Elisabeth Withers: Good Things

Hailing from the city of Joliet, Illinois (right outside Chicago) Elisabeth Withers never imagined that all she’s accomplished would transpire so quickly. Growing up in a household where her siblings saw her singing as a mere fantasy, Elisabeth knew one day she’d live her dreams.

Like many aspiring artists, Elisabeth decided to see if she could make it as a singer in New York City after she completed college. She performed in various venues amongst a host of different R&B stars, and people started to take notice. Eventually she was discovered by legendary R&B duo Ashford & Simpson, and it was that relationship which helped take her to the next level.

Elisabeth was later introduced to Quincy Jones, who suggested she audition for the broadway production of The Color Purple. Needless to say, the audition went well and opened a door for her singing career. Elisabeth was cast for the role of Shug Avery, and also landed a record deal with Blue Note/EMI at the same time.

We spoke with Elisabeth about her new album It Could Happen to Anyone, and found out the ways she balances her career and family life with a busy performance schedule.

AllHipHop.com Alternatives: What is it like being a mother and a wife and balancing your illustrious career?

Elisabeth Withers: It’s wonderful. It’s a lot of work. It is very challenging. It is very rewarding.

AHHA: How much time do you spend with your family? Seeing that you’re busy all the time, how do you keep a balance?

Elisabeth: How do I keep a balance? Just by staying focused. Everybody is different; everybody has their own little routine. I have my routine that I do that I really try to stick to. In the morning, I usually have family time. As soon as we wake up, we have prayer. In the mornings, we’re thanking God for another day; thanking him for keeping us focused and on track. Then we have breakfast.

We laugh a lot, me my husband and my daughter. Generally, I take my daughter to school and then while she’s there, I come home and assist the lady that cleans the house. I show her basically everything that I want done. I do my interviews or write a song. Or, I’ll just have some me time. Then I go pick my daughter up, and generally, we’ll have family time. Then, I’ll go back out and do The Color Purple, come back in… usually by the time I come back in my family is sleep. Then we start all over again.

AHHA: Are ticket sales still going real strong for The Color Purple?

Elisabeth: Yes, they have advance sales throughout 2007. One awesome thing that they’re allowing me to do is to do the record and do The Color Purple, so it’s been good. The producers of the show and the record label are working together to allow me to do both.

AHHA: How did you prepare for the role of Suge Avery?

Elisabeth: I prepared for the role of through example. I remember getting a lot of videos of women who were singers and actresses that lived during that time. Alice Walker’s The Same River Twice – I read that as preparation for Shug Avery. Then, I just drew from my aunts who were a lot like her. It was like what ladies are feisty, full of life and a little sensitive, but loved shopping - smart, and quick to grab all the attention when they enter a room. I had a lot of examples of that in my family, so that was one of the ways that I prepared for the role.

AHHA: When you first auditioned, and on opening night, did you anticipate that the play would get so much attention from the media and people in general?

Elisabeth: I didn’t see the magnitude of the show, because at the time that they had called me to audition my baby was only three months old. I was newly married, so I had that, then we had just purchased our home in New Jersey. I had postpartum [depression] going on. It was like “Am I being the right wife,” and I had all of those emotions going on. Even when they called me and said, “You know, Quincy Jones wanted to know if you would be interested in playing the role,” I was like “What is this God?” I was like “I’m a mommy.” Plus, I hadn’t even gotten my body back after having the baby.

AHHA: So how did your album deal come about?

Elisabeth: The record came basically on Broadway; they have what’s called a Work Shop Perk. Once the idea of a Broadway show comes up they’ll do this thing called a dry run. It’s a sample run of it. Once they get serious about it, they’ll go in and do what is called a work shop. While you’re in workshop, you’re never guaranteed to go on to do rehearsals and the actual Broadway show. While I was in the middle of workshop one of the producers chose out of a cast of 34 people chose Jeanette [Bayardelle] to play Celie, myself to play Shug and to do all of the music promotion.

We did a demo together of three songs. Out of the three, I did two songs. She did a song, I did a song, and then we did a duet together. While we were still in workshop, Scott actually was looking for a record deal for The Color Purple. He took some music into Blue Note Records to Bruce Lundvall, and Bruce heard it and wanted to sign me sight unseen.

AHHA: Wow, how crazy is that!

Elisabeth: Yeah! So with everything going on with me, you know I’ve been doing music for a while so when someone comes to me with an opportunity, you’re not just going to say, “Oh that’s so sweet! Have a good day!” [laughs] Or since that’s the director, you’ll be like, “Oh, I’ll be seeing a lot of you – talk to you later.” You know? You really take these things serious. Again, we had the show going on. We were in these crazy hour-long rehearsals. I mean it was nuts! Then again, I had this baby. I’m going through postpartum. All these things…and just before I got ready to sign my contract, they said we want you to go on and do the role on Broadway. I thought, “Oh my God! You have got to be kidding me.”

AHHA: Now, tell me about your album. Explain your take on it.

Elisabeth: Well, I’m excited about the record and the first single “Be With You.” The Next single is called “Simple Things” and it’s getting a lot of heat – which I am really excited about. But I think that the record itself runs the gamut - that’s why I’m excited about it being in the record stores. We have everything on there from a gospel to R&B sound, to a Jazz or even a rock sound, and people tend to think since its Blue Note Records it’s gotta be Jazz, but when you hear it, you’re like, “Wait a minute; it’s a mixture of everything.”

[In my house] we listened to everything from Frank Sinatra to Shirley Caesar; to Millie Jackson to Sheryl Crow, Michael Jackson, and Sly Stone – we listened to everything in our house. I believe that those elements were subconsciously brought to the record. Even the story line with my husband in the song “Be With You,” to my life turning around in the song “Simple Things,” to me actually being in school with this guy that was a cross dresser in high school… and I thought “Wow, that must be deep that you can’t be who you are because of what other people think. I didn’t know if he wanted to be a guy or a girl or whatever” - so, I wrote a song called “The World Ain’t Ready.”

AHHA: I would say your album is very eclectic. From hearing your single and actually hearing your album I’m like, “Okay, it’s different from what I thought it would be.”

Elisabeth: Yeah, everybody says that.

AHHA: It’s very different, but I mean, I have to appreciate that because things have become so repetitive now-a-days, it’s like you look for something different. It can be very much appreciated. So your songs, you just talk about what you go through or what you’ve seen?

Elisabeth: My producer and I wrote eight of the songs out of the eleven. I write about funny things. Just like today, I had done an interview with this gentlemen right before you, and he was so witty and so quick with the way he described things he cracked me up, because he was so honest and so real and I was like, “I’ve got to write a song about this.” I always write about experiences, fun experiences; funny things, simple things. It might be a girl on a shopping spree or something that touched me. It might be a moment that I had on the train, or it might be something crazy my sister said that was hilarious.

Or, a little phrase my brother said the other day was – I was ranting to him about something – and I was like, “I can’t believe this happened! Can you believe that happened” and I was so emotional about it. He was so quiet on the phone as I am like complaining and just rambling on and he was just like, “Well Elisebeth, you can’t unring a bell.” I was like wait a minute! That’s a song! “You Can’t Unring a Bell.” I hear it and experience the things that I write about.

AHHA: Looking at 2007, it’s obvious that R&B has gone a totally different direction than what it was 10 or even 20 years ago. How do you plan to find your place and attract an audience and fan base?

Elisabeth: I think that the way that things are going now, there is timing for music for every genre – for every time there is a different type of music. Like when you had Marvin Gaye, Donnie Hathaway, and Roberta Flack – you had a certain type of singer that was coming up during that time. Then you had the era of Motown. Then you had the disco era. Then you have the Hip-Hop era and so forth. I think that what is happening now is that the industry is looking for real music. People are looking for real melodies. People are looking for real answers to their particular situation. They don’t want just a “bam bam baby hit me right here, hit me right there” and the choruses.

AHHA: Now that you’ve done Broadway and you have your album deal, what else is in the future for you?

Elisabeth: I am so excited about writing this children’s book. I love kids. I love giving back. I love mentoring little girls and little boys but preferably little girls especially little talented young girls who I know want to sing but don’t have the means. Or just do what they want to do. I’m writing this book and I notice that when I go into the Barnes & Noble and other bookstores, that unless you go to Harlem, you’re not going to find a bunch of children books with Black children on them. You have to go to Brooklyn to the little street fairs to the little brown cases full of books.

Since I went to Catholic school, all of my life I rarely saw Black people. I think that that is so important for kids to see and what they see at home. They need to see black or brown faces or if their Asian, they need to see Asian faces on the book. Minority faces period. Whatever their nationality is, they need to see it.

For me, I really wanted to write this book called No Mo TV and it’s my story in a cartoon animated version of my life about how my parents took our TVs out of our house as kids. In our house, all four of my brothers and sister, with my dad, used to watch so much TV. We knew everything that came on, what time, every line to everything. I remember coming home one day from grade school and all of the TVs were gone. They gave them to the garbage man.

It allowed us to be creative. We found out my brother liked medicine, and now he’s a prominent doctor. My sister went into chemistry, now she’s one of the top chemists for Exxon Mobile. My other brother is doing really well with his business in mathematical engineering in Atlanta, and I wanted to sing. So every household is different, but for my house I was glad that they did it. I could have been anything, but they allowed us to find out what we wanted to be.

Turn the TV off, put down the Play Station 2, put down the sidekicks… put it down! So I’m in the process of doing that children’s book. Another thing I’m working on is a lingerie line called Tickle. Everybody has their own shape, and I have a known flat butt. I have big legs, big arms and a little Black woman’s pouch up front, and I can never find any lingerie that fits me perfectly. So I though, “You know what I’m going to try a lingerie line that accommodates those with different types of bodies.”

AHHA: I hear The Color Purple is going on tour?

Elisabeth: Yeah, it is. But I am going to stay right here and promote my record, do my nightly shows on Broadway, be with my family - and that’s it for me!