Vanessa Williams: The Real Thing Vanessa Williams is a singer, songwriter, actor and mother of four — and, apparently, an excellent multi-tasker. While performing on TV's Ugly Betty, she also found time to record her 13th album, The Real Thing, released this month.
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Vanessa Williams: The Real Thing

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Vanessa Williams: The Real Thing

Vanessa Williams: The Real Thing

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Vanessa Williams sure is multi-tasking: singer, songwriter, actress, mother of four. That's multi-tasking. While performing her Emmy-nominated role as the top villain on TV's "Ugly Betty," she managed to find time to record her 13th album. It's called "The Real Thing."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. VANESSA WILLIAMS (Singer): (Singing) Candlelight, a glass of wine, (unintelligible) for that special time with you, babe. Feels like a dream, but I'm still awake.

SIMON: Vanessa Williams joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, it's a pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: Can I ask an "Ugly Betty" question first off?

(Soundbite of laughter)


SIMON: Is it fun to be so - errrh?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It is fantastic. The fact that I get a chance to - well, our writers are remarkable. So my dialogue is great. Our directing is great. So they let us really kind of expand upon what's on the page, and the ensemble is great to work with. So it's the best of all types of worlds.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Ugly Betty")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Wilhelmina Slater) Did you see the look on Daniel's face? Terror. If there's one thing I know how to do, it's manipulate fear.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) You are a horror movie I wish would never end.

SIMON: And does it, at the same time, make it particularly important to keep up your musical career, another identity too?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it's been interesting because I have a whole new fan base now, a lot of young teenage girls that watch "Ugly Betty" with their moms, and also, you know, I was just in the recent Hannah Montana film, which is definitely skewed, like, nine and 12. A lot of kids had no idea that I could sing. So it's nice to have a flip side of a career where I'm seen as a villain every week on TV, but I get a chance to show the softer side as a recording artist.

(Soundbite of song, "The Real Thing")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Let me hear you say baby. Let me hear you say the word. Send your love in a hurry.

SIMON: The song we just heard, a Stevie Wonder song, how did you go about deciding what was going to be on this CD?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, the song, "The Real Thing," was from Sergio Mendes' "Brazil 77" album, and my father, who was a music teacher, played lots of different types of music in our house growing up. So I always loved Latin music, and I always loved jazz and pretty much everything. My dad played classical and Beatles and what have you. So this is one of the songs from my past that I always loved and said, you know, one of these days I'd love to record that song, and when I thought about the direction for this album, I wanted to do something kind of Latin and Brazilian but also stay in the jazz flavor, and Concord Records was the perfect fit.

(Soundbite of song, "The Real Thing")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) The real thing. (Unintelligible). The real thing…

SIMON: Is there a theme to this album?

Ms. WILLIAMS: The intentional theme was - and as an artist, I always approach lyrics and song content like an actor. You know, what am I trying to evoke and what is the story that I want to tell? And most of the songs that I tend to gravitate towards have to do with love, have to do with history.

There's a song called "Hello Like Before" from Bill Withers, and it's just about reminiscing and seeing each other after years and years, and it feels comfortable and warm and fantastic. A lot has to do with love, and I guess that's been a staple for the hits that I've had, certainly "Save the Best for Last" and "The Sweetest Days," but it also has to do with telling a story. And you know, I'm 46 years old. I've got lots of stories and lots of memories to think about love.

SIMON: Let's listen to a little bit of what you do with that Bill Withers' standard, "Hello Like Before."

(Soundbite of song, "Hello Like Before")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Hello like before. I'd never come here if I'd known that you are here. I must admit, though, that it's nice to see you here. You look like you've been doing well.

SIMON: Now, I have read that Bill Withers was an important figure in your family.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, you know, Bill Withers reminds me of the days where my brother and I would be in the Ford Econoline van. We each got our bunk, and we would go on these long road trips back in the day when gas was, like, you know, 30 cents a gallon, and my parents would complain that it was going up to 35 cents a gallon, oh my gosh, and you know, we would have an eight-track cassette, and we'd have the Temptations, and Bill Withers was one of the favorites.

And while I was recording this particular album and doing "Hello Like Before," John Burk, who was the executive producer of the album, said that he had a surprise for me, and while I was doing the vocals, Bill Withers snuck in to the actual recording studio. And it was wonderful to see him, but I saw him, and I immediately burst into tears. I said, oh, I've got to call my mom. Hold on a second.

And I called, I got my mom on the phone, and I just said, you know, mom, Bill Withers is in the studio, and I'm doing a song, and it just reminded me of my dad because he passed away three years ago, and he looked like my dad, and he had the same kind of relaxed presence, and it was just, just a wonderful moment in the studio for me.

SIMON: Would you mind telling me a little bit about the Hannah Montana movie?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, it was one of those calls that came in. I've got a daughter who is nine years old and has been a big Hannah Montana fan for a couple years now. We've done every possible event that you could for Miley Cyrus.

So when my management called and said, listen, you know, we manage Miley. She's about the do the Hannah Montana movie. It's a small role. Would you be interested? And I said, Jim, don't even send me the script. It's a yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: I made a quick call to Sasha. I said, guess what? You're not going to believe it. Guess who's going to be in the new Hannah Montana film? And she freaked out, and I got a chance to - you know, school was out last summer, and I brought her down to Nashville, where we were shooting, and we were out on a farm and finished the day, and Billy Ray said, listen, you know, my house isn't too far away from here. Would you like to come and - he knew I was a big fan of horses - and come meet my horses, and we can have the girls hang down by the creek and swing on a swing set, and I said sounds great. And we loaded them up in the car, and you know, Sasha got to the house, and you know, Miley was there, and little sister Noah, who was her age, and they said they wanted to go swimming. And Sasha didn't bring a bathing suit, and Miley said, well, you can borrow one of mine, and she was in heaving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: It's going to be hard to top that, isn't it?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I know. I'm done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, turning back to this album, if we could, is there a song that you'd particularly like to call to our attention?

Ms. WILLIAMS: There's one song that kind of bridged the gap from viewers that know me as Wilhelmina and, you know, my vocal stylings and this softer, smoother jazz side, and it was an old Lena Horne song that is called "Come On Strong," and it - you know, the sentiment is about, you know, listen, if you're going to love me, say it, do it, bring it, and that's exactly what Wilhelmina's MO is. You know, don't waste my time. What are you trying to say? And this is, in a much subtler way, has to do with, you know, if you're going to love me, I want to hear violins. I want to see harlequins. I want you to make sure that I am treated like a lady, and that's one of my favorite tracks, "Come on Strong."

SIMON: Let's listen to a little bit, if we can.

(Soundbite of song, "Come on Strong")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) If you're going to kiss me, don't just merely kiss me. Baby, kiss me lovely and long. I want to be…

SIMON: I get the point.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: And that's only half of the first line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I hadn't heard that before. That's a nice - that's an impressive song, let me put it that way.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

SIMON: Vanessa Williams. Her newest album is called "The Real Thing." She joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you so much.

SIMON: And you can hear more songs from the album at This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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