Lady Wray on the “Melting Pot” of Music and Her Staggering Life’s Work

When people talk about the idea of an artist’s life’s work, what is really being considered? Yes, in one way, an artist’s life’s work is the total accumulation of all that they’ve made and released into the world. But it can also have another meaning: a life’s work can also be a singular effort that encompasses a life and a career to date. For Lady Wray (born Nicole Wray), her newest album, Piece Of Me, represents the latter.

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Wray, who released the LP earlier this year in January, has since been out on the road performing songs from it in cities all over the country (and she’ll continue that tour later this year, beginning in June). In so doing, Wray has gotten a chance to meet and connect with her fans—some of whom have been following her for decades now. This has been invaluable. She has shared smiles and tears with them. And the process has shown her just what her years of working and living in music have meant.

“We started out in California,” Wray says of her most recent tour. “We did Beverly Hills on the first night. I couldn’t believe we opened the tour in Beverly Hills. It sold out! I got teary-eyed. It was so emotional. I signed a million autographs!”

The reason the tour was so emotional, beginning with its first stop, was because so much had to happen in Wray’s life for it to happen. It’s that kind of story that brings one to weep with strangers after singing one’s heart out. Wray grew up in the church, in Virginia. It’s where she first found music. It’s where she first started singing, around nine years old. She’d listen to her father sing there, too. He had a powerful voice, she says. Wray also remembers a friend of hers holding her hand up and volunteering Wray to sing her first song. But that doesn’t mean the place was always generous to her. In fact, she remembers a pastor saying that her goals as a teenager served the devil, not God. At one point in a service, a woman asked the congregation to pray for Wray and her mother before they were set to travel to meet industry folks to record and write music.

“But the pastor,” she says, “he got up out of his chair and told her to disregard the prayer, saying we were serving the devil. That shook me to my core as a 14-year-old. I sat in my seat and it was so embarrassing.”

Wray’s mother told her daughter at that moment to keep her head up high, that they would get through the surreal, awful moment together. It was a harsh moment and a “ludicrous” one, she says. Nevertheless, she continued her career. She and her mother flew out to Minneapolis to meet industry stalwarts, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, to get her feet wet, despite the fact that the pastor said if she wasn’t singing for God, she was wasting her time. And later, when Wray was about 16, she continued to meet big-name folks. This time it was Missy Elliott.

“When she was still Melissa Elliott,” Wray says.

Elliott, also from Virginia, had heard about Wray and came to her house. Wray’s mother paged her and she came home to audition for Elliott, who signed her to a record deal not long after. Elliott said she reminded her of a young Mary J. Blige, which was serendipitous because Wray listened to Blige religiously. She learned from Blige’s songs how to be a singer and a young Black woman in the world. Now, all of a sudden, Wray had experience singing gospel in church, listening to her father perform, working with Jam and Lewis (who had also worked with Prince and others), and had the backing of a burgeoning hip-hop star.

“Those times,” she says, “have really pushed me and gotten me to where I am now. I’m wiser.”

Then, however, still in her teens, Wray was hungry but still naïve. On the other hand, Wray had already seen a lot. In Portsmouth, Virginia where she grew up times were hard. Violence, guns, and drugs ran rampant. Even her father succumbed. As her career was growing, he was homeless. She remembers seeing homeless people walking along the street and she wondered if one of them was him. Yet, she kept working.

“I made it out of that concrete jungle,” Wray says. “Missy gave me the opportunity.”

More ups and downs came. Though she was signed, she was also being somewhat neglected as an artist. Eventually, her time with Elliott ended and she had to figure out next steps. Later, she met Damon Dash, the former business partner of Jay-Z, who signed her to Rock-A-Fella Records. They had an R&B division and Wray fit right in. Dash liked Wray’s work ethic. He even said she reminded him of Tupac in that way, always pumping out songs. They recorded a single, made a music video. She was 24-years-old and having a great time. And it was then when she met The Black Keys.

“We met, clicked, and became great friends,” Wray says. “They loved my voice.”

She recorded with the then-burgeoning blues-rock group, even participating in their Grammy Award-winning album, Brothers, flying to Alabama to record at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. She also sang on their Blakroc album, which was produced by Dash and featured rappers like Wu-Tang and A Tribe Called Quest. Wray liked the chance to work with The Black Keys, singing with live instrumentation. Life’s twists and turns had shown Wray a great deal about the world and the music industry. Today, she says, all that is a benefit.

“I think the type of music I make today is a blend of everything,” she says. “From my beginning with Missy Elliott to belting out with The Black Keys vibe.”

On her newest LP, Wray began to record it when she was seven months pregnant. She traveled to New York to start recording it. She remembers feeling nervous. But, she says, she got strength and “magic” from the baby in her belly. She remembers hearing the early instrumental for her hit song, “Piece Of Me,” at one point early in the process. She was sitting down in a chair because she was then “as big as a house” and emotions welled up in her.

“Everything I felt over the years came out on that one song,” Wray says. “It was so organic, so moving to me, so emotional. After singing it, I remember crying, listening to it back.”

The experience kept her going. She was (and is) gaining new momentum. Today, Wray gets messages from fans about the song, which is a perfect song if such a thing exists. One person told her he was in a custody battle with his ex over their children and it had been so hard. A single father, he was trying to get his son back and it was “tearing him apart.” When he heard that song one day on a train, tears gushed. And he told her it made him feel more hopeful. Now, after everything, Wray says her goal is to provide healing with her work.

“I didn’t know back in the day that I would embark on this journey of healing,” she says. “My dad always told me that when I sing I should sing with emotion because you never know who’s going to need that healing moment.”

Her dad is now healed, too. He cleaned himself up, got off drugs. He’s living in Atlanta now and he’s remarried. In a way, Wray’s music is the cause for that. He told her that her singing was for him, that it was the hope he could hold onto when he needed it. It changed his life. Just like Blige once did for her, she’s now doing for others in and around her world. And these lessons she’s now imparting to her new daughter. Life is short, Wray says. People have to unite. And her ideas are paying off. Wray recently performed on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and more opportunities are coming her way regularly. In this way, she’s been serving her spirituality since day one—and continues to on each occasion since.

“What I love most about music is that it lets me meet people on my journey,” Wray says. “Music has been this melting pot for me.”

Photo by Sesse Lind, courtesy Orienteer

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