The singer Lizz Wright was born in 1980 to the family of a pastor. From childhood, gospel music was close to her, she used to sing in a choir and later began to adore additional originally Afro-American genres, such as soul, blues and jazz. In November 2019 at the Blues Alive festival in Šumperk she performed with her own band, but in Brno she will be accompanied by the Brno Philharmonic along with a trio of Prague jazz performers (David Dorůžka – guitar, Tomáš Baroš – double bass, Daniel Šoltis – drums). The concert will take place on 3 May in the Janáček Theatre as part of the JAZZFESTBRNO 2020 festival.
You used to sing in a choir and eventually with smaller vocal ensembles. Now, standing on the stage as a solo singer, do you miss the other voices supporting you?
Sometimes I feel like I can hear a choir singing, accompanying and supporting me in my mind. It's still somewhere in there. Besides that, I have great bonds with my fellow instrumentalists who play the role of the other voices on the stage.
You appeared with your own band at the Blues Alive festival in Šumperk. How did you actually meet your instrumentalists?
I was really lucky finding these guys. After twenty years in the music industry I can rely on my friends who can recommend their acquaintances. Today I play with people that some of those close to me suggested.
I tend to behave very spontaneously on the stage. I am open-minded and I need my instrumentalists to respect that and get used to it.
I have noticed you being very spontaneous on the stage. However, I have caught myself thinking about how much of what we can see and hear is staged and how much it is improvised. Can you tell us the secret?
What I'll be doing on the stage is not prepared. With the players we know the playlist in advance and we talk about transitions between individual pieces.
Above all, I try to perceive the energy flowing between me and my instrumentalists during the performance. When I get the feeling that I should do something different to what we have prepared, I do just that. In fact, I don't consider our performance a concert per se - for me it is more like sharing. We show who we are as people. I spend a lot of time with my instrumentalists, sometimes we stay together in a car for hours. Therefore we know each other very well and we can feel our connection. Even when we aren't holding our instruments we are, in fact, playing together. What is happening among us on the stage is real.
You started off as a gospel singer, hence a spiritual music performer. Is God still the addressee of your songs?
By singing I make peace with myself. I also sing to God, which I perceive as a love energy, as the one who gave life to you and me. I once again have to emphasise that I don't see my singing as any sort of concert or an artistic performance on the stage. I rather see it as showing gratitude for the gifts I am receiving, and the joy of giving away something of myself.
Is singing in a gospel choir a good training for ordinary solo singing?
Nowadays I see my upbringing in a Christian family and religious environment as a great gift. Thanks to that, I can stand up in front of a congregation and pray, meditate, or cry through a song. Thanks to this ability to open up and share with other people I see music as a real fellowship. Ergo, I try to make the audience realise they're part of a moment, which – I'm repeating once again – is not just a concert.
How can you then transfer all that you are talking about to a CD? Is that even possible?
It is difficult to transfer all this to a CD – that must be clear to you just as much as it is to me. On stage I experience a truly deep connection to my brothers – musicians. In the studio you may be pressed for time, recording does cost you money... But, indeed, we are capable of making an interesting project with beautiful cover artwork that we present at concerts and build upon that. However, it is really not easy at all.
You have used the word project. Do you consider your individual albums in some sense individual projects?
When I talk about artistic collaboration, I like to use the word project. Grace – my latest album – was produced by a good friend of mine, Joe Henry, one of my favourite composers. We've known each other for thirteen years and we had discussed what the album would be like for many long hours.
I tried to explain to him metaphorically how I imagined the result and he understood perfectly. He is a poet, he can play with words wonderfully. Collaboration with him is as natural and casual as if we were two kids playing together.
When you work on your album with a producer, does it ever occur that he proposes a song that you cannot identify yourself with?
Yes, it may happen. In any case I learn to sing the individual songs really honestly. I see it as a gift to have a voice, using which I can share my emotions with people.
I wish that people could identify themselves with my songs when listening to my recordings or concerts; I want them to feel like I am singing about them, and to think more about themselves than about me.
You will be performing in Brno this May, accompanied by a big orchestra, the Brno Philharmonic. How do you feel about such concerts?
I like such concerts very much. Everything about them is written in the score well in advance and I admire people who can write good music. I myself have to prepare for such a concert in a different way, but the result is magical anyway. I like, for instance, the orchestrations by Vince Mendoza on which I worked together with some German musicians. They were really open towards my music and they brought a whole new light into the songs. I really love singing with the accompaniment of a symphony orchestra. I'm wearing a long frock, the music sounds noble, and it is beautiful...
In Brno you will sing at a jazz festival, in Šumperk you sang at a blues festival; your repertoire still features gospel, soul, or for example, a song by Bob Dylan. Is a particular singing technique needed for combining all this?
I am a classically-trained musician and I employ certain breathing techniques but when I'm singing gospel I have to focus above all on what I want to hand over to the people. I have to be physically and mentally fit to capture a specific thought and pass it on as authentically as possible. I do my best to be successful at that.