Getting to “alright” wasn’t easy for Grammy-nominated R&B singer Ledisi. Take that night in 2006 when Ledisi opened for Aretha Franklin at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. She remembers thinking she should have been happy. But she just felt tired, used and broke.
Ledisi had been hoping to sing a set of her own songs, which were underground sensations , songs that hurtled up and down octaves.But a producer dictated that Ledisi sing only songs the piano player knew. “Here I am, given this wonderful opportunity and I can’t be myself,” Ledisi recalls. “I can’t sing my own songs. I couldn’t be me. I felt like a lounge singer.
“I wanted to sing my own songs. I wanted so badly to impress her and all of her followers. I wanted so badly to be Ledisi, and I couldn’t,” she continues. “I had to be another version of myself, a condensed version. I felt so cheated.” Ledisi bit her lip and performed anyway.
The audience loved her. She heard Aretha was impressed. The reviews were good. But one critic told Ledisi that she should forget R&B, because he thought her voice was better suited for jazz. The comment was like pricking a balloon. “I love R&B,” she says.
When Ledisi got home to the tiny apartment she shared with roommates in New York — so tiny that she did not have her own bed — she cried. Then, she called her mother. “I’m always being told I am not pretty enough, I’m too jazzy, I’m not a star,” Ledisi recalls saying then. “I’m tired of being broke. I’ll bow out and teach someone else to be great.”
Her mother stopped her: “You’re going through things, Ledisi, but you’re going to be all right.”
Those words struck her like a message from a muse. “Wow,” Ledisi said, “that sounds like a song.”
A few months later, Ledisi would find herself in a studio, writing the song “Alright,” which would become the first single from her 2007 album, “Lost & Found,” which brought her Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album and Best New Artist.
“I’m so glad they never let me give up,” says Ledisi, who says she is in her 30s and who just released a memoir, “Better Than Alright: Finding Peace Love & Power.”
In it, Ledisi writes about growing up in Louisiana. Her mother worked days and went to school at night. Ledisi and her sisters could not go out to play, so they created a world of their own. She and her sister pretended a blue chest in their bedroom closet was a stage.
“I just knew I was going to be a star, honey,” Ledisi says now. “I was such an odd little girl. I would pretend I was getting a standing ovation at the end of the song. We lived on that blue chest. We found a way to have fun in the situation, even in darker times.”
Ledisi also writes about those dark times, in a chapter called “Little Girl Blue”: “My stepfather touched me and the little girl became Blue. No more orange, no more sunshine, no more peppermint sticks and Sour Apple Now and Laters while jumping rope. . . . I asked God, ‘Why me? Why is this happening to me?’ There was no answer, just the smell of stained beer and a smelly robe invading the air in the room.”
“I talk about stuff people don’t like to talk about,” Ledisi says. “But I also write about forgiveness, being able to forgive someone who tried to steal my complete life. I had to forgive that person so I could live.”
Her family moved from Louisiana to Oakland, Calif., where Ledisi pursued a singing career. (At 8 years old, she began singing for the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra.) After several rejections from recording companies, she started her own label and released two indie albums — “Soulsinger,” in 2001, and “Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue,” in 2003. Though the albums garnered national attention, she still had difficulty performing her own material until the release of “Lost and Found,” after being signed by Verve Music Group. In 2009, she released “Turn Me Loose,” also nominated for two Grammys. In 2011, she released “Pieces of Me,” which received three 2012 Grammy nods.
Ledisi says she hopes people are empowered by her music and her book. “Life can bring us through many changes,” she says. “Just don’t give up. Know that it’s gonna be all right.”
Ledisi, with special guest Eric Benet, is scheduled to appear 8 p.m. July 25, at DAR Constitution Hall, 18th and C streets NW.