MUSIC WRITER IN JAPAN
18th June 2014
Q: Miss America, award winning TV, film and stage actress, dancer, model, author, Human Rights Campaigner, skin care products consultant and here tonight as a fifteen times Grammy nominated singer, is there anything you’ve tried and failed at?
VW: Oh plenty! I tried two marriages for one (smiles).
Q: Oh no, they were successful and even your divorces were successful!
VW: True, I have four beautiful kids and I’m very proud of them. Oh yeah, there’s a lot of things I’m not good at but that’s why you hire other people. (laughs)
Q: In 1988, four years after relinquishing your Miss America title you released your first album, The Right Stuff. In those intervening four years, you also did a bit of acting; was it always your intention to follow many paths or did it just work out that way?
VW: Well Broadway was the intention because that is where I could sing and act. I did an off-Broadway show in ’85 and then after that I moved to L.A. and did some television and small film work but I always wanted to go on it for sure. My parents were music teachers so I grew up with a music background and being able to act was something I started to do in High School. I did theatre and summer theatre so I always knew I wanted to do both. The recording thing was the thing that I thought would never happen. You see, for me, growing up in New York, an audition for a Broadway show was just a train ride away. Get the right audition, prepare and whether I get picked or not, I knew it was a goal that I could be on Broadway in a show because I grew up seeing it. Hearing someone on the radio, a recording artist that seemed like a one in a million chance so that is probably the most surprising part of my career when I look back, to have the gift of a recording career.
Q: The Right Stuff did very well but was then eclipsed by The Comfort Zone in 1991 which transported you to the multi-platinum recording artist you are today. So that must have been a blessing giving you a step up to do Broadway.
VW: Well yeah. Doing the first album, getting a record deal, a lot of people were not supportive or had any kind of vision at all so the people that were all writing and producing, I would say we were all underdogs that were saying ‘We’ll show you’ and we showed them. Even on the second go-round, you still have sceptics saying it was a one-hit wonder and then when we had bigger success, I think they knew we were a force to be reckoned with.
Q: It certainly was.
VW: It was good but it also reinforced the talent that I always had and wanted to show. That was the bottom line, to do what I could do well and share it with people. At fifty-one, thirty years later, I still get a chance to walk out there and have people know my music, leap to their feet or start crying and tell me their stories how Save The Best For Last saved their relationship or was their wedding song…
Q: It is a legacy song.
VW: The funny thing is though, a couple of people passed on it. Bette Midler was presented it, Barbara Streisand was presented it to either their team or producers or whatever and they didn’t hear it.
Q: Who heard it for you?
VW: Ed Exheim who was the head of Wing Records. At that point it was Wendy Waldman who was one of the three writers was singing and I think Phil Galdstone was playing piano. It was a simple demo but it was one of those melody lines that you couldn’t get out of your mind. Maybe some people passed it off as being too simplistic but the right producer, Keith Thomas who had been a success in Gospel music but had not crossed over yet, wanted to prove something, I wanted to prove something and with our little record label which was an offshoot of Mercury, we were all ready to be heard..
Q: You are credited as the executive producer on that album as well; did you control the recording or does the title have a different meaning?
VW: Well every song, there is always a compromise in making an album so I don’t want to say I had complete control but if there was something I didn’t want to do, I would say no. One particular song on my first album was given to me by a Fed-Ex man who wrote it who gave it to one of my friends who gave it to me. Another one was given to me by a friend when I was doing Kiss Of The Spiderwoman on Broadway, a cast mates mother who gave me a cassette. So in terms of shaping the album, choosing the material, I was a big part of it.
Q: Please correct me if I am wrong on this but I think you’ve only recorded one song that you’ve written, which was 2 of a Kind on The Comfort Zone. Is song writing something you’re not interested in? You do play the piano…
VW: I play piano, French horn…I have written songs with people but I want stuff that has a legacy and people who are really good at song writing, I am going to go to them and get their best stuff. There are a lot of artists who may write a line or two and have their name on it as co-writer to get a share of the publishing. There are certain songs that I definitely worked on like with Keith Thomas. The song Who Where You Thinking About was about my first husband. I wrote him pages and should have got a co-writing credit on that song because this is my vibe, this is what I’m feeling.
Q: So is there a catalogue of unrecorded Vanessa Williams’s songs lying around on old cassettes somewhere?
VW: Yeah I still have a lot of cassettes. They are in boxes in storage.
Q: So we will see an anthology one day.
Q: On your 2005 album Everlasting Love, you cover a lot of Soul classics: Who were your music heroes when you were a child?
VW: I named the album after Chaka Kahn. I saw her play live…she was the first female solo singer that I saw and I was probably in the 8th Grade and I just loved her. Her fiery approach and her range and her versatility. She can do Jazz, Swing, she can do it soft and also the big ballads and also the R & B funky stuff. I love the versatility and the range that she has. My dad was a real influence in terms of variety. I’ve just finished listening to Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. That style of music that is very clean, tones are pure with rhythm. My parents played everything including the classics because they were music teachers and they also sang n a baroque choir so we ended up going to church every other Sunday listening to Handel and Bach. There is a very broad spectrum that I am very comfortable and very familiar with.
Q: It’s been five years since your last album: is there another one in the pipeline?
VW: The last two deals I have had, the labels have collapsed. The industry has changed so much.
Q: Have you thought about doing it yourself?
VW: Yeah. After having two deals that were gung-ho and doing the deal and disappointment from the people I was dealing with; one left to go to another label and the other one dissolved, maybe that is the best thing.
Q: What is your opinion of the way the business has gone in that a lot of popular music, particularly vocal performances, have had the character taken out of the voice with Autotune and other technology?
VW: But that happened with Milli Vanilli back in the day. I remember there was an outdoor concert and they were one of the acts and it happened in San Francisco and everyone called each other. One was German and one was English I think and they were singing with completely different voices, no accents and the tape broke and they were embarrassed and ran offstage. They were destroyed after that because the secret was out. Nowadays is not the first time people have screwed around not being able to sing but what I love is that kids are so accustomed to vocals with Autotune that when they hear a vocal without Autotune it’s markedly different. My daughter but right now she’s listening to the older stuff; Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and stuff so sonically she can hear the raw grittiness of not having it perfect because it’s not run through a machine and timed out. That’s what gives it the edge and the flavour and makes it unique. You can hear it in the first bar. Kashmir – ok I got it and it creates a mood as opposed to being so clean.
Q: Assuming that you have a day off sometimes, what do you like to do?
VW: Three of my daughters are pretty much out the house but my youngest is about to start High School so I drive her to school in the morning, do all the things that are required of me as a mother. Recently I just finished six weeks on Broadway so I would bring her to school, pick her up and drop her at the house or she would come to the show with me.
Q: You say that so matter-of-factly…
VW: People always ask me how I manage the personal life and the career and my oldest daughter will be twenty-seven on the 30th (June) so I’ve had it my whole life. I don’t really know what it’s like to be so low without any cares in the world – only me. My kids have travelled all over the world with me. They’ve been backstage, they’ve been in a trailer on a movie set, in a dressing room, on television shows and met lovely people. You just do it.
Q: You’ve got two hours off at home; do you watch TV or read a book?
VW: It depends what the weather’s like (laughs). If the weather is good I’m outside doing a crossword puzzle. If the weather is not good, I might catch up on all my reality shows that I have downloaded.
Q: Speaking of books, will your book be published in Japanese?
VW: Oh I don’t know.
Q: It’s not available and I think it would be a great read for your Japanese fans.
VW: I shall ask the publisher; I’ll get on that.
Q: Do you realise that when the definitive book of the history of the black people in the 20th century in the USA is written you will be a part of that legacy along with Obama and Martin Luther King because of what you have done?
VW: Ermm…I suppose…watching Obama go through what he went through in the past two elections but obviously the first, there is a sense of euphoria when you see history made and I understand that with my own path because so many people have told me where they were when they saw me crowned Miss USA. So I get the euphoria, I get the gravitas of what that step means as it changes things and I hope people can learn from my life. I was lucky enough to have the parents and community I grew up with to prepare me for the world.
Q: One last question from a fan of yours…
吉崎 弘子...Welcome back to Japan…
VW: Thank you
Q: …and thank very much for your message on your website to Japan. I really enjoy watching Ugly Betty, was it fun playing a character so different from yourself?
VW: Definitely fun. That’s when it gets fun when you play someone not like yourself. Wilhelmina was so over the top and villainous and it’s always more delicious to play somebody who gets a chance to be naughty! (laughs) It was fun plus the fashion was fantastic and that was one of those great casts that was so talented. America Ferrera, Michael Urie, everybody who played a part was really talented. I miss the show but I see all of them a lot.
Q: Ms Williams, thank you very much for your time.
VW: Thank you. It was nice to meet you.