Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Vanessa Williams: In Vogue

Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams Vanessa Williams Vanessa Williams Vanessa Williams

With a career spanning over 20 years, internationally-renowned singer and actress Vanessa Williams recently released her thirteenth studio LP ‘The Real Thing’ - which also marks her debut for Universal Music’s prestigious, jazz-oriented Concord Records.

Boasting production input from Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds, Keith Thomas, Rob Mathes and Rex Rideout, the set (her first studio album since 2005’s ‘Everlasting Love’) marks a return to Williams’ love for the rhythms of jazz and Latin music - a key part of her early musical roots - while simultaneously delving into the sophisticated pop and R&B that have since proven the hallmarks of a chart-topping singing career. One that began with her Gold-selling 1988 debut LP ‘The Right Stuff’, and has encompassed 16 Grammy nominations and worldwide record sales of over six million along the way.

Tapping into the wide breadth of Vanessa’s musicality and artistry, the 11-track collection ranges from two new songs penned especially for the project by the Grammy-wining Babyface (the smoothly swaying ‘Just Friends’ and lilting, brass-tinged ‘Loving You’); to classy interpretations of Bebel Gilberto’s ‘Close To You’, Bill Withers’ pensive ‘Hello Like Before’, plus the catchy Stevie Wonder-penned upbeat title track ‘The Real Thing’ (also currently released on single via a Soul Seekerz dance remix).

“Well, while I was growing up, my dad used to play Sergio Mendes (for whom Wonder originally wrote ‘The Real Thing’) all the time”, begins a very professional-sounding Vanessa: “And, with ‘The Real Thing’ being a track of Sergio’s that I’d always loved, I knew I’d want to cover it one day. So when I signed to Concord, because I wanted to incorporate into my album that Brazilian-type feel, I decided this was the time to do it... And, once the album was completed and we were thinking of a title, ‘The Real Thing’ was the first song that came to mind! You know, I’m 46 years old, I’ve been around in this business for over 20/25 years… And I wouldn’t have been hanging around for this long if I didn’t have the real thing, the stuff that gives you that longevity! So in that way, as a title ‘The Real Thing’ basically just sums up where I am in my career and what I’m looking for in life right now.”

Interestingly, Vanessa attributes much of the musical diversity showcased on her new LP to her early upbringing: “Well, I was fortunate enough to have two parents that were music teachers”, she explains: “So I was brought up listening to Bach and Handel’s ‘Messiah’, as well as The Beatles and Bill Withers. I mean, my father played a lotta Latin jazz artists like, again, Sergio Mendes and Tito Puente; I myself listened to Earth, Wind & Fire, The Spinners, The O’Jays… So I ended up having many different influences - classical, R&B, jazz, Latin... And so, when it came to making this album, it was tough to actually nail down what I really wanted to DO.”

“As I said, the first idea was just to do a Brazilian-type record”, she continues: “But then, after I called Babyface - who’s a friend of mine - and told him I’d just signed to Concord, he was like ‘I’ll write something for you over the weekend’… So then, when he came back with ‘Just Friends, it kinda skewed it all into more of an R&B direction - and basically that’s how the whole thing kinda morphed. You know, I began working with different producers, they each brought their own personal feel…And so ‘The Real Thing’ became a kinda combination of all those different influences.”

Lyrically meanwhile ‘The Real Thing’ has been described as “a passionate song cycle about relationships, with Vanessa hand-picking each song to relate to a phase of the modern-day love affair seen from a woman’s perspective”...

“Yes, for me this is kind of a reflective record”, she concurs: “You know, I’m in my mid-forties; I’ve been divorced twice; I’ve raised four children; I’m a career woman... So it is a kind of look at love from all those different female perspectives. Like ‘Hello Like Before’ is about bumping into an old lover and reminiscing about the old days; ‘The Real Thing’ represents the promise of being BACK with a lover; ‘October Sky’ is a break-up song… Plus, with me being an actor who’s also a singer, my favourite songs to sing are always those that tell a STORY. Because, when I go into the studio, I do kind of approach everything as an actor. I’m like ‘OK, what was my moment before? What’s the back-story here? What is the moment now, and what do I want the audience to GET from it?’… So, in that way, I do think all the songs on ‘The Real Thing’ either have some deep storyline, or can give an effect of a character at a particular time in a particular place.”

With recording locations for ‘The Real Thing’ starting in California’s San Fernando Valley before moving across country to Nashville, Tennessee and eventually ending up in Westchester County, New York, it was during one of its earlier West Coast sessions that one of Vanessa’s personal highlights occurred, with her recording of iconic Seventies soul singer/songwriter Bill Withers’ ‘Hello Like Before’ actually being attended by the man himself.

“Well, on the day that we were recording the track and getting the musicians together in LA, John Burk - who’s head of the Concord label - called and said ‘I’ve got a surprise for you! Bill Withers is coming down to the studio today to meet you!’”, recalls Vanessa with a smile: “So I was like ‘Oh, you’ve gotta be KIDDING!’! You know, I was a nervous wreck! And then, when I eventually met Bill Withers, I was so elated that straightaway I called my mom and just burst into tears while I was on the phone! Because, with him having been my father’s favourite artist, it was just one of those times when my past recollection of listening to his music reminded me of my father, who’d actually passed away three years before. You know, it was one of those tender moments when it made me feel like my dad was actually in the room WITH us. So yeah, it was wonderful - and Bill Withers is a lovely, lovely man.”

Born in Millwood, New York in March 1963, Vanessa’s early years at home were spent surrounded by music. Which in turn led to her playing piano and French horn in her High School Orchestra, as well as singing in the concert choir and starring in numerous local community theatre productions.

“Yeah, my parents - who both sang in the Westchester Borough Choir - were very influential in exposing me to EVERYTHING musical”, she confirms: “We did ballet, opera, Broadway, jazz festivals, country fairs... I guess I was one of those lucky people whose parents were ever-present and a great influence. And in fact, I’m actually still living here in town TODAY - and my children go to the same schools I went to! You know, I’m basically a hometown girl that STAYS! I love the fact that it’s less than an hour away from New York City, so I can go and have all my excitement and culture - while at the same time also having the luxury of five acres and wildlife, where my children are able to play in safety and with the comfort of nature. I mean, to me it’s the best of BOTH worlds living here. And, with my mom still living less than five miles away, I’m trying to give my kids the same exposure to the arts that I got.”

Having won a Presidential Scholarship for Drama while still at school, Williams next went on to attend New York’s Syracuse University as a Theatre Arts major from 1981 to 1983. An experience which she feels still has a strong influence on her vocal delivery today: “Yeah, a lot of people - when they hear me sing - say ‘Wow, I can understand every word you SAY!’… And I definitely think that has a lot to do with the training I received back then”, she confirms: “Because, as a musical theatre major, you have to be able to ENUNCIATE. You know, you take diction classes - plus a lotta emphasis, as an onstage character in a musical, is placed on telling a STORY! Which again, as I said before, I think has been really helpful for me - especially in terms of the ballads that have become my biggest hits. Because whatever ballad I’m singing, I approach it as an actor.”

Alongside her university education, meanwhile, the early Eighties also saw Williams competing in - and winning - numerous beauty pageants. The climax of which arrived on September 17, 1983, when she groundbreakingly became the first-ever African-American to be crowned Miss America. Nevertheless, her time as Miss America would not be without its challenges and controversies. Particularly when, 10 months into her reign, nude pictures of her (including some poses involving simulated lesbian sex) taken back in 1982 surfaced. All of which - following days of media frenzy - ultimately led to her resignation of the title in July 1984. An experience which arguably harmed her credibility in the early days of her music career.

“Well, if I were to do it all again, I certainly would have just gone on to Yale (University), got my graduate degree in acting, and moved to the city - which was the original plan”, she states openly: “Because, after that whole experience, for me starting a music career was a struggle - and, to be honest, I don’t know whether the struggle is OVER yet! Because it’s always easy for people to categorise you and label you. And, throughout my career, it’s always been ‘OH, I didn’t know she could do that!’... ‘OH, I didn’t know she could do that!’- and that’s gone on for 25 YEARS! But, while I used to be defensive about it, these days I guess I just accept it as my destiny! Because it definitely motivates me to keep doing what I DO! Because the bottom-line is, no kind of event can take away your TALENT!”

Indeed, despite the early controversies, Vanessa’s many and varied talents as both singer and actress have since seen her carve out an impressive and enduring career in entertainment; winning numerous awards within the fields of music, theatre, television and film. Musical career highlights in particular include her Gold-selling 1988 debut album ‘The Right Stuff’; her multi-million-selling 1991 sophomore set ‘The Comfort Zone’ (which spawned the international chart-topping ballad ‘Save The Best For Last’); plus her 1994 Platinum-selling third LP ‘The Sweetest Days’. Meanwhile, award-winning acting roles have included the 1994 Broadway theatre production ‘Kiss Of The Spider Woman’; the 1997 movie ‘Soul Food’; the 2001 TV mini-series ‘Keep The Faith, Baby’; plus, of course Williams’ current high-profile role as power-hungry villainess Wilhelmina Slater in the internationally-successful TV comedy series ‘Ugly Betty’.

Speaking of which, with uber-fabulous magazine editor Wilhelmina being dubbed “one of the finest characters ever to hit the small screen”, Vanessa’s Emmy-nominated role in ‘Ugly Betty’ (which is also currently accompanied by her co-starring in the global movie smash ‘Hannah Montana’ as Montana’s pushy publicist Vita) is arguably her most famous acting part to date, albeit one she sees as completely separate from her singing career.

“No, the only connection that ‘Ugly Betty’ has made musically with Vanessa Williams is when, during the first season, I got a chance to sing ‘Memories’ in a flashback involving Wilhelmina and Mark”, she replies: “They’d written it into the script that Wilhelmina was reminiscing to ‘Memory’ - a song that I’d finished recording literally the month before for (smooth jazz saxophonist) Dave Coz’s ‘At The Movies’ album. So I was like ‘You gotta be kidding me! I just RECORDED this song!’… So it became a perfect opportunity to get the rights from Dave and throw it into the show! So yeah, that’s the closest that Wilhelmina Slater and Vanessa Williams have kind of morphed - Wilhelmina reminiscing to Vanessa Williams’ music! Which was kinda surreal, because generally they are separate. I do my Wilhelmina during the week, and then I do my gigs on the weekend - two different entities in two different worlds!”

Which in turn begs the question, with Vanessa enjoying ongoing success in so many different aspects of her career at one time, how does she prioritise? “Well, I think that I let my schedule dictate!”, she answers honestly: “I mean, sometimes the priorities do change. Though, with my kids always being the Number One priority, I do try to arrange MY schedule around THEIR schedule. But then, having said that, obviously I have much less flexibility when it comes to my television schedule. Because there I’m part of an ensemble that have to work TOGETHER, as opposed to it just be MYSELF. So yeah, frankly it is hard to keep it all going. But, you know, I’m happy to seize the day - and I’m enjoying every MOMENT of it!”

Vanessa stars as Wilhelmina Slater in the TV sitcom ‘Ugly Betty’, currently broadcast weekly on Channel 4

Vanessa’s album ‘The Real Thing’ - plus the Soul Seekers VS Vanessa Williams single ‘The Real Thing’ - are both out now through Concord Records

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