By Gregg Shapiro
HH SHOTS: Tony Award-winning actress and Grammy-nominated singer Heather Headley has returned with her highly anticipated second album “In My Mind”.
CDCOVER: Heather Headley’s new album “In My Mind” is in stores now.
Tony Award-winning actress and Grammy-nominated singer Heather Headley has returned with her highly anticipated second album “In My Mind” (RCA). Picking up where she left off on her acclaimed debut “This Is Who I Am,” Headley continues to amaze listeners with her vocal prowess. I spoke with the Chicago resident shortly before the album hit store shelves.
Between The Lines: Your new album is titled “In My Mind,” and you said that you called it that because you had a lot of things on your mind, such as old boyfriend, and that sort of thing. People say it’s never a good idea to date a writer, because you are likely to show up in something they wrote.
Heather Headley: (Laughs) That’s funny.
BTL: Do you think the same holds true of singers, too?
HH: Yes, it’s true, definitely. I will say this – the old boyfriends and people, I wouldn’t say they’re on my mind, because I’m so far beyond that, and so excited about where my life is now. But I do think there are things that have been through my mind to some extent. I do think you’re when you’re involved with a person who maybe has a public outlet that sometimes you might show up in there, so you’ve got to be careful what you do.
BTL: How did the process of selecting material for “In My Mind” differ from how you did it for “This Is Who I Am?”
HH: It was a little bit the same. The second time around you figure out that (you can say), “I’m not going to sing that” or in the case of Broadway, “I don’t think my character would say that.” You feel a slight bit more confident.
BTL: You can assert yourself a little more.
HH: A little more. With this process, there was nothing to lose for me. I’ll go back and do Broadway (laughs). I did need to assert myself, especially if you’re going to put my name on the album and call it “In My Mind.” Needless to say, there are a lot of compromises that happen. There are a lot of things that the record company wants that you have to give to them, for radio or whatever it is. But I think this time there was a lot more assertion. And the next one will be completely different. You learn from every process. I will say I have a great team of people around me.
BTL: I’m glad that you mentioned your “team,” because as you did on “This Is Who I Am,” you worked with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis again on “In My Mind.” What is it about your working relationship that made you want to repeat the experience?
HH: The number one thing is that Jimmy and Terry show up for the work. There are a lot of times that you employ producers and they don’t show up. Jimmy and Terry sit there with you. Every note that you hear on that song came from Terry Lewis, even by tears sometimes. I also like the fact that they’ve endured thirty years of being in this crazy business. They’ve kept their integrity, and I think that’s a sign of longevity. I like working with them. Terry beats me up to get what he wants.
BTL: Something else that both your debut album and the new one have in common are songs co-written by you. How important is it for you to have the kind of input on a disc that has your name on it?
HH: Terribly important. And the beauty of this, Gregg, is that my name is an inch big, and everybody else’s name is half that. If anybody’s going to get buried on this, it’s Heather Headley. Not Clive Davis, not Steve Ferrera, not all the producers. They still get paid. But I’m using my name, it’s not a pseudonym, and that name, with the Broadway stuff and everything, I don’t want to mess with things I’ve done before.
BTL: You’ve worked hard to get where you are.
HH: It’s very important to me that I’m present on the album. Some of the best albums I’ve listened to, I’ve enjoyed simply because at the end of them, I felt like I knew the person. I wanted that same experience, even on the songs I didn’t write.
BTL: I think my favorite song on the disc is what I describe as the twenty-first century doo-wop of “Back When It Was.” It was refreshing to hear such a retro sound. Can you tell me something about that song?
HH: The irony of that song is that it was co-written by Lil Jon. Clive Davis called me up and said, “Lil Jon wrote this song that I want you to sing.” Needless to say, I was like “Lil who? What?” The Crunk Juice master himself. I was literally holding onto the chair when he pressed play. Not that I don’t like hip-hop, but what are people who listen to me going to think if it’s “ooh baby ooh ooh” (laughs) or that kind of thing. I would say that it is a credit to Lil Jon that he can switch genres. I heard Lil Jon singing rock the other day. That’s the kind of thing I like. I love being able to jump from thing to thing to thing. I have no problem having a hip-hop beat on things or having, as you said, twenty-first century doo-wop or a big ballad or piano and guitar. I love versatility.
BTL: You mentioned missing hearing “songs” on the radio during your showcase at Rumba in Chicago, then proceeded to do your own renditions of Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life,” Karyn White’s “Superwoman,” and Babyface’s “Whip Appeal.” Is there an album of Heather Headley covering these classic late 80s soul classics in the near future?
HH: We can do that tomorrow morning. I would love to. I miss songs. Nothing against what’s going on here. Music and art are subjective. What you like, I may not like. Somebody may love Picasso and you get a kid who comes up to it and says, “This is crap!” With that said, I miss songs. I remember where I was when I heard “One Last Cry” by Brian McKnight and “I Will Always Love You.” Every lyric was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s me going through that high school love affair” or whatever it was. I miss songs that make me want to cry or throw my hands up in the air and say, “That’s me!”
That’s what I wanted for this album
BTL: As we speak, the dance remix of “In My Mind” is number five on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. Do you foresee doing an entire album of dance tracks?
HH: It’s amazing to me how those guys, like Freemason, take those songs and turn them around. I’m as shocked as anyone when I put the CD in the CD player in the car. I’m like, “What is that?” (Laughs) It’s my voice! I crack up most of the time. That’s a talent in itself, to remix a song.
BTL: You have such a genuine connection with the audience when you perform live. Do you think that comes from your background in theater?
HH: I think it was definitely cleaned up and fixed there. But I still have a long way to go. I think growing up in church, you have to have that connection. You want to sing “Amazing Grace,” you want to make sure that everybody is standing up and clapping at the end of it. When I got to Broadway, it was chiseled, and it still is being fixed, because I’m definitely not perfect. There is something about live performance and being able to see them cry or laugh or sing the lyrics back to you. That’s what happened on Broadway and that’s why I loved it so much. People say how can you do that show eight times a week, and I said, “How could I not?” I love the fact that somebody would think that you are worthy enough to pay money to come and see you do something that your body naturally does; that they would want to spend three hours with you. There’s this journey that you’re going to take them through and it’s up to you to have them love it. I see no other way to do a live performance than to connect with the audience. It’s a symbiotic thing. You help me, I help you.
BTL: Any chance that you will be returning to Broadway anytime soon?
HH: Yes. It won’t be very, very soon. We’re looking at scripts. I will say this – I was spoiled by Disney (laughs) and spoiled by “Aida” and by working with Adam Pascal and the cast. I want to come back with something that I can sink my teeth into. I lived and breathed and drank “Aida,” and when I come back, I want to be able to sink my teeth into it in the same way.