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Lizz Wright doesn’t fit into an easy category

Music is a mix of R&B and jazz with even a bit of country thrown in
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even curled up in a chair wearing sweats, Lizz Wright exudes an almost regal elegance that distinguishes her from the crowd.

That same vibe defined her stunning debut, 2003’s “Salt.” That album established the singer, who has a husky voice with a heavenly sound, as one of the jazz world’s brightest new talents with its mixture of jazz, dreamy R&B and a dash of gospel thrown in for good measure.

Her sophomore set, “Dreaming Wide Awake,” has also won raves, but fans of her first record might be surprised: It takes a markedly different approach, with a more rootsy, folky sound — a couple of songs even sound a bit country.

But the artistic change-up doesn’t seem to have cost her any fans — the singer’s album has been at or near the top of the contemporary jazz chart since its release earlier this summer.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Wright, 25, talks about storytelling, why she’s not a big belter, and being at peace with herself, artistically and spiritually.

AP: Even though “Salt” was a hit with critics, it didn’t make you a star. Were you disappointed?

Wright: I wasn’t really. The more commercial it is, the more travel I’ve got to do anyway (laughs). But really, I just want something that is real and that moves people. And just want to make something real. If I can make something real and it’s appreciated and accessible to other people, I’m happy. I think this record is more accessible. I don’t know what will happen. I just know I get to be myself.

AP: “Dreaming Wide Awake” has a completely different sound from “Salt.” Why change gears now?

Wright: When I first started talking with the producer about this record, I was very hung up about what I thought people wanted from me, and I was very confused about what they might have wanted from me because “Salt” is so broad. I joke that it’s like the buffet — a little bit of everything, and I didn’t really know what it was that people were responding to, and it was a bit of a surprise to me that it was critically acclaimed at all.

AP: Why?

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AP: So why didn’t you make this record the first time around?

Wright: I made a record that reflected all the things I was embracing and kind of studying. I listened to a lot of jazz, trying to understand what is my attraction to this music. I think just now I understand what it is, and I understand why I listen to so much different stuff, because what I like is not a particular genre, it’s storytelling. There’s a lot of great storytelling in jazz, and in folk and in country music. ... So finally I started really opening up as a songwriter and an interpreter and taking songs from all kind of genres and stripping them down to just lyrics and the story inside the lyrics, and trying to make them really mine.

AP: Were you worried about losing fans?

Wright: At first I was. And then I let go of that. Just because I’m a recording artist doesn’t mean I’m not an artist. Because I had to grow. So I knew that I would lose some fans but I knew that I would gain some new ones too. And I knew the ones that were really committed would get to know me a lot better.

AP: You grew up as a preacher’s kid, and your dad forbade you from listening to secular music. Has he accepted your career now?

Wright: We are so close now. He really understands what I’m going for and he and my mother are very supportive. And they love the record. ... We all have opened up and changed a lot as a family.

AP: Some have questioned your new direction. Do you feel as a black singer, there’s an expectation for you to do more soulful music?

Wright: People are a lot more open than even they think they are. And I feel like I carry a heavy story about where I come from and those roots, but also what I like as a thinker, and some of it is who I am and some of it is who I’ve become ... (So) why not? If it’s really what I like, why not? I’m not angry. I can’t sing that loud for that long anyway, I’ll start coughing — I don’t have the instrument for it. I don’t feel that emotional. I’m at peace.