chosen for that after-school program. That was my first introduction to opera.

RAZ: And opera, of course, became a really big part of your life. You went on to study at U.C. Berkeley in the Young Musicians Program. I'm assuming, by the way, that you're a mezzo-soprano. Is that - yes.

LEDISI: Yes I am. How did you know?


RAZ: Well, you know, lucky guess. I was listening to this record through the prism of knowing that you studied opera. And it just - all of a sudden, it was weird. It just made sense to me. And there's this strange, kind of symbiosis between R&B, soul and opera.

LEDISI: Yeah. I think there's a story. There's always a story in music, and it's expressed through my music. I'm everything I'm made of. So a part of me is made of classical music. I'm grateful for it. I studied diction and breathing control and phrasing and why the song means something. And you want to bring that across to your listeners.


LEDISI: (Singing) Gotta serve it to me hot just like I like my coffee. It's keeping me from sleeping on my job, just like I like my coffee. Serve it to me tall, strong, and dark, just like I like my coffee. That's the way I like my man. That's how you gotta love me. That's the way I like my coffee.

RAZ: So this track we're hearing is called "Coffee." And I should mention it's only marginally about coffee.


RAZ: So, Ledisi, how do you like your coffee?


LEDISI: This song, you know, I avoided this song so much it became a favorite. Rex Rideout, my executive producer, said: Led, I have this song for you. I want you to hear. I want you to at least demo it. And I kept going: I don't want to. It's too sensual. It's too much describing how I like my man. The lyrics were more risqu� than what you hear now. So, I said, well, if I can change the lyrics around, I'll demo it. And we ended up using the demo. So what you hear is the first takes of everything.


LEDISI: (Singing) You see it on my face, my heart about to break, I'm gonna need a (unintelligible) I need a taste of that dark premium. Right on the spot, good to the last drop. How you keep it hot is a mystery.

I love it now.


RAZ: Because?

LEDISI: My like 85. That's what I call it.

RAZ: Got to serve it to me hot. That's what you sing.

LEDISI: Mm-hmm, just like I like my coffee.

RAZ: Got it.


RAZ: I mean, a lot of the tracks on this record, they are about intimacy. I mean, this really is an intimate record.

LEDISI: Yes. I wanted it to be that way. You know, people know what I look like. They're starting to know that, and they're starting to know my name and what I'm able to sing. But they don't know anything intimately about me, and so here it is.

RAZ: Were you nervous about showing that side of you?

LEDISI: Of course. I'm always talking about, you know, the grind of making it and spirituality and things like that. So here I am talking about kisses and hugs and things and coffee.


LEDISI: So it's very different. But what's doing music without risk? So here I am.

RAZ: I'm speaking with R&B soul singer Ledisi about her new record. It's called "Pieces of Me." Ledisi, you have a pretty awesome, and I should say powerful fan in the First Lady Michelle Obama. You have actually met her, right?

LEDISI: Yes. I've met her and spoke. And she's invited me twice to the White House. I performed at the Motown Tribute with wonderful other artists like Seal and John Legend and Stevie Wonder. It was amazing. And then I was invited in the same month by the first lady to come back and do a mentoring program for women. And she spoke about three women in her speech, and I was one of them, about their journey of never giving up.

RAZ: Wow.

LEDISI: And I'm sitting in the chair melting, thinking, OK, just smile because you don't have any makeup and everyone's going to look at you. Don't cry.


LEDISI: So it was amazing to have someone that powerful to me who I look up to look up to me. So it's a mirror. And, you know, after that, I left feeling like I can do anything. So, yeah, that contributed to my confidence that you hear and feel right now.


LEDISI: (Singing) Stuck in the middle I can see where I've been. My eyes are open and I know where I'm going. So this isn't the way, there are people (unintelligible) being next to the (unintelligible) has got something to say. They say you'll never see what you want to be, and you'll never get but so far. Ooh, I'm trying hard, gotta hold my tongue, sometimes I wish I really could say, I wanna tell them shut up.

RAZ: I love the energy in the song. It's such a great song. This one is called "Shut Up." And one of the things that you said about this record that I've read is that, you know, you're more confident in your music now and in yourself. And I think I hear it in this song.

LEDISI: Yes, most definitely. "Shut Up" was just my, you know, someone cut me off on the freeway in L.A., and Mike City, he produced the track with me and he gave me the track a long time ago and I hadn't recorded to it. And that song just came to mind. And I was thinking of all the people that told me, you'll never get far. You'll never going to be anything. And I thought about it, I said: Gosh, I wish I could have told them shut up, because that can defer a dream.

RAZ: So now that this record is getting a lot of attention, and you're getting a lot more attention than you have in the past, does it feel strange, or do you sort of feel like, you know, I worked so hard over the last decade and now I deserve this.

LEDISI: I do feel like - I was discussing with my mom about it and we both started crying. She was like, it's about time, you know, as a mother would say. And me, I'm thinking, wow. Now I have even more work to do because the expectations are so high. And they're not saying Ledisi anymore. They're saying Ledisi everywhere I go. So, yeah, it's a bit overwhelming. I'm used to being the nobody. So finally, I'm somebody. Well, I always thought I was, but to the rest of the world. And that's a big, gosh, it feels good. It feels good.

RAZ: That's singer-songwriter Ledisi. Her new album is called "Pieces of Me," and she joined me from our studios at NPR West in Southern California. Ledisi, thank you so much, and good luck with your album.

LEDISI: Thank you for having me. Thank you.


LEDISI: (Singing) I've got a new walk and a new point of view, a new purpose for everything I do. I got a new rule on me, real folks around me. If you're wondering I'm about to tell you now. See, it's the same pretty face, but a brand new smile. Same Ledisi, but she ain't walking. She's flying. New game, making big moves. You see if love found me it can surely find you. I ain't even got one sad tear left in me. All I really want to is to see the whole world stand up tonight. Take off aye. Celebrate life. It don't matter who you are or where you from. If you been working hard, give yourself a round of applause. Bravo. Bravo. Bravo. Come on clap for yourself. Bravo. Bravo.

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode every Sunday night. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.