Heather Headley: Dream Girl

“Tony award winning and twice Grammy nominated” is not an accolade many R&B singers can hold to their names, however Heather Headley can. The Trinidadian born Headley got her start performing during her stint at Northwestern University in plays like Dream Girls and Ragtime. In 1997, she landed the role of Nala in the Broadway hit The Lion King, and in 1998 she took the lead role in Elton John and Tim Rice’s breakthrough Broadway epic Aida. She won a Tony award for her performance in 2000, and that same year, she was named one of People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” and released her Grammy nominated debut solo album The Way That I Am.

Now with her second album, In My Mind, Heather Headley is on her first major tour with Anthony Hamilton. The very introspective album features a diverse set of collaborators, with everyone from producer Lil’ Jon to gospel singer Warren Campbell. Heather took some time to speak with us about her new album, recent marriage, and her pending return to Broadway.

Allhiphop.com Alternatives: I noticed that on your album you had quite an eclectic mix of artists. What made you decide to use such a wide range of collaborators for the album?

Heather Headley: With me, I like great songs and I don’t like to be pigeon holed. People keep bringing us great songs, or they end up writing some and that’s how it ended up happening. You know a lot of those guys – who’s not going to say if Babyface want to produce – you’re going to be like, “Okay let’s do it.” He’s just so great, and I wanted an opportunity to work with him. But yeah I think it’s an eclectic group and it’s a lot of different people represented, but I don’t know… I think that’s how I like it. And for the next album I’m already thinking about it, and I want to do even more.

AHHA: I see that you got back to your West Indian roots and had both Shaggy and Vybz Cartel on the album. How was it working with them?

Heather: It was great…you know I met with Shaggy, but they kind of worked on their side of the separately from me. I think Vybz worked on his in Jamaica, and I think Shaggy worked on it exclusively with me, but I did meet him and got to do that. I’m just really happy that they got on the album, and it was a joy to do that.

AHHA: This album was a really personal album, and even on your website you give the inspiration behind each song, but is there any song in particular that was the most personal to you, that you just had to have on the album?

Heather: The most personal song to me was the gospel song, because I started the project telling everybody that I had to have the song on the album, and that I wasn’t going to close up shop before that happened. I knew we were going to get every other song on the album, like the heartbreaker song, and I could always write things in.

AHHA: You had Ne-Yo do “I Didn’t Mean To.” He’s kind of the ‘it’ boy right now. Were you surprised how young he was and how was it to work with him?

Heather: Yeah I was surprised that he was young, and I met him before I met his song. You know they were like, “There’s this kid he writes for Mario,” and it was like, “Okay we’ll meet him.” Then he brought me “I Didn’t Mean To” and I was just very, very impressed and very taken by him – and I don’t know if it was youth or whatever. To be whatever age and to be able to write just a deep song – I was just really impressed by and taken by that, and sometimes you don’t expect for that to come from somebody who is very young. He has an old spirit in his writing, sometimes it’s very jazzy, and he’s got great lyrics and he really knows how to mix the two. I’m really proud of him.

AHHA: How different is it singing in a Broadway musical compared to doing an R&B album?

Heather: The beauty of the musicals that I did were that they were kind of pop musicals, you know that’s number one. Both Lion King and Aida were written by Elton John, and he wrote all kinds of music in there. There’s gospel, traditional Broadway, kind of Pop-ish/R&B-ish kind of music in there. It just runs the gamut – you have to be able to sing everything – there are rock songs, everything. I think for me personally I’ve always had that in my head, maybe I’ll do a pop album. I didn’t think that it was going to be as R&B as it is, but I did want to do a pop album.

I do think that a lot of people undermine or underestimate the talent that is on Broadway, because a lot of Broadway people can sing pretty much anything they want to sing. Broadway shows have changed in the past years. People hear the word Broadway and think [singing] “It’s no business like show business” – you know that kind of thing, but a lot of the songs are different. I can give you a list of Broadway artists right now who can sing both around me and around everybody out there – just amazingly great people. And maybe on Broadway, sometimes in certain shows, they can sing in different ways but they’re versatile – they can sing across the board. I know men on Broadway who can sing as high as women and just do certain, different things and sing R&B and sing anything they want to. It’s just there’s a whole load of talent sitting on Broadway.

AHHA: That’s definitely true. Do you think you will ever go back to Broadway?

Heather: Yeah, definitely. I think people get a little frustrated, and I get from people, “Oh you left, you left”. And its not that I left – I see it as taking a break or just doing something different, in the same way that Julia Roberts is on Broadway, she hasn’t left doing movies. It’s just something different that you’re doing. We’re focusing on the album right now, but I am looking at scripts and waiting to do another. Aida was really good to me. I loved working for the people that I did work for, and we’re just waiting for the right play now.

AHHA: You definitely set the tone for the rest of the actresses that came to play Aida after you.

Heather: Well I don’t know about that. When you originate something, there’s such power in that word – you originated it – and so everybody that comes behind you kind of goes off the footsteps that you left. There’s sometimes that you might get somebody that wants to go the complete opposite direction. I don’t have children now, but there’s going to be a day when I’m going to be able take my children to go see Lion King and that person playing Nyla is going to do something or sing something or move her hands the way I did because you originated that role. It’s a very humbling and sweet thought, to think that you’ve kind of set the tone.

AHHA: You’re recently married two years now – did any of that inspiration go into the album?

Heather: Yeah, when I first started the album they called me and asked me what kind of songs I wanted to sing, and I said I wanted to sing happy songs, love songs, songs about frolicking in the meadows. And they were like, “You need some problems, no one wants to hear about your happy life.” So I would say that on this album that aren’t that many songs about that part of my life. There may be songs about things that happened before, way before and just situations that you go through. I think the next album will definitely be about this time in my life, because I am very, very content and very happy and just very satisfied [with] my husband and everything like that. It’s easy to sing the bad songs, the songs about breaking up stuff when you’re in a good place.

AHHA: You’re about to go on tour, when does that kickoff?

Heather: I’m going on tour with Anthony Hamilton – we are going for about six weeks, but we have like 28 or 29 cities within those six weeks. Pretty much we’re just jumping the bus and we’re going. I’ve never done a tour before, because my life has always been stationary, like on Broadway I went to my house everyday. So with this I don’t know how my body is going to react to this. So I’m downing vitamins as we speak, everything. I think for the first two weeks I couldn’t catch a thing if you threw it on me!

AHHA: That should definitely be a good tour, you both pretty much own VH1 Soul right now.

Heather: [laughing] I don’t know about that. You know the other day, because I didn’t have VH1 Soul at first, and I just saw it the other day and I was like, “It’s going to be my new favorite station.”

AHHA: You’re a classically trained pianist right?

Heather: I started playing piano when I was four and I played classical piano. It was interesting, because everybody just thought of me as a pianist, kind of like a concert pianist. I did my lessons and everything like that, so I would play outside and sing privately to myself. Then when I was about seven or eight I started singing in church, and then it kind of evened out. Now I play for my own benefit, but I think I might play on the tour though.

AHHA: Can we expect to see Heather Headley doing to the great love ballad on her piano?

Heather: Oh no – you know I have not played piano in public like that for many years, because its just been something that…I used my piano to help me through on Broadway, I used my piano to do a lot of different things, I think I’m ready to get it out there again and start playing for people again.

AHHA: What’s your goal with In My Mind?

Heather: I just wanted to reach the masses; I just wanted to reach a wider audience than maybe the first one did. I’ve always seen them to be a stepping stone. I want In My Mind to be even better received than the first one, and for it to kind of set the pace and set the bridge for whatever else is next. As I said, I’m always thinking about the next album and what other genres I want to do. I want to do a Broadway album one day I want to do a gospel album, I want to do maybe a Jazz album… different things – a pop album. My thing is to look at longevity.

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