An Audience With Heather Headley

By Duane Wells

Originally published on Advocate.com February 06 2009 12:00 AM ET

Heather Headley
has been winning hearts with her rich, soulfully elastic
voice since the moment she made her Broadway debut as Nala
in the Elton John–Tim Rice musical The Lion
King
back in 2000. A subsequent star turn in
Aida, two critically acclaimed pop albums, and
a stack of anthemic hit
ballads–turned–contemporary club remixes
later, and the multitalented Headley is releasing her
first gospel CD, titled Audience of One. If the Lord
calls on us to make a joyful noise, then there is no
doubt that Heather Headley has earned points in heaven
with her new 10-track collection of pop-inflected gospel
that may well be among her best work yet. That said, don't
call Headley's latest inspirational outing a return to
her roots, because this self-proclaimed "church girl"
will tell you that you can't return to that which you
never left.

Advocate.com:So Heather, I actually listened to your CD…Heather Headley: OK…

And I was blown away. [Laughs] I thought you were going to come
for me!

No, not at all. Listening to Audience of One is
truly like going to church. In all honesty
it’s a testament to your ability to blend
traditional and evolving forms of gospel with
authentic inspiration into the disc’s 10
hallelujah-worthy tracks. How did you choose the songs
for the disc?
I am a church girl. I grew up in church. My
father is a pastor and we still go to church. I wanted
[Audience of One] to be all of the songs I
would listen to. I didn't want it to be all old, I
didn't want it to be all traditional, I didn't want it to be
all contemporary, I didn't want it to be all the new hip-hop
kind of gospel… I just wanted to find beautiful
songs that I loved, and that’s what we ended up
doing. I wanted it to be kind of like a pop-gospel album
rather than sticking to a particular genre.

Heather Headley Josh Groban x390 (Getty) | Advocate.com
 

So many artists, particularly those in the realm of
R&B, say they feel like they're "going home" when
they record a gospel project. Does that hold true
for you?
To some extent. For me…because I still go
to church and sing in church, it is a return to me
doing what I know in terms of singing in the studio.
It’s kind of a familiar place…at least from my
standpoint. You know I had a little deal with God --
not that we're supposed to make those. [Laughs] I
said, "When you think I'm ready to do a gospel CD,
I'll do one -- ha ha ha." You know, that kind of
thing. I've always thought I'd love to do a gospel CD, just
like I want to do a Broadway CD. I thought it would be
so much fun. So I had done something for EMI and then
they called and said, "Do you want to do this gospel
album?" So I had to go back to the drawing board and say
"OK, Lord, do you think I'm ready? I'm not sure I'm ready."
[Laughs] That's how that came about. After I
prayed and talked to the [label], I said, "OK, we're going
to do this."

You're obviously a spiritual being, so are there
particularly personal stories attached to any of the
album’s tracks for you?
Yeah. "Running Back to You" is one of them. I've
always been a fan of Commissioned and that’s
always been one of my favorite songs from them. When
we did the album I said, "I wanna try this." So
yes…needless to say, I have something about [that
song] from being a child and listening to
Commissioned, but then again it’s such a beautiful
message…such a beautiful visual. It’s the
prodigal son, or in my case the prodigal
daughter…and that thing of someone waiting for you to
come back home. "I Wish" is a song I wrote with my brother Keith
Thomas and it kind of started with an e-mail that was
sent to me by my husband's aunt. It was a forward. She
loves to forward. She's the forwarding queen and
because I love her dearly I sit down and read some of them.
So I got this e-mail from her and it was about a mom
who has a terminal illness and is saying goodbye to
her daughter, but the daughter doesn't know, and as
she's leaving the daughter at the airport for school
she’s wishing her things. I remember it hit a
chord with me because my brother had just found out
that they were pregnant and I have all these children in my
life, [so] even if I don't have children myself, I thought,
What would I want to wish for a child? So
that’s how "I Wish" came about.

In addition to "Running Back to You" by
Commissioned, you offer your own spin on some
time-honored gospel classics like Lionel Richie's
"Jesus Is Love" on this collection. Did you ever
have reservations about taking on any of the
well-established gospel standards you recorded for this album?
At first there were a few times I wasn't sure
that it was all going to come together, but in the end
I was like, We're going with this, it’s fine.
It's kind of like a dress for me sometimes with some of the
songs. It’s like, let me try it on. I'm not
sure it's gonna fit…we might have to hem it a
little bit [or] pull some stuff in, but I want to try it on,
and so we did and it started working. [But] please
don’t ever think that I’m going up there
going "Yeah, I got this!" I’m totally scared out
of my mind. [Laughs] I'm normally back there
going “Awww…I wanna go home!” But
I’m always trying to beat me. I’m always
trying to do better.

Heather Headley audience of One xlarge (album cover) | Advocate.com
 

Audience of Oneopens with a track titled “Simply
Redeemed,” which begins with the words
“I am a Christian.” What does that phrase
mean to you? In other words, what does being “a
Christian” mean to you?
Well, it’s funny, because I think
that’s the whole deal with the song. I’m
not perfect, but this is what I believe…this is who I
am. I do believe that with Him I am redeemed and that
one day when we all get to heaven we’ll be
perfect … That’s how I see it. I can be
forgiven and I mess up. Every day I mess up and have
to ask for forgiveness and I have that forgiveness.
It’s weird, when we got that song, I remember calling
[EMI] and saying, "I know this is a ballad, but I think I
want to start with this." I said, "I think people are
going to ask why I wanted to do this album or who I am
or what I am or what’s going on, so
let’s just start with this." [Laughs]

There has been growing friction between many LGBT
people and the church as of late, particularly over the
issue of same-sex marriage. As a result, there
will inevitably be those who question whether your
decision to release a gospel album represents a
departure of sorts from the gay fans who have
so enthusiastically greeted everything
you’ve done since your debut. What do you say to them?
Well, I think that everybody -- people within
the LGBT community and without the LGBT community --
if they’ve known me [and] come with me since
Broadway, [they'll] know that this is not necessarily a
departure. I don’t like to call them fans, I
call them friends, and they kinda know that this is
just a part of Heather; it’s a branch on her tree.

I am amazingly
grateful to [the gay community] for all the support and
all the love and, to some, for all the impressions that
I’ve heard have been going on. [Laughs]
I’m terribly grateful. I do know that it seems
sometimes that there is a friction between the church
and the community, but I think in all I will say that
there’s always love because I think that’s
what God calls us to do. We may disagree on some
things, but there is love and that’s the overriding
thing. It really hurts me to think that there’s a lot
of friction between the church and the community when
all God calls us to do is love. 

Headley’s Audience of One is available now.