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An Interview with Elisabeth Withers

From Berklee to Broadway to Blue Note ... One Singer's Voyage

By

An Interview with Elisabeth Withers

Album cover © Blue Note Records

Updated January 24, 2007
Quite a few mature R&B singers have released albums in 2006 and 2007, including Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Natalie Cole and Dionne Warwick. Unfotunately, the quality of those albums varied, and sales weren't particularly great. But there's one woman whose style just might breathe some life into the sophisiticated R&B genre: Elisabeth Withers, whose debut album, It Can Happen to Anyone, will be released on Jan. 30, 2007. But unlike some of the singers mentioned above, Withers isn't releasing an album of cover songs and/or duets; her album contains all-new material that's fresh, yet at the same time, has a classic sound to it.

For those who aren't familiar with Withers, here's a little background on her: she was raised in Joliet, Illinois, a town about 40 miles outside Chicago. Joliet's most known these days for its now-closed prison, which is where most of the jail scenes in the TV show "Prison Break" are now shot.

She grew up singing, she says, and knew at an early age that singing professionally is what she was meant to do.

The Turning Point

She was about 4 years old, she said, and used to sing songs by big-voiced artists like Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin around the house, she recalls.
"The turning point was when I got a record player," she said. "One night I asked mama to sing after dinner. My brothers used to laugh when I sang, but I sang at dinner and my oldest brother was crying - there were tears streaming down his face and at that age, I didn't understand why. From then on, my brother (Matthew) was the main one supporting me. I call him my silent manager. He still calls and says "what's next?' He's so encouraging."

But before she entered the world of professional singing, her mother and father were very clear about one thing they wanted her to do: "My parents really wanted me to go to school. They didn't care if we did basketweaving, but one of the conditions was we had to go to college," Withers said. So in 1993, Withers received a scholarship to attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. After graduating from Berklee in 1997, she even took her quest for an education a step further and moved to New York to pursue a Master's degree at New York University.

Debut Album

While in the Big Apple, she began making contacts in the music industry and after graduating in 2000, Withers received work as a backup studio singer. In 2005, she auditioned for – and won – the role of Shug Avery in Oprah Winfrey's stage adaptation of the book/movie "The Color Purple."

But then something happened that would lead her to eventually record her first album. "Before the ink had dried on my 'Color Purple' contract, this one guy got a copy of my demo and said 'Who is that?," Withers recalls. "Not even a month later, he called me." She eventually wound up on the Blue Note label, which is known more for its jazz stars than R&B ones. Withers said it took eight months to record It Can Happen to Anyone.

Withers was very hands-on when it came to the album; she had significant input on the album's 11 songs, and handled songwriting chores herself, for the most part. When it comes to songwriting, "The ideas are easy. But when you have to sit down and go 'should I put the chorus here,' that's the part I don't like," she said.

Although steeped in R&B, the album's sound crosses over everything from gospel to pop, to rock, to old-school cabaret. "There are a lot of interesting, fun surprises" on the album, Withers said. One of the most interesting tracks thematically is "The World Ain't Ready." The song, Withers says is a true story from her school days "about a boy in school who was a cross-dresser. He would change clothes when he got to school and change back (to boy clothes) after school. I thought 'wow – that must be somethin.' " Lyrics from the song include:

"She had a mind of a woman and a body of a man, no one she'd talk to would wanna understand ... she'd tear up the dance floor, breakin' every rule, drivin' every guy crazy, no one really knew, the struggle she was goin’ through playin’ different roles, wouldn't let you get too close, afraid to be exposed."

Family Values

Although It Can Happen to Anyone is being released under the name Elisabeth Withers, the singer's full, legal name is Elisabeth Withers-Mendez; she's married to music director Damon Mendez, and the couple has a 2-year-old daughter. "He is the cornerstone of our house," she says of her husband. "He doesn't really get freaked out by the small stuff. I'm very grateful that my husband is my music director."

As many artists know, it can be difficult in some cases balancing a music career and a family, but Withers says that it's something she will continue to do. "Is it difficult? No. Is it challenging? Yes. But I still have a yearning and a desire to maintain a household."

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