Date of Interview: 10/06/2008
Michelle Williams is best-known for being one-third of Destiny’s Child, the best-selling female group of all-time. In the midst of Destiny’s Child’s disbandment, however, Williams has also had a successful acting career on the Broadway stage, as Shug Avery in The Color Purple and the title role of Aida. Even so, singing still remains Williams’ primary focus.
With two successful gospel albums in her catalog, the dance-pop direction on Williams’ third album may come across as a striking deviation from her previous solo outings. But at the age of 28, lest we forget, Michelle Williams is poised to capitalize on her youthful essence. And why not? History has shown that she has what it takes.
Upon review of Unexpected, Michelle Williams managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Rico Love, Destiny’s Child and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Clayton Perry: Over the years, you have been able to crisscross between secular and spiritual musical genres with a high level of credibility. How do you account for such flexibility in your success?
Michelle Williams: Just being focused and strong, loving people, treating people right and going with your heart. With this album, my heart said, “Move in another direction.” So I did. Not because people told me or people wanted me to. I have this cool relationship with God. He knows that I wouldn’t do anything that He wouldn’t want me to do. My favorite scripture in the Bible comes from Proverbs 3:6 “In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path.” I asked God for a producer that I can connect with. I found a writer/producer by the name of Rico Love. He already knows he’s going to work with me for life. I don’t care how great he blows up to be. I was like, “Wow, you did that for me.” I’m so thankful that He gave me somebody who is beginning to know me. I think so much magic and chemistry happened within the few months we worked in the studio. We had a ball. I looked forward to going to the studio. There have been times, in the past, when I walked to the studio and I wasn’t feeling the producer. With some producers, you write them their check and that’s it; they’re done. Other producers don’t care about the check. They want to get paid and they know they’re going to get paid but they are about making their artist feel good and sound good because at the end of the day, it’s fan-based.
Clayton Perry: Well, the dance turn on your third album was definitely “unexpected.” What life events served as inspiration for this change?
Michelle Williams: Just music, period. I love all types of music; I can’t stress that enough. So, this is just a decision I wanted to do. I’m going to keep on doing what I feel in my heart. Who knows what the next album is going to be![laughing]
Clayton Perry: Of the songs Rico Love produced, “Lucky Girl,” “Till the End of the World,” “Private Party,” “Too Young for Love,” and “Hello Heartbreak,” which did you enjoy recording the most?
Michelle Williams: “Hello Heartbreak” was one of the last tracks that we completed. I liked it because I didn’t ever think I would do a track like that. In the past, I kind of limited myself to the type of music that I would do and the style of singing that I would do. I wasn’t into Pro Tools and all of the sound effects stuff, but when we got to compiling everything and blending all the vocals, I was like, “Wow, this is kind of cool.” If you’re going to do some good old R&B, it probably ain’t exciting, you know what I’m saying? But for house-dance-pop music, it’s definitely appropriate. Sometimes those effects can give it the darkness that it needs, that mystery that it needs.
Clayton Perry: Speaking of “mystery,” I noticed that the front cover of Unexpected gives a glimpse of a tattoo on your right shoulder. What is your tattoo an image of?
Michelle Williams: It is an image of a dove. I got it in the summer of ’07. A friend of mine was having a party and he had actually flown in one of the guys from Miami Ink. I couldn’t just sit there and not have somebody from Miami Ink give me one… [laughing] It was peer pressure!
Clayton Perry: I completely understand [laughing]. I have three myself. Do you have any others?
Michelle Williams: Yes. I got my first two tattoos in 2003: a butterfly and a music staff wrapped around a treble clef. I know tattoos are crazy! [laughing] But I figure, when I’m 70 years old, at least I will still love music. Besides, butterflies are beautiful and doves are symbolic of peace. It would be different if I had something that’s way out there, like two donkeys kissing or something. How do you reconcile that when you’re 70? [laughing]
Clayton Perry: I don’t know! That’s a hard one to reconcile [laughing]. As one-third of the Destiny’s Child, the best-selling female group of all time, how difficult has it been to branch out as a solo artist and establish the Michelle Williams brand?
Michelle Williams: That’s the cool thing about this album. People will get to know a side of Michelle that they didn’t get to know before. I’m a fun girl. I’ve always been outgoing, so I think people will see that in this album. “Oh, she’s cool; she’s fun.” On the last album for Destiny’s Child, I was really coming out of my shell. The Destiny Fulfilled album – that’s when I was like, “Okay, this is who I am. I know what I offer. I know my role. Cool.” Then the group broke up and I was sitting there like, “Hold up!” I wasn’t through yet. The group might have been but I wasn’t. I was ready to go, “Let’s get to this album and let’s continue the process.”
Clayton Perry: What obstacle have you consistently had to overcome in your pursuit of success?
Michelle Williams: People-pleasing. I was like that before I even tried to do music, but it eventually rolled over into the career part. Just making sure you’re honest with yourself, that yes is yes and no is no. The minute I said, “No,” for the first time, it was one of the most liberating, let-freedom-ring experience. I just didn’t know how to say no. I thought that if I said no, people would look at me as mean, rude and arrogant. I was like, “What if I don’t want to do something?” It’s okay to say no.
Clayton Perry: What was it hard for you to say no to?
Michelle Williams: I work too hard. Sometimes when you work too hard, you know, you deserve half a day off, but you continually put stuff in your schedule because you know, “Hey, I need to work like it’s my last day of work ever.” I forget that it might be my last day if I overwork, you know what I’m saying?
Clayton Perry: Well, where did that work ethic come from?
Michelle Williams: I would say when I was with Destiny’s Child, our work ethic was absolutely incredible. There was no “I just ain’t feeling good today.”
Clayton Perry: Well, the hard work in the early years really paid off, because over the course of your career, you have been able to successfully branch into acting, on television and the Broadway stage. In 2006, you made your television debut on the UPN sitcom Half & Half. On the show, you played a radio executive that was HIV positive. After doing a little bit of research, I found out that you have also worked with Camp Heartland, which is dedicated to kids that suffer from HIV/AIDS. Taken altogether, I am curious to know how the whole HIV/AIDS issue came to the forefront of your social consciousness.
Michelle Williams: Well, growing up, everyone heard so much about this disease, but most thought it was affecting just one type of community. Well, the year before the show, I had gotten so upset about the statistics in the African-American community–especially for women. And my mind kept wondering: Is it because women are getting more promiscuous, or they get together with somebody and they didn’t know they were infected – what is going on? I was particularly concerned about the target age group, between 18 and 24 year olds. It only takes one time to sleep with the wrong person.
Clayton Perry: Right, that’s the sad part.
Michelle Williams: Not all people know that or understand. “He looks healthy.” But maybe he can afford the medication, you know? Within the next year, I want to work on a foundation educating young women on their health – sexual health and just their health period. Playing Naomi on Half & Half was an honor, and on the show, she got it on her very first time of sex ever. I wanted to show people that, “Hey, mistakes happen.” Hopefully, people will see that one bad choice can ultimately affect the rest of your life. But I would like to say that life definitely goes on; you can still have a great life. Naomi went on to be this powerful executive. She was still sassy, living her life, doing her thing and she eventually found love which is great.
Clayton Perry: In addition to Naomi’s role on Half & Half, you have had successful performances in two Broadway musicals: Aida and The Color Purple. Having received critical praise for both performances, what did the Broadway experience teach you about yourself, as an actress and as a singer?
Michelle Williams: I learned that I can do way more than I thought I could. It was hard at first, because everyone was looking at me all kinds of crazy. Broadway actors and actresses work really hard, so it was an honor for me to even have that opportunity, but at first, they’re like, “Oh, God, another pop singer coming to our world.” So I had a lot to prove. With Aida and The Color Purple, I gained new brothers and sisters, new families. I think they knew how hard I was willing to work, especially with The Color Purple. I didn’t go to rehearsals as Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child. I went in as Michelle Williams who was a sponge, who wants to soak it all up, who is ready to learn and receive anything that they have to give me. With the director, I didn’t care about exposing myself if I was doing a part wrong or missing my lines. I didn’t care. I didn’t care that he got on me so hard that I cried and almost quit, you know what I mean? It was a cool process because sometimes artists – especially when they make it really big – can get really spoiled and don’t take correction and direction anymore. For me, I’m still learning. I will always take direction. Jada Pinkett said something once that was so profound. I can’t quote exactly what she said but she said she tries to goes into different things knowing nothing. As long as you tell yourself that you don’t know everything and maybe that you don’t know nothing, you will open yourself to just continue to learn something new every single day.