It is 9:35 am, and Crystal
Lewis is running late. The week has been crazy. Today is Isabella's
birthday, and mother and daughter are celebrating with an afternoon
at Disneyland. The Southern California sun was hanging in the sky
just right, and the car was dirty, and she couldn't resist getting
it washed. Her dog unexpectedly died of cancer yesterday, and, oh
yeah, she finished the final mixes for her new album, Fearless,
late last night. Crystal is tired.
"Making an album is really similar
to having a baby," she says. "It's excruciatingly painful,
but 30 seconds later you are holding this baby in your arms, and
you have completely forgotten the pain. Then, later on down the
road, you want to have another one."
Ambitious projects are nothing new
to Lewis, who has created some of the most beautiful Christian music--the
most beautiful music, period--of the last 10 years. Songs like "Beauty
for Ashes," "Come Just As You Are" and "Beauty
of the Cross" hold up unflinchingly well against both the best
secular pop tunes and the grand tradition of the Church's most beloved
hymns and spiritual songs. But Fearless, Lewis' 16th album, is something
different altogether. The title, she says, was inspired by 2 Timothy
1:7--God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of
love and of a sound mind.
"The spiritual warfare was so
intense during this project," she says, the experience still
fresh. "I think it has to do with the content of the record.
I think the enemy knows that I am saying some important things,
and he was doing everything he could to thwart those efforts. I
was the most discouraged I ever remember being during a recording.
The words I wrote to these songs, I really needed to finish the
All at once, Lewis was the songwriter,
the singer, and the executive producer of a groundbreaking album,
in addition to running her record label, Metro1Music, with husband
Brian Ray, and being the mother of two small children. "My
favorite song on the record became ÔReach Out,'" Lewis says.
"It's just about being really busy and having to make the time
to spend before the Lord and say, Okay, I have a hundred things
on my list today, and I don't have time to do this, but I'm going
to make the time. And, it's still a challenge. The recording
process is all-consuming. There are all these decisions that are
made without me if I'm not there, and I don't like that. And yet,
I'm the only mom my kids have."
If Lewis' children, four-year-old Isabella
and six-year-old Solomon, feel any ill effects from the unusual
lifestyle, it's not apparent. They regularly come to the studio
and watch the recording and mixing. When Lewis is touring, the kids
tour with her, and it becomes something of an extended family vacation,
an opportunity to see the world and soak up the companionship of
the other artists on the tour. The children have formed an especially
close bond with members of Avalon, and they even critique Lewis'
music, asking questions like, Why did you use that word in the song?
That children would begin to explore
artistry at that level might surprise some, but it reflects Lewis'
own unusual journey. At age four, she started singing in her father's
church. A few years later, she landed a role in the musical "Hi-Tops,"
and her first albums, which she recorded as a teenager, followed
She has spent much of her life on the
stage, performing at the Grammy awards, singing on Nickelodeon's
Roundhouse, playing with rockabilly bands like Wild Blue Yonder
and The Screamin' Rays, preaching to thousands at concerts, leading
tens of thousands in worship at Greg Laurie's Harvest Crusades and
Franklin Graham Crusades. But Lewis admits to a longtime fear of
one-on-one sharing about Christ.
"I just turned 30 this year,"
she says. "That had a lot to do with making this record. I
couldn't have made a record called Fearless and stand up and say
that I was and do an album cover where I'm screaming without those
30 years of growing. I have had a hard time with that sharing, but
God is changing me, taking me out of that comfortable place, putting
me in situations where I know I need to share. And I'm trying to
be obedient in that."
Musically, Fearless is edgier than
anything Lewis has done before. It is partly due to a desire on
her part to take risks musically. It also has something to do with
the wealth of talent she tapped to perform on the album. "These
were musicians I've wanted to work with for years," Lewis says.
"They were astounding." The man who left perhaps the biggest
imprint on the sound is keyboard player/programmer Jyro Xhan, who
also plays in Lewis' touring band. Xhan, best known for his work
in the underground band Fold Zandura, filled the album with sounds
often more associated with space-rock bands than the smooth brand
of pop R&B that is Lewis' trademark. But the marriage of the two
works to create an emotion-inspiring effect, one enhancing the other.
Other musical surprises include big
electric guitars, and drumwork from the legendary Vinnie Colaiuta,
who is best known for his collaborations with Sting. "That
was the biggest thrill," Lewis says. "I've been such a
fan of Vinnie's work for years, and he is just the king of crazy,
can't-figure-out beats, just amazing. And he just became a Christian,
and we had such a great time in the studio talking. He's this baby
Christian, and he's so excited. It was an incredible experience."
Lewis was so enthused about working
with Colaiuta that she called her children into the mixing room
to watch him lay down the drum tracks. "I was like, You guys,
do you know who that is? That's Sting's drummer. And we listen to
Sting a lot at the house, and they know who he is."
The songwriting process was more collaborative
than on past records. Lewis has always co-written with her husband,
but it has always been a separated process, one writing lyrics and
the other writing music. This time, almost by accident, the two
worked together more intimately on the songs. "We had these
two songs pretty close to being completed. I just had a lyric, and
he had these two melodies, and I didn't like them at all. We don't
have a studio, so we record all of our songs on our voicemail. So
Brian walks into my office one day and puts the voicemail on speakerphone,
and he started singing me my lyrics to one of these melodies, and
I was like, Brian, wait a minute, that kinda works. And then he
sat in my office for a few hours, and we wrote more lyrics. It was
really neat. We rarely write like that." Lewis also collaborated
with brother-in-law (and Metro1Music artist) Chris Lizotte and Xhan
on album tracks.
People are starting to notice Lewis,
even beyond the Christian culture. Kirk Franklin asked her to sing
with him on his Nu Nation project, and he returned the favor by
producing one of the songs on Fearless and singing background vocals.
The Franklin collaboration led to a Grammy nomination, and Lewis
performed with Franklin, U2's Bono and R&B diva Mary J. Blige during
the awards show, an event that Lewis describes as the "highlight
of my life."
a role model in Franklin. At one point during the recording sessions,
the two werein
the studio with a studio engineer and a technical crew that didn't
share their faith. As one of the songs was being performed, Lewis
watched Franklin, who was raising his hands and worshipping God
in the engineer's booth, talking about how the song was "ministering
to me." She says, "At that point, I thought, Ooh! This
is what this record is about, this is Fearless to me. To just be
totally unashamed, to say, yeah, this is what I believe. It's real,
it's true. I admire that enthusiasm, that excitement."
Interscope Records picked up Lewis'
albums for mainstream distribution, and that alliance forced Lewis
to make one of the most difficult choices of her career last year.
Female artists had become very big sellers in the secular marketplace,
and Lewis was the only female artist on a record label largely populated
by loud, aggressive male bands.She
was offered a near-irresistible offer. If she would put together
a pop album in a month's time, Interscope would push her as the
next Celine Dion-esque star, capitalizing on the Grammy momentum.
"Brian and I lost sleep over that," she says. "Interscope
is huge, and they were right, they didn't have a female artist.
But I didn't want to be that poster girl. That kind of fame comes
too fast and crashes too hard. I had no songs written, and I definitely
wasn't going to do someone else's songs. I had to tell them no.
"I refuse to compromise, to alter
the lyrics at all," Lewis says. "The bottom line is, real
Christian music is not going to be embraced by pop radio because
the world is not into 'one way,' especially when everyone is into
the idea that 'what's good for you is good for you.' If Interscope
decides to push a single, that would be great. But, obviously, it
would have to be something off the record, because I'm not going
to change anything just to have a single on the radio."
It is a conviction that Lewis can back
up, because she is one of the few artists who owns and operates
her own record label. In 1992, Lewis and Ray started Metro1Music.
It was a decision birthed out of a desire for a higher standard,
both musically and spiritually, than what the Nashville-based labels
were offering at the time.
"We refuse to conform to Christian
music standards," Lewis says. "That sounds weird to some
people, but there are a lot of things that go on in the Christian
music industry that your average listener doesn't know about. We
are a little isolated from the things that go on in Nashville. I
don't read the magazines, I don't really know all the little details,
and I don't want to know. There's a lot of competition that goes
on in Christian music, and I don't want any part of it. I also see
a lot of people wanting so hard to be part of the mainstream, and
I don't understand it. People say things to me like, Oh you're on
Interscope, you must be huge. It's kind of offensive. I don't need
a big record label who doesn't even believe what I believe to tell
me I'm doing a good job, that I'm a success. Success, to me, is
that letter I received last week from someone who said, I just listened
to your Live at the Woodlands CD, and I rededicated my life to the
Lord. It can be really hard to keep your eyes on that. There are
opportunities all the time when you see you can make more money,
and it's good for me, it's good for my kids, my family, my
company. But a lot more comes with it than the money."
By all accounts, Lewis and Ray have
stayed true to that vision, often signing artists who are highly
talented but less than marketplace-friendly. Metro1Music artist
Chris Lizotte, who helps Lewis sign and locate talent, loves the
family atmosphere at the label. "Brian and Crystal aren't like
bosses," he says. "They're more like friends to everyone."
The office clears out nearly every day at lunchtime, when four or
five employees make the five-minute walk to the Newport Beach shore
to surf the Pacific Ocean together.
Crystal Lewis isn't all business. She
has a playful side that rises up every five minutes or so. She is
a smiler, a toucher, constantly affirming the people around her.
She loves to tell stories about the unconventional, like giving
radio interviews while driving through fast food joints and interrupting
the interview to order a burger and fries. She has spent years doing
concerts, then going backstage and changing diapers. There is a
real humility in the way that she carries herself that is reflective
of a faith that focuses the attention off the celebrated aspects
of her life and onto other people.
Lizotte says it best: "Crystal
Lewis is the real deal."
Pick up the latest issue of Release Magazine
at your local store or check out their website
for more artist interviews.Used with permission, Release Magazine