MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, my weekly Can I Just Tell You essay.
First, though, we want to introduce you to a multiplatinum-selling artist with four albums to her credit, many awards, the face of a model, the voice of an angel. Her name is Lira.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL GOOD")
LIRA: (Singing) I wanna show somebody that I care, 'cause feeling good is a choice that we all make, just like a smile, a small effort you make. I love to feel the newness of a brand new day, happy to be alive today. Singing la, la, la, la, la...
MARTIN: That Lira with the song "Feel Good" from her new album "Rise Again." And if you're asking yourself why have I never heard of her, that might be because she is one of South Africa's most popular artists. Her four previous albums were all released overseas, but that has changed. Essence magazine has named her one of five unique artists set to change music in 2012. Her new album "Rise Again" is her first U.S. release, and Lira is with us now.
Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us. And why have you been so mean, depriving us of your presence?
LIRA: Hi, Michel. I'm so sorry, you know, but I can definitely make it up to you. This is indeed the first time that I'm actually venturing into the States. And, you know, I really just wanted to understand this market and see if the music would work. You know, I've had such a great career in South Africa, and I've broken many records and I've done everything you could possibly imagine. And I was at a point where I was ready to spread my wings and just see what the next step would be.
MARTIN: Talk a little bit, if you would, about your sound.
LIRA: It really is influenced by old school soul music from, like, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross. There was so much of this music that we grew up on in South Africa. There's elements of jazz. There's a bit of funk in there. I mean, of course, the other element is the use of African languages. You know, I just felt it was good to preserve that part of my heritage, and there's certain things that, you know, you express in African language that you don't have in English.
MARTIN: Let's play a little bit more. Let's play a little bit of "Rise Again," from your new album by the same title.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISE AGAIN")
LIRA: (Singing) At times I feel so lost and disoriented. Life has not worked out the way I planned. Thought I was smart enough to get myself anywhere. I made a few bad choices along the way. Still, I rise again. Yet I rise again.
MARTIN: Yeah, it's interesting. Are you familiar with the famous Maya Angelou poem "And Still I Rise"?
MARTIN: And it has a similar kind of, well, it's a different - it's different, obviously, but it does remind me of that.
LIRA: A similar message. Right. Right.
MARTIN: Yeah. Similar message, which is I, in a joyous way...
MARTIN: ...will not be defeated.
LIRA: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: But what's the inspiration behind this song? Do you remember?
LIRA: It, you know, just being young and confused about life and just trying to figure out how to get by. And I had some difficulties at the beginning of my career, but I just felt that a huge difference to me was made by my attitude shift. I just learned to remember that it's OK. Sometimes life will give you certain experiences because that's what you need to strengthen you, but you're always meant to rise.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISE AGAIN")
LIRA: (Singing) Yes, we rise again. Still, we rise again, and again, and again, and again.
MARTIN: How did you get started in the music business? I understand that you were actually in college studying toward an accounting degree...
LIRA: I did.
MARTIN: ...which, where I have to say, I don't think creativity is terribly highly prized.
LIRA: No. And it's...
MARTIN: So how did this happen?
LIRA: And, you know, I was just actually reflecting on this earlier when I was - when we were coming here. I was, like, in some levels, I felt like my talents were wasted. There's just certain things that I've allowed to flourish about my personality through following a creative career. But, you know, I worked in an accounting environment for two years. Let's just say I survived it for two years before I felt, this is not working for me. This is not fulfilling me on any level.
And I remember I was getting my second promotion, and I was sitting with my regional managers. And one of my managers was saying, you know, you're one of our brightest stars, and in five years you could really see yourself moving into management. And I remember looking at them and thinking: You don't look very attractive to me, like what you are is not really what I want to aspire to.
And it was a big thing for me, because I thought: This is so depressing. I just got a promotion, but I'm depressed. So I started asking the big question: So what do I want to do with my life? You know, if this is not it what do I refer to as the it thing? And, you know, my earliest memory of just being happy and fulfilled was when I was on stage doing my thing. So I thought, you know, that would be the most logical place to look for that fulfillment. And indeed, I resigned. I served my notice, and about two weeks later I got into a record label, literally that easily.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with South African artist Afro-soul singer Lira. Her latest album is called "Rise Again." It's her first U.S. release after she's had a very successful career in South Africa and other places internationally. And I'll only make one more reference to the fact that you kept us deprived so long of your, of visiting us...
LIRA: Oh, oh, Michel.
MARTIN: ...before I decide to leave it alone. But to the point, you referenced earlier that you'd actually broken a lot of records in South Africa with your career. For example, in 2003 you knocked Beyonce off the number one spot on the South African Billboard charts. The song was "All My Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL MY LOVE")
LIRA: (Singing) All my love is yours. I'm going to give you all of me. All my love is yours. I'll hold it down for you, baby whenever you should need me. I have no other need but to express the love I feel. I'll love all your pain and sadness and your fears away. My love will hold you, keep you and will take you higher. All my love is yours. I'll give you everything. All my love is yours.
MARTIN: You know, it's a hard thing to ask as an artist, but what do you think your fans are responding to?
LIRA: You know, if I could put it in a bottle and sell it I would, but I really don't know. But this is what I suspect, people have seen my journey. Our generation experienced the back end of apartheid and we saw the transition and then we were left with the reality of what do we do with this freedom? How do you do free? What is that exactly? And I literally carved out an idea for what I wanted my life to reflect and I went for it. So that's how I expressed and lived out my freedom and you hear it in the music.
And so, you know, the whole story and just the success of the career became inspirational to everyone. And I sing about a whole host of subjects but it's from just that space of being contemplative, of being really well thought out about the message that I'm sending out there. And I just think people, you know, were going through all kinds of things but they could find some songs some way in all my albums that would really be like capture what people were feeling, and before I knew it, I was appealing to little four year olds right up to 65-year-olds and it's been incredible.
MARTIN: And is that across racial lines? Across racial lines?
LIRA: Across racial lines as well. I've completely crossed over.
MARTIN: Do you remember apartheid? Yeah. Do you remember apartheid?
LIRA: Very much because I - when, you know, we were suddenly free, one of the biggest challenges that was facing me was again, how to do free, how do you live freely. But secondly, I realized a lot of healing that I had to go through because there's certain things that you learn, little habits. I was absolutely not confident. You know, I remember we were taught not to look at white people in the eyes, for example, and now that we were integrated, I remember in high school suddenly having a white teacher and having to look at them in the eyes or even raise my hand and ask a question. Those were some of the challenges that I experienced because I was trained not to do that for my own protection. So there's a lot of things that I had to unlearn. I just really had to build so much of my character just so I could have an inner strength to be all that I could be. So those were some of the struggles that I think a lot of us, you know, experienced with just moving forward.
MARTIN: What about singing in one of the African languages that you know, one of the three or five, right?
LIRA: It's three.
LIRA: I speak five languages.
MARTIN: You speak five languages.
LIRA: I sing in three. I sing in English, Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho, actually. Oh my word, it is four. I kept thinking it's three but it actually is four.
LIRA: Excuse me.
MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask about that, singing in African languages, because I don't know if, I'm sure you're familiar with Johnny Clegg, the great artist.
LIRA: Yes. Absolutely.
MARTIN: And we had the opportunity to speak with him a couple of months ago and he was concerned that some of the culture is dying, that people are walking away from it because they don't...
LIRA: That's true.
MARTIN: ...want to, they don't want to sing in traditional languages, they don't want to use the traditional rhythms, and so he's feeling very strongly about fighting for that. Do you share a similar concern? And how do you feel when you speak, when you sing in African languages? Do you feel like you're striking a blow for preserving the culture or is it just when it's artistically right? Do you know what I mean?
LIRA: I do.
MARTIN: And do you ever feel any ambivalence about it?
LIRA: You know, there's something very special about knowing who you are and knowing how you came to be. There's, for me, just something really precious about that and I understand the problem that, the thing that we suffered with as our generation is that we are trying to integrate into the world, you know, so we feel like there's no space for our heritage and that's just an incorrect perception. So by artists like myself, who still preserve the language, we bring a sense of coolness to it. So it's just important but I mean that's the struggle that the elders are finding is that children just want to be part of the global community and they can't see where it all fits in. So that's why I feel like with our generation it's our responsibility to preserve it.
MARTIN: Well, to that end, let's hear a little bit. There's one song on the album back in (unintelligible).
LIRA: Xhosa. And the song is called...
MARTIN: I can't say it.
LIRA: I know. It's called...
MARTIN: Can you teach me to do - is that something. Can I ever learn this?
LIRA: You can. And...
MARTIN: Help me out here.
LIRA: It's "Ixesha." I mean it's a strange sound, but it's an X sound...
LIRA: And then we pronounce it "Ixesha," which means time.
MARTIN: I'm trying here. What's the trick? Come on.
LIRA: You know, you'd have to sing it, Michel.
MARTIN: I'd have to sing it? Well, you don't want to hear that. Trust me. So...
LIRA: I think the next time I see you we'll have it down pat.
MARTIN: Give me some lessons.
LIRA: Yeah. Down pat.
MARTIN: Well, tell me the title of the song again, please?
MARTIN: And it means, is that a name or what does it mean?
LIRA: It means time.
LIRA: It means time.
MARTIN: All right. Well, here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IXESHA")
LIRA: (Singing in foreign language)
MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. Well, what's next for you? What are you hoping to do next?
LIRA: You know, every time I come here and I shared the story and I share my music, it becomes such an awesome human experience that it really just creates a greater appetite for me to just be out there and be with the people and to share my music so it's really just about coming here. That's actually what I want to focus on. And on the South African front, I just released my first concert from it's really about the relationship that I have with my fans. It's about the effect I've seen the music have on my fans and I just wanted to be able to give people a sneak peek into what it's like from my perspective, watching a sea of people singing to your music. And sometimes I can have five, 10,000 people in a room but it's still feels so intimate and I wanted to capture that and share it with my audience. So this is through my "Captured Tour" DVD that's out and I hope to bring that into the U.S. in the near future.
MARTIN: Lira is an award-winning, multiplatinum selling artist from South Africa. Her latest album, her first U.S. release is called "Rise Again." And she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.
Lira, thank you so much for speaking with us.
LIRA: Michel, it was such a great pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.