Cassandra Wilson was once described by Time magazine as "America's best singer." Wilson was born in segregated Mississippi — also the birthplace of the blues — but she's always been on a journey to explore other sounds and influences.
The latest stop on her journey is the new album Another Country, a collaboration with Italian-born guitarist Fabrizio Sotti. Wilson says that as a young girl, she was eager to learn the guitar and asked her father to teach her — but he refused.
"He said no — he wouldn't teach me. He gave me a guitar and a Mel Bay book to learn the chords and teach myself," Wilson tells NPR's David Greene. "He did that because I had just finished seven years of piano lessons, and of course piano lessons were very restrictive. And he wanted me to develop a relationship with an instrument that was much more intimate, and a relationship that I initiated.
"It worked out well for me," she says. "I still love the piano, but the guitar is my heart."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is a song called "Red Guitar." It's the new single from Cassandra Wilson, who's famous for her sweet, sultry and soulful voice. The Grammy-winning artist was once described by Time magazine as America's best singer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED GUITAR")
CASSANDRA WILSON: (Singing) Wash my face with blue water, rub my head on wide (unintelligible). Morning comes, drink black coffee, better play my song on red guitar...
GREENE: Cassandra Wilson was born in segregated Mississippi, which is also the birthplace of the blues, yet she's always been on this journey to explore other sounds and other influences. And the latest stop on her journey is her new album, "Another Country." It's a collaboration with Italian-born guitarist Fabrizio Sotti. Cassandra Wilson joins us from the studios of Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. Cassandra, welcome to the program.
WILSON: Thank you for having me.
GREENE: And we also actually have guitarist Fabrizio Sotti on the line. He's in our New York bureau. Fabrizio, thank you for being here.
FABRIZIO SOTTI: Hi, guys. Thank you also for having me. That's a pleasure.
GREENE: Well, Cassandra, I wanted to start with you and see if you could confirm a story for me that I read. You were a young girl growing up in Mississippi and you really wanted to learn the guitar and you asked your father if he'd teach you. What was his answer?
WILSON: He said, no, he wouldn't teach me. He gave me a guitar and a Mel Bay book to learn the chords and to teach myself. And he did that because I had just finished seven years of piano lessons. And, of course, piano lessons were very restrictive. And he wanted me to develop a relationship with an instrument that was much more intimate and a relationship that I initiated. It really was great. It worked out well for me. You know, because the piano I play and I still love the piano, but the guitar is my heart.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SOTTI: But sometimes you do perform live that guitar. You perform that song with that guitar, so. She actually played rhythm guitar on her guitar and I played electric. So, that was like a duet.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: I'm so struck by your biography. I mean, you were a girl growing up in very segregated Jackson, Mississippi. As I understand, I mean, the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was fatally shot just a few blocks from your house. I mean, those memories must be really difficult.
WILSON: Yes, they are. You know, it's hard to explain my feelings about Mississippi. I do recall those times and they were very turbulent and it's very scary here growing up and having those kinds of events going on around you. You felt the tension in the air. But there's also the beautiful side of Mississippi. It's incredibly beautiful here and people are very hospitable, you know, in spite of the fact that we have had issues in the past with race relations. You know, the same person who might show up in a KKK outfit one day will help you change the tire on your car the next. So, you don't know what you're going to get here. That's what's so fascinating about Mississippi.
GREENE: You made a decision in high school to collaborate - perhaps your first musical collaboration with two white classmates with yours. How difficult was it to cross the racial divide at that point?
WILSON: It wasn't difficult at all. You know, because I think both sides of that divide and both sides were intrigued. We really were the test case here in Mississippi when we desegregated the schools. So, there was a fascination there. It was really easy. You know, first to hang out and to explore music together and exchange ideas on music. And it was really how I was introduced to folk music and people like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. You know, that happened as a result of going to school with white kids.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MORE BLUES")
GREENE: There's a quote I read from you some years back. You said we didn't listen to the blues because our parents were trying to get away from the blues.
WILSON: Well, the blues was associated with low income, low expectations, sadness, not being educated - that generation. Our parents were reaching for a middle-class life and they wanted their children to reflect that. And so they pretty much kept us from listening to that type of music because of the stigma attached to it.
GREENE: Hearing you talk about this, it makes the song that's on the new album, "No More Blues," all the more powerful I think.
WILSON: Well, it's really not no more blues about the genre of blues because that'll never leave. It's kind of similar to Mary J. Blige's "No More Drama."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MORE BLUES")
SOTTI: I definitely, you know, learned from her to go much deeper into playing the blues, even though I played the blues for the past probably 25 years of my life. It was the first time I really felt a different emotion in playing it. And she was able to teach me and trust that vibe to me.
GREENE: You're hanging out in these sessions in New Orleans but you end up recording this album in Florence, Italy. And Fabrizio, take us there. I mean, what were the sessions like and how did, you know, changing the geography really influence the music?
SOTTI: I mean, first of all, that was Cassandra's idea. She told me, you know, what do you think about, you know, trying to record overseas? Also for me was a very special experience because, believe it or not, I've been in the United States for so long that I haven't recorded that much music in Italy, 'cause I spend the past 22 years of my life in United States. So, for me, it was a great experience and it definitely brought something totally different in terms of the vibe. You know, we just let the music flow and come, you know, taking our time, you know, hanging out, joking. We had no expectations. Usually the best things that come out of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GREENE: The lyrics that really stand out to me on this album: When I woke up in the morning, I saw another country in your eyes.
WILSON: You write lyrics sometimes and the meanings come to you and there are layers of meaning. The first thought that I had when I was writing it was more or less about recycling through lifetimes, the belief that we come back again and we pick up where we left off and try to resolve the relationships. And it's also about literally being in another country. Going to Italy with Fabrizio gave me a totally different understanding of Italy and it really made me appreciate the culture. I had always appreciated it but I really learned to appreciate it on a much deeper level.
GREENE: Cassandra Wilson, your new CD is "Another Country" and it features guitarist Fabrizio Sotti. It's coming out tomorrow. Cassandra, this has been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking to us.
WILSON: Hey, anytime.
SOTTI: Thank you, guys. Have a great day.
GREENE: Thank you, Fabrizio.
SOTTI: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
GREENE: And you can hear more from "Another Country" at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.