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For sublime vocalist Heather Headley, her second studio album, In My Mind, the torrid follow-up to her Grammy-nominated debut, This Is Who I Am, is the kind of soulful, sonically charged diary where lessons-learned meet musical purpose accomplished, grabbing the listener at its mesmerizing center of gravity, which just happens to emanate from the one and only Heather herself. “What you hear on this album is not only me, but my willingness to take you places even I’ve never been before.” In other words, move over multi-award-nominated, critically acclaimed debut – because the new one is everything you’d expect from the accomplished Heather, and more - a superb mix of soul, dancehall, exquisite balladry and fire breathing gospel that proves the agile Heather can not only wrap herself around a song, but also throw her arms around the entire recording process.
“I’ll admit that making the first album, This Is Who I Am, was a little daunting, the whole process being an educational experience for me,” says Heather. “However, on this one, I set out from the start to map out musically where I wanted to go. I knew what I wanted to hear. It’s not enough to say ‘I want to sound like me’. You have to know ‘who’ you are, and choose material and write lyrics that reflect that. No pun intended – but in my mind I knew from the start, even from the first album - I couldn’t sing what I didn’t feel. What’s great is that the feelings were just racing out of me. There’s still so much I have to say”
You can hear that intensity from start to finish on In My Mind, whether it’s the sultry title cut, or the playful/pampering “Me Time,” or lingering emotive wallops like the heart wrenching/staccato fueled “Losing You,” and the gospel-laced showstopper “Change,” Heather pulls no emotional punches on the new CD. She also flexes her funk and dancehall skills, bringing in the prodigious Shaggy for the reggae-tinged “Rain,” and throwing down with the ‘Shoo-wopping’ on the cheerfully infectious “Back When It Was.”
It’s another refreshing sign that the savvy Heather, along with her A&R executive producer Steve Ferrera, bucked the trend of dialing in the latest flavor-of-the month producers on In My Mind, crafting, instead, a deep-benched production team whose sophisticated subtlety and ability to throw curves speaks volumes about the mutual trust between Heather and every collaborator she brought on board. “It was a great experience working with every one of them, and each experience being so different from the other. I think it also helped that the guys were not only in tune with my voice, but my instincts, as well, this time.”
A quick name-check also reveals a few hall-of-fame collaborators like Babyface, who helps bring home the finger-waggin’ anthem “Me Time” – light touches all around - which persuasively proclaims the merits of ladies taking ample pampering time for themselves. Among the other producers are Tony Kelly (“Rain”), Shannon Sanders and Andrew Ramsey (“In My Mind”), Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (What’s Not Being Said), who collaborated on her first album, and Warren Campbell, who helms the angelic “Change,” a kaleidoscopic gospel number that sounds as if it was recorded live on a sunburst-filled Sunday morning. “I was raised in church – I’m still in the church - and for the longest time wanted to do a gospel song,” says Heather. “It’s perfect for this album; God is such a big part of who I am, who I want to be, and what’s in my mind. It was really important to me that every producer I worked with felt how passionate I was about being true to myself. They saw where I wanted to go, and if we got stuck, we trusted the process to lead us.
Heather also keeps a detailed journal of the day’s events, a therapeutic ritual she’s been practicing since 1997, long before her recording career was set in motion. “I think it grounds me, it helps me sort things out, and what I write isn’t just fodder for my creative side. It keeps me sane, to express what I’m feeling - even the little things – all in words.”
She alludes to some of the themes on In My Mind as inspired by diary entries, musical portals, if you will, into the soul and psyche of the effusive vocalist/songwriter. “Even a song like “Me Time,” which Babyface wrote, struck a chord with my sense of humor, but it’s also reminding women that we can’t neglect ourselves. You give of yourself so much in this business – or any business, for that matter – to be the best you can be, with the personal appearances and the crazy schedules, and that constant desire to make people enjoy and love what you do But you often forget to take time for yourself. ‘Me Time’ nails it in such a fun way.” Heather points to the inspirational song ‘Change,’ as coming point-blank from her journal. “Warren (Campbell) asked me to write about where my head was. I went back to my journals and kept seeing these entries where I talked about ‘change.’ Areas of my life I could do better. ‘Change this’ and how I needed to ‘work’ on that. How I was determined to ‘change’, and how I needed to rely on God to help me with that.. I’m still working on my “changes,” I guess I always will, but this song helped me go down that road.”
Trace the map Heather has traveled to get to the place of renewal that In My Mind inhabits and you’ll find a determined young girl steeped in a faithful, can-do attitude even from her earliest years. Born in Barataria, Trinidad, she was blessed with two creative, supportive parents, both ministers, who lovingly encouraged her passions. She learned to play the piano at the tender age of 4, competing in talent contests, and later, immersing herself in her Christian upbringing and the soothing sounds of her eclectic culture, becoming musically versed in calypso, soka, and reggae. Even though she and her family moved to Ft. Wayne, Indiana when she was 15 years old (her father accepting a Pastorship there), Trinidad remains the spiritual and traditional compass for the vocalist whenever she begins to feel her own life may be moving too fast.
“My roots are there. My foundation is there. It’s where I learned to sing; it’s where I learned about God. My childhood in Trinidad cemented everything I now know. It was an amazing environment to grow up in. If A teacher walked into the classroom you stood up, you called people Mister and Miss, and you relied on your neighbor and they relied on you. There’s such a great tapestry of culture there, when I need to get that back I always return to Trinidad. ”
Heather wisely brought that sense of culture and self reliance with her to Indiana, and eventually to college at Northwestern University where she majored in musical theater and communications. In 1997 Disney recruited her for the role of Nala in the history-making debut of the Tony Award winning musical, The Lion King, following that up with the marquee role in the Elton John/Tim Rice show Aida, and Heather’s show business career was cemented. A 2000 Tony Award for her star-making performance in the show affirmed her power-vocalist pedigree, and soon RCA came a-knocking. This Is Who I Am was released in 2002, achieving gold status, and earning Heather two Soul Train Awards, for Best R&B Soul Album of The Year and Best Solo R&B/Soul New Artist Award. She also received dual nods from both the BET Awards and NAACP Awards, as well as earning two Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Best R&B Vocalist.
Even with all the accolades, Heather refuses to play the expectations games regarding her sophomore effort. “We just set out to make the best record we could,” she says. “I wanted to do some different things musically on this one, and I think we did that. I still have so much to learn about recording, about life, really. I guess the great thing about this album for me is that they converged so naturally. It’s like the song “Rain” I did with Shaggy, and co-wrote with Tony Kelly. When we wrote and recorded this song it was in the midst of one of last year’s terrible hurricanes. I had just gotten married and wanted to write a song about love; the idea of rain just captured it. Rain can be like love. Your husband’s love. Love for your children, your family. It showers down. It’s no mystery that water and air take up wherever there is a void. I want to be loved like that. We all do. To be able to write a song with that kind of message, that hopefully will touch other people . . . it’s a dream come true.”
Why not treat yourself?