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Heather Headley, Moving From Broadway to R&B

(Soundbite of music, Heather Headley):

Ms. HEATHER HEADLEY (Broadway Actress and R&B Singer): (singing) Wait a minute…

BACKUP SINGERS: (singing) Wait a minute.

Ms. HEADLEY: (singing) I've been calling out to you…

BACKUP SINGERS: (singing) Calling out to you…

ED GORDON, host:

Heather Headley won a Tony award for her work on Broadway. The star of Aida and The Lion King, is also doing pretty well in the R&B world. She's now on tour riding the success of her second CD, In My Mind.

Ms. HEADLEY: My aim is to bridge Broadway and the R&B world; and to bring all my Broadway experience to the R&B world; and one day, when I go back to Broadway, to bring some R&B to that.

GORDON: The native of Trinidad, came to the United States as a girl. I found out that Headley's first view of the U.S. was Fort Wayne, Indiana. The harsh Indiana weather served as a bit of a culture shock.

Ms. HEADLEY: I got slapped upside the head by Indiana. You know, needless to say, the climate was a problem, I think we came in - I know we came in October. And it was just maybe getting to be 40 degrees. You know, and I remember writing home and telling everybody that, I made it through the winter because there was no way it could get colder, than what it was. And so it was quite a shock for me when January turned around, and you know, it dropped to the negatives, and the teens, and it was just - it was really tough.

And then school was a big problem. You know, in Trinidad, we just have different way of school, of schooling, you know.

GORDON: Mm hmm.

Ms. HEADLEY: And you stand up when the teacher comes in the room, and you say, yes, miss and yes, sir. And you get, you know, you still get paddled and stuff like that. And so, it was very, very different for me when we came in, but it all worked out in the end.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, if it's conscious or not, when you speak…


GORDON: You can still hear some of the accent…


GORDON: When you sing, unless I suspect it's intentional, it's not there. Is that conscious or when you sing does it just go away?

Ms. HEADLEY: I think it just goes away. You know, the funny thing was that I grew up listening to, like Whitney Houston and Cece Winans, and a lot of American singers. And I think, for that reason, maybe it did go away with that. But I'm glad it's still in my speaking voice, because God rest his soul, my grand pappy used to call me a freshwater Yankee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEADLEY: Because he was always like - every time I called him and he's like Who's this? And I'm like, it's Heather. And he's like, what? You sound like a freshwater Yankee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEADLEY: And I'm like, sorry grandpa, sorry. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: You started very early, in terms of signing, singing in your dad's - I guess you lived above a church and you sang at four.


GORDON: And I understand you used to go in there and envision yourself giving concerts.

Ms. HEADLEY: Yeah, right. We lived above the church, and I remember there was no air conditioning in the church. I would shut all the windows and I would have concerts in there. Practice, you know, take the microphones. I used to - I think in the end I figured out that I was singing to all the little angels in the church. But the funny thing, Ed, between you and I, and don't tell…

GORDON: And whoever's listening, right.

Ms. HEADLEY: …anybody else, but sometimes I still do it. I think - sometimes I will take all the lights off and sit in a room if I need to work through something, like, run - you know, for Broadway, or even now. It's easier for me to turn the lights off and kind of just picture, you know, people there, and see how it works. So I still kind of revert.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HEADLEY: (Singing) In my mind, I'll always be his lady. In my mind, I'll always be his girl. Saw his momma just the other day, said he'd been through a spell…

GORDON: One of the things that you've been able to do in terms of just reaching that special spot when people listen to your music - particularly women - they seem to really connect, not only with you and your ability to convey the song, but the material, the words, the lyrics within the song. The single from the sophomore CD, In My Mind, is one of those songs that people gravitated to, particularly women.

Ms. HEADLEY: Right, which has been very, very surprising. But especially when you think this is a great song, I just want to sing it. I've been through a situation like this, and I'm thinking somebody else out there has been. And so you don't know how big its going to be or how little, how people are going to react to it, and then to now go and hear people - not only women, but men as well - kind of sing it back to you and be affected by it, and hear people say this has been my situation, this song kind of helped me through. It's just kind of a humbling, you know, experience.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HEADLEY: (Singing) But in my mind, I'll always be his girl. It's funny how there's no remorse in the morning. But after it's over, you wish you could disown it. As you get up to tell the stranger to leave, the love of your life walks in and sees everything. And of all the things that you could have said…

GORDON: I'm curious about this one, and that's, I Didn't Mean To. And it's interesting - it's an interesting twist, because this comes from a female, a woman talking about being unfaithful - not only to her husband, but to her family, because there's a child involved.

Ms. HEADLEY: Right.

GORDON: Oftentimes, we hear men singing those songs.

Ms. HEADLEY: Right.

GORDON: What about this particular one?

Ms. HEADLEY: Recently being married, you know, I'm kind of like, in that whole mode about, you know, seeing now the effects of, you know, cheating, or you know, being unfaithful and stuff like that. And I just thought this is exactly what I want to talk about, because we beat men up all the time. We always talk about the men, or men talk about us, and I think…

GORDON: All the time. Say that again, Heather Headley.

Ms. HEADLEY: All the time. All the time. I'll give it to you today. All the time, we talk about how bad you guys are. And so, I thought with this, that there have been, you know, we, as women, have to be accountable, because there have been many of us who've not, you know, kind of done what was right.

And I also wanted to show that it's not really, you know, a happy event. You know, that, with every choice you make there are consequences. And so if you have an amazing husband and you have a child, you go outside that marriage and outside that relationship, there are consequences that follow.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HEADLEY: (Singing) And the pain of losing everything comes over you…

GORDON: I should note that I have seen the current tour with you and our buddy Anthony Hamilton…

Ms. HEADLEY: Yeah.

GORDON: …and one of the things that you do, Heather, is you rally do - even in the concert tour, or on a concert tour - you command the stage. You really utilize all of it. How much of that do you reflect back to those days you spent in church playing to the empty pews?

Ms. HEADLEY: I would say all of it. You know, I think it started there. And yeah, I went to Northwestern and studied some things, but I think God just kind of put everything in its place. And definitely, it started with the empty pews, just - and it started in a church. I mean, you know, we all know that there's something about, you know, you singing Amazing Grace in church, and if you don't reach that person in the back pew and they don't understand why God's grace is amazing, you haven't done your job. You know?

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HEADLEY: (Singing) I tried so many times, but nothing happened…

GORDON: Heather Headley's latest CD is called In My Mind.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HEADLEY: (Singing) …is much to great for me.

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HEADLEY: (Singing) But you loved me in spite of my ways, and changed me. As the weather comes to mind when I think of all you've… Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.