Deniece Williams: The US soul star

Thursday 1st February 1996

Now a veteran soul diva and still one of the finest voices in Christendom DENIECE WILLIAMS has been temporarily encamped in London. She spoke to George Luke.

To soul and pop fans, she's the golden voice behind such hits as "Free" and "Let's Hear It For The Boy". Lovers of gospel music remember her for songs like "So Glad I Know", "Healing" and her killer version of "I Surrender All". Both camps know her as Deniece Williams, superstar. I caught up with her one October morning at the North London office which has been her headquarters since she came over to stay in Britain after being offered the role of Sister Carrie in the recently closed musical 'Mama, I Want To Sing'.

The similarities between Deniece's life as a singer and the musical's storyline (about a church girl who decides to become a pop star) are obvious, so was her character one she could relate to, I asked. "Well, I think if you're born and raised in the church, every church has a Sister Carrie," Deniece replies. "My church definitely had one; she was someone that the young women in the church looked up to, wanted to imitate, wanted to be like her. She was wise; we'd go up to her and ask her questions; she dressed a certain way and conducted herself a certain way. That's what I played in 'Mama...', and it wasn't difficult for me, because I had such a person in my church. It made me think of her and how much she influenced my life and I used that as a basis to get close to the character. And certainly I feel that I have been that for a lot of people as well."

Deniece had just taken over the role of Sister Carrie (previously played by Chaka Khan and Mica Paris) when the news broke that the musical, which had had a mixed reaction from critics during its six-month run, was being axed. "It had a very good run and had obviously accomplished what it was supposed to do," Deniece says, when asked if the show's closure was a disappointment. "There are offers and we are going to other countries to do the play, so it was a chance to end the theatre piece for a while and work on some other projects."

The first of those other projects was a Songs Of Praise special on BBC 1, which reunited her with some of the singers and musicians she worked with briefly on 'Mama...'. Deniece has also started writing songs and recording, having bumped into a few old friends from back home. "I got here and found out that there were a lot of writers and other people that I'd known in the States that were living here and I didn't know they were here," Deniece explains, "so we've started getting together, networking and I've started on a new project, as well as on a second book idea that I've been working on for a while." Hold on a minute...did you say a second book? What was the first one like?

"The first book did okay - it was a spin-off from my children's lullaby record, so it's actually my poems, or the lullabies that I'd written for the children's record. I did fairly well with it as a first book, but it was strictly targeted at the Christian children's market. It was very exciting; a labour of love from the heart, something for the children, and I'm very excited that I even had the opportunity to do it. So from that spun about six other ideas for children's books that I'd like to do, so I'm working on those now." And what about something for, er, more mature readers? "I am doing some writing on some publications that I'd like to submit and I'm also working on a novel," Deniece replies.

Being both a gospel and a secular singer has always been a difficult road to travel, so how has she managed to pull it off? "I think other people have given more thought to it than I have," Deniece says. "It seems natural for me to do both, seeing that I am a romanticist, and I write and sing mostly about love - and anyone who's read Song Of Solomon knows that God created love in its proper place and time in a relationship." The majority of her critics, she says, have been Christians rather than non-Christians. "I have to be honest and say that I have received more flak from the Christian community than I have received from the secular community. I've always done gospel songs on my albums from the very beginning, so it wasn't a shock to a lot of my fans on the secular side that I would want to do that, but I do find that we (Christians) tend to be not as understanding about an artist being in the secular marketplace. And I've seen other friends take a lot of flak - Amy Grant, Michael W Smith, Philip Bailey - we've taken a lot, but I must say that it's mainly from the Christian side that we take criticism than on the other side."

And its advantages? "We get to go into a lot of areas where pastors or missions wouldn't be able to go and talk to people about Christ," says Deniece, "and from there we're able to give a testimony. It's been an incredible experience for me to think that God would entrust me to be in those situations and still know my heart."

Surprisingly, in a career that has earned about a dozen Grammy award nominations, the only ones Deniece actually won were all for her gospel records. She has three, and admits to being "shocked" when she won the first. "I think by the time I won the first one, I had reached the point where I wasn't looking for it anymore," Deniece says, laughing at the memory. "I had had so many nominations and been to the ceremonies but had never gone home with anything. When I was announced as the winner, I was like, 'who did they say?'. It was a big, big surprise for me."

Deniece's professional commitments mean that she will be in the UK for at least a year. During that time she plans to check out the British gospel scene -towards this end she has already visited London's Kensington Temple and Rhema churches - and would also like to hold some workshops. I asked her what differences, if any, she had noticed between the way the industry works here and in America. "It's kind of hard to say, because I'm new here; I haven't been here long enough to form an opinion," Deniece replies. "I think when you're writing and being creative, the process is the same -what happens after that process is what I'm about to find out! If you were to talk to me in about six months, I would probably have a better answer for you." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About George Luke
George Luke is music editor for the black arts magazine Artrage and lives in London


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