Sophomore albums can be tough. Ask just about anyone who’s fortunate enough, these days, to make a second album for a major label. The question is always, ‘do I repeat what I did last time? Or do I go out on a limb and move into other musical areas now that I’ve gotten my foot in the door?’ A tough call and there are plenty of examples of folks who have taken one or the other pathway - and found themselves unable to eclipse or even match the initial success they’ve achieved.
Such a dilemma doubtless faced Lizz Wright. The 25-year old songstress from the small town of Hahira, Georgia made a pretty impressive splash with her 2003 Verve debut, “Salt,” which reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Top Contemporary Jazz charts, no mean feat for any newcomer. Lizz toured with Al Green, Al Jarreau, The Neville Brothers and the late Ray Charles and in addition to her critically-acclaimed appearance in a tribute to Billie Holiday (in 2002, prior to the release of “Salt”), Lizz performed in a tribute to Nina Simone (one of her stated influences) at Carnegie Hall in February 2004 as well as appearing at the Hollywood Bowl last year. A whirlwind year for the young performer and then time to face the daunting challenge of what to create for a second album that becomes a much-anticipated musical ‘event,’ particularly for those who were mesmerized by her first musical offering.
“Dreaming Wide Awake” is notably different from its predecessor - which included spirited covers of “Afro Blue,” “End Of The Line” from the Simone repertoire and “Soon As I Get Home” from “The Wiz” - for a number of reasons: whereas “Salt” included eight compositions or collaborations, Lizz’s latest work contains three. Producers for “Salt” included Tommy LiPuma, Brian Blade and Jon Cowhered; “Dreaming Wide Awake” is produced entirely by Craig Street, best known for his work with Cassandra Wilson (with whom Lizz has sometimes been compared vocally) and k.d. lang and was cut at a Woodstock, New York studio. The overall ‘feel’ of the two albums is distinct with Lizz’s second album having a less jazzier flavor and being decidedly more ‘mellow’.
In reviews, “Dreaming Wide Awake” has critics making comparisons with Norah Jones and indeed, two songs on the album bear the name ‘Jesse Harris’ (of “Don’t Know Why” fame) in their composing credits. Some music buyers who were enthralled by “Salt” seem less so with the new album which is sparser, production-wise and some say, a little ‘darker’ in its’ overall vibe. I admit, it took me a few plays to get into it but I’m now starting to enjoy its quiet simplicity. For Lizz, such responses are welcome as she revealed when we talked prior to the album’s releases: “I like that people have to get into this record,” she states, calmly. “I’m going out on my second promotional tour and it’s becoming a ‘talk-a-thon’ which is fine. I want people to see the connection between the two albums and not think the latest record is just sad and dark. Talking to people about the new album is really opening up my world and my mind…”
Explaining her approach to “Dreaming Wide Awake” (whose title track she wrote as well as collaborating on “Hit The Ground” and “Trouble”), Lizz notes, “I was definitely in a different head space when we worked on the album, plus the environment was physically different, being recorded in upstate New York, out in the mountains. I was able to tell (producer) Craig (Street) that I wanted a record that was more like what I listen to with less singing and more vocalizing. I was thinking about artists like Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley and (Irish singer-songwriter) Damien Rice who are expressive and passionate, who are more about storytelling through music and more committed to the ‘moment’. Craig had me to listen to all kinds of things – country, rock, (‘60s group) The Youngbloods, Neil Young… I learned to strip songs down to their lyrics so you have something to connect to and then build them up and make them my own.”
Illustrating her point, the new album contains a few covers: Young’s “Old Man” and The Youngbloods’ thematic “Get Together” (a song also recorded in the past by others including Dionne Warwick and the late soul singer Judy Clay) along with the famed pop classic of the ‘60s, “A Taste Of Honey” and country-influenced singer-songwriter Joe Henry’s “Stop.” It’s a few musical miles away from the more jazz-veered tunes on “Salt” and is reminiscent in approach to some of Cassandra Wilson’s eclectically-diverse albums. “I’d say the album was
built by conversations we had with me opening my mind and sharing what I like about music,” Lizz states. “The bulk of the material was done in four days in the same room and it was pretty much ‘live’. It was great – simple, easier doing it that way. There was more ‘chemistry’ in the room. The experience of making this record intrigued me. What I like about the sequence of it is that it has a story. The song “Dreaming Wide Awake” means something new to me now that it’s paired up with other songs. Essentially, the song itself is saying, ‘life is beautiful but don’t try to hold on to it, let it flow.’ My hope is that listeners will sit down and get into the whole album and at least experience it for themselves.”
Lizz is naturally cognizant that “Salt” and “Dreaming Wide Awake” are sonically different and that could lead to some criticism. “I did wonder when we started [making the new album] and I was very hung up on that bit I’m so open right now and I wouldn’t trade that for the approval of the jazz community,” she says candidly. “I may end with somewhat of a new audience. I want to use music to explore life and I wouldn’t change success for that opportunity. I don’t want to be restricted. I think of the music of someone like Sade, amazing, simple, so basic that it touches all of us…”
She admits that the response to “Salt” took her somewhat by surprise: “With the first album, I had no expectation that it would get the reaction it did. It was like, ‘they like that?’ People were more open than I thought they would be.” What its’ success allowed was for Lizz to perform consistently in 2003 and 2004 and among the shows was the tribute to Nina Simone (for which she sang “I Loves You Porgy” and participated as one of the singers on “Four Women”) and a performance in Atlanta that was particularly special. “I enjoyed going back there,” Lizz reflects. “It was at an open air theater and it was not a big gig but there were a lot of d.j.s and people who took me under their wing when I was running around ‘lost’ trying to figure out what I was going to do. It had that ‘full circle’ kind of feeling to it.”
While making “Dreaming Wide Awake,” Lizz did almost no performing although she recalls one show she did in Rochester, New York, “with one guitar and one percussionist. It was intimate and it was meant to be that way, much like the new record is. It’s funny because there are some people who hear the album and are surprised that I’m black, that from the South and that I have a gospel background! I’m so mellow - and I’m supposed to have fire in my belly when I sing! It reminds me of one of my personal mentors who – when talking about some aspects of gospel music - asked me, ‘Why do people scream at God?’! I don’t know the answer to that one…”
With music that she says appeals to “people with different lifestyles and beliefs,” Lizz Wright is rightfully unapologetic for the contrast her first two albums provide: “I always want to go on a journey with music,“ she concludes and in an age where artistic integrity is at a high premium, she’s to be acknowledged for being bold, being creative and venturing beyond what could be perceived as her musical comfort zone. “Dreaming Wide Awake” may take a moment to sink in but when it does, you may find yourself hooked. I know I did.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.