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Lady and the road back for 2 soul singers

Greg Kot

11:13 AM CDT, March 22, 2013

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Soul-fired vocalists Terri Walker and Nicole Wray both sound vindicated when they talk about their new collaborative project, Lady, and self-titled debut album on the respected Brooklyn-based indie label Truth & Soul.

Both singers had success early in their careers, then struggled to follow up. Their talent as vocalists was always evident, but music is a cruel business, especially for women once they advance past a certain age without major commercial success, and things bottomed out.

"I can remember when it all just faded -- when it was bright, and when it all just dimmed," Wray says. "I thought about going in a hole and dying. Everyone went away. I had this book of people I had met along the way, and I would call everyone in it and they wouldn't answer. I was still fairly young, so I went back home. I lost my place, my car, and so I went to live with my mom. She was the only one there for me. She said, 'It's OK, we'll get through this.' I would go to sleep and dream it off. My mom is my hero, she fights for me. Terri's mom is the same way. We both went through lowpoints, and I believe we were meant to meet each other."

Wray, born in 1981, grew up in Virginia. As a teenager, she debuted on Missy Elliott's acclaimed debut album, "Supa Dupa Fly," and scored a top-five single at the age of 17, "Make it Hot." But soon after she parted ways with Elliott and was never able to repeat the success, resurfacing only in recent years to sing vocals with the Black Keys and Kid Cudi.

Walker, born in 1979, was trained in opera while growing up in London, then scored an acclaimed neo-soul hit in 2003 with the "Untitled" album, later nominated for a Mercury Prize. She released three subsequent albums that received diminishing attention.

"We both disappeared for a bit," Walker says. "But I don't think we could have made this record without going through that. I was writing for other people, not really focusing on me. I was getting drunk, staying home for weeks, not caring about my career, losing touch with music. It's crazy how our journeys ran parallel. We're not the prettiest, slimmest or have the most money, but we both love to sing, and we rekindled that feeling in each other."

They bonded over a mutual love of soul music when they found themselves in the same New York studio a few years ago. "We were working with the same producer," Wray recalls. "We started vibing on tracks, nothing forced, not even intending to work on a record."

"Initially they wanted us to write for a Chaka Khan project," Walker adds. "But when we did the 'Tell the Truth' backing track, it sounded so good that it turned into our project."

Wray and Walker began writing songs that addressed their lives as adults, whether seeing through a suitor who only wants their "Money" or testifying to their resilience in "Ready." Truth & Soul cofounders Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman gave the songs an organic feel that echoes the early '60s girl groups and the flavor of vintage Motown and '60s Chicago soul.

"Gospel church music used to make me cry," Walker says. "I always related to the real stories, the rawness of soul. My mom listened to Marvin Gaye, Maze, the Whispers, and I feel that gospel and soul are the foundation for a lot of music we hear today."

Wray has even stronger ties to the gospel tradition growing up in the South. "Since I was a toddler, I basically was raised in church," she says. "My grandparents had a strong religious background and they sing gospel, my dad sings gospel. To hear testimonies in church, the choir, that's a form of soul. So even though I started out in R&B and hip-hop, soul music was always there."

Despite their travails, Wray says she doesn't feel like she's been wronged by the industry. But she does see it more clearly for what it is, and what it expects out of a young artist like she once was.

"It's up to you to keep fighting," she says. "You might be pretty dope and need time to develop, but they can't wait for you to figure yourself out. The industry has to keep moving, with or without you. If you can't keep up, they will move on to the next one. So you have to critique yourself and say, 'What can I do better?' They're not going to babysit you. Terri and I, we sort of figured ourselves out along the way, and when we got another opportunity, we were ready."

greg@gregkot.com

 Lady with Lee Fields: 9 p.m. Thursday at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Av., $15; lincolnhallchicago.com.