RURAL SOUTHERN ROOTS ASIDE, Lizz Wright bears no accent, just the poised speech of a preacher's daughter reared on Shakespeare and Uncle Remus, but never ever an afternoon hour of television. The 28-year-old singer's broad baby face belies a measured elegance more common in yesteryear's prim, pursed-mouth black women, like former sitcom mom Phylicia Rashad. Coincidentally, the other half of that Thursday night pair that Wright's strict father proscribed, Bill Cosby, was an early admirer of the Wright aesthetic: the savory pot liquor sound she stewed on stage at her early jazz festival appearances.
Before the spotlight, Wright wrenched redemption from Baptist hymns. Her Georgia household supplemented Sunday services and weekly church commitments with "Family Devotion." En route to a performance in Philadelphia, Wright laughingly recalled these "mini church services." From these family rituals came the harmonies she plied with collaborator Toshi Reagon on The Orchard, Wright's third release in five years. Georgians both, Wright was encouraged by Reagon's responsiveness to her evolving vision: "She understands what I'm reaching for and what I'm remembering with music." And what Wright always remembers, as is bellowed up and down her cozy 2003 debut Salt, is the black church.
Enduring and ever evolving, the church groomed many a musical legend in spite of itself. Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin both split the choir loft for secular success in soul, but not before developing a stylistic repertoire and an acute performance ethic, one that Wright's alto reflects.
"More than even learning how to emote in front of people," Wright says of her formative years singing in her father's church, "you just accept your humanity because you can't get to the spirit without being vulnerable, without being honest." Like on Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" or Aretha Franklin's "Call Me," Wright is a naked and incisive vocalist, even as she forages folk and rock sounds on The Orchard. Wright knows when to ornament, when to intensify, and, crucially, when to hold back. The impudent soul singer's aimless runs and incessant wails, Wright is learned enough to reject. "There is more of an adventure, more of an experience, in serving the song, than in taking it over and dominating it and shoving a lot of ideas into it," she says. "I like to feel the spirit, you know."
The spirit hovering over The Orchard isn't recognizably holy. Wright eschewed good-footed gospel rambunctiousness even at her most inspirational, and now with heartache and renewal at center stage, her red-clay, white-steeple credentials are what fuels her honest approach. "I have done a lot to distill the truth down to what is most accessible," Wright says, "what is most basic, what is more like nature, because I'm exchanging with so many people." This pared-down emphasis lets Wright consider the late Ike Turner's "I Idolize You" in sultry blues fashion one moment and Bernice Johnson Reagon's grave "Hey Mann" at another. Led Zeppelin's "Thank You" also gets a new coat of paint; listening for creative opportunity is, after all, Wright's mandate. Then when Wright articulates her own thoughts—with the aid of Reagon and Craig Street's spare and recognizable production—she evinces a worshipful tenor, a performance arc that always results in flux, without a tambourine or hint of twang.