1350 Okie St., N.E.
$24 in advance; $28 at the door
Doors: 7 p.m.; show 8:30
For 25 years, Chely Wright has been in the country music spotlight and in 2010, became the first openly gay country singer. Since coming out, Wright has become an LGBT advocate while also recording, touring and embracing life as a mom and wife.
On Thursday, Dec. 20, Wright will be at City Winery promoting her new Christmas EP “Santa Will Find You.” Although she released her first album in 1994, it wasn’t until 1997 that she had her first big hit with “Shut Up and Drive.” In 1999, she rose to superstardom with the success of “Single White Female,” which has become her signature song. Her comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: What can fans expect from your Christmas show?
CHELY WRIGHT: Well they can expect new holiday music. Whenever you have new music out, one of the tricky things when doing shows is you wanna give people a taste of the new music but they also wanna hear the hits and the things they know you for. As a live performer, you kinda wanna do everything that’s new but you also want your audience to feel engaged and hold onto things that feel known to them during the show. So we’ll be doing the entire new EP and what I’ve been doing over the past couple years is what I call the “Story and Song Tour,” which is basically me running my mouth for almost two hours telling stories about how songs were written, recorded or certain memories about the road or a particular time in my career. I hope the audiences enjoy it because I enjoy it. I’ve been doing this job for 25 years putting records out and longer before I had records out. For me if I can get an audience that wants to go with me on the journey with me for 90 minutes or two hours of how I ended up here today doing what I’m doing, that’s a thrill for me and so far fans have been amenable to it.
BLADE: What inspired you to release a Christmas project?
WRIGHT: I think it’s kind of an understood that any country artist that has a career that spans a decade or two kinda has to make a holiday record. It’s kind of a prerequisite and I’ve been asked about it years ago when I was on major labels and I considered it and kinda wanted to but didn’t want to do it just to do it. I wanted to have a reason to it. Over the years I’ve written a couple of Christmas songs that were recorded by other artists but I just never had done a recording on them aside from the work tape the day I did the songs. It just seemed like this was time. I had a couple of songs, one that the Indigo Girls recorded, Mindy Smith recorded and Mindy and I had written one for her holiday record which was a great holiday record years ago. So it just felt right. I knew I had a couple of songs under my belt and my goal was if I could write three good original holiday tunes to add to that canon, that I’d be good to go. I talked it over with Jeremy Lister and Dustin Ransom the guys I worked with to produce this record and we just thought it was the best idea to make Christmas music so we did.
BLADE: Why did you chose to do an EP instead of a full album? Any reasons for not doing any traditional songs?
WRIGHT: What we decided to do was make a record together and then we wanted to do kind of an artist record, regular studio stuff. I don’t know which one of us brought it up, but the idea got tossed out there “Let’s do an EP of both!” Let’s do Christmas music and studio music and the reason I chose not to do covers is because unless you can record something better than it’s ever been done, it’s really hard for me to wrap my mind around that. No one is gonna call me the greatest singer of all time — we save those monikers for the Alison Krausses, the Lee Ann Womacks, the Trisha Yearwoods, the Martina McBrides —but what I do think I bring to the table that is unique is I write songs. So to me, if I can’t record “Oh Holy Night” better than anyone else has ever done it, well you can’t get me to touch it with a 10-foot pole. I love Christmas standards, it makes sense to me why people record Christmas covers. It’s warm, it’s fuzzy. No one is ever going to pan your record for not having good material. For me as a songwriter, I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t do that.
BLADE: “It Really Is a Wonderful Life” has already become a bit of a Christmas classic, It’s been recorded by The Indigo Girls and Mindy Smith as well. What inspired you to write it and why didn’t you release it first?
WRIGHT: I had gone through a breakup in 2005 and I had moved. I was closeted at the time. It’s not like I could go out to dinner with friends and pour my heart out that I was going through a break up. But my best friend Chuck knew and I was there in my house in East Nashville and Chuck said, I think it was on Christmas Eve day, “Why don’t you write something and send it out to your fans tonight. A little work tape or something. Why don’t you write them a new song?” and I did and I sent it out and I was glad I did my little bit of homework. I always feel better with what I’m struggling with when I write a new song. I sent it out and that was it. Then Mindy Smith was making her holiday record the next year and heard the work tape and said “I’m gonna cut that” then a couple years later The Indigo Girls cut it and so it just didn’t seem like something I should record until now.
BLADE: How did Richard Marx become a part of this project?
WRIGHT: Richard and I have been very close friends for 20-plus years. He and I have collaborated together, we’ve recorded together, we’ve written together, we’ve been important in each others lives for along time. I knew I was making a holiday record and only had three songs to write. I had two titles that I, specifically for sentimental reasons, I wanted to write them with Richard. I wanted him to be on this record for personal reasons. I texted him and said “I got 2 song titles, “Happy New Years Old Friend” and “Christmas Isn’t Christmas Time” do you want to write them with me for this record” and he wrote back “Duh” and that’s how it came about. We enjoy singing together. You know, I take a little offense when any man I’m singing with sings higher than I do and that’s what you get with Richard and Vince Gill (laughs).
BLADE: How did you come to choose the vintage family photo for the cover?
WRIGHT: I was thinking about cover art, you know it’s important, especially for a holiday record because it’s forever. Hopefully people latch onto the music 10 years after I’ve made this record, hopefully someone will come to it and discover it as new. I wanted something was representative of what holidays have always meant for me. I knew pretty well I wanted to call the EP “Santa Will Find You” and for me, because when I was a kid, I really did have a worry that Santa wouldn’t know where I’d be Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. It was a genuine real concern. I found oddly enough my boys have the same concern. It’s like a universal right of passage to wonder if Santa can find you. I started going through family photos and found one my Aunt Char had written Christmas ’73 on top and that was so perfect. It’s my brother and sister and I and our two cousins. My cousin David sadly passed when we were kids, I was 11 when he died. I asked my Aunt Char if she cared if I used the photo and she said “I’d love it! David was a star!” Then I had my friend, world-renowned picture book illustrator, Marla Frazee hand draw the title. So if you wonder what font or text, it’s a piece of artwork and I’m so happy she took the time to do it.
BLADE: Now that you’re a wife and mother, does Christmas take on a whole new meaning?
WRIGHT: You know I was telling my wife the other day that my mom always got Christmas right for us kids. It was always so special and what Lauren said back to me was, “That must be why you work so hard at Christmas for our boys.” I really try to make it magical because you know, you really don’t have a lot of time … to make it magical with kids. Right now they’re 5, so we have the biggest Christmas tree we’ve ever had and my boys are Jewish by the way, did I mention that? We’re raising them as Jewish so we celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas. I feel like it’s one of the magical parts of childhood and I just want to get it right and want them to remember the wonder of the season and of course we talk what it means to be Jewish during the holidays and Christian during the holidays but mostly it’s just Santa and magic and candy and presents. Heck, why not? I remember one Christmas Eve we were driving home from our aunt’s house and I looked up in the sky and saw a red light trailing through the sky. I said “Dad get home fast! It’s Rudolph, they came early!” I remember listening for Santa and sneaking downstairs and trying to see if I could see Santa leaving presents. I also have really great memories of my siblings too. We would somehow put aside our wresting, fighting and bickering and it was us trying to stay up and see if we could see Santa or hear reindeer on the roof.
BLADE: Next year, your debut album, “Woman In The Moon,” turns 25. Any plans to celebrate 25 years in the music business?
WRIGHT: Really good question. I think new music is a great way to celebrate it. A new holiday record and in early 2019 we’ll release another EP that is just studio music. When we went into make the holiday music we also made another EP of regular studio music so that’ll be out.
BLADE: Will it be similar to your last album, “I Am The Rain”?
WRIGHT: It’s hard for me because it’s all me so it all feels like me. I do think it is different. The people who have heard it and who know my body of work say “It’s kind of a tip of the hat to your commercial music,” so that’s kind of exciting. The EP is going to be called “Revival.”
BLADE: You used PledgeMusic to help fund this EP and your next EP as well. You’ve had great success with going the fundraising route. Do you feel this is the way the music business is going for independent artists?
WRIGHT: You know it’s ever changing the business model of putting music out. Had you asked me five years ago that I’d be doing an EP I would probably have said no way. I think it’s important as an artist to continue to be creative and have my voice be heard as a songwriter and as an artist. You have to be nimble and pay attention to the way consumers are consuming music and the way artists are introducing work into the market place. Crowd funding is a thing now. When I did my Kickstarter, I think I was one of the first commercial artists, former major label artists, to have done a Kickstarter and a lot of people are doing it now. Pay attention to the young people, they know what they’re doing. I tend to see what they’re doing and try to do it my own way. Years ago I thought it was just asking for money, but it’s not. It’s pre-selling your record, that’s it. It reengages your fan base. I’ve always been known to have a real supportive, loyal fan base and it seems like a smart way to stay engaged with them. In two years you and I will be talking about the new way people are doing things and hopefully I’ll have enough smarts or foresight to keep changing and as I said earlier, be nimble on how to push music out into the market place.
BLADE: What’s the key to your staying power?
WRIGHT: I think the key is you have to be technologically open minded and creatively opened minded. I think the key to my staying power is, I’ve often said this — if you want to be a writer, you gotta write. I think the key is what I’m about to do after I hang up this phone — change my guitar strings and sit down and play my guitar and make stuff up. It’s hard to keep making records if you’re not creating new work and you gotta do that. Saddle time is what I call that so I’m about to get back on the saddle.
BLADE: Since coming out in 2010 and releasing your book and documentary, do you still get people coming up to you saying your story has helped or inspired them?
WRIGHT: Every day. I either get a DM or a Facebook message or somebody stops me in an airport. It still shocks me how many people heard my story or saw my story or read my story. It’s always pretty humbling to hear how it impacted their journey or their child’s journey. It’s been the biggest blessing of my life to come out the way I did and still causing ripples. Again, it’s humbling and I’m grateful for it.