THE VOCALMUSICIAN INTERVIEW
By Dawn! E. Robinson
Okay, first of all, it's not that Vanessa Williams (former Miss America who sang on the Pocahontas film soundtrack) or the other Vanessa Williams (star of the Showtime TV show "Soul Food"). It's THIS VANESSA WILLIAMS - the one you can hear singing lead on live gospel recordings by RICHARD SMALLWOOD with VISION (on "Angels", "Holy Thou Art God", "Oh, How He Loves You and Me/Your Love Divine") and on a duet with JOHN STODDART ("One More Chance") from his debut CD Love So Real. In addition to working with Smallwood and Stoddart, THIS VANESSA WILLIAMS has toured with YOLANDA ADAMS and she has one solo CD (so far) under her belt, titled Vanessa.
Simply put, THIS VANESSA WILLIAMS has one of the greatest voices I have ever heard in any genre. Her voice is an absolute blessing to those who have heard her. As you read below, you will see that the only thing more impressive than her vocal ability is her genuine humility about her vocal ability. So, here is the VocalMusician Interview with VANESSA WILLIAMS...
VW: Thanks, Dawn! You're very kind.
DR: Nah, just speaking my truth. So, what are your earliest memories of singing?
VW: Well, aside from the little jingle we sang to my aunt when begging for Kool-Aid, I remember a talent show at Abram Simon Elementary School when I was in 5th Grade. My sister Robyn and two or three other friends of ours sang The Temptations' "Just My Imagination". We did all of the steps and had to change all the "her's" and "she's" in the lyrics to "him's" and "he's". I saw an old snapshot of us wearing pink blouses and lavender slacks. Good Lord... We all had one foot crossed in front of the other and our index fingers pointed at our temples. Ok...maybe that's too much information. lolol!
DR: Actually, that's cute. Do you remember the first time you sang a solo in public?
VW: My family attended Bethlehem Baptist Church in SE Washington [DC] when I was a child. I started "hiding" in the young adult choir when I was about 12. I may have been about 15 when the director made me sing the end part of Tramaine Hawkins' "Goin' Up Yonder".
I kept telling him I couldn't do it, but he just kept playing the intro over and over until I started singing: "Because - I can take the pain, yes... and I can take the heartache, the heartache pain brings..." I closed my eyes and tried to mimic everything she'd done on the recording. I'd never heard a voice like hers before. I didn't know the first thing about pain and heartache, nor did I know what my own voice sounded like! I just wanted to sound like Tramaine.
I made it through that solo and shocked myself and my parents. A little kid named Tara Thomas started calling me "That Goin' Up-a Yonder Girl".
DR: Did you ever study voice?
VW: No. I've never had any formal music training. I studied the way a lot of people did - in the basement with a mop handle or hairbrush for a microphone, listening to 45s of singers like Aretha, Gladys Knight, Tammi Terrell and Dinah Washington. The only LPs I remember my family having of gospel music was Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (and that was all I could "study" with on Sundays).
DR: Oh yes, I can relate. I grew up in one of those households too - only gospel or spirituals on Sundays.
VW: Then when I was old enough to buy my own gospel music, it was anything Hawkins [Family], [Richard] Smallwood or [Andrae] Crouch, and I tried to mimic Tramaine, Dottie Jones, and Krystle Murden.
DR: I loved listening to them too, especially Dottie Jones - also Tata Vega [with Andrae Crouch]. I used to try to mimic Vega's low notes.
VW: I remember how fascinated I'd been with The Emotions' sound and I listened intently to the way singers like Phyllis Hyman, Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder used their voices.
DR: Chaka and Stevie are definitely vocal heroes of mine!
VW: I spent my time at Howard University on the second floor of the College of Fine Arts, and only traveled to the third floor to take a mandatory freshman course titled "Blacks in the Arts".
However, I learned a great deal by doing, under the guidance of people like Richard Smallwood, Raymond Reeder, the late Freddye Jackson, Terrence Richburg, Irene Watkins Gaskins, Ronald Beverly and Steve Lawrence.
Taking instruction from the producers while working on the Vanessa CD just helped me realize how much I'd learned indirectly, and how much more I'd like to learn.
DR: When/how did you start singing professionally?
VW: I did some singing with a band during my junior year at Howard, but never had any aspirations to sing professionally. I think it was then that I realized I had a preference for singing Christian music. Raymond Reeder introduced me to "pit singing" and I spent more time in Ira Aldridge Theater and Cramton Auditorium after I graduated from Howard than I ever had as a student. Even now it feels a little strange getting paid to sing.
DR: Oh, you'll get used to it! [Laughs] Seriously though, I know what you mean. BUT it's a great feeling to actually get paid to do something you really care about as opposed to just collecting a regular paycheck from a day job you don't care about at all. Anyway, do you think you'd be interested in doing more musical theater - perhaps onstage this time?
VW: It's kinda funny because my day job was teaching Art, and I did love it for a long time, and was sure I'd be there until I retired. I'd love to do a little musical theater if the opportunity presents itself.
DR: The first time I heard you sing was on Richard Smallwood's Adoration: Live from Atlanta CD singing duet on "Angels" with Maurette Brown-Clark. After I got the CD, I was singing in Milwaukee with Maysa and we played "Angels" REPEATEDLY in the condo where we stayed. I'm a big Smallwood fan from way back. His songs kept me sane through college. How did you hook-up with Richard and his group, Vision?
VW: He played at Union Temple around the corner from the church where I grew up. I don't ever remember not knowing of him. When the Smallwood Singers started recording, I was elated! I think everybody secretly wished they could be a Smallwood Singer.
DR: That's no joke!
VW: I figured the closest I'd get would be harmonizing with the records or screaming at [DAR] Constitution Hall. I bought everything they recorded. I remember breaking my neck to attend a tribute some organization threw for him in the late 80's.
Sometime around 1993, I remember walking into the sanctuary of Rehoboth Baptist Church on Saturday, and Richard was just sitting at the piano playing. I almost passed out when my dear friend, the late Freddye Jackson introduced us and then said, "Sing something for him." Richard told me to sing, and I can't remember what I did. When I finished he said, "You have a pretty voice." To tell you the truth, I thought he was just being polite! I was close to being in shock. I'd only seen him from afar, and here he was sitting there like a regular person!
VW: The following year I got a phone call from him, that I initially believed was a practical joke. So when he asked me if I could travel to Nashville and Atlanta with his group, I told him "No". It wasn't until he was hanging up and said, "That's ok, Baby. They'll be other times", that I realized it was really Richard on the line.
DR: Oh NO!!!
VW: Fortunately, the friend I called to cry to because I knew I'd made a major blunder, introduced me to the phone feature *69. I dialed, Richard answered, and after I babbled and cried he laughed and told me it wasn't too late, and he hadn't asked anyone else. I started traveling with the Smallwood Singers regularly. It felt like I was among royalty, but they made me feel like family. Richard mentioned his ideas for a project with his new label, Verity Records, which he envisioned would involve a larger ensemble. He asked me if I would be a part of it. Of course that time my answer was an immediate "Yes!"
I think we all believed Vision would be a wonderful one-time endeavor. I was especially happy because I'd wanted to sing with Maurette Brown-Clark, and never thought that would ever happen. I walked into the first rehearsal and there she was! When Richard assigned the duet leads on "Angels" to us, I couldn't believe it.
The first time I heard Richard say in an interview, that the Lord actually gave him the names of those who would make up Vision, I just cried.
DR: That's wonderful! The next recording I heard you on was the "One More Chance" duet with John Stoddart on his Love So Real CD. I'm also a big Stoddart fan!
VW: Me too! John's music is beyond special. John is diligent. There's something pensive and reflective about him. Not melancholy, but serious where ministry is concerned. Love So Real couldn't help but be as excellent and moving as it is. Watching him work and knowing how passionate he was about giving his best was amazing. He coached me. He encouraged me to write more; keep a journal. Maybe one day I'll follow his lead and record my own songs.
I'll always be grateful for the opportunity he gave me; the song ["One More Chance"] forced me to go to a place in myself that I'd been afraid to go. The "old friend" he sings about in [title song] "Love So Real" mirrored my own experience. John succeeds in birthing music that does what it's supposed to do. It's not just profitable, it's powerful.
DR: True that - I think John has a very old soul. Your voices blended SOOOO well on "One More Chance"! How did you meet and get to work with John?
VW: I may have to thank Nolan Williams (or perhaps it was Curtis King) for introducing us in the early 90s...I'm just so proud to know him. We just kept running into each other at one concert or another! He told me he was working on a project and asked if I'd like to help. Again, a no-brainer. Like Freddye Jackson, John has a way of pulling sounds out that you didn't know were there. We did several demos of "One More Chance" before he said he'd settled on one of the tracks. I love singing with him. We've done some very impromptu things live on occasion, and it overwhelms me how naturally our voices blend, and how he seems to instinctively know where I'm going when I'm singing. I really hope I get a chance to record with him again. Singing with him is a pure joy.
DR: I think so too! I've had a few opportunities to sing with John in the studio. In addition to having a wonderful voice, he is also a good listener which makes him easy to sing with. John is fab! Now, you were also singing backup for YOLANDA ADAMS at one point. How did you make that connection? How long did you sing with her? What was that experience like?
VW: Raymond Reeder's name keeps popping up, huh? I was "pit singing" in a play at Ira Aldridge Theater, and he was responsible for putting together a group to back up Howard's Homecoming guest that year - Yolanda Adams. I was a fan of the Southeast Inspirational Choir, loved the songs Yolanda led, and was so excited when she went solo. When he asked if I would participate, well, that was a no-brainer too!
I sang with Yolanda for about 6 years until 2000. It was a major turning point for me emotionally and spiritually. I was singing with Richard [Smallwood] as well and teaching.
I was in awe of Yolanda. She's strong and confident, and walked in her calling with what seemed like unbelievable ease. Being on stage with her was overwhelming, and it was sometimes difficult to stay focused on the job I had to do, because she was not only ministering to the people in front of her, but behind her as well! I met and admired a worshipper - Someone who communed with God, and was candid with her testimony.
She wasn't just an entertainer. She really did seek to bring others to Christ. She was larger than life and regular-folks at the same time. Her generosity was amazing on-stage and off. She wanted to take us places we'd never been before, and take the gospel where it had never been, and that's not always popular with church-folk.
Her camp is no place for the timid, touchy or faithless. She's progressive, goal-oriented and smart. She kept likening us to eagles. But my "chicken suit" was dangerously comfortable. Someone can tell you you're an eagle all day long, dress you in wonderful clothes, and seat you in lofty places. But it doesn't matter unless you know it for yourself. I know that sounds corny, but, well, it was true for me.
DR: Nope. Doesn't sound a bit corny to me. Yolanda sounds like a wonderful mentor.
VW: I'm grateful to Yolanda for being a catalyst for me to face my fears, and trust that I really can go where God wants to take me in spite of myself.
DR: Like Yolanda, you used to be a school teacher. How difficult was it for you to balance the two careers?
VW: I've loved Art as long as I can remember, and when I became an Art teacher in 1987, it just seemed like the perfect profession for me. Singing, and being part of singing aggregations was the therapeutic thing I did - and EVERY school teacher needs some kind of outlet - but singing was not something I ever thought about as a career.
The balancing act became more difficult in the last three years or so. My job hadn't been a problem early on because the school year is full of breaks and holidays, and I enjoyed weekends off. It was nothing for me to enjoy my avocation, then go directly to my classroom from the airport. I had a very supportive principal. There was a little opposition from some, and others felt I should decide between the two things I loved to do.
Touring, however, isn't scheduled around the school year, and I found myself away for longer periods of time. Ironically, practically everywhere I traveled I ran into children, museums or something school related. On a trip to Birmingham, I met the director of mural programs at the Birmingham Museum of Art. She actually forwarded teaching tools from the museum to me in Washington.
For a while I reasoned that my travels were helping to make me a more effective teacher, my classroom more interesting, and bring new resources to my school. When I returned from trips, I tried to hold large group classes, and engage in creative scheduling to appease everyone. But it only made me realize I was willing to do anything to stay in my comfort zone.
The security of my job, and my own inability to make a decision, kept me in the classroom longer than I now know I should have stayed. A sure paycheck every two weeks was what I'd been accustomed to, and I suppose I'd been a part of the good-government-job generation.
Most importantly, I'd never failed at teaching. Although I love to sing, singing professionally would surely bring new challenges, and changes, possible scrutiny, criticism, and rejection that I wasn't sure I wanted to handle.
A stranger stopped at the entrance of my classroom and asked, "What are you doing in the belly of this whale?" It was the first time I realized I was in the basement of an enormous open space school that had no windows.
DR: Wow!!! That's amazing. And you were also rearing a child at this time! How were you able to manage THAT balancing act? Did your daughter ever travel with you?
VW: Lisa was born when I was 21. Timing is everything. I know I never would have allowed myself to be away from her when she was younger. I was one of those mothers who said, "If she can't go, I can't go." Singing locally was no problem. She went where I went. Car trips and bus trips with the church, or whichever group I was with, were our weekend outings.
Imagine how geeked I was at 35 years old, getting on an airplane with The Richard Smallwood Singers, though! It had only been the third time I'd been on a plane in my whole life!
Lisa was 14 when I started traveling with Richard and Yolanda. I honestly felt as if God was giving me another chance at this singing thing. My daughter has always had a good relationship with her Dad, and both of our families are local. But by that time, she had interests of her own, so it wasn't difficult to juggle. She did come to Atlanta when we recorded Adoration. She was in college by the time the long term touring started. Now she's graduated. She sang background vocals with me in Omaha in August. This has just worked out fine.
DR: I'll say it has! So, your daughter also sings, that's great. You must be proud. Does she have aspirations for a singing career?
VW: Proud is an understatement. I call her my baby, but she's such a remarkable young woman...simply the best part of my life. Lisa has a solo on the Drexel University Gospel Choir project and we're doing a duet as well. Their release date is November 22. She has a wonderful voice, that I always knew was there, but it just matured so richly when she went away to school! The first time I attended a Drexel concert I was actually on my feet screaming, "That's my Baby!" like [The Cosby Show's] "Claire Huxtable". I think I embarrassed her...lololol!
She's expressed an interest in the [music] industry in front and behind the scenes, but hasn't made any decisions yet. She's a great writer, editor, researcher and has terrific graphic and computer skills. Her degree is in corporate communication. She's really motivated me to stay on top of things where my own business is concerned. I'm grateful to have someone so intelligent in my home! I'd love to have her tag along with me everywhere I go, but I leave it up to her. I've always encouraged her to pursue the things that make her happy, but I have to admit my alto section was awesome in Omaha!
DR: Well, tell me ALL about your debut CD Vanessa. How did it all happen? Who produced it? Did you write/co-write any of the songs? How much control did you have over it?
VW: The executive producers, Bishop Andrew Merritt and Steven Ford, decided it should be titled Vanessa. There are 13 tracks. The Merritt's of Straight Gate International Church in Detroit, approached me about the prospect of recording in their new studio for their new label BAJADA. They said that they believed that there could, and should be greater integrity in the recording industry especially where Christian music was concerned.
Although I didn't start working until 2001, they said they'd had me in mind since the first time Vision was in concert at Straight Gate, not long after the release of Adoration: Live in Atlanta. I was invited back to the church in 1998 to participate in the live recording Straight Gate Mass Choir's project entitled Faith in the House. The project was released in 2000. Still, it was a collaborative effort and I wasn't the only one out front which was comfortable.
It was a faith walk for me to record my own CD, though. I never would have done it. It took me a while to say "Yes", but they actually prayed for, and with me concerning my decision. Bishop Frank Reid and Minister W.E. Cain actually spoke prophetic words about it. I was also assured that Steven Ford would be at the helm of things, and I knew how highly Richard Smallwood regarded him and his excellence in music ministry.
I was in the office when Steven, who wrote and produced 6 songs (one with Dianne Powell) contacted Kevin Bond, who actually sang background vocals and produced 2 songs. I was in the studio with Fred Hammond on my birthday recording the 2 songs he produced, and was coached by Pam Kenyon M. Donald. Paul Allen and his partner James Moss (PAJAM) produced 2 of the project's more urban tracks. In early 2002, "All My Help", written and produced by Richard Smallwood, was recorded at Morning Star Studio in Springhouse, Pa.
I didn't do any writing, other than ad libs here and there, and Steven let me help a little with vocal arrangements.
Each producer asked me the same question - "Do you like it?" I really thought they were kidding. Considering the fact that I am no Shirley Caesar, I was thrilled they consented to work with me! I was so happy Richard could work me into his schedule between divinity school, traveling and workshops. I didn't care if he rearranged "Jingle Bells" for me. His support was such a tremendous gift.
I was like a kid working on a school project. I followed instructions, with the knowledge that I was in remarkable hands. I had a wonderful time not controlling much of anything, and amazed at the producers who were assembled on my behalf.
I asked God to show me He was ok with it. It was therapy, and worship, and never felt like work. I could stay in the studio all day. I had the most fun recording the background vocals, of course. I was favored to have Mo'Horns, Jonathan Dubose, Darwin Hobbs, Reggie Young, Jeff Davis, Juna Givhan, Fred's Face 2 Face Family, Jeff Lee Johnson, members of Vision, Straight Gate Mass Choir, and others helping out in a major musical way!
Light Records partnered with BAJADA to handle marketing, promotion and distribution. The Vanessa CD debuted at #10 on Billboard's gospel chart on May 7, 2002 and peaked at #7.
DR: Wow! That's fab, especially for a debut CD!
VW: I was floored about the whole chart thing!
DR: Where can people get the Vanessa CD? Can they get it online?
VW: It's at practically every place that sells music online. BMG Music/Sound and Spirit just picked it up, and it's been at Columbia House for a while. Walmart, Tower, Family Christian Bookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, CDSeven, Circuit City... Just type "Vanessa Williams gospel" in the Search engine...lololol!
DR: [Laughs] I know you did the Alliance Tour last year. Have you done any other touring as a solo artist?
VW: Recently I've begun what The Alliance Agency calls the "Again Tour". It features Donnie McClurkin, Maurette Brown-Clark, Pap San, and me. We were at the San Jose Praisefest a few weeks ago. The next date is November 22 at Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Ga.
DR: You mentioned not having had any formal voice training. Gospel singing is pretty rough on the vocal cords. How do you manage to stay in "good voice"? Do you have any routines/regimens that you do before a gig or recording session? Are there any "tricks of the trade" you'd like to share with gospel singers - or singers in any genre - reading this who might be having some vocal problems?
VW: I have to laugh. No. I have no tricks, I can be of no assistance. So, I may not be the best example of what to do since I've been known to forget a hat and scarf. I know the limitations of my voice, so I try to be sensible.
Many times though, I feel like I'm not in control at all, and my voice has a mind of its own. "Holy Thou Art God" is a good example. In the studio Steve Ford laughed at me and said, "Ok, now you're going to have to match what you did live. That's what you get for singing like that." I had no clue what I did, or how.
Honey and lemon works well. Cut up the whole lemon in water and bring to a boil...Not the most delicious thing in the world, but it's soothing...Yolanda [Adams] would eat plain Lays potato chips before singing. She said it helped. That was cool with me, so I tried it - not because of any potentially medicinal or vocal value, but because I just haven't met a potato chip I don't like.
VW: A day of vocal rest, if you can get it, is nice. Rest PERIOD is probably the number one thing. I learned that night air isn't good for me. On one tour we were up practically all night laughing and playing cards. The next day I had no voice. I learned I can no longer hang. I have to have rest. But I do recall a few times when I couldn't talk at all, but I could sing. Go figure.
DR: Oh yes - I've been there. My singing tones were clear, but when I tried to speak between songs, it either sounded hoarse or like Louis Armstrong, and it freaked everybody out, including me.
VW: It's not so lady-like, but chewing on a little licorice root seems to do something, and I steep in tea sometimes. Listerine is my friend - the old school caramel colored kind. Gargling with it before bed, after singing, fights off whatever might be brewing in my throat. Just hold off talking to anybody first thing in the morning.
VW: I always drink room temperature water before and after singing, but that's probably because it's there in abundance, not because it's a routine. I've popped Halls Mentholyptus drops before a concert, but then an old school Lemonhead candy practically does the same thing.
DR: [Laughs] Halls dry my cords out totally. They're great for opening the nasal passages, but they're murder on my throat. Try Ricola sometime - any flavor. Also, if you like licorice, you might like Throat Coat tea. It comes in tea bags - has a licorice taste and slick feel going down the throat. You can get it at Vitamin Shoppe, GNC or any vitamin/health food store.
VW: I'm ashamed to admit it, but I generally have gum in my mouth when I'm singing. I know it's a gigantic no-no, but you've got to know just where to put it. Richard [Smallwood] caught me once and said I was going to choke myself one day...lololol!
DR: [Laughs] Well, I've sung with a Ricola or a mint in my mouth but not gum. I think I'd be too tempted to chew. [Laughs] Are you working on a second solo CD? If so, how close is it to being finished?
VW: I'll be getting started soon! Hopefully I'll get to write. My manager called to confirm a collaboration I'm really excited about, but I can't share yet... I'll tell ya as soon as I can!
DR: Oh, PLEASE DO! I, for one, can't wait! Where would you like to see your singing career go? Would you continue in gospel music? Might you also venture into other genres?
VW: Who knows? I have secret hopes to work with a laundry list of people. I'd love to do a movie soundtrack one day. I feel as if I'm playing catch up. I finally admitted out loud that this is really what I want to do. I can't believe I'm actually making a living at it! I love music. I love singing.
I recognize that there are different kinds of music for different purposes. I think attitudes about Christians singing secular music has discouraged, crippled and confused a lot of singers who probably are better suited to perform other genres, but are afraid of the sure disdain and criticism.
Christian music is my absolute preference, but when Skip Pruitt asked me to sing little pieces of "Always and Forever" on his CD, I consented, not just because he's a friend, but because I always loved the song, and it's sentiments are honest. It speaks about commitment, and the kind of love most people would like to experience with their mates.
Yep, I'm a hopeless romantic, and I have no mate, but I just don't think I'll be playing "Blessed Assurance" on my honeymoon (whenever that may be this century).
VW: The love that we attempt to share with others is often our feeble way of mirroring God's love for us. It falls short, but we try. Poetry and music about love merely expresses another facet of a human being. It isn't all raunchy and unacceptable. For years I taught my students that Art is a language that communicates feelings, ideas, moods and experiences. My gratitude to God compels me to sing about and for Him out of a deep love for Him, and desire that others establish a relationship with Him.
I sang with Vesta at Zanzibar on a few occasions. It taught me a lot about my own attitude toward music and my choices. It also startled me at the similarities between her performance and that of many Christian artists. She was singing "Hunger" and without warning, allowed the background vocals to solo. What fell out of my mouth when it was my turn? "As the deer panteth for water, so my soul longeth after Thee. You alone are my hearts desire and I long to worship Thee..."
VW: it just came out of me, and she didn't mind at all. I suppose it's just in my heart to worship. I appreciate my gift, and my Christianity is not detachable. It goes where I go. I won't let anyone box me in, but I'm happy with my preference. God gave it to me, so I want to glorify Him with it, even if I'm singing "America, the Beautiful".
DR: Well, Ms. Vanessa, I wish you the very best in whatever directions that voice of yours takes you! I certainly want to thank you for taking time to do this VocalMusician Interview.
VW: My pleasure, Dawn! Thanks for letting me vent.
DR: And we want to encourage everyone to get the Vanessa CD (if they don't already have it) and visit your website the link to which they can find on the VocalMusician Links page. Are there any other "words of wisdom" you'd like to say to the VocalMusician readers?
VW: I don't know how wise my words are. Maybe I'm just talking to myself, but I would encourage your readers not to waste time being fearful of rejection by others. If you know without any reservation what God has ordained you to do, just do it. Define success for yourself. There will be those who will fight against your progress, even hope for your failure. There will be those who insist you will be nothing without them, or their assistance. Then there are yet others, you least suspect, who will be the most supportive of your efforts. Learn how to receive, pay attention, be honest with yourself, and stay on top of your own business.
© 2003 VocalMusician.com
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