Summer Mixtape: Ledisi on honoring Nina Simone and staying true to herself

Written by Amy Ta and Andrea Domanick, produced by Angie Perrin

"I can fit wherever Ledisi wants to fit. I just show up and I sing, and then let others decide where I belong," says Ledisi. Photo courtesy of the artist.

All week, Press Play is bringing you artist and DJ interviews, along with custom DJ sets, as part of our “Summer Mixtape” series. This third installment features Ledisi, an R&B singer who released her first album in 2000 and hit the Billboard charts seven years later with the song “Alright.” In 2010, Ledisi’s profile rose even more when Michelle Obama named her as one of her favorite artists. It was the beginning of public and private performances for the Obamas, and introduced her to a whole new audience. 

This year Ledisi won her first Grammy Award for her single “Anything For You.” Last week she released a new album that’s a tribute to legendary singer-songwriter Nina Simone. It’s called “Ledisi Sings Nina.” 

Follow all of the music from this week’s Summer Mixtape series on our  Spotify playlist . Listen to our Summer Mixtapes with Jackson BrowneDJ Travis HolcombeMBE DJs Anthony Valadez and Novena Carmel, and Yola.

KCRW: What’s it like for you to be out in the world — performing — after this long, insular time during the pandemic? 

Ledisi: “I've been virtually performing, helping to raise money during all this chaos. And to actually see people in front of me, it’s just amazing, the Hollywood Bowl. I'm starting nicely … and with Nina. And then I'm going to be on tour with my own album. … So it's a lot going on. A lot of fun stuff. For me, I get to be my full complete self. So it's great.”

Let's talk about this latest album and Nina Simone. When did you first hear a Nina Simone song?

“I think the first time I heard a Nina Simone song, I didn't know it was a Nina Simone song. [It] was ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ My mother would play her music to wake us up in the morning … while she would sing it. We thought it was a song she wrote, but years later, I would find out that that's actually the Nina Simone song. So I first heard her music there. 

But when I really started listening to her … I was in college and was going through a really deep, dark time trying to figure out what to do with my life. And I heard the song ‘Trouble in Mind’ on a great jazz station in San Francisco in the Bay Area. And that's when things changed for me or so. And I really got Nina Simone because she was singing my life right in front of me. … Literally ‘Trouble in Mind’ saved my life.”

What was going on in your life at the time?

“I was young. I was newly divorced. I had bills. I was putting out albums and no one was getting it. And I was different, wasn't received like I thought I should be. And I was really depressed and trying to figure out what do I do. I played everywhere in the Bay Area, and I was just exhausted. I was just really depressed and her song came on, and it woke me up out of this depression because I was ready to leave the earth. That's how dark it was.

… But she said, ‘But I won't be blue always.’ And that's when I said, ‘Wow I gotta listen closer.’ And then that became my big relationship with her music. I dove in after that. I was like, ‘Okay, I love this woman, she gets it.’ And I never met her in my life.”

Nina Simone had a tumultuous life and dealt with serious mental health issues. When you were feeling depressed, did her mental state speak to you? 

“It wasn't her mental state. It was her music. … I knew nothing about any of the things that people say about her. What I knew about her is her music. … It’s just this longing sound in her voice. Marvin Gaye had the same energy for me. … I love that sound of longing. The sound of love, of wanting to be received. It’s like I'm so tired of being tired. I want release. I want to be loved and I want to be open. I love her power of saying, ‘I'm Black. Listen to me. Sit down, be quiet. Understand me.’”

You did not cover “Trouble in Mind” on this album.

“No. I do it in my shows though. … I didn't record it. I decided I wanted to display the longing of love and joy in her music for me, what it did for me. Everybody does the political choices and the darker stuff. I just didn't want to. I started with feeling good. I feel good about my choice.”

How did you choose which songs to cover on your album?

“I don't want to be Nina. I want to be Ledisi while honoring her. And displaying the loveliness that she taught me through her music. But when I chose the songs, I thought about … that longing to be loved feeling. So I kept to what makes me feel good about her. And that's why I chose the selection that I did.”

Let's talk about you and how you became a singer. You were born in New Orleans and spent a great deal of your childhood in Oakland. And you grew up in a musical family.

“Yes, my mother was a singer, and my stepdad played drums.”

When did you think, “Okay, I'm gonna fall in my mother's footsteps?”

“In New Orleans, I saw that she had her own band. And I loved that they recorded in our shotgun house. And that's where I loved just watching my mom perform … and then sometimes they performed where kids can see them. Like the park across the street from our house. So that was really cool. They were really big locally. 

Yeah, when I saw my mom perform, I just wanted to be like her, dress like her, hold my hand on my hip like her. When she knew that I could sing is when I started singing her Earth Wind and Fire songs, and ‘Reasons’ was one of the biggest songs that I knew back then. When family comes over and everybody sings, that would be my song.

… I was 4 or 8 years old. I don't remember dates. I just remember feelings moreso.”

Did you know without a doubt that you would be a musical artist?

“No, I didn't know. I just knew I love to sing. And singing made me feel better because people liked me. But I was never sure this is something that I wanted to do. I just loved it. I loved it for just singing. But I didn't love it for industry stuff. But I knew I could when my mom said, ‘You can sing.’ I wanted her approval more than anybody. And I still do, and I have it. But anything else, it's just extra for me. I'm honored. And my mom didn't push it. She didn't force anything. She just saw it and nurtured it.

And we found all the programs that I can get in, that had donations. And that's why I love advocating for music because all the programs I was a part of helped because of donations. And so that's why I sing — because I love it. If I stopped loving it, I'll just go sit down somewhere. That was the other thing: Do I stay or do I quit? That's where all that depression was. I wanted to love it. I wasn't loving the business part of it.”

What about the business part of it? Were you not loving?

“I just think the quality of music is what's important, and to stop limiting artists and genres. There's so much music. I come from New Orleans and Oakland, where we listen to everything. There's not just one thing we are. And I had to study classical, and jazz was my first love and my first gig. And then just because I sang more R&B, they just called me an R&B artist. I'm not just an R&B artist. I'm a singer. And I love music. So I want to be known for that at the end of my journey. Gosh, she can sing anything. Yes, I can. I was born for it.”

You studied opera too at UC Berkeley. How have you been able to cross boundaries and put out albums that sound different and aren't pigeon holed?

“I've just been Ledisi and never forced it. Just be myself. I understand we have to sell music to a certain audience, I get all that. I own my own label now, so I get it. But in the end of it, I have to be okay with my legacy. So I just sing. And when I'm called to do something, I go and do it. I've been called to sing at Carnegie Hall to tribute Leonard Bernstein. I was there singing classical. I've been called to sing with Vince Gill. I just did a fundraiser with Love New York, it’s like 20 guitar players of rock and roll on stage. 

… I can fit wherever Ledisi wants to fit. I just show up and I sing, and then let others decide where I belong. Luckily, I came in saying, ‘Please don't tell me how to make my records.’ I was doing that before I signed with a label, and now that I’m on my own label. I just feel like my voice belongs everywhere, not just one place. But I'm so happy [with] the choices that I made for my legacy. I think I did good.”

Let's talk about your acting. You are playing the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson in an upcoming biopic, and you played her and sang her song in Ava DuVernay’s movie “Selma.” Tell me about Mahalia Jackson and her influence on you, and why you wanted to play her in a biopic.

“I never thought to play her until ... directors and writers and producers all pulled me to it. And when I started to study her, I saw that we had a lot in common that I didn't know. We're both from New Orleans, then she moved to Chicago, and she was rebellious and did music her way. I love that energy. 

I feel a connection with her spiritually because she means what she sings about. It's not just [that] she just sings it. No, she means it. She knows why she's singing something. And I love that, that feeling with Mahalia, Miss Jackson. She's just a great performer, very spiritual, and she understood the business and the edges of it, but still fought for her people and celebrated where she's from. I had joy studying her music. Very anointed. She really loved God. And I love the commitment she had in her music.”

Did you grow up in the church as well? 

“No, I didn't. My parents were hippies. ... But I was around folks from the gospel church, Baptists, my mom grew up Baptist. So I had great aunts who were all into it. But I also had a family who was Catholic. I predominantly was raised Catholic. So get all of that. It’s all confusing. So that's why I don't talk about it. I’m jumbled like a jambalaya.”

Image Not AvailableLedisi performs at the Fifth Annual Love Rocks NYC Benefit Concert for God's Love We Deliver at The Beacon Theatre in New York, NY on June 3, 2021. Photo by Stephen Smith/SIPA USA.

Is acting something that you want to do more of? 

“I've been doing a lot more acting during the pandemic than I've ever done in my career. I was on ‘Pose’ [on FX]. I did two films. I did two television shows. Of course, this Mahalia film. I love it. It's another form of storytelling that I've always had, but I'm developing more for television. I've done it in theater, and now I'm doing it on television. So it's great. I love this part of my storytelling.”

You had a one-woman show here, “ The Legend of Little Girl Blue ,” a few years ago about your life. What was it like presenting your story in that format on stage?

“‘The Legend of Little Girl Blue’ was about myself, the relationship that I have with my mom, and my ‘sheroes,’ which is also Nina Simone. So I become all three women and talk about my life. And it was a great experience. I was trying something. It was supposed to only be seven shows. It turned into 19 sold-out shows. I'm glad I did it. It made me more open as an actor, expressive as a writer, and I have fun. 

I still have more to learn with it. And they want to do it again. So we'll see what happens. But for now, I had a good time, it opened me up, to not be afraid to be human on stage in front of everybody. It's the same as being a performer, though. It's no different. It's just even more vulnerable. You're just showing all your colors.”

Do you like putting yourself in these positions, challenging yourself and being vulnerable on stage?

“If you don't, people won't get it. And then you're inspiring someone else to be open. And trust me, I'm freaking out the whole time, [whether that’s] before I interview with you, before I go on stage. I'm human. That's what I love about Nina. She didn't care exactly how she felt in the moment, it was free. 

But I'm still learning how to do that. But the pandemic has made me more transparent than I've ever been. And to [be able to] say when I'm uncomfortable, or to say, ‘Hey, I want this,’ or ‘Go for it. Try it. See what happens. Don't be afraid.’ Because I'm from the old school where you just do your music and go and hide. It doesn’t work like that anymore. People want to know more.”

But sometimes do you think, “Oh, I wish they could just connect with the song and not have to know the backstory?”

“Sometimes I wish people would use their own imagination about something, especially the music. Go ahead and listen and make your own assessment. That’s what I loved about Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and all the legends, the Doors. You didn't know too much. But once you found out why, you're like, ‘Oh, wow, that's why they wrote that?’ It leaves room for everybody to have their own interpretation. It's like art, like paintings. We don't need to know everything. Just let it be what it is. Make your own assessment. They will anyway. You will anyway.”

Ledisi’s playlist 

The Spaniels - “Goodnight Sweetheart”
The Beatles - “Here Comes the Sun”
Marvin Gaye - “I Want You”
Miles Davis - “So What”
Earth, Wind and Fire - “September”
Ledisi - “Pieces of Me”
Ledisi - “High”