You know what makes all those years of people mangling your name worth it? How about two Grammy nominations ? Or knowing that just as you were about to quit the business after years of eating Cup-a-Soup and sleeping on floors, that last-minute change of heart was the best one you’ve ever had.
All these thoughts and more have been sprinting through the head of Oakland, California, singer Ledisi (whose name means “to bring forth” in the Yoruba language of Nigeria) since she found out Thursday that she’d been nominated for the Best New Artist and Best R&B Album Grammys for her major-label debut, Lost & Found. And while some people scratched their heads and wondered who she was and how she’d ended up in a new-artist category with more mainstream acts such as Amy Winehouse, Feist, Taylor Swift and Paramore, or up against such veterans as Jill Scott, Chaka Khan and Musiq Soulchild in the R&B album category, Ledisi just laughed and blessed her good luck.
“I knew my name was submitted, but I didn’t know for what categories, and I forgot that the nominations were going to be announced that week,” said the singer, who had just wrapped an exhausting promo tour during which she chatted up radio personalities from coast to coast in an effort to get them to play her songs the day before the Grammy announcements. “I just woke up and I got all these phone calls early in the morning and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I listened to one of the messages and I dropped the phone. ‘That’s not real, whatever, they’re messing around,’ I said. Then I remembered that they were being announced that day and I heard Best New Artist and I was like, ‘That’s not real.’ ”
Once reality sunk in and the calls kept coming, Ledisi said she found out she was also nominated in the R&B album category, and that sent her screaming around her house, frantically searching the Internet for confirmation.
“I was just shocked,” said the singer, who began performing at age 8 in her hometown of New Orleans, and who has been grinding away for more than a decade while living in the East Bay. “You just think of this whole journey and your whole life’s tape starts rolling in your head, and everyone you’ve ever wanted to hear from or everyone you ever wanted to meet … it’s like everyone already knew me.”
Well, not exactly. When the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl announced the Best New Artist nominees, he wasn’t even sure how to pronounce her name, stumbling over it and joking, “They’re so new, we just don’t know.” Even after years of playing gigs for $30 a night and two well-regarded independently released albums, the singer — who studied opera and piano for five years at the University of California Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program — said the Best New Artist recognition is fitting. “It seems like I’m finally getting acknowledged by my peers,” she said. “I feel vindicated because every decision I made has made it worth it. In this realm of things, this is new to me, so Best New Artist? Yeah. I don’t want to seem like I’m saying, ‘Oh, I’m not a new artist.’ I’m new to this level of mainstream [success].”
Though her name is new to most mainstream pop fans, Ledisi has developed a solid reputation in jazz and soul circles, and she announced her arrival in a big way in June during the PBS special “We All Love Ella! A Tribute to the First Lady of Song,” a salute to jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, with whom she’s been compared. Sharing the stage with such giants as Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole and Quincy Jones, Ledisi received a standing ovation just a few weeks before Lost & Found dropped. She got the Fitzgerald gig thanks to Verve boss Ron Goldstein, who signed her to the label and who was the mastermind behind the tribute. Ledisi also benefited from a high-profile slot at this year’s Songwriters Hall of Fame show in June, attended by a host of Grammy voting luminaries, with both gigs helping to introduce her to voters who might not have been familiar with her and helping to kick off the buzz that likely landed her the nominations.
Being named one of Billboard magazine’s Top Ten Faces to Watch in 2007 didn’t hurt, either. Lost debuted at #78 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and peaked at #10 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, but she said she knew it was just a matter of time before “everyone’s little secret” got out.
“Everybody has known me for a while in the industry, but I’ve never gone mainstream,” she said with a laugh. “I’m on the other side of that rope now, and I’m not bragging … it’s been a whirlwind. [I’ve been getting] phone calls like crazy, and people saying, ‘Who is this Ledisi girl?’ I’m in this Cinderella dream, and I was so used to being turned down for so long, until I get to L.A. and see the [Grammy] paperwork, I won’t believe it.”
The irony she relishes most, though, is that this whole unreal dream almost didn’t happen. Ledisi said she was so fed up with scratching and clawing to get her music out that she almost quit the business before she finished work on Lost. “I got tired of people saying I wasn’t pretty enough or not mainstream enough,” she said. “I almost quit, and now no one will ever take this feeling away from me … I’m so happy I stayed with it.”
And though people are still figuring out how to say her name, the singer said that in addition to the Grammy nods, she’s already gotten big prizes: praise from famed R&B producer Jimmy Jam for her album, and a personal invitation from Aretha Franklin to perform at the annual MusiCares benefit February 8, two nights before the Grammys.
“Reading what Jimmy Jam said … almost made me pass out,” she said. “I’ve been a fan of his work for years, and when I got a call from [famed producer] Phil Ramone saying, ‘Congratulations,’ and, ‘Aretha wants you to sing at her tribute at MusiCares,’ I was like, ‘Huh?’ It’s been a great ride, and I wouldn’t change a thing. All I’m happy about is I get to go to the Grammys! I’m part of the club now!”