NEW YORK -- Months before she began writing songs for her new album, Lizz Wright traveled to her family’s home in rural Georgia and began taking photographs. She snapped pictures of the swamps and cotton fields where she played as a kid, the church where she learned to sing gospel music and the dusty country roads she had walked down.
The 28-year-old singer, whose two previous albums drew high praise, wanted to remember where she came from and to focus her new recording, “The Orchard,” on the theme of homecoming. But those pictures, and the deep emotions they stirred, proved more important than a trip down memory lane. As Wright reconnected, she found her own voice.
“I consider myself an interpreter and a storyteller, but I’ve been borrowing other people’s stories in earlier albums, I’ve been stretching out on other people’s songs,” she said. “I went home to remember -- and to make sure that I have a strong grasp of my own story.”
It was a big challenge for an artist whose smoky contralto and passionate intensity have been compared to Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Dinah Washington, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Tracy Chapman and Odetta, to name a few. Wright was determined to shake off these comparisons and carve out her own statement. Yet her previous studio work had been a dizzying blend of genres, spanning jazz, blues, gospel, classical, rock, neo-soul, folk and alt-country, making it difficult to place her in any one musical category.
Eager to break new ground, the singer co-wrote eight of the 12 songs on her new album, collaborating with songwriter Toshi Reagon. Once again she worked with Craig Street, who also produced classic records by Wilson and k.d. lang. And “The Orchard” bears all the traces of Street’s signature sound, with muffled drums, hushed background vocals and a sly, haunting interplay between acoustic and electric guitars. But the result is a creative breakthrough for Wright, whose smoldering, sensual voice now has a vision to go with it.
“I feel like I’m finally settling into what I’m doing, that I can truly be who I am,” said Wright, sipping tea in the office of her New York publicist, days before launching a national and international tour that stops March 10 at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. “I have a lot of stories that I want to tell, and this album let me do that in a big way.”
If “The Orchard” constitutes a creative leap, Wright’s record label, Verve Forecast, also hopes it will be a big step up commercially. Her two previous albums, “Salt” and “Dreaming Wide Awake,” sold 210,000 copies combined. The new recording, which was released Tuesday, is being sold at Starbucks -- a major break for a singer hoping to reach a mainstream audience.
Amid these heady expectations, Wright is a study in contrast: The songs on her new album build slowly and seductively, often reaching a crescendo of sexual energy and tension that can leave listeners limp. Her live performances, emotionally naked yet free from distracting vocal gymnastics, cast an enchanting spell. Offstage, Wright is reserved, almost painfully quiet. A visitor has to lean forward to hear her speak. Many of her words get swallowed up in an enigmatic smile that flashes across her face, and she pauses for a few seconds before answering questions, choosing words carefully. Her humor -- when it shows -- is subtle.
The new songs on her album “don’t have a lot of words,” she said. “There’s no veiled poetry. It’s intense; it’s all there. I wanted to be a woman, right now. Nobody else but me.”
Wright’s collaboration with Reagon was Street’s idea. But the singer was frustrated at first, struggling to find the right chemistry of words and music. The album’s spare and mournful opening song, “Coming Home,” was born when Reagon scribbled down thoughts pouring out of Wright. Then he thrust a guitar into her hands.
“I told her to just bang it out,” Reagon said. “And that was enough. We wrote the song and I sang it for her once. Then she went into the studio and knocked it out. That’s how she is -- she hears something once, then sends it back to you with this unbelievable force.”
Among the songs written by others, Ike Turner’s “I Idolize You” is a standout. It’s a sultry song about seduction and desire that starts coyly, with a bluesy piano riff, but soon turns into a wailing, hungry vamp. “I wanna make love to you . . . want you to be my pet,” Wright sings. She became infatuated with the song after seeing a video of Tina Turner early in her career: “She looked like a goddess, with a ferocious expression of sexual energy, and I love it when it’s time for a woman to roar,” Wright said. “That gets me. I understand it.”
Red dirt girl
Wright was born in Hahira, Ga., a town of less than 1,700, and grew up as the youngest of three children in a house strictly controlled by their father, a preacher. The kids were not allowed to watch television or listen to secular music, but they secretly listened to radio broadcasts at night. Wright first learned about jazz by tuning in to Marian McPartland’s legendary shows on National Public Radio.
“I thought, ‘Hey, there’s a whole world out there; I’m going to find out about it,’ ” she said. Drifting into Atlanta’s jazz scene, she began singing in public. Her professional break came in 2002 when she appeared in a series of Billie Holiday tribute concerts, including one at the Hollywood Bowl. Critics took notice, and she soon signed with Verve.
After hopscotching among homes in Georgia, New York and Seattle, Wright has finally settled in Brooklyn. Yet even as her career seems poised for a takeoff, she dreams of the next phase. Sounding wistful, Wright said she wants to have children. She wants to travel outside the U.S. and study native music in Brazil and Tibet.
When she signed her first record deal -- describing herself as a shy, back-country kid with red dirt on her shoes, a singer who was nervous about the commercial pressures that lay ahead -- Wright told executives that she didn’t want the music business to change her.
Has she succeeded?
“I’ve grown a few muscles,” Wright said. “And I’m comfortable taking chances. But that can be really scary. When you sing honestly, you’re inventing a different beast each night.”
Where: Hotel Cafe, 1623 1/2 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood
When: 7 p.m. March 10.
Contact: (323) 461-2040