THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)
20th September, 2007 0
She is alternately laughing, singing, and sharing a few introspective thoughts with me over the phone. I can't see her face, or judge her expression. Still, I sense nothing about her that is disingenuous. There is no opportunistic aspect in the telling of a true, and sometimes heartbreaking, story. Nonetheless, I do sense a bit of restraint. There is something not altogether shared. It's bursting to come out, but it's quietly shushed and only allowed expression in bits and pieces, conveyed down a long, thin wire, through the handset of a communication device that precludes all other observation.
I don't see Sharrie's eyes when she tells me about where she came from, but I sense that the story goes far deeper than she's telling.
I get the impression of a little girl lost, still wandering about inside the warm, charismatic persona that years of spiritual evolution have brought into a deeply affected adult. The little one, wanting to be heard, is doing battle with an older, wiser woman who has seen too much.
The older woman is wary: guarding her ward with sensitivity, dignity, and grace. To be clear, the undercurrent of the conflict holds no negative aspect: it simply reflects a deeper part of who this person is. Sharrie Williams speaks softly. She is a sweet, polite individual in my discussion with her. It's nearly a walking contradiction to the depth of expression and power of voice she presents onstage.
Somehow, it all seems to come together. As an interviewer, I want to know exactly how.
I ask Sharrie where it all began. Who were you when you started? What has brought about change in you over the years?
These are typical interview questions. But, unlike the VH1 Behind the Music sob story of "_______ (enter artist here) went through years of addiction and abuse to take solace in her music", Sharrie William's story is gut wrenchingly real. And her answer to the first hard question lays it out in no uncertain terms.
The question was who is the Sharrie Williams that nobody gets to see?
"Sharrie is the little girl who would sit at the mirror with a toothbrush or brush or comb and sing in the mirror. I sang what everyone did: Diana Ross songs, Michael Jackson, Nat Cole. I grew up in church, and I sang gospels to myself. It was my way of expressing myself. Sometimes, it was all I had."
She didn't seem to give it much thought, she says, until a key disappointment redirected her. Unfortunately for Sharrie, the discovery had to happen after a painful realization that what you may want at the time, wellŠisn't always what you were made for.
"I was always a chubby child." She says, softly. "I never did slim out like I was 'supposed' to. It was really hard. At the time, I was trying out for the pompon squad. I really wanted to make it. And this was just a real challenge for me. I really wasn't going to be a pompon girl."
Painting the picture of this sensitive kid... wanting something so much, and facing the ultimate disappointment it brought, Sharrie was to change direction dramatically under the guidance of a teacher who encouraged her to pursue, of all things, her ability to sing. "I never knew I could really do it, until my teacher encouraged me. When I saw everyone's response, I realized this is what I was supposed to do." From that moment on, she says, "I just didn't spend my energy on the other stuff."
That's where it all started. Sharrie would pursue her new direction by taking every opportunity that came along. She relays years of wallowing in basement bands, entering talent competitions, and scratching her way through countless combinations of small thinking groups in crowded basements and garages. "I started out being a little busy body" she says "I was getting in with the wrong crowd."
"They were always average (players) at best, and they were always saying We're really gonna turn this into something." She said she remembers her mother's influence, gently directing her to find a level of motivation that exceeded outside influence. "My mama told me something simple, something I would never forget. If you never see yourself there, if you can't envision it, it will never happen." says Sharrie. ""It was coming from a woman of faith, and it was advice I really took to heart".
"Of course" she says, "Everyone tried to tell me I was unrealistic. I remember the famous quote from a guy I played with in a basement band." She begins to chuckle, almost embarrassed to share the anecdote. "He told me: Sharrie, you know only one in a million ever make it to the top." Emboldened by her newfound vision, Sharrie relates how she looked him in the eye, and said without a moment's hesitation:
"I am that one."
Despite her confidence and sense of direction, Sharrie fell into the trap all too common in the music business. She partnered with an abusive spouse, which would lead to drug addiction and negative behavior. She calls it the lowest point in her career. "The addiction came out of the abuse" she said. "You would just do anything you can to numb those feelings, and that's where, for me, the blues began".
At this point, she takes a moment to just breathe. It's not fun, this topic. She clears her head with a few Billie Holiday verses, serenading me over the phone; and continues. "Billie knew exactly what she was talkin' about" she said softly. "She knew what a woman goes through".
Taking Holiday's lead, Sharrie Williams began to realize something fundamental in her seven and a half years of addiction and abuse. The cycle was not going to break itself. "And it was robbing me of my dream". She said.
She explains a time when the fear of losing her career outweighed her fear of her abuser. Williams describes what sounds like waking from a bad dream, understanding that the only way to clear the mind was to step outside of it and find something good. "I'd sing a song and find some freedom there. It began to be a release for me".
Eventually, her change in mental approach took the form of physical escape, and she found the man of her dreams would be the one to open her mind to new and wonderful possibilities. "The husband I have nowŠhe came alongŠand I say he saved me. He opened up a door for me to begin playing in clubs and pushed me toward my dreams. When I finally had my own band, doing what I wanted to do, I said Wow! I can really do this!"
To Sharrie, it underscores the fact that everybody needs somebody.
Sharrie Williams has done well for herself in garnering a record deal overseas and touring in support of that commitment. But fast forwarding through many clubs, deals, and methods of approach, she points out what every other musician who has dreamed of success has had to face.
"They always say it's not what you know but who you know. Man, it's a struggle. It's a part of payin' dues."
"In this business" she says "It's a dog eat dog world. So I think I'll always be payin' those dues. But there surely has to be a time where I'm at least comfortable.. and I can say hey, I'm done payin' for now".
She says the biggest misconceptions about her are that her success overseas made life easy. "People think: She's got money. She's goin' overseas. She's got all this opportunity".
In reality, she says, "It ain't like that. They don't see me on the tour bus for days on end, tired and sick. It's work, man. It's really hard work. But all they see is the finished product. They don't know what goes into it."
Seeking that comfortable place where she can limit paying the piper a bit, Williams has come a little closer to making it. Now featured on an American label, she has gone national "At home, where it matters to me".
From the little girl in front of a mirror, to the mature woman who knows too much about the brutality of life, there are still places where the lines cross. There is still an underlying current of the innocence, in all of this. There is still hope, above all.
Both in and out of the spotlight, Sharrie Williams stakes her strength in the hard parts, though now; she is committing her negative experience into a positive energy. "Now I work through my music to send a message to all the women who live where I was" she says. "I want them to know they aren't alone; I've been there". She says. "It's hardŠ but you can get out of it."
Looking back, she says, "It's been a very hard road. Mama used to say, You gotta go through something to get something. It's been a challenge. But now I'm here to stay." On the surface, her story may sound ironically like a cliché episode of VH1's Behind the Music.
But, in truth, it is what it is.
The truth in Sharrie Williams is that she has overcome addiction. She has overcome Abuse. And, above all, she has, truly, found solace in her music.
In Sharrie's mind, perhaps all anyone will ever see is the "finished product". In the minds of those who hear her sing, who feel her message as much as hear it, she is still a work in progress. She has now moved from paying dues, to paying it forward. From struggling herself, to throwing a lifeline to those who struggle.
For Sharrie, on the stage, there is freedom. In that brief moment of time, between all the parts we don't see: The travel, rehearsal, the dog-eat-dog and the fatigue, everything fades away.
It is then that the rest of the story is revealed. It's the part that can't be conveyed in an interview.
It's the part of someone's life that's too powerful to be carried over a phone line. When the music is playing and the lights burn down on a woman who has been there too many times, it is that precise moment that the little girl under the surface gets a chance to come out and play.
That, my friends, is an incredibly beautiful thing.
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THE NEW GILDED AGE (Part 2)