Typically, when newcomers refer to Seattle as "sleepy," they mean it as a dig. But for chanteuse and songwriter Lizz Wright, that description is high praise. "I vacationed [in Seattle] last November, and I got an apartment here before I went back, because I was sleeping so well," she admits. "I spent almost three years trying to get used to New York, and it never happened, and I wasn't ready to go home to Georgia."
Not that Wright, who performs Wednesday, August 17, at the Century Ballroom, has had much time to chill out in her Capitol Hill digs; the flurry of promotional activity around her new album, Dreaming Wide Awake (on Verve Forecast), has kept her on the road nonstop since its June release.
Wright's second album was made with producer Craig Street, best known for working with distinctive singers like Holly Cole, Cassandra Wilson, and k. d. lang. The 12-song set not only avoids the pitfalls of the sophomore slump, it hurtles over them, representing a giant leap forward from her 2003 debut, Salt.
"This record was about setting myself free to start the journey that I wanted to start," admits Wright, who interpolates elements of jazz, classical, and gospel, as well as contemporary singer-songwriter tropes, into her vocal style. "I felt that I'd collected enough information, and been influenced by enough people and things, where I was ready to make a more personal statement."
Wright and Street cast their net wide for source material. With her burnished vocal timbre and laidback phrasing, Wright puts a distinctive touch on songs including the Youngbloods' "Get Together" and Neil Young's "Old Man"; she even snatches Joe Henry's "Stop" from the talons of Madonna (who reinterpreted it in 2000 as "Don't Tell Me"). In addition to three Wright originals, the album also features writing contributions from contemporaries including Marc Anthony Thompson (AKA Chocolate Genius), Yuka Honda (Cibo Matto), Toshi Reagon, and Norah Jones cohort Jesse Harris.
"It was a great time for me... as an interpreter, to go inside other people's work," reveals Wright. "Making this record ended up being very relaxing and inspiring."
One of the most arresting tracks is the opener, "A Taste of Honey." Listeners will probably recognize the melody—as recorded by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, it was The Dating Game theme—but Wright radically overhauls it, slowing the tempo down, shading it indigo and aubergine. "I heard a Sarah Vaughan recording [of the song] a long time ago, and also one by Chet Baker, and they were both really melancholy." She had never even heard the hit '60s version, until after cutting her own.
Although she's still getting settled in, Wright is excited to perform in her new zip code; it shouldn't be as nerve-racking as her recent Atlanta homecoming, where everyone from ex-boyfriends to former Sunday school pupils were in the house. But the best part? "I can walk to the gig," she announces happily. It should be a great show—you know she'll be well rested.