Elisabeth Withers - conducted by Mildred C. Fallen
Walking with Elisabeth Withers
MVRemix: Absolutely. You're on Blue Note and that's one of the most prestigious labels of all time. What does that mean for you?
Elisabeth Withers: It's like I'm a part of history. I feel like I got a team of people that understand my vision that's been very instrumental in getting what I want to say out (there). One brilliant thing about Bruce Lundvall and my manager so far is that they knew and they understood my growth. And they understand my vision. They didn't just sign me to Blue Note and then; that's it. They said, ‘You know, Elisabeth, she has this kind of music and we don't want to change her, so let's get Virgin and EMI to do her distribution so we can reach a larger market. And so their foresight was just incredible.
MVRemix: As far as writing ballads, what works for you? Do you like to start from personal experience, or does someone give you an idea and you write about that?
Elisabeth Withers: Sometimes it's different. Sometimes I write from my personal experience and sometimes I write from things I see. I remember I was living in this apartment in Brooklyn, and this couple, my landlord and her boyfriend, they are still together. And they've been together like 20 years. They never got married, never had kids—I never understood that. But that was their experience. I said, ‘I wanna write about that.' Sometimes I write about different things I see, or things I've gone through myself.
MVRemix: That's really what rhythm and blues is.
Elisabeth Withers: Yep.
MVRemix: Good music, telling good stories that people can relate to. I think you do really well all over the album. What's your favorite song on the album?
Elisabeth Withers: My favorite—it's so hard—it's like, out of the 11 songs on the record, I wrote eight of them with my producer and they're like my babies. So it's like, how do you choose? I don't know, one has pretty eyes, another has a cute walk, another one's real bright. If I had my arms pulled, I'd have to say "Simple Things" is probably my most favorite one.
Elisabeth Withers: Because it sort of sums up my life, and it sums up my own experiences—the hustle and bustle of being a musician. Running and going and expending, and just exerting a lot of unnecessary energy, only for you to look around and go, ‘My mom called today. My daughter smiled at me. I still got food to eat. I got a warm place to sleep.' You know, keeping it simple. I think that in life, we make it so freakin' complicated. Even in terms of dating we say, ‘Oh, I wanna date this guy…he's got a good job…but he don't do this.' Or, ‘This girl is really cute…but she don't do that.' So we make a lot of things complicated instead of just keeping it simple.
MVRemix: One of the things I noticed first off—because I didn't see the Color Purple—and I just heard your music (for the first time) last week. I really think you have great range, who would you say influenced your phrasing, tone, and just how you sound in general?
Elisabeth Withers: Who influenced my tone? Experience. I really just think it's experience because I listen to every type of music—Bob Dylan, Beyonce, Ludacris, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera—I listen to everybody. I think it's just my experience and actually just singing out that's molded it a little bit.
MVRemix: Okay, tell me a little about your Berklee background and your performing arts training.
Elisabeth Withers: Berklee was like my shedding ground. That was where I learned chord progression and practicing until the wee hours, working out and really honing my craft. That's what I got from Berklee.
MVRemix: Do you think that's what prepared you for The Color Purple?
Elisabeth Withers: I think it's a summation of everything. It's from my experience; from working with people like J-Lo and people like Ashford and Simpson and Mary J. Blige. It's a summation of my experiences with working with people that helped me prepare for Broadway.
MVRemix: Shug Avery, she carried this swagger of independence during a period when black women didn't have any personal rights. Was it empowering for you to play Shug?
Elisabeth Withers: Oh my God! Yeah! I was just talking to one of my leading ladies yesterday, LaChanze—she was the original Celie in The Color Purple (on Broadway, not film)—she left and she's coming back. But I was telling her yesterday, ‘It's funny that after doing 500 shows, 500 "Push The Buttons," it's been almost two years now and I still haven't gotten tired of it. I don't get tired of doing it because her emotions and who she is run the gamut. When I'm feelin' it from an awesome day—that's who she is, because she loves a good time. If I had one of those funky days where I don't wanna talk to you—that's who Shug is, so it makes it fun playing that part.
MVRemix: What do you think came across differently about her onstage versus onscreen?
Elisabeth Withers: Well, onscreen I think they were only able to show really one or two sides of Shug, that she was a singer, that she had this affair with Celie; and that's basically what people remember about her. But on the stage, I believe that the character I brought forth and with the road map Alice Walker gave me, you were able to see: ‘Wait, wait, wait! She wasn't a lesbian!' Shug just loved love. She loved to sing. She loved life. She loved everything in abundance. She loved the fun factor; she was very fun-loving. So people are able to see the different sides of Shug, and because it's live theatre, they're able to show different sides every single night because it depends on how you feel that day that another side comes out.
MVRemix: Absolutely, it shows her as multi-dimensional, and a woman, not just this flat character.
Elisabeth Withers: Right.
MVRemix: Well that's awesome. That was like a break-out role for you; and you've got a Tony nomination and new CD; how does all this feel, coming together in your life?
Elisabeth Withers: It feels like Christmas to me. I believe that everything and everybody has a season and I think that everything that's happening right now is a summation of my experiences. And I feel like it's happening at the right time, and what's most important to me is that my family is there with me. My daughter will come to the theatre with me, so she's able to see Mommy working, and then we have our family time, so there's a lot of balance in my life, which I'm really, really thankful for.
MVRemix: Do you think you'll be doing any other productions in the future?
Elisabeth Withers: Absolutely, but right now, my focus is the record. I mean, I remember when I first signed on with The Color Purple and then my record deal came, I remember calling Luther Vandross' singer, Paulette McWilliams and Fonzi (Thornton) here in New York and I was like, ‘Damn, how do you do it all?' And I remember them saying, which was the best advice, is that ‘You gotta stay rooted, you gotta stay grounded and you gotta stay focused. And you gotta figure out what's most important right now. You know your family is very important, so you gotta focus on them. What's the next important thing that's gonna take up a lot of your time—that's the show. And as you're writing, the record is gonna eclipse The Color Purple, and then you focus on that. So that's where I am right now, the record eclipsed The Color Purple. My focus is now shifting to the record, so even though I've renewed my contract, my heart and passion now lies with the record.