Q&A: Vanessa Williams

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Cultural icon Vanessa Williams will be joining The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and the San Francisco Symphony this holiday season for two magical nights of graceful vocals and tantalizing harmonies in the city by the Bay. The iconic singer/actress that’s sold millions of records worldwide and received critical acclaim for her work in film, television, and Broadway, will perform an inspiring musical set filled with soul, jazz, and Christmas classics alongside the symphony at the prestigious Davis Symphony Hall.

In anticipation of the show, Williams was gracious enough to chat with our musical theater correspondent Gavin Delgado from her house in New York, where they talked about what this show means to her, what songs she’s looking forward to performing most, and what other projects she’s currently working on.

Let me start by saying welcome back to San Francisco! I last saw you at The Nourse Theater with Seth Rudetsky and that was like three years ago?
Yes, I think you’re right!

So how does it feel to come back to San Francisco?
It’s a great city and working with the San Francisco Symphony is phenomenal. It’s always a treat for me to sing with them because I get a chance to hear all of my charts with a full orchestra. So not only is it nice to hear my hits from an audience’s perspective but for me singing I just get so full.

Can you tell me a little about the upcoming Holiday Soul?
We’re doing it Dec. 7 and 8. We’re doing a couple of Christmas tunes by request. But I also do my hits like “Save the Best for Last,” “The Sweetest Days,” “Dreamin””, “Colors of the Wind,” and I will also be doing songs to introduce my band. Some Broadway stuff and a couple of Christmas tunes with the choir I believe.

Vanessa Williams
Vanessa Williams

Are you gonna bust out “The Right Stuff?”
We certainly do a little-edited version of it, in order to do a chronological run of the show. With my normal set, I can go up to 90 minutes. So, when I do my full show we go into much more depth. We will see for sure with the additions of the Christmas songs how much we can do the old stuff.

I’ll tell you that was my jam back in the day. When my partner and I met, he made me a mix tape and that was one of the highlights. That and “Save the Best for Last.”
Awwww, that’s great!

What are you looking forward to most about performing with the San Francisco Symphony?
Well, they’re one of the best in the country, which is fantastic. And Rob Mathes which is my musical conductor for all my symphony concerts arranged all of the charts, which are beautiful. So it’s a treat for me to hear my hits the way they’re meant to be with a full orchestra. Not having to do any synthesizers and substitutions.

Are you planning on performing with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir?
Yeah, we’re planning on performing a couple of tunes with them. It’s an opportunity for me to sing with a full choir behind me. It’s an opportunity to get full and I’m completely overwhelmed and feel so complete when everything is firing at the same time.

I have to say you were sensational with Seth Rudetsky with just a piano so I can only imagine what this is going to sound like.
Seth and I probably do about two a year depending on my availability and what he’s looking for. Telling the stories is always fantastic with Seth and he always mixes it up so you never know what you’re gonna get. But it’s such a luxury to have an orchestra support me and it’ll be a wonderful couple of nights.

Apart from the songs and performance, what else are you looking forward to?
Let’s see. My mom’s flying in. She gets to pick and chose which symphony concerts she wants to go to. San Francisco is definitely a sweet trip to go on. So it’ll be nice to have her in the house along with other friends and family. I haven’t been to San Francisco in a bit. I think the last time was two years ago when our nephew and niece had a new baby.

So you have family here in the city?
Yes, through my husband’s side.

What is it like performing with the symphony as opposed to a traditional band? What do you prefer?
The unique thing about symphonies even though there’s a massive orchestra onstage, it’s a very intimate experience. It’s a very raw performance. There are no tricks. Nowadays on the radio, we’re so used to hearing Pro-Tools vocals that are perfect and in terms of a symphony, you get a chance to be kind of exposed. And that’s what I love about it. You really get a chance to see what somebody is really like on stage, and my gift is to tell stories. When people say “Oh my god, you made me cry!” I know that I’ve done my job. I’m telling a story through my music as a character and as a person. That’s what moves people.

I love to be able to surprise an audience, especially for people that maybe don’t know my music but just know me as an actress on television.

And what about the audience? I know from seeing you that the room is silent when you start singing since everyone is so into it. Do you feel that, do you get that from the audience as well?
I do but I don’t let it phase me. Sometimes you think “Am I bombing?” But I trust that they are along for the ride. I approach my music as an actor. So I think about my moment before. I think about what this particular character is going through and I tell a story from beginning to end. And I’m lucky to have hits that have stood the test of time over the past 30 years. The melodies are the things that people can sing along to and stays with them and resonates. It’s wonderful to have a funky beat and something to dance to but it’s also great to have songs that live with people, that are meaningful and mean something and can really move them.

Do you have any particular favorites that you like to sing?
“Save the Best for Last,” is now a karaoke classic. So it amazes me now when we start the first 5 notes that people’s phones light up and people start singing along, which is wonderful. Hmm, I mean there are so many moments in each song. I love when I get a chance to do the Broadway stuff. I do a transition from “Sweetest days,” which is a song written for my children into “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods. People that don’t know the song are moved by it, and people that know the musical during the transition light up and love the opportunity. I love to be able to surprise an audience, especially for people that maybe don’t know my music but just know me as an actress on television.

I’m glad that you mentioned “Children Will Listen” because I love when you do Sondheim and Kander and Ebb. I think I’ve listened to Kiss of the Spider Woman at least a million times.
Thank you, thank you. You know that was my first main role on Broadway and it’s still my favorite because it was a collective triumph not only for me but for everyone that I had been on Broadway and theater from High School to College. It was such a dynamic role for me.

Speaking of Broadway, are there any plans in the future to return to Broadway?
Well, one thing is in the works. I’m working on something for Roundabout, so hopefully, we can make it happen.

If not, then Ugly Betty the musical? [laughs]
No that would be … I would love that. [laughs]

That would be kind of funny. I mean they’ve done everything else so why not?
Exactly, I think that would lend itself perfectly. [laughs]

Holiday Soul with Vanessa Williams // Davies Symphony Hall // Fri, Dec 7, 2018 at 7:30pm -Sat, Dec 8, 2018 at 7:30pm // BUY TICKETS


Having released albums under Digital Nations, a label founded by Steve Vai, music critic Louis Raphael has remained deeply connected to the pulse of the San Francisco music scene. Following his tenure as the San Francisco Music Examiner for Examiner.com and AXS.com, he embarked on creating Music in SF® to authentically highlight the vibrant offerings of the city's music scene.

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