Gospel, twerking and ratchet are terms not often heard in the same sentence. But when it comes to Michelle Williams, the Destiny’s Child member now known for her inspirationalbent,such combinations make total sense.
Williams is releasing her fourthstudio album, “Journey to Freedom,” following a five year stint on Broadway starring in (among other shows) “Chicago” and “The Color Purple.” The album is a hood-beautiful, hot mix of moderngospel churned with car stereo-ready 808s and soprano trillings. It’s the kind of album that doesn’t “sound” like it’s praising God, except, it is. And that’s exactly how the Rockford-born Williams likes it. In fact, she says that this album is the sound she’s been going for all along.
“I like to see even the guys who might be from the hood.. kind of bop to it,” says Williams, who, for this interview, is kicking backin her suite at the Hard Rock Chicago hotel while flipping through Instagram images from her nail stylist. (Her fingertips are be-crystled with Swarovski. Thank you very much.) She’s wearing ripped jeans and a fitted black t-shirt emblazoned with the name Jesus, in hot pink. Her tummy is full of corned beef hash from Wildberry. She did her own makeup today. She’s barefoot. She’s relaxed.
“Some might be too ashamedto kind of praise God or whatever. But with this one [song and album,] they can worship in their own way,” says the singer, whose album releases Tuesday yet is already number one on iTunes gospel and inspirational music sales charts.“You hear those same 808s that you hear in music that everybody loves on the radio today, but then you catch [the listener] because they didn’t know it’s gonna be an inspirational song or [that] they’re gonna get a Bible story in the midst of turning up and being ratchet.”
The album is produced by sought-after, Brit hit-maker Harmony Samuels. With his Nigerian roots and electronic dance tendencies, Samuels has produced hits for Ariana Grande, Kelly Rowland and Beyonce. Williams credits Samuels for turning her feelings and words into an uplifting confab of Bible verses and life lessons with the kinds of beats that make certain songs off the album (think: “Say Yes!” Williams’ much-discussed, freespirited Jesusanthemwith Beyonce and Rowland and “Fall” featuring Lecrae and Tye Tribbett) actual mainstream music hits.
“That’s how my first album should’ve been,” she says. “Because, coming out of Destiny’s Child, when I said I was gonna do a gospel record, I think some fans were like ‘welp, I’ll catch you when you come back.'”
Williams admits that she’s always been seen as the prim and proper member of Destiny’s Child, more likely to be praying for humanity than out kicking it at the club. She’s endured a lot of criticism because of this public perception of her self and, about her slender frame, her unique vocal stylings and her decision to move into Broadway. She’s also seen a lot of praise for the same things.
And though she won’t state specifically what led her to start making this album in 2012, she will admit that recovering from depression was key. She was in a funk and had to getprofessional help.
“I couldn’t write. I couldn’t record. Kelly was like ‘You need to work with Harmony,” says Williams. “The funk was sadness. The funk was anger. All of that leads to depression if it’s not dealt with. The thing that exposed it was betrayal.”
She wouldn’t speak of the particular betrayal, but did speak of how her depression started when she was 15 and swelled from there. “Being in church and the music is pretty much what kept me alive,” says Williams, who says she had a great childhood but was also the victim of bullies. “I had two mentors and, I’ve never said this before but, they loved me to life. I’m so thankful for Mr. Gilbert and Miss Portis…. I didn’t know it was depression.”
Like other stars, she says she hid behind a mask of fabulosity.
“There were many times my hair was fabulous. Ihad on the designer shoes, but I was faking the funk. I had to just show up to work, do my job and make you smile. I had to get to a place where I’m happy – really, really happy. I’m still getting there. It’s a day-to-day process.”
So while performing at the Super Bowl with Beyonce and Rowland, and while slanging sexy in”Chicago,” Williams was fighting a beast. Just a few weeks ago, her heart broke anew after learning that Robin Williams committed suicide.
“Therapy? I still do it today. I have noproblem picking up that phone. Robin williams…that hurt my heart. I was working on set that day, and I literally stopped in my tracks. I wish he would’ve had somebody or I wish he could’ve held on for one more day.”
Williams, who also frequentedthe Original House of Pancakes in the Gold Coast last week, maintains a home in Rockford but might soon put it up for sale. She now makes her home inLos Angeles. She also pays attention to the news, and was saddened by the death of a Chicago woman struck by a gargoyle that fell off a South Loop church. She’s also saddened by the city’s ongoingviolence and advocates marching – and praying – for all involved.
Outside of her album, Williams is starring in a new Oxygen network reality show, “Fix My Choir.” Rather than a performance-based show, it’s about counseling a choir through tough times: namely personal issues that make it difficult for groups to work together.
It seems the petite Grammy winnerhas finally found her happy – and her groove.
“I hope my lyrics change lives while you’re bopping to it,” she says. “Even my mother was like, ‘I’ve never seen this side of you.’ I’m always so reserved and the traditionalone, the conservative one. I want to show people that I can have fun too.”