Hearing singer/actress Heather Headley sing pop music for the first time evokes the time, place and sound of a young Whitney Houston circa 1985. Headley's powerhouse, emotion-filled voice with its dramatic pauses, bravados and staccatos might initially draw the comparisons from fans and appreciation from Headley. She loves the compliment as she counts Houston as one of her many teachers. "She's part of the beautiful voices I've learned along with CeCe Winans, Ella Fitzgerald and Yolanda Adams," Headley says. But truthfully, the similarities end there.
Those of you familiar with the 27-year-old's Broadway past, first in Disney's The Lion King and then later in Aida, which earned her a Tony Award, know that this sister rhythmically wails and interprets songs in a particular way all her own. This fall, the world will meet Heather Headley, the pop music star, when her R&B debut, This is Who I Am co-produced by Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Dallas Austin hits stores this month.
Headley recently took time out during her cross-country musical showcase mini-tour to give us the scoop on who she is, her Broadway stories and her love life.
How does your album This is Who I Am reveal who you are?
"Well first of all I'm Christian, so each song lyrically had to represent me. I didn't want the album to talk about sex, cursing or drinking and credit cards and money. That's my business. I wanted it to deal with relationships and love, between sisters and mothers and daughters, good relationships and bad. Most of the problems I sing about on the album, I've gone through. The music had to represent me."
Your song, "He is" is an ode to black men. What do you love most about Black men and what do you find sexy in a man?
It's something about the way he walks - I've always felt that Denzel Washington had that walk. When he walks in [the movie ]X, it's like power has entered the room. You could fall for just that walk; it's the beauty in him. It's the way he puts his hands on the table or your knee. It's the power of his shoulders. And I've always told men you have to give me something that I can't give myself. It's not about money or sex, not the material, but about the mind. And I love a guy who can make my mind work, who challenges me to be better. If you do that, you're my "He is."
Have you found that guy? And have you ever dated outside of your race?
Ironically that's what's happening right now. He and I were friends before this happened. It was so funny because I fought it for so long. I've always seen myself with a black man. It just so happened that this was what it was. I found myself attracted to this person, and he's Italian. He understood the business, understood me, and he was a support system. You find yourself falling[ in love ]before you can talk yourself out of it, and that was it. I've learned a lot through the relationship and it's matured me. It's deep what everyone thinks of interracial relationships. But he's been amazing, great and we're at the same spiritual level, and that's all I've ever wanted.
Since you have a Broadway background, what's your favorite performance venue, a small cabaret or concert hall?
With every performance I try to make it as intimate as possible. I want everybody to feel like I looked at everybody at the audience and that nobody was left out. The beauty of a small cabaret is that you can eye every person and that person knows she's looking directly at me. And when it gets a little bigger, the person is like, 'she's looking in my direction but I don't know if she's looking at me.' And I find myself pointing to go 'Hey you; I'm talking to you.' I love looking at the audience and seeing someone crying, laughing or yawning.
You must be a people person because you're an entertainer. What was your toughest crowd?
Broadway and music industry. Wednesday matinees when the old ladies come in from New Jersey, God help you. And they think it's too loud, and they scream ''Ow, she just screams all the time.' I did this music industry thing for RCA and I walked in and did this show and these people just sat there and were like OK you're great. But after coming from the theater where every night we're getting standing ovations and people are screaming. They were very industry and they just sat there. They think you're cool but they show no emotion. You'd rather sing to a painting.
What was your craziest or funniest performance? Share a Heather Headley blooper with me.
I'm standing at Aida doing the first song, which is a sad one describing how Aida is taken from her land. At some point during the show, I started thinking about lunch and what I was gonna eat after this song. I was singing the third verse of the song, 'The future is a barren land…' and I forgot every word after that. But my brain tells me if I sing the vowels or something, it will all come back to me because this is how my brain works. And I just started singing nonsense words, made up words after it. I made up my own language, and finally I sang the words, 'I do not know…' the entire cast turns upstage, all the slaves [in the play ]are laughing at me. The whole stage has moved in corners laughing at me. The audience is looking at me like, 'Did you just speak Nubian and we didn't know?' My conductor is looking at me like I'm plum crazy and I'm just making up my own language. It was the most awful experience ever. All I could remember was that I just made a complete fool of myself on Broadway.
Many of today's R&B chart-toppers are mediocre singers who have more beats to their songs than voice. How do you fit in this landscape?
Sometimes I watch MTV, VH1, and 106 & Park on BET and I go, 'Lord Jesus, OK?' I would hope that there are people who will think I can put this [album on my CD player.] I wanted the album to be well sung and produced. I hope that people will accept that it's about the beat and the groove but also about the lyrics and the way it's sung.
That said, how do you wish to be remembered?
I hope that I have a 20-year music career, but in this MTV/BET world, by the time you're 40 they've had enough [of you]. So I want to be [remembered as] a versatile performer who did everything. But also as somebody who stood for something. I think Oprah [Winfrey ]is so wonderful these days because she's stands for something more than just a personality. I would love to go places and have people want to hear my thoughts on things. And that it wouldn't be about my voice so much, but my spirit. Nowadays we don't care if Sidney Poitier acts anymore we just want to hear what he wants to say. Nelson Mandela touches people's lives now, and it would be a dream for me to do that too. I hope people say we love the woman she became the mother that she was (one day). That would be a great thing for me in the end. And overall, I hope people think I was a good person. Not just a good singer, that would be too easy. I hope they'd be happy with my whole life.
Credit: © Tony Duran