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Michelle Williams was just a teen when she was catapulted to stardom as a member of R&B supergroup Destiny’s Child. In the years since, the Rockford native has proven her solo chops, debuting on Broadway in the title role of Aida, playing Sandra Isadore in Fela!, and releasing three solo albums, with the number one hits “We Break the Dawn” and “The Greatest.” In an exclusive interview for Michigan Avenue with fellow performer Deborah Cox, Williams shares the inspiration behind her new album, Journey to Freedom, as well as some of her greatest joys, from harmonizing to life in the spotlight and people-watching in the Gold Coast.
DEBORAH COX: When was the moment you knew that you wanted to be a performer?
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: I was 4 or 5. My mother had these mirrors in the living room that I would always stand in front of to perform.
DC: I was about 6 when I really knew that singing was something I wanted to do. [My sisters and I] would always put on performances in front of the couch, and we’d tell everybody to stop whatever they were doing ’cause we were getting ready to do our little performance.
MW: Wow! When [I was] younger, I would always harmonize everything.
DC: [Laughs] Yes. Whatever was playing, we would all harmonize with each other, or I would harmonize with whatever was on the radio.
DC: That early development is so key because it just allows you to be free when you have to perform in front of a band, and you need to pick up a certain section in a song and you know you can do it.
MW: Could you imagine if you couldn’t harmonize? Oh, my God, Deborah.
DC: Oh, my gosh. [Laughs] I know so many new performers—they just sing the lead all the time, and that’s cool, but it’s nice if you can harmonize....
MW: Harmonize, blend, take the background for a minute.
DC: How was that for you, being in a group, stepping out when you need to step out, and then also having the discipline to harmonize?
MW: Before I got in Destiny’s Child, I was already in two gospel groups back at home: [one with my girlfriends] and in a group with some older women at my church. When I got in the group, I was so confident. When they asked me to sing something, Beyoncé and Kelly [Rowland] were like, “Oh, my God. She’s the one right here.” I don’t have a problem being in the group, stepping out solo, going back to it.... I have no problem adapting to whatever I’m in.
DC: That’s the strength of being in musical theater and doing what we do: You learn how to play your part. There’s a time for you to shine and do your thing, and there’s a time where you need to be supportive.
MW: It makes what we do interesting. Somebody just came up to me the other day in Dallas and said, “I saw you in Aida!” [Williams’s Broadway debut] I was like, “Oh, my God!” I’m hoping I’ve made improvements. Deborah, that was 2003.
DC: Isn’t it amazing how the time flies?
MW: Ten years. I consider myself a little girl up there on that stage thrown to the wolves. I pretty much was. My very first Broadway role was a lead character. That’s absolutely insane. Even with Destiny’s Child, I didn’t have a lot of experience, but growing up [and participating in] the Creative and Performing Arts program [in Rockford’s schools] gives you the confidence to just go for it. I’m very proud that I can look at my résumé and see all I’ve done, and I can’t wait to do more. I hope to originate a role on Broadway one day. I’m very excited about my growth.
DC: A lot of the best moments for me have been when I’ve been thrown into a situation. [Laughs] I could only imagine the circumstances you must have been put in where you just had to go with it.
MW: You go with it; you just smile and say, “I am built for it. I can do it.”
DC: What’s the first thing you do when you’re back home in Chicago?
MW: I stay in my house for, like, two days. I just need time to decompress.
DC: And after that?
MW: I love to people-watch, so I love going to Tavern on Rush or Gibsons. I know they say you’re supposed to sit outside on the patio for only an hour or two, but I find myself there for, like, six hours people-watching. I love walking along the lake. I will never forget one time I rode my bike—I kid you not—from the South Loop, Museum Campus area, and I was just riding along the lake and ended up in Evanston! On the way back, I walked, and then I took a boat tour because I just got so tired. A lot of my friends are like, “I’m never coming to Chicago; it’s too cold!” So I tell them, “Come in the summer first, and then hopefully that will tempt you to maybe say, ‘I can deal with coming back any other time because it’s so beautiful.’”
DC: How does your upcoming album, Journey to Freedom, focus on your life?
MW: People identify when your music comes from the heart and speaks truth. There was a time last year when I didn’t know if I could record and finish one song, and it took me a while to really be comfortable and allow other people to help me with my thoughts. We had some incredible writers who were able to help me with my own situation, and it really helped deliver me out of some of those dark moments.
DC: How have Beyoncé and Kelly influenced you as a solo artist?
MW: Being in the group that long—with even Bey and Kelly, being in the group that long for them—just rubs off on you. The friendships continue to inspire, but the genres are so different now. I can’t wait for them to hear [my new album], so I can be like “Okay, what do y’all think?” They’re like, “Girl, do this or do that.” But we really try to keep the solo stuff separate.
DC: It’s like a marriage. You’re married, but you still need to find your own individuality and your own self in that musical marriage.
MW: You’re right. Your husband’s over there like, “Oh, really?” [Laughs] “Okay, you need your space?”
DC: On Fela!, how have you been able to keep your voice and your stamina?
MW: I had a little bit of fatigue, but I just needed a half-day of rest—no talking, no press, no nothing—because if I didn’t I was close to vocal injury.
DC: I found that even when I didn’t talk for an hour before the show, it made a difference.
DC: Oh, yeah. I’m sure your shows are probably 8 pm performances, right? I would get a nap in from 4 to 5:30. If I don’t get a nap in, then it’s absolutely no talking, preferably from 5 to 7.
MW: See, our hair and makeup room is too live. [Laughs]
DC: It’s just like a regimen, and once you’re in it, then you’re good.
MW: Because you are somebody I admire, I will listen to you—I’m going to try shutting up at least an hour before the show.
DC: You know muscles: When you do give them that rest, they really get a chance to recover quickly. A lot of people don’t know that singing is better vocal [exercise] than talking. We do more vocal damage when we’re actually talking ’cause we don’t speak correctly.
MW: A speech pathologist gave me this trick to find my ideal talking voice. [Speaking in higher pitch] Mine is really up here, and it feels good, but I know I would irritate people if I talked like this all day.
DC: [Laughs] Right! How long did you rehearse for Fela!?
MW: We all had about two weeks, which is unheard of. It was two weeks of intense rehearsals, and unfortunately, maybe the first week or so of putting the show on the road was rehearsal, too. But they still rehearse us during the week. A lot of stuff is choreographed and on the stage, but I could see how it could easily get too loose.
DC: I saw the show when it was on Broadway maybe three or four months into the run. Do you know Saycon Sengbloh?
MW: Yes, I love her! She did Aida!
DC: She was doing it when I saw it. Like you said, it can be loose, choreography-wise, so you have to have that structure to keep it together. I loved the show. It was a different type of storytelling.
MW: Every single night there’s the live band, and I love live bands. I will literally stand onstage or the side of the stage and just chill with the band on two of the scenes. I’m telling you, they kill every night.
DC: That’s great when you’re in a show like that [where] you have that kind of freedom. Did the show come to Chicago?
MW: Yeah, we were here for about a week and a half in February.
DC: We were here in March. We thought that by the middle of March it would be nice.
MW: Good luck.
DC: Looking back, what advice would you give your 19-year-old self?
MW: Not to take things personally. Actually I wouldn’t change anything that I have done because I have been blessed to know some great people. Deb, there are some people we know—Big Jim?
MW: Even when I was singing backgrounds for Monica, they were giving me great advice, and when I first got into the group—when Destiny’s Child first had interest in me—they were the first ones I called. I’ve had great, great people to guide me along the way.
DC: That is so key. A lot of people don’t have that.
MW: That’s why I am doing some behind-the-scenes things. There’s a young artist, Jamia Nash—she’s absolutely incredible. [We] just shot her video two weeks ago in LA. I don’t want to manage, but I don’t mind consulting and helping develop to cruise you on your way. There’s another artist, Ariana Grande, and I told her “Take some time out for yourself because they will work you so hard.” A lot of stuff is a big blur to me because I didn’t take the time to enjoy some of the countries I was in because I was just too tired. The schedule is so hard, but [I advise everyone to] really take time out to enjoy what it is that you’re doing.
DC: Slowing down doesn’t mean you’re slowing your career down; it just means that you’re slowing down to enjoy the process.
MW: People do think, If I slow down, somebody else is going to take my place. I have a friend right now who’s doing awesomely well on the producing side, and I’m like, “Dude, you really need to enjoy your success. You live in LA—drive to San Diego, or go to Legoland!” [Laughs]
DC: Yes, girl. It’s tough because you’re on the hustle all the time, and you feel like you’ve got to continue to grind, but you’ll just burn yourself out and then you’re no good, so what good is that? That would absolutely be my advice.
MW: And “Take a trip to Chicago!”
Photography by Brian Bowen Smith; Styling by Jessica Paster for Crosby Carter Management; Makeup by Denika Bedrossian using Chanel for Crosby Carter Management; Hair by Kimberly Kimble using Kimble Hair Care Systems for margaretmaldonado.com
February 2, 2016