Lizz Wright knows the South. The singer-songwriter has called many parts of it home—from her upbringing in Hahira, Georgia, to college in Atlanta, to her current residence in Asheville, North Carolina, where she has lived since 2009. But she’s seen the region as a traveler, too. For her latest album, she set out on a road trip with friend and photographer Jesse Kitt, seeking inspiration from family history, friendly neighbors, and scenic drives. The result is Grace, a collection of eleven songs (ten covers and one original composition) produced by Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter, Joe Henry.
Garden & Gun is proud to premiere “Southern Nights,” a track from the album written by the New Orleans legend, Allen Toussaint. We talked with Wright about her love of the song, the making of the album, and the places where she finds inspiration. Stream “Southern Nights” and read the full interview below.
What drew you to “Southern Nights” when you were choosing songs for the album?
Joe Henry [Grace producer] brought me a couple of Allen Toussaint songs, but that’s the one I knew I could do. It’s a clear, but not over-the-top, announcement that this is a record about the South—or at least rooted in the South. I listened a lot to the Glen Campbell version… I really love that recording. It definitely feels like a real song of the South.
This whole album really speaks to a sense of place. What parts of the South have especially been inspiring to you?
I live just above a creek, and it’s always very active. It almost sounds like the ocean. It’s constant, and there’s lots of big rocks in it, so it’s got a great sound. It’s one of my favorite things. I remember what I was thinking when I started to pursue this place. I thought, I want a place where I can pray, and be quiet. I’ve begun to realize, as I’m getting older, that I was taught to go for a certain kind of stillness to get things done. I missed that in my life. I loved my grandmother’s property, out in South Georgia right above the Florida line, so I just thought I’d find some property where I could feel that again. And I did.
You took a road trip in preparation for the recording of this album, and you’ve said that you were looking for the “true voice of the South, in this moment.” What does that mean to you, and do you feel like you found it?
I never thought that we would be where we are right now. But I still know that people are the same. Historically and culturally—and just by our needs and by our nature—we are connected. So I just needed to be around that truth. I needed to be around people who carried the spirit of the earth, of where they live—including my neighbors, but also my family and the people around them. This road trip was my opportunity to feel that, and to make sure that it came through on this project.
You’ve said that Nina Simone, whose song (“Seems I’m Never Tired Lovin’ You”) you cover on this record, inspired you with a quote from her documentary: “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.” How do you interpret that in relation to this album?
I had to remember, in making this project, that you can use the past to speak to the present. Initially, I was pretty turned off by the idea of doing a record of covers. But the beautiful thing about making a record with another songwriter is that you suddenly become two kids playing in a treasure trove of words. I mean, Joe and I have been friends for fifteen years. This is really just a document of a conversation between friends who are reaching across different genres of music, but who are both children of the South and who really love each other.
You’re a gardener, and you enjoy working with the land. Are there aspects of gardening that you find to be helpful in your art?
Absolutely. Gardening is a working meditation for me. It helps me remember process, and it helps me remember patience. I have taken over the garden at an art school in the South Side of Chicago [where I live part-time]. Kids who are off track to graduate from high school on time come to be immersed in the arts and in an accelerated general studies program. I plant the garden from seeds, and when the light isn’t close enough, the little “starts” have these long necks and they kind of flop over. Sometimes I see the kids with their challenges as these starts that didn’t quite get the right initial formation. But if I just take the tray out of the greenhouse, the plants straighten themselves out in the power of natural, full-on light. [That gets me] thinking about people, and what it means to be exposed to full love and forgiveness and patience, and real investment, and how quickly things can turn around.
Fans often say that going to your live shows is a spiritual experience, like going to church, even though your music isn’t necessarily religious. Why do you think people come away with that impression?
I’ve realized in recent years that I’ve gotten my cues from really, really great preachers, and really great churches. The church is an institution of music and of production and performance, and it has to do with taking people to places inside of themselves and giving them an opportunity to sit deep in their own feelings, and to be together and deeply alone at the same time, and to process things… Without being directly religious, and certainly without backing or promoting any ideology, I enjoy trusting people to have their own experience.