Talent the likes of Sheléa’s simply doesn’t come around every day. A gifted singer, songwriter, pianist and performer, Sheléa Frazier caught the attention of many music fans in 2012 via her You Tube clip performing a medley of Whitney Houston songs, shortly after Ms. Houston’s untimely death. Upon going viral, Sheléa’s career has taken on a gradual snowball effect; from releasing her 2013 debut album Love Fell On Me (Breath of Life Records), two celebrated performances at the White House, and the recent Kennedy Center Honors and Handel’s Messiah Celebration, to touring with Stevie Wonder & David Foster, performing at Conferences like NAMM and the Urban Network Digital/Music Industry Quarterly Business of Music Conference; to placing a theme song in the major motion picture, Jumping the Broom. What’s fascinated us at M.I.Q. is that she’s achieving so many benchmarks without a major machine behind her.
Sheléa is gearing up for the springtime release of her sophomore album, Pretty World, her second outing for Breath of Life, now distributed through Universal Music Group. It’s a collection of Jazz/Pop songs all composed by the iconic songwriting team of Alan & Marilyn Bergman. Produced by Sheléa and her collaborative partner Tony Shepherd, the album features guest appearances by acclaimed musicians Kirk Whalum, Greg Phillinganes, Take 6, and Gordon Goodwin & the Big Phat Band, with Stevie Wonder rumored to be on the project as well.
M.I.Q. caught up with the incredibly busy songstress during the holiday season and just days after she spent time performing in Europe.
M.I.Q.: While at the recent Living Legends Dinner, attendees received a sampler of your new album, Pretty World. Unlike your more R&B/Pop leaning debut album, Love Fell On Me, what prompted the move into recording more of a Jazz-Pop Standards collection?
Sheléa: My first album was actually going to be more like the album we’re putting out now. In 2012 was when Whitney passed away, and the tribute I did for her went viral. People were pushing me to record more of an R&B/Pop leaning album, so we recorded Love Fell On Me. I know for some fans and listeners, they’ve been trying to get an idea of who Sheléa truly is. I started off in the church and I love singing Gospel music. I love Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, so that’s always been such a big part of me as well. I kept being put in scenarios where I was doing that type of music. I did a tribute at the White House for Burt Bacharach & Hal David. I ended up meeting the Bergmans, which is how this current album came to be. I thought this was a sign.
I feel like the genre of R&B is a bit confusing right now, and I couldn’t quite find my footing in the space, because what I was doing was perhaps a bit too musical. I grew up hearing Anita Baker, and Toni Braxton, along with Babyface writing these amazing songs. These songs had a verse, and a chorus, a bridge and a key change, if you try to do that now in R&B, people ask, “what is this?” [Playfully laughs].
So, I just felt at this time, R&B was not the lane, and I thought this [American Songbook] lane was so different, for one there really is no one who looks like me – being African American – doing this type of music. And, I would love to fill that void.
What’s the vision for promoting the project, considering the format?
This is not necessarily a radio album, although I do think there are some songs on here that Jazz stations or some Smooth Jazz stations may gravitate to. I think the song “Moonlight” f/Kirk Whalum is one of those strong radio songs. My last album and the single, “I’ll Never Let You Go,” did really well on radio and the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop charts. It was on there for several weeks. I have [indie promoter] Belinda Wilson and her team to thank for doing an awesome job in promoting the song.
I see live performances as a big part in promoting this album. That’s what the label wants to focus on – really creating a tour around this. People want to hear great songs, and interpretations of these songs. The Bergmans have written for everybody from Ray Charles to Quincy Jones, to “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” to the theme for Good Times. They are iconic songwriters.
I met the Bergmans through Narada Michael Walden during an ASCAP event, titled, “We Write the Songs.” Afterwards we were hanging out in the hotel, and [the short version is] Narada suggested to them that I do an album of their songs. They thought it was a wonderful idea. Initially, I didn’t take much stock into it, but by the time I got home, they handpicked 13 songs for me for the album. Some of these songs have never been released before; for instance “The Easy Way,” the song featuring Greg Phillinganes has never been released by anyone. I think the project has the potential to be really special, especially for those who know their history of songwriting.
You have so much going on in your career, and probably more than singers with major label deals. Why do you think so many opportunities come your way?
That’s such a hard question. I don’t have a manager nor an agent. I’m a believer, a spiritual person. There are some doors that I believe that only God can open. There are artists signed to major record labels and have sold millions of albums, and yet have not played the White House or Carnegie Hall, or have done the Governors Awards or the Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards. I’ve been blessed to have done all of those and with no manager, no new album, no nothing.
God’s favor doesn’t replace hard work and preparation. So, there’s so much time that I put into my craft. I try to make sure that every time I step on to that stage that not only do I give my best but that I’m prepared, so that anytime Ricky Minor or David Foster or Stevie Wonder or Kirk Whalum want me to participate in a show, they know I’m going to be prepared. I’m going to be professional. I’m going to be on time and give my best. They know my brand. I’m going to be the smallest diva in the room. I’m not going to be difficult to work with.
You were recently apart of the Carmen de Lavallade tribute at the televised Kennedy Center Honors. What was that experience like for you?
It was such a great opportunity, one of those things that was on the bucket list, that I didn’t see happening for quite some time. Ricky Minor was solely responsible for that. He’s become such a friend and ally. He’s been great at plugging me into the various opportunities that come his way. He was the music director. It was one of those pinch me moments. I will say, though, after performing at the White House twice for the Obamas (Tributes to Burt Bacharach & Hal David, and Ray Charles), it really doesn’t get any better than that. It was just as special. Singing “The Right Time” with Anthony Hamilton at the White House was probably the most electrifying moment in my lifetime to date.
You were a part of the Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life tour.
Yes, he did two runs for that tour, because there was such a big demand for it. I came in about half way through the first run, and then the entire second run. There are two versions of Stevie Wonder to me –the one whose is the soundtrack to our lives. He’s why I started playing an instrument. And, then there’s my Steebie, the silly Stevie Wonder. We can’t stop laughing and joking. That is the beauty of who he is. When I was touring with him those two years, it was like this beautiful master class every night.
You’ve also been performing as a featured vocalist on various David Foster shows.
I perform songs recorded by Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, and Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable,” songs David was associated with as a writer or producer. Over the last couple of years, I’ve done a lot of one-offs with David— foundation events or galas. We did an event for ALS, and St. Jude’s Hospital. We recently did an Air Asia event in Malaysia. He’s actually preparing a David Foster & Friends tour kicking off in April, that I’m really excited to be a part of that. I just did a PBS taping with David in Budapest that will air in June. He’s become such a real genuine friend and we have a special musical connection.
How much did the Whitney tribute play as a turning point in your career?
It was huge, and for a lot of reasons. I think that was the moment when I said you gotta do a record. Prior to that, I had been working behind the scenes. I wrote the song “Love Fell On Me” for the motion picture, Jumping the Broom. I had written three songs for Chante Moore; one of them the late George Duke produced, “It’s Not Supposed to be this Way.” I co-wrote a song for Vanessa Williams. I was so happy just writing. I did the Whitney tribute with no true expectations in mind. It was really for myself, for my family and close friends who knew how much I loved her. I didn’t expect such a massive response. The most moving moment was when her daughter Bobbi Kristina found me – May she rest in peace – and said how her Mom would’ve been so proud of me, and when I sing, that she felt her spirit with me. I actually had some guilt about this. This beautiful moment was happening to me, but it was at the expense of Whitney being gone. I struggled with that. I felt like I would give this moment back just for Whitney to still be with us.
I’ve often said that had you come out in the ‘80s or ‘90s, you would’ve had some prominent record executive like a Clive Davis, Tommy Mottola or L.A. Reid championing your career. Is the big record deal still the ultimate goal?
I think that remains to be seen. There are so many independent artists that are making so much noise, and social media has just changed the game. Look at what Chance the Rapper did without having a machine behind him. I think the industry has changed so much. I do make jokes sometimes like, “20- 30 years just a little too late” [laughs]. That’s okay! But my time is now, and I’m making music that is touching people. I’m just one or two moments away from things bursting wide open, and it can be anything these days – like getting on a TV show such as Empire; or a movie role with a significant music element to it; or Adele hears about me and thinks that I’m amazing. That could be the thing and then it’s off to the races.