If you haven’t heard of break out star Sheléa, then you don’t know what you’re missing! She’s a beautiful person inside and out with an amazing singing voice that will leave you with chills– the good kind!
Music legend Quincy Jones named Sheléa “one of the greatest artists of her generation… After working with Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan, you know when you see one– and Sheléa is really one.”
Just like the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, an artist Sheléa greatly admires, Sheléa got her musical start in the church. She grew up in a very religious family and her father was also a minister. Around 11-years-old, Sheléa started playing for her church.
“I thought that was going to be the extent of using my gift,” the singer told me, “but it wasn’t until I went away to college and I joined this girls’ group. That was when I was getting the first taste of being in the studio and writing and producing. I just caught the bug. I was like, ‘this is all I want to do’ (laughs).”
Before the singer/songwriter began her singing career, she worked behind the scenes writing and producing music for other artists. She started working with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis at Jimmy Jam records. To her credit, Sheléa has written songs for R&B artists Vanessa Williams, Chanté Moore and the a cappella gospel sextet Take 6.
She also wrote and performed in film soundtracks for Akeelah and the Bee, Jumping the Broom, and All the Way. “I started kind of doing that first– just writing and producing behind the scenes,” Sheléa explained. “I wrote [a song] for this film called Jumping the Broom. I wrote the theme song called “Love Fell on Me.”
Soon her family and friends encouraged Sheléa to start pursuing her singing career. The singer said that’s when things really started happening. She then met music legend Stevie Wonder and the two became good friends.
Sheléa told me Wonder was instrumental in her 2012 performance at the White House for President Barak Obama and First Lady Michele Obama. The performance was in celebration of the Gershwin Prize honorees and legendary composer Burt Bacharach and lyricist Hal David. In 2016, she was invited back to the White House for the Ray Charles Tribute concert.
The singer has been busy with her current projects. She finished filming and recording a PBS special, which is airing throughout the month of March. On March 8th, the singer’s new album was released.
Pretty World: Through the Eyes of Alan & Marilyn Bergman is an album which honors the 16-time Academy Award, Emmy, Grammy, and three-time Oscar-nominated songwriting duo Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The legendary Stevie Wonder is also featured on the album in the song “Pretty World”.
Sheléa also stars in the upcoming music biopic The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel. The film will premiere on Lifetime
later this Spring April 11, 2020, and it is executive produced by Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot, and Mary J. Blige.
I recently connected with Sheléa to learn more about her music career, upcoming PBS special, and role in the new Clark Sisters movie.
It was such a delight talking to Sheléa as she is genuinely friendly and her energy is incredibly positive. I left our conversation feeling inspired and motivated. I hope you enjoy today’s interview feature with Sheléa!
JH: For readers who are not familiar with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, can you tell us who they are?
Sheléa: “Well, they are the cutest couple (laughs). They’re both in their 90s right now. They’re this writing team that literally got their big break with Frank Sinatra. They wrote “Nice and Easy” for Frank Sinatra. They wrote “The Way We Were” for Barbra Streisand. They wrote all of these American Songbook classics what are you doing the rest of your life. They’re just legendary songwriters.
I met them– I was doing an event for ASCAP and we just connected. They said, ‘‘You should do an album of our songs.’ So they literally hand-picked 12 songs from their catalog and a couple of songs that have never been released before. [The album is] just kind of my love letter to them as songwriters.”
JH: That’s amazing! You also worked with Stevie Wonder on the new album?
Sheléa: I did! He’s on the title track “A Pretty World”. As I said, he’s a huge mentor and friend.
JH: Music legend Quincy Jones said you’re one of the greatest artists of your generation. That’s an amazing honor, first of all. How did that make you feel knowing that he said that about you?
Sheléa: Oh my goodness (laughs)! It’s so humbling and it’s so… I don’t know. It’s one of those things where you just kind of pinch yourself because I remember listening to Quincy Jones when I was a little girl. Just loving him as a producer. And of course, after watching his Netflix film documentary (Quincy, 2018)
I already loved him, but now it’s just so much deeper when you realize just how impactful he is and how important he is to just music history. So to have somebody of that magnitude say that about me it’s just the best feeling in the world.”
JH: Can you tell me a little bit about your PBS special with David Foster what can fans expect?
Sheléa: I’m so excited! It’s going to start airing all of March and it’s going to be in literally 60% of the country, which I am so so excited about! It’s called Quincy Jones Presents Sheléa.
It’s almost just showing my journey– just my life journey in music so it covers everything: the Whitney inspiration, my Aretha inspiration, my church roots– I’m able to show that, as well.
It’s just this beautiful journey that just shows every artist that has inspired me as a songwriter. It shows that I’m a singer, songwriter, musician… I just can’t wait for everybody to see it!
JH: I saw the preview of it and I’m excited to see it!
Sheléa: Aww! Thank you so much!
JH: Now I know you mentioned you do an Aretha tribute in the special. I’m based in Detroit so, of course, Aretha Franklin is very special to the city of Detroit. Why is Aretha and her music special to you?
Sheléa: To me, she is one of the only artists, I believe, living or dead who could almost pretty much sing everything. I mean, she had the soulfulness from the church. She could do jazz… She would do the standards. Of course, she could do R&B and soul. And what I loved about her is that she brought Aretha to every song. She didn’t try to fit into whatever mold the genre called for. She was going to “Aretha-ize it” (laughs). That’s what I always call it. And I love that because she was so true to herself.
She knew who she was an artist and her sound was so signature. She brought it to every single song, and she was so truthful and told the story so compellingly and soulfully. That’s why she is so special to me.
I never got to meet her, but I was touring with Stevie Wonder on The Key of Life Tour and when it came to Detroit, she was there. So I can at least say I did sing for her. I don’t know what impact it made, but I can really say that.
People that are close to her said, ‘She would absolutely have loved you’. When I did the tribute to her, you know, people were saying it just brought the spirit of her. The same when I did it for Whitney (Sheléa sings a Whitney Houston tribute on her PBS special). Nobody can ever be Whitney. Nobody can ever be Aretha and Barbara (Streisand), but you know, you can still bring your own truth and your own interpretation. And every time I sing [Aretha’s] songs, I try to find the truth of it, and it’s just always so rewarding to sing her songs.
JH: That’s beautiful! So you also did a Lifetime film about the Clark Sisters.
Sheléa: Yes! Also from Detroit! (Laughs)
JH: Yeah! (Laughs) Why did you want to do this role?
Sheléa: You know, I feel like The Clark Sisters– they are all living and so that’s such a cool thing to honor them and to give them their props and give them their flowers while they’re still living.
I thought this film really really allows people to not just know their music but to know their story and I think that’s a beautiful beautiful honor. It really shows not only just how impactful they are, but how impactful their mother Dr. Mattie Clark was– and really we don’t have The Clark Sisters without Dr. Mattie Moss Clark.
It was such an honor to play Dorinda (Clark-Cole), one of the sisters, in this biopic of their life story. I just can’t wait for the world to see just who they were as people and to fall in love with their music all over again.
They were so ahead of their time. Twinkie (Clark) was doing all of the arrangements and songwriting and she’s literally a genius. I don’t think she always gets her dues, but she is a literal genius and a huge defining component to their sound. I mean, even now, Jay-Z sampled one of their songs (“Ha Ya Eternal Life”) on his latest release (“Family Feud”) and it just shows how impactful they are decades later.
JH: Speaking of telling stories, especially for black women, I was looking through your Instagram and one picture that I really liked was the photo of you with the quote: “Fire of my mama. Desire of Pam Grier. Power of Angela Davis. Authority of Winnie Mandela. Can’t nothing bring me down.” I really love that image. Why was this image important for you to share?
Sheléa: You know, it was actually one of the looks during the movie while I was filming (laughs).
JH: Oh okay! (Laughs)
Sheléa: When I saw it, it just struck me that I look like my mom and she’s one of the most powerful women I know– the most resilient spirit.
When I saw it, it just kind of pricked something in me and I had an emotional response to it. I just wanted to share it because all of those women I listed are part of my story and why I’m here. They’ve given me the strength to be who I am today in 2019.
I just wanted to give a shout out to them and just represent in the best way of being a powerful woman, first, and just, of course, a black woman today. Just kind of showing the power and resilience of that, as well.
JH: I think it’s also important for artists such as yourself using your platform to educate the younger generation about our history and other powerful black women so that they can know who they are.
Sheléa: Absolutely. Absolutely.
JH: Also, on Instagram, you mentioned in your recent post that you transitioned to a plant-based lifestyle. What made you decide to become vegan?
Sheléa: I’ve been vegetarian all my life. I was choosing to be vegan for the movie (laughs). I wanted to stay healthy, and you know, be a little smaller, too (laughs).
But it was really just that I didn’t want to get sick. So I cut out dairy. I cut out processed sugar and carbs. I knew right after the movie I had a tour and so I could not afford to get sick because I had to sing right after this (filming The Clark Sisters biopic).
I was talking to a friend of mine who is vegan. He was like, ‘You know, you’re doing this just for this season, but you’re already doing it. Why would you go back to eating dairy when you’re obviously showing yourself that you can do it.’
Although it wasn’t really anything profound, it just struck me very differently. Why would I go back to eating it? If I’m making these amazing choices to be healthy, why not continue and just live that way?
And so that’s what I’m doing. I love cheese (laughs). I love ice cream and cookies and all that stuff. Nowadays in 2019, you can find vegan options of vegan cupcakes and cookies, even though that’s not necessarily the best healthy thing to do all the time either, but if I do want to indulge, I can indulge in a way that still supports that lifestyle of being vegan. So I’m really going to commit to it, and every time I make a choice I just say, you know, I’m adding quality to my life and that’s been helping.”
JH: That’s amazing and good for you for doing that! So my last question for you is what is your life mantra?
Sheléa: I’ve had so many, but right now the one that’s kind of been sticking with me is that God has the final say.
I think for me it’s because life can be so predictable in an amazing and sometimes in difficult ways. You know, a lot of times we think something is going a certain way and it turns suddenly.
I’m a Believer, and when I tell that to myself– when it’s kind of a challenging thing– you know, it may seem like it’s going in a way that’s not positive or in a disappointing turn. I just tell myself, God has the final say.
So I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m going to stay positive. I’m going to stay proactive, and I’m going to do my very best because at the end of the day it’s not over till it’s over. Until God has the final say.
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