With a decades-long music career, numerous Grammy nominations, and lauded accomplishments in the film, television, theater, and literature realms, one might imagine Ledisi able to rest on her laurels. However, as she details to The Root over the phone, every endeavor feels brand new, and she will continue to extend herself to the fullest despite her mounting successes. The latest indication of that ever-evolving mindset can be found through her ninth album, The Wild Card, available today, August 28.
“I’m amazed still,” the effervescent musician says of the project, which is led by the nostalgic “Anything For You.” “[This album is] a new discovery of who I am and how I’m feeling. I created another piece of art—they’re all like paintings, sonic paintings for me. I’m thrilled to have created a legacy and created a tapestry of work that’s classic to my fans.”
The Wild Card is Ledisi’s nod to the R&B, soul and production legends who came before her, such as Rufus and Chaka Khan, Minnie Riperton and Quincy Jones. The album also comes equipped with new school sounds by way of hip-hop and reggae-sprinkled “riddims,” with the Caribbean-inspired “One” as a clear indication of the latter. The album’s title signifies the versatility of the New Orleans native’s auditory upbringing, her catalogue, and her listeners.
Ledisi is no stranger to a wide variety of musical influences; she is the daughter of Louisiana-based R&B singer Nyra Dynese and soul singer Larry Saunders, and is the stepdaughter of the late Joseph Pierce III, who was a drummer in the Crescent City.
“Even though [artists] are put in boxes [due to genre], they aren’t naturally that way,” Ledisi says of the importance of showcasing the many facets of her musical palate. “It’s marrying genres and cultures and people, ‘cause old school’s not going to last forever. I have to get this [generation] to know my music, so they can go back and listen to my inspirations...I think we have these stigmas about what we think different generations are listening to.”
“Once, I met Cardi B, and she knew who I was. Like, whoa, okay, I didn’t know all that. Something like that changed my whole way [of approaching music],” she continues. “I’ve always been in the middle, but I’ve always been classic. I don’t have to do a lot—just sing, have a great song and remind people of nostalgia.”
As a whole, her newest musical offering features tracks pertaining to empowerment and the importance of healthy relationships. Although songs such as the smoky mid-tempo ditty “Next Time” and the guitar-accompanied “Stay Gone” read as though the gifted songbird is directing her feelings toward a no-good ex-lover, Ledisi explains that this time around, she was focused on telling someone else’s story through the power of songwriting, enlisting some lesser-known talents to help her on a few of the album’s more personal tunes.
“‘Stay Gone’ was written by myself and Sarah Williams—she is usually singing background for me, but people don’t know that she’s a wonderful songwriter,” she notes. “So I wanted to feature more women on this project than I’ve done before. ‘Next Time’ was written by Deva Mahal, [blues musician] Taj Mahal’s daughter. She’s a wonderful writer. It’s fun to not have the pressure of [the song] coming directly from me,” she says with a laugh.
Ledisi also worked with celebrated producers Rex Rideout and Robert Glasper, among others, to create her latest labor of love. She applauds longtime partner Rideout (who assisted with production on previous projects like 2009’s Turn Me Loose and 2007’s Lost and Found) for helping her be “[her] most comfortable self” at all times. (“He just gets me—it’s like Linus and his blanket,” she adorably explains.)
It’s not lost on Ledisi that her new project is dropping during a remarkable time in history. Not only is the world attempting to bounce back and move forward from the ongoing, unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but America is experiencing heightened racial and social tension due to police brutality incidents, as well as conflicting political views as the 2020 presidential election draws near.
Nevertheless, the musician is hoping to provide some healing in the best way she knows how. She says that the project’s release date carries an unplanned cultural and historical significance, which bears even more weight given the state of the country today. August 28 is the day Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, and also the day Barack Obama accepted his nomination for the presidency in 2008. Additionally, it was the day the Slavery Abolition Act received Royal Assent in the United Kingdom in 1833.
“I actually wanted [the release to be] earlier and we couldn’t meet the deadline, and then it just fell on that date,” she explains. “Everything happens for a reason, it’s spiritual. So I was like ‘Woah, this date’s amazing’ and I’ve released projects around this time before, so it just felt natural. It was a force and it was authentic.”
Other aspects that make this release different from others is the fact that Ledisi felt compelled to “show the process” of preparing for an album in order to keep fans engaged amidst the pandemic. To her, that meant “Zoom-ing a lot, doing more [Instagram] Lives, and connecting more.”
“People are able to listen more than normal,” she says of engagement in the age of COVID-19. “They’re not in a rush, so we have more listeners. But you still don’t know what that means, the outcome of that. Other than looking at the algorithm of online posting, which has always been there, I can’t perform and see their reactions or interact in that way.”
Despite drawbacks musicians are facing due to extensive social distancing precautions in order to slow the spread of the virus, Ledisi says that working on this album has solidified that she’s making music for the love of the craft, not for accolades or for attention.
“You have to create as an artist and not think about who you’re catering to,” she explains. “It’s the way to sell the music that distracts us from being artists. So I stopped listening and looking and wondering and hoping for those positions. Now I just create and don’t explain [my music] as much.”
As for what else she’s realizing about herself as an artist and person while quarantined, Ledisi says that she is a fan of having her own space to create. She tells The Root she made a “makeshift studio” in her house, where she does things that bring her peace, like recording music and painting.
She also learned that she is more capable than she thought, and is teaching herself new tricks of the trade, such as playing the guitar and giving herself pedicures. More importantly, Ledisi’s time in quarantine has allowed her to become a solid creative force and has helped her realize how far her creativity reaches.
“I thought I was okay with being wherever [to create],” she says. “But I didn’t know that I needed that time for myself. I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t need that stuff, I can just go to someone else’s house or someone else can do it for me,’ but I can actually do it myself. Especially right now, we need space to just be by ourselves. I love my space even more, and I’ve gotta have it to stay creative. We say ‘[we’re] going to do it later,’ but with your own space, it’ll just be a planned time by yourself, just for you.”