Elisabeth Withers - conducted by Mildred C. Fallen
Walking with Elisabeth Withers
The afternoon when Elisabeth Withers stomped through four inches of snow while giving this interview was one of the coldest days the east coast saw this winter; if it was 15 degrees in Cincinnati at 3:30, it had to be at least 10 degrees colder in New York. Nevertheless, the Joliet, Ill native waxed warm thoughts about her family and career, and didn't even kick up a fuss when her battery began to fail. In between several dropped calls, where Withers redialed a moment later to ask: ‘Hello? Can you hear me now?' we chatted a bit about her real life-inspired, Blue Note Records debut, It Can Happen to You. As she shared details about her husband, Damon Mendes, and her 2-year-old daughter, who both keep Withers grounded, I learned she wasn't one to sweat the small stuff. During this interview, there were a few congested moments when I couldn't hear Withers at all, and when I apologized for making her repeat things twice, or her having to endure the cold walk as we spoke, she told me, "It's okay, baby. You made it easy ‘cause you came prepared."
As a little girl, she wailed at her own renditions of Gladys Knight's songs in front of her family, but studying at Berklee School of Music and NYU helped prepare her for bigger audiences. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson became her mentor-friends, and Nick coerced her into auditioning for the role that pushed her from her comfort zone as a background vocalist working with artists like Luther Vandross and J. Lo to "pushing Broadway's buttons" with her empowering portrayal of Shug Avery in Oprah Winfrey's, The Color Purple.
Club-heads might remember Withers as her alias Elle Patrice, whose Tony Moran collaborations topped dance charts ("Rising" in 2002 and "Emotions" in 2005). But on It Can Happen to You, Withers is a purveyor of her life's experiences. "Get Your Shoes On" is an ode to get-togethers with her girls. She wrote the sentimental, "Somebody" about her 2-year old baby girl: "The sun rises when you smile/the rain falls when you cry." She's an ally to the socially outcast on "The World Ain't Ready" and a woman who stops short of feeding an argument with her man on "Listen." "Be With You" is a reenactment of why women shouldn't feel threatened when their lover looks at another woman. It's interesting; one could draw association between Elisabeth Withers and Shug Avery, as multi-dimensional singers capable of conveying just about any feeling through a song, taking listeners through scenes and acts of their lives.
MVRemix: Is it below freezing cold where you are?
Elisabeth Withers: Yes, as a matter of fact, I'm walking through four inches of snow right now!
MVRemix: Oh my goodness! Then it's the same way here.
Elisabeth Withers: [laughs]
MVRemix: I just wanted to tell you; I got a chance to listen to the CD and I think it's amazing.
Elisabeth Withers: Wow! Thank you!
MVRemix: No problem. We might as well start there talking about the CD. To me it's such a breath of fresh air because you're not trying to fit into a genre. How did you conceptualize this album as you wrote the songs?
Elisabeth Withers: It's funny because when I got with my producer, Toby Gad, out of the 11 songs on the record, I wrote eight of them. And I never tried to conceptualize and be like, ‘Okay, okay; how should it be.' I never did that. I just wrote songs that were from my heart, my own experiences, things I'd seen and heard from my parents, and it was like a summation of all that. I'm so excited about the record because it runs the gamut; you know, it talks about—(interrupts her thought to explain her breathing becoming heavier)—if you hear me getting out of breath, that's because I'm walking down a hill!
MVRemix: Whoa. Gotcha.
Elisabeth Withers: Yeah, but it runs the gamut. It talks about my love for my daughter in "Heartstrings" to me hanging out with my girls and wanting to just party in the song called "Sweat," and then it talks about my first experience with a guy who was a cross-dresser—he showed me how to put lip gloss on, and lip-liner. It's a song called "The World Ain't Ready." So I really just talked about things that were near and dear to me; I think that's why it's getting the reception that it's getting because I didn't try to write to please.
MVRemix: I understand that you just had your daughter when Nick Ashford (as in Ashford and Simpson songwriting duo) called you up and talked you into auditioning for The Color Purple (Oprah Winfrey's Broadway adaptation)?
Elisabeth Withers: Yep! She was only 3 months old. In hindsight, I'm glad everything sorta happened the way it did; with me connecting with my husband and my best friend and my daughter, and the move and all that. And working; he works really, really hard and I work really, really hard and then for this incredible opportunity to come around when it did. At that point in my life, I had so much—and I still have so much to draw from when it comes to writing music, because of my own experiences, I have a lot to talk about, a lot to say and to encourage.
MVRemix: I can hear that on the album; you definitely speak from a more mature point of view. It's so easy to listen to (It Can Happen To You) and find your own favorite song. I think one of my favorites on there is "Be With You."
Elisabeth Withers: Yeah, everybody likes that one.
MVRemix: That's tight. The lyrics are so visual.
Elisabeth Withers: Yeah, it's funny, I was sitting with my director of music and he was telling me, ‘Elisabeth, it's funny; in relationships, women are always wondering why men go off to these strip bars and they're looking at other girls. Instead of them getting upset, they should stop and go, Hmmm. I wanna strip for you.' I wanna be with you. It was so pertinent for me at the time. I was like, ‘Yeah, that is so true—if more women did that for their man, then imagine what kinds of relationships we would have.' So (that's how the song came about). As a matter of fact, the original lyrics were "Strip For You," but my manager was like, ‘No! Change that to ‘Be With You!'
MVRemix: Yeah, you're absolutely right, that would probably lead to more fidelity in marriage if women felt like they could take on roles and be "every woman."
Elisabeth Withers: Yeah, but not just in marriage, but just in relationships. I don't wanna make it one-sided; I wanna make it applicable for you.