(Photo courtesy of Rogers & Cowan PMK)
Controversy At Its Best
An Interview on Embracing Creative Change With Crystal Lewis
By Sarah Komisky
Change brings controversy. And when it comes to singer, and songwriter, Crystal Lewis, controversy in the best way possible. To her own admission, she is an artist who has always been about change. Her newest release, “Together We Can,” is a zinger of candor that raises a banner of hope, courage, and joy amidst a fractured pandemic culture as well as a fractured church. Some of which, tragically questioned Crystal’s morality, faith, and musical choices post-separation and divorce in 2016/17 as well as her decision to expand her creative borders beyond the CCM industry. As she mentioned to me in the following interview, “You can try something new at any point in your life. In my case, 50, and see where it leads you.”
For fans of Crystal, like myself, the criticism seemed unfair and a bit amiss to the bigger picture at hand of what Crystal is trying to do in the now. Hence, when the opportunity came to interview her at Marked Ministry Magazine, I quickly knew my answer. In many ways, I resonated with the singer. Similarly, our magazine has also not been without controversy for our artistry, out-of-the-box thinking, and bridge between the church and culture. And if I had a moment to have a conversation highlighting a different point of view on positivity, I would seize it. Therefore, this conversation is an attempt to do just that as we talk about faith, life, and art. Here is a candid look into the artist of yesterday as well as an introduction to the artist of today. One that is still the same Crystal Lewis we have known and loved, but as she mentioned, “doing it a different way.”
On the heels of her newest release, I meet with Crystal who is as laid-back and fun as any friend you would go out to dinner with. Although she could claim the “diva” label with vocals that contend with greats like Mariah Carey as well as the accolades such as Grammy® nominee, Dove award, and being able to share the stage with BONO, she remains down to earth. With a spunk and incredible ability to get honest about things in her music and life, Crystal, akin to her name is not afraid of transparency. Even though I have been a major fangirl growing up with her music, I was intrigued to meet the singer on the other side of her CCM pop career. I sensed newness and excitement Crystal was vibrant as ever with fresh creativity that was evident in our dialogue.
“I feel like it shows growth, maturity, expansion, and all that stuff. You have to keep moving and that’s just something I can’t totally explain. I was just born with that type of personality to really enjoy the shift.”
Apart from this new venture, doors have opened to collaborate in a new way. While the artist has connected with A-list performers like Mary J Blige and Kirk Franklin in the past, this record, completely under her control was one that she got to choose who she wanted to work with within eleven different duet tracks ranging from jazz to R&B and everything in between.
“It feels like the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever done, and it’s not just me. A lot of that comes lyrically. But there is something about community that can bring out the best in people and that’s what I felt. So, I wanted to choose people I have an actual relationship with and also, that I love listening to.”
Consequently, the artist has had time to reflect on the artists she has been inspired by including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Andre Crouch, and CeCe Winans who all influenced this record. And, beautifully joined hands with other women who have been inspired by her. Such as emerging Jazz artists Lia Booth and Kate Flannery from the hit show “The Office.” Others include female pop singer Tori Kelly and Ally Brooke of Fifth Harmony with whom they sang “She Was Here,” a song about women paving the way. Even including a Spanish version of the anthem!
As an illustration of this kind of partnership, Crystal shared an example of learning together as reflected in the singer’s recent work with Tori Kelly and time spent with her daughter (who is also a musician), Izzi Ray. On these experiences she notes, “Freedom is your ultimate goal as a vocalist and it’s a lifelong journey. And we recorded it together in the studio at the same time. And, it was so much fun [recording with Tori]. I just kept laughing at how free she was. And it thrills me so much this idea (and I see this in my daughter as well). This idea that…here I am a couple of decades than them and they’re coming to things I’ve just come to in the last five or six years and these beautiful young women are coming to it in their late twenties. And, it makes me so excited to see what they are going to do next because they’re starting on our shoulders in a sense. So, I felt like I learned so much from her that day, which was so beautiful. And honestly, she would probably say the same. Because, she grew up a fan watching me, and obviously, I’ve been doing this, for thirty-something years. And, it was just really beautiful
Speaking of female inspirations, Crystal has looked to CCM artists Amy Grant and Sandi Patty as women she is grateful for paving the way in the music industry.
“I am not the first one to do this. There are a lot of women who have gone before me. Amy Grant doing ‘crossover’ things way back when and then getting a ton of flack for that and then getting a divorce and getting a ton of flack for that. Then, Sandy Patti did some of that in the divorce department. So, I was far more nervous about that aspect.”
Addressing her separation and divorce she said, “I wasn’t quite doing musically what I am doing now. I was on the verge of doing a musical transition but it just sort of snowballed after the fact. The divorce wasn’t because of the music, it was already in motion. So, point is, I am not the first one to come to this. We are a little further down the line in terms of cultural evolution. Unfortunately, not a lot because I’ve still got questions. But I attribute my ability to move forward to having pretty supportive parents.”
Continuing the conversation on support, the singer also fondly stated that her mom was known to be “an early supporter.” On Instagram, Crystal openly shared about her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease including a joyful display of mom playing piano with Crystal. Although not included on the record, a song about mom, “I Won’t Forget You,” pays homage to her mother and expresses her sentiments going through the journey with her. While the singer was honest about their differences she also shared that her mom, a brilliant musician, was always her teacher from a musical perspective, even being her accompanist as a vocalist.
“I was able to sing any song I wanted. She would pull it off the radio or a record and write it out note for note and write chords and play for me. So, I grew up with this incredible gift. And, again was the one who pushed a lot of that growth in me.”
Commenting on her parents’ support of her creatively, specifically her mother’s support she shares, “She saw the value in me listening to a bunch of different stuff. She saw my gift early on and wanted to help support and grow that with me.”
Observing the idea of the church struggling over the way we view entertainment, dividing music as sacred and secular, Crystal says that she “just doesn’t see such a hard black and white line between sacred and secular.”
She continues, “maybe that’s just part of being an artist and the realization that, ‘gosh, you just find the beauty and sacred in everything! You can see the good if you look for it. And, not to say that all music is going to overlap into the sacred category. But, it’s more of a personal thing and feeling. I feel like you can have a song that is super offensive to one person and to someone else, it modeled their experience and that wasn’t your experience so, you’re not going to understand it the way they do. But for them, it’s going to be, ‘I feel that so deep in my soul,’ and that is a sacred experience for them. So, I think the church has done us a disservice by, I think, making us think sacred is this. It’s this one thing and it’s firmly grounded in this extremely specific pinpoint of an idea. And that’s just not the case. It’s so much bigger and grand that I think what many of us were taught.
With our Marked Ministry theme being purity this year, I felt it was necessary to work through some of the common struggles people are having in the church with Crystal. In this respect, the artist reflects on her gratitude towards the church community she grew up with but also notes the fear that hinders us collectively as the church from asking questions stemming from what she calls, “higher-ups being afraid of I don’t know what exactly.”
In recent interviews with Shoutout LA and JesusWired, Crystal also touches on the role perfectionism played in her music saying that it hindered her songwriting if it didn’t one hundred percent align with the Bible or scripture, it felt like something that couldn’t be talked about. When asked how it affected her view of God and her artistry, she opened up by acknowledging how it invertedly instilled this smallness in making her think that this was the only way to be creative.
“As a songwriter, it really wasn’t a creative endeavor. And, I had to do a lot of rethinking as I’ve grown over the last eight years. That hinders your ability to be creative and learn. If you aren’t encouraged and supported in asking questions and staying curious and learning how to understand more, then what are you doing? You are just staying in the same place. So, I want to move forward.
I want to encourage the creative process which means asking questions and being honest. Not to say I wasn’t being honest in my writing back then, it was just pulling from a shallow pool. All my ideas were just in one place. And I never felt like I was allowed, and I’m not saying anyone was like, ‘hey you can only pull from these ideas.’ It was just a very understood thing. But I also was taught early on that my calling and my purpose were solely in the Christian world. And if I choose to do anything else, it was sort of implied that that didn’t count as much. That wasn’t worth as much and that would be veering from my purpose. Which, no one can tell what your purpose is except for you [laughs].
She continues, “I grew up relatively timid. Even though I was a first-born, bossy, bratty older sister, performer from a very early age. But somewhere along the line, I got quiet in a way and began to defer to other people in making creative decisions for me. And spent a lot of time only in the last few years, probably mid-40s, really coming back to myself and finding that part of my voice that I had to remember was valid.”
Having a music career in the ‘90s in the height of the purity culture, I had to ask Crystal if there was something she would have done differently herself if she could look back at it now. Being married at 19 largely due to the idea that “temptation would be diminished,” she would encourage others not to get married so young joking saying, “Oh, my gosh, you don’t really know anything at 19! And you can’t say that until after you’ve reached your 30s!” [laughs].
Being married young, she doesn’t regret the decision due to her kids and grandkids sharing, “Even though my marriage ended, I don’t consider it a failure, I consider it a total success. It just lived its life and then it was time to move on.”
Although her children (Izzi and Solomon – who is also a musician) also got married early, to which she says she trusts them completely and fully supports their decision as well as their spouses, she does feel like as she has gotten older and had a daughter, her views have shifted. Previously, she admitted to being more on board with the culture as she sang at those events, etc. However, she has now seen how the culture has primarily affected females more than men, which is something she is not OK with.
“Often, the old thinking is, be quiet, calm down and be submissive. And, that’s not my personality in any way so that feels very forced to me. And, it shouldn’t have anything to do with sexual purity. It just feels so controlling. So, I was able to walk through a lot of that with my daughter when she was a teenager and have honest conversations about that and not just take everything we hear at face value.”
In terms of asking questions, Crystal believes that is foundational and something that she had to learn much older. Grateful also for the opportunity to have those conversations with her daughter that was something generationally, she was not able to have with her mother, although she admitted she tried her best.
Because her album is as much about duets as it is about celebrating relationships with people in our lives. I asked Crystal how we as the church, can find value in platonic relationships with the oppostite sex without becoming phobic about over fear of crossing lines relationally that we avoid interaction altogether. A common struggle those in the church have had and one that has stunted our relationships with one another.
“As someone who grew up with only sisters, I found my friendships with boys to be very brother-like. I actually maintain a handful of friendships to this day from that time in my life, mainly my teen years. I have always valued my non-romantic friendships with guys. It’s so important to have different viewpoints and perspectives within friend groups. I think to suggest the idea that it’s hard or challenging to have a platonic, non-romantic relationship with the opposite sex is detrimental. It implies that sex or romance is all the other sex is good for! We can fill all kinds of various interesting roles for each other within the vast array of friendships we maintain.”
Overall, when it comes to purity culture, Crystal comments, “I know a large number of people that were told various things in regards to purity culture and a lot of it is damaging to a lot of people.”
And, in many ways, Crystal’s newest work defies all odds. It explores the reality of the human experience with a REM cover of “Everybody Hurts” and a very touching ode to her mother, “I Won’t Forget You.” It sparks the simplicity of happiness with classic songs like “Happy Days are Here Again” and “Side by Side” as well as the pain and heartbreak found in “If We Ever Meet Again.” And, the love in “Luckiest” and “I Can’t Help It.” Plus, the bravery heard in “Take the Chance,” “She Was Here,” and “Together We Can.” Cohesively, the project is an amalgamation of the beauty of partnership and art. Also, a reminder that freedom and grace are also at the forefront of faith and artistry as Crystal connects with all different artists as well as people. The album is as much human and inspiring as any other work, if not more. Not to mention as a manifesto of the beauty of the art of all styles with a varied assortment of instrumentation. Collectively, the album is a superb piece of work celebrating the reality of the human experience done, together. One, I was able to witness live at one of Crystal’s more recent shows with her captivating voice, music, and message. Overall, the show is a feel-good, relaxed experience where anyone who appreciates music can have an enjoyable time. The artist draws in a mixed group and has the uncanny ability to make people feel like unity and kindness can exist, even for a small moment.
As mentioned, change is good. And, for the most part, the vocalist has said to have been pleasantly surprised with the support and encouragement as she’s done different things. I was one of them. The best part was being able to talk to Crystal myself in person. Thanking her for the songs. The interview. And, grabbing a quick photo before another fan approached her.
At that moment, I was reminded of her words.
“The whole goal of an artist, at least for me, is that my music connects with you the listener in a way that we end up being kind of woven together. So, your memories are connected to my songs and I know I have tons and tons of memories that are connected to other people’s songs and that makes you feel like friends. And that makes you feel connected, And that’s what you want with your music. That’s my whole goal with the whole record.”
There it is, controversy at its best.
Find out more about Crystal Lewis by visiting crystallewis.com