Comfortably herself

Soul singer Ledisi finds that embracing change, no matter how difficult, often has freedom as its reward.

By Naila Francis

The moment was a defining one.

And recounting it now, Ledisi can’t help but laugh at her resistance, though she acknowledges that a hefty dose of it usually accompanies any change she’s about to make.

The occasion was the photo shoot for “Turn Me Loose,” her sophomore release on Verve Records. The soul singer had arrived to find her stylist ready with a startling ensemble: a barely there short skirt and tottering heels.

“She said, ‘This is how I see you.’ I was like, ‘No, that’s too short,’ ” says Ledisi (pronounced like “legacy”). “She’s like, ‘This is you. You’re going to put these heels on and we’re going to see those legs.’ ”

Her stylist’s insistence echoed entreaties made by her own mother.

“My mom kept saying people need to see how hot you are,” says Ledisi, who emerged with her Grammy-nominated Verve debut, “Lost & Found,” in 2007, with dark skin, a full figure and dreadlocks that bucked industry trends almost as much as the musical versatility displayed in her incendiary genre-hopping live shows.

But while she had already generated an underground buzz with her performances that fused everything from funk and jazz to hip-hop, rock and R&B, as well as with two independently released albums — the eclectic and critically acclaimed “Soulsinger” and the jazz and neo-soul-oriented “Feeling Orange But Sometimes Blue” — “Lost & Found” tended toward conservatism. The jazz-inflected R&B disc did have its funk- and gospel-fueled moments, but even Ledisi admits the CD was a toned-down version of herself.

“My voice wasn’t as vibrant. … In (the album’s photos), I’m covered up or my eyes are closed or I’m looking away … I’m sad and depressed-looking,” she says. “On this CD, I’ve got high heels on and you can see my face. I have my favorite thing — the microphone — in front of me and I’m just vibrant and smiling and I look like the nerd that I am. Really, that’s who I am live. I just don’t show it.”

She had been making her way toward that moment of self-acceptance for years, after repeatedly being told that she needed to drop a few pounds, straighten her hair or otherwise transform herself to make it in the music business. With “Lost & Found,” which earned her Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Best R&B Album, she began to regain her confidence.

“I was very insecure and very beat up and tired and ready to quit. I didn’t want to sign with a label, I didn’t want to do any more music. …Verve gave me another window,” she says. ” ‘Lost & Found’ was a great therapeutic journaling kind of album, where I could really just melt into who I am a little more. I enjoyed every part of that album. I got to express my love for life and music and my yearning to be heard.”

But, that, says Ledisi, was who she was in that moment. With the aptly titled “Turn Me Loose,” which was released last August, the singer wanted to make a bold statement that reflected her truth both artistically and personally. It wasn’t until that photo shoot, however, that she realized how fully she had come to inhabit the self she previously tried to hide.

“I don’t know what it is about clothing for women and makeup for women, but that was, like, ‘Now I know who I am just by this makeup and these clothes and this hairstyle,’ ” she says. “I love my legs, I love my hair, I love myself. My name is Ledisi (meaning ‘to bring forth’ in Nigerian) and this is who I am. I’m just louder now.”

“Turn Me Loose” is indeed a fierce and brassy album, stewed at times in a gritty, hard-hitting blend of rock, blues, funk and hip-hop with quieter interludes of sparkling pop and R&B that hearken back to the classic soul era. The raw, less inhibited sound comes courtesy of late rock and funk drummer Buddy Miles, who served as the album’s inspiration.

Given the success of her major-label debut, Ledisi, who performs tonight at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, felt understandably pressured when it came to following it up. She hit a six-month stretch of writer’s block that was lifted only when a friend suggested she listen to Miles’ 1970 funk-rock classic “Them Changes.”

“I was, like, ‘Wow, this is all soul music; it’s just edgy,’ ” recalls Ledisi. “Everything I loved was rolled up in a little sushi roll or jambalaya. I was, like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about. … This is how I am on stage.’ ”

While she has often been pegged as an R&B artist, the New Orleans native says that most of her pre-Verve fans who heard her debut were surprised by how “smoothed out” she appeared on the album. Yet fans of “Lost & Found” have been confused by “Turn Me Loose.”

“You can’t please everybody,” says Ledisi, now a San Francisco Bay Area resident. “You have to please yourself and the rest of the people will catch on.”

With Miles’ album serving as her guide, “Turn Me Loose” is built around the theme of change. Ledisi renders a searing rock and soul cover of “Them Changes” and celebrates the importance of living in the moment and embracing both heartache and joy as a means to growth on the tracks “Everything Changes” and “Love Never Changes,” respectively. On the aching soul ballad “Goin’ Thru Changes,” she paints a compelling portrait of a woman on the verge of an affair, writing with an honesty that she has always relished, even while acknowledging that some may find it uncomfortable.

“A lot of people are quiet about a lot of things. I’ve always been vocally open about stuff,” she says. “I grew up in a really dysfunctional home where my stepdad used to say, ‘Be quiet, hush up.’ You couldn’t express yourself, so I always wrote things down and was quiet … but I didn’t want to carry that into the rest of my life.”

Whether it was sharing her own quest to reunite with her biological father, singer-guitarist Larry Sanders, several years ago, or penning “Papa Loved to Love Me,” a starkly personal song about sexual abuse, on her first album, she believes in opening up provocative dialogue.

“It’s not only for my listeners, it’s for me as well to get over the hump of it,” she says. “What’s funny about me is that I don’t like doing the things I say I’m gonna do, but I do it because I have to. If I don’t change and exhibit that example, how is everyone going to believe me?”

The singer had to work through her own resistance to change while making “Turn Me Loose,” for which Verve brought in an all-star cast of producers and co-writers. “Lost & Found” producer Rex Rideout was still in the mix, but Ledisi admits she complained mightily while submitting to a process she knew would ultimately be good for her.

“It’s like that door that I always talk about — the door with the word ‘fear’ on it. When you open it, on the other side is the blessing. You have to remember that,” she says. “I complained about putting them heels on, I complained about that hair coming up, I complained about working with all them producers, but in the end, I was happy.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer