Ballin'

Homegirl Ledisi dresses up for the Grammys. Plus: Merle Haggard, Los Amigos Invisibles, Paleo, and more
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Ledisi looks ferosh

kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER "I get to go to the ball!"

Longtime Oakland soul hopeful Ledisi isn't spilling the beans about what designer she'll be wearing to the Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, but on the phone from New York City, where she's as deep into the wardrobe as the lion and the witch, she guarantees, "I'll be cute!"

Red-carpet frocks, on-and-off awards ceremonies, and nominations for Best R&B Album for last year's Lost and Found (Verve Forecast) and, get this, Best New Artist ("People say I'm a new artist, and I am a new artist in this mainstream world," says the woman who put out her previous two CDs on her LeSun label. "I've never had third-party involvement in anything!") — it's all high drama for Ledisi Anibade Young. Nonetheless, she knows she'll be enjoying herself to the core and even more because she'll be exactly where she wants to be: namely, comfortable in her own skin.

"I just feel like I've finally come into my own, meaning I'm OK with myself," the vocalist says, bubbling like de Brignac. "I'm still hungry, but I'm not begging anymore."

As we speak, Ledisi is floating, as she puts it, in more ways than one: she's drifting between residences in NYC, Oakland, and Washington DC and lifting higher about the national spotlight that comes with her nominations, a recognition laid on a clutch of other once and present Bay Area artists like Keyshia Cole, Machine Head, and Turtle Island Quartet and local indie label Six Degrees (for Bebel Gilberto, Ce'U, and Spanish Harlem Orchestra). Regardless of how you feel about the continuing relevance of the Recording Academy paperweights — yes, the Best Polka Album category is still in place — the thrill a nominee like Ledisi feels is catching, especially when one considers the flights of ups and downs she's undergone over the years.

"I didn't think I wanted the pressure of being in the front again, with all the issues of image and the style of singing and choosing a category to be in — you know, all that kind of the pressure!" she says, recalling the times she thought about giving up performing. After her debut, Soulsinger (LeSun, 1999), won near-universal praise but garnered zero coveted R&B radio attention, she left Oakland and moved to NYC because, she says, she was "tired of going around in circles." With an understudy role in Broadway's Caroline, or Change in her change pocket, Ledisi had begun developing the stage version of The Color Purple when she signed to Verve and dropped out of the production to work on Lost and Found.

But after working for a year and a half to get her deal, "the guy who signed me," Verve president Ryan Goldstein, was suddenly laid off among many others. She finished the record, took a breath, and went back into the studio, fearing the new powers that be would require further alterations.

Meanwhile, she adds, "I was finding myself in my personal life": she ended a long relationship and met her father. Her R&B vocalist mother had already told her that her biological father was Larry Saunders, but only when Ledisi traveled to Amsterdam and mentioned his name to a DJ there did she realize others knew The Prophet of Soul, the name of Saunders's 1976 Soul International LP. "He said, 'We know who he is!' and pulled out his record," Ledisi remembers. Her parents had met on tour when Saunders was a starring performer and her mother a backup singer, and when Ledisi finally met her father, "it was just like peas in a pod. I never felt so complete.

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