With a new single about to drop, a solo album in the works and a starring role in a national tour of a Broadway musical, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that Michelle Williams (pictured) once had difficulty just getting out of bed.
The singer-actress – one third of Destiny’s Child alongside Beyonce and Kelly Rowland – said that in the past few months she has emerged from years of suffering from moderate depression. Her dark cloud lifted thanks to exercise, therapy and positive thinking.
“I’ve dealt with depression,” the 32-year-old said during a break in rehearsals for a new touring production of “Fela!” that kicks off later this month. “I had to choose to get out of bed and do whatever I needed to do to be happy.”
Williams says she suffered her first bout of depression at 15 or 16 and has managed to avoid medication. She is speaking out for the first time about her battle to encourage others to seek help.
“We’re taught, `Just go to church and pray about it. The Lord is going to heal you.’ Well, in the meantime, I believe God-gifted people, physicians, doctors, therapists – that’s your healing. Take advantage of it,” she said. “Go see a professional so that they can assess you. It’s OK if you’re going through something. Depression is not OK, but it is OK to go get help.”
Williams on this day is bursting with energy, smiling and laughing, her body even leaner than normal as she dives into the frenetic biography of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who died in 1997.
In the rehearsal room, Williams bounces in her chair with the other cast members as the show’s hybrid of jazz and pop songs swells. Though she’s a Grammy Award winner, she easily hugs her fellow performers and wears sweat pants and a tank top. Where’s the diva? “Who has time for that?” she said. “That’s just dumb. I come from Rockford, Ill. – there’s no divas there.”
Williams will be playing the role of Sandra Isadore, who was Fela’s African-American lover. Maija Garcia, the tour director and choreographer, said the presence of a Destiny’s Child member in the cast “empowers the musical.”
“Sandra is our key for an American audience to look at Fela and understand a bit more where Fela may have been coming from,” Garcia said. “And an American audience can very much identify with Michelle Williams because she’s of our time. She really becomes a vehicle for people to learn about Fela and for people to understand why Fela is relevant in the United States.”
The show, which made it to Broadway in 2009, is set for a 16-city tour starting at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 29. By the time summer rolls around, it will have visited Miami, Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle and Nashville, Tenn.
Williams is looking forward to cheese steaks – extra provolone, please – and fabulous food on the road. “I know it doesn’t look like I eat – I’m just blessed with a high metabolism right now,” she said. “I’m having a time trying to gain weight.”
The Jan. 29 date is important to Williams for another reason. That’s when Destiny’s Child releases “Love Songs,” a collection of previously released songs as well as a new track co-written by Williams, “Nuclear,” the group’s first new recording since 2004.
The new song was recorded before Christmas in Los Angeles when all three members were recording their own solo projects. While Williams said the trio isn’t ready to make a new full-length CD right now, the old magic that created songs including “Say My Name” and “Bootylicious” is still there.
“Stacking those harmonies on top (of) each other gave me goose bumps,” she said of recording the new song. “We were like, `We still sound good together.’ Duh! The bond will never die. We’re always going to be close. We’re always going to work together.”
“It’s amazing that people are still fascinated by the connection. It’s been about eight years since we released original material and people still ask me, `Do you all talk?’ We could take a picture together today and then tomorrow, people would say, `Do you all still talk?’”
But Williams was coy about whether she and Rowland will join Beyonce at the Super Bowl halftime show on Feb. 3. “Who knows?” she said with a smile. “We make sure not to go too long without doing something.”
Williams has her own CD – her fourth – that she’s putting the final touches on, an album of original Christian pop influenced by her own struggles, which includes being bullied. She laughs that she hopes listeners will be inspired, even if that sounds cliched.
“Sometimes you’re going to wake up on the wrong side of the bed or some situation might have you down in the dumps, but you have to choose to be happy,” she said. “I’m choosing life. And I’m hoping this album makes people want to choose life.”
In the meantime, there’s her fifth stage show to concentrate on. Williams adds the character of Sandra Isadore to a list that includes the title role of “Aida” on Broadway and Roxie Hart in “Chicago” on Broadway and in London.
“People might look at my resume and be confused. I’m not just one thing,” she said. But switching genres and projects – she one day wants to record jazz and bluegrass albums – comes naturally.
“People I look up to did it all the time – Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye,” she said. “Sometimes I’m like, `Man, I really should be more like my other peers and really stick to one thing,’ but I love what I do.”