It’s time to meet Michelle Williams.
Technically, of course, the Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter needs no introduction: Member of internationally acclaimed female group Destiny’s Child. Hit-making solo singer in her own right. Stage actress (“Aida,” “The Color Purple, “Chicago,” “Fela!”). Mentor starring on the hit Oxygen network series “Fix My Choir.”
But it’s a different Michelle Williams who will be greeting longtime fans and winning over new ones with her first album in over five years, Journey to Freedom. Released on September 9, 2014 via eOne Music, the urban inspirational project deftly showcases the singer’s natural talent and versatility. As Williams simply notes, “This is what’s in my heart.”
And that’s exactly what’s sparking the incessant buzz behind the project’s lead single, “If We Had Your Eyes.” The track’s driving, mid-tempo rhythm provides the perfect backdrop for Williams’ strong, piercing soprano as she encourages listeners to examine their faith from God’s perspective: “If we had your eyes, we’d see things right / If we could just see from your point of view, then most things won’t be as they seem.”
“People don’t know what Michelle is capable of,” says “Eyes” producer Harmony Samuels. “She’s bigger than what they know. It was time to allow her and her music to truly make an impact, for people to meet the real Michelle.”
The in-demand Samuels (Ariana Grande, Fantasia, Chris Brown, Jordin Sparks, Kelly Rowland) helmed the bulk of Journey to Freedom. In addition to writing with him, Williams collaborated with two writers from the Samuels camp, Courtney Harrell and Al Sherrod Lambert.
The result is an arresting fusion of R&B, hip-hop, pop, dance and African-influenced beats and rhythms paired with relatable messages about faith, inner strength, patience and joy. The project’s striking musicality and live instrumentation shine on such tracks as “Yes.” Williams’ expressive voice alternately floats and soars over a series of intriguing tempo twists and turns as the song talks about letting go and letting God.
The call-and-response songs that Williams grew up with in church, inspired “Fire,” sparked by heavy drum and bass accents. That’s followed by another track, the African-inspired “Say Yes,” with guest turns from Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland joining Williams. The single-worthy track “Need Your Help,” is a song Williams actually began writing when Destiny’s Child was recording its final album, 2004’s Destiny Fulfilled.
But it’s the song “Free” that set the stage for Journey to Freedom. “How did I get here / Where did I lose it,” sings Williams on the lushly orchestrated mid-tempo track born out of a toxic relationship the singer had recently ended. “There was a note I hit on the song in which I actually felt something break off me and shatter to the ground,” recalls Williams of the recording session. “The vision for the album opened up before my eyes. It turns out I was in my own way.”
Williams also found a kindred spirit in Samuels, a former church worship leader born in London to Nigerian parents. The pair’s powerful spiritual and musical connection pulsates throughout Journey to Freedom. “I love all kinds of music,” notes Williams. “So I liked the fact that the tracks Harmony gave me could have been given to someone else like Destiny’s Child, Fantasia or Jennifer Hudson. It wasn’t about genre.”
Born in Rockford, Illinois, Williams began singing in church as a youngster then later in several gospel groups. A graduate of Rockford Auburn High School’s creative and performing arts magnet program, Williams attended Illinois Sate University as a criminal justice major. But two years later she opted out of college to tour as a background vocalist for R&B singer Monica.
In late 1999 Williams auditioned for and became a member of the record-setting R&B/pop female group Destiny’s Child. A string of hit singles—among them “Say My Name,” “Independent Women Part I,” “Survivor” and “Bootylicious”—spurred worldwide album sales of 50 million and various awards, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Grammy Award.
During her Destiny’s Child tenure, Williams released her debut solo album in 2002. Drawing from the singer/songwriter’s gospel background, Heart to Yours featured collaborations with the legendary Shirley Caesar and contemporary gospel icons Mary Mary. Reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Gospel Albums chart, the project also became that year’s top-selling gospel album.
Sophomore set Do You Know followed in 2004, debuting at No. 2 on the Gospel Albums tally and No. 3 on Christian Albums. Two years after Destiny’s Child formally disbanded in 2006, Williams segued back to R&B/pop/dance with Unexpected. The 2008 set spun off the hit dance singles “We Break the Dawn” and “The Greatest.”
Between recording projects, Williams began honing her acting skills. She made her theatrical stage debut in 2003 in the title role of the hit Broadway musical “Aida,” succeeding singer Toni Braxton. Williams has since appeared in productions of “The Color Purple” (playing blues singer Shug Avery) national tour, on Broadway and London’s West End in “Chicago” (as chorus girl Roxie Hart), the acclaimed stage play “What My Husband Doesn’t Know,” and a national tour with the musical “Fela!” (as Sandra Isadore). And covering new ground in television this year, Williams stars as a mentor in the new hit Oxygen network series “Fix My Choir” which debuted on November 5, 2014, guiding choirs on their musical journeys. In 2015 Williams had the opportunity to fulfill another dream by launching“Believe at Home”, a bedding and home-goods line available on EVINE Live.
Now Williams is exuberantly embracing her Journey to Freedom. “I’m still standing,” says the singer, “stronger and free from what people think. I’m here to do me. And that’s what this Journey is about: encouraging people to trust their inner voice and go for it.”