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And Ten Years Later, CeCe Winans Gets Personal

  • Jay Swartzendruber CCM Magazine
  • 2005 16 Nov
And Ten Years Later, CeCe Winans Gets Personal

From the start of an astonishing career with her brother BeBe to her 10 years as a beloved solo artist, CeCe Winans is a legend – at least in the minds of many of her peers. In her own mind she’s something else altogether. And in truth? She’s something – someone – far more personal than a legend.

If you were CeCe Winans and you had spent the past decade establishing one of the most prolific and respected careers in all of modern music, what would you do to mark your 10th anniversary as a solo artist? Release a special edition “Best Of” album? Embark on a commemorative tour and follow it with an accompanying live DVD and CD? If, like CeCe, you had spent eight years prior to going solo recording as part of a platinum-selling duo (BeBe and CeCe Winans), you’d have 18 years of stardom under your belt. You might anticipate a tribute album – even encourage it through unofficial channels.

But not CeCe. None of that is her style. For her 10th anniversary as a solo artist, she just went out and recorded her most personal album yet. Should we have expected anything less?

The lyrical themes on the new disc are not only personal, they’re extremely broad. Whether she’s talking about sibling relationships, racial diversity, reliance on God in the midst of hardship, troubled marriages, the hope of heaven, romance, praise and worship or prayer, it’s open season on pretty much anything and everything.

The Mystery of Marriage

Consider the song “Just Like That” from "Purified" (Wellspring/INO), which released in mid-September. CeCe layers the track’s slow groove with words of profound encouragement, counseling those listeners whose marriages are plagued by passivity, shame, fear and mistrust. In one particular, cut-to-the-chase moment, she sings on God’s behalf, “I can change your husband’s heart and make his love for you come back.”

She makes you believe it.

“I’ve lived long enough to know – and surely you don’t have to be 40 or over to know this – but God’s right all the time …” says CeCe, making eye contact with thoughtful ease. “I’ve been married 21 years. I didn’t get nervous about being married until probably 10 years into my marriage. I went to a marriage conference our church had. I was like, ‘We don’t need anything, but I’ll go.’ That’s where I really found out what marriage meant, and I got nervous. I was like, ‘Aah, I agreed to do what?’

“I always had the thought, ‘As long as you love me, I’ll love you. As long as you treat me right, I’ll treat you right. The minute you don’t, I’m out of here.’ Even though we were happy, that was always in the back of my mind. It was like, ‘God hates divorce, so if I get divorced, I just won’t ever get married again.’”

As is often the case with epiphanies, CeCe’s was triggered by a verbal illustration. Her pastor said something that changed her life. Speaking of his wife, he said, “If she decided to leave me today and decided to be a prostitute, I would buy up all her time because her soul is more important than my pride.”

Says CeCe, “I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ I’m in the wrong place! [Laughs] I gotta get out of here! I gotta go!’

I had to be humble and realize what marriage meant and what it was supposed to mean to the world. … There’ve been times when I’ve wanted to leave, you know, but it’s like, I can’t go anywhere. The Holy Spirit would say, ‘No, you’re not going anywhere. So what if this happened, and that happened. So what?’

“And man, I’m so glad I listened to Him. So glad. Because He had to get some stuff out of me. … I had to humble myself and had to purify myself. I had to fast and pray. Then you really get a chance to see what marriage is. It’s an awesome thing. It’s really unconditional love. Since I’ve changed my attitude and my mindset, I’ve seen God do incredible things in my marriage. I love my husband. I am so crazy about him.”

Home and Away

Although she speaks with deep conviction, CeCe has a ready laugh. The conversation turns as she considers the discernment it takes to walk the line between being public with your personal testimony and protecting your family’s privacy.

“When it comes to my husband, my children, my family, what you see is what you get. I don’t live two different lives. I believe the Word. God said, ‘Be holy as I am holy because without [holiness] no man shall see the Lord.’ I believe that, so I’m striving to be holy whether I’m onstage or not.

“My kids grew up with me being a public person. … We have missed the mark several times in our years, but we strive to live a life of holiness. There are things God could have exposed, but He has just covered us, you know, like He does.”

She says that, a lot of times, artists forget that “it’s very important to have a home church, to have people to tell you what you need to hear – not what you want to hear. That all plays a part in keeping a balance in your lifestyle.”
Standing in the Shadows

After only a few moments in conversation with CeCe, you discover she’s a woman whose streams of thought and emotion run deep. And her ability to convey these thoughts and feelings is just as striking.

This wasn’t always the case – something you’d pick up on by reading her interviews from back in the day – back when she and her brother BeBe were recording as a duo, burning up the Christian pop, gospel and mainstream airplay charts and selling truckloads of CDs. In those days, either BeBe was verbose and assertive in interviews or CeCe was … well … shy.

“You know, both those statements are true,” she reveals. “He had to talk all the time. I never really wanted to. I was shy growing up – shy to the point where I never would have chosen this, being out front, for myself. I’ve always loved to sing, but singing out front? God forbid. It was rough enough to be a duo. God knew He had to do it gradually, you know. 

“The funny thing is that when BeBe and I were doing duets, he would speak or say something in between songs during concerts, and that was different for him – to really talk. So he would, and if it was something off the wall or he didn’t do it right, I would just chew him up [laughs]. I’d say, ‘That didn’t make any sense – what you said. You messed up so bad up there!’ He would be like, ‘Well, why don’t you say something?’ So I always gave him a hard time behind the scenes, but I wouldn’t help him out up front.”

After releasing their self-titled debut in 1987, BeBe and CeCe spent the next 10 years establishing themselves as the biggest Christian urban pop act in the world, before embarking on extremely successful solo careers.

Reunion in Rhythm?

“When we signed [the record deal] to do duet records, we signed to do solo records at the same time. But we just always kept doing the duet ones, and it was time for us really to honor our commitment to do solo records. …” CeCe says, “It was very scary and took some getting used to. Even now, when we get a chance to do things together, that’s still my favorite place – singing with him. I have a ball, and we have a lot of fun.  So I look forward to the time when we get back together hopefully soon.”

Come 2007, it will have been 10 years since BeBe and CeCe recorded an album together. You don’t have to be a marketing genius to ask the obvious question. … A decade is a perfect time for a reunion recording, isn’t it?

She laughs, “We’re thinking about it. We’ve been talking. I’m thinking if God says the same, in 2007 it could happen. We’d really have to get the ball rolling now.”
This Woman’s Work

True. Especially when your calendars are as packed with success as CeCe’s and BeBe’s. Consider the past 10 years for CeCe. She’s had four of her six previous solo albums certified Gold (more than 500,000 shipped each) and one certified Platinum (one million-plus). In addition to her smash hit duet with Whitney Houston, “Count on Me” (from the multi-platinum "Waiting to Exhale" soundtrack), which went Top 10 on the pop, R&B and AC radio charts, CeCe’s had major R&B airplay with the likes of “Well, Alright” and “More Than What I Wanted.” Along the way she’s won a bevy of GRAMMY, Dove and Stellar Awards, including being named the Gospel Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year – twice. And as if singing for packed venues night after night wasn’t enough, she has also enjoyed performing live on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Tonight Show,” “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and other television outlets.

In a word, busy. And did we mention that she owns her own record labels (Wellspring Gospel and Puresprings Gospel) and regularly speaks on behalf of Christian relief organization World Vision and My Sister’s Keeper, the teen and young women’s support group?

Then there’s that little matter of this new album. Even as its release date approached, "Purified"’s lead singles simultaneously ignited at two different radio formats. The soft urban pop gem “All That I Need” had moved up to No. 34 on Radio & Records’ mainstream AC chart at press time, and the hip-hop-savvy track “Pray” had taken CeCe to No. 5 on the gospel chart.

While much of CeCe’s solo work has leaned toward traditional gospel and worship, "Purified" marks a welcome return to urban pop. The album’s modern production originated at the hands of Keith Thomas (who produced most of BeBe and CeCe’s hits), Tommy Sims (Nicole C. Mullen, Natalie Grant), Andy Selby (tobyMac, Shaun Groves) and CeCe’s nephew – and R&B standout – Mario Winans (Diddy, Destiny’s Child).

Mario co-wrote, produced and played all the instruments on “Pray.” His first collaboration with CeCe, “Pray,” is "Purified"’s third track and showcases the album’s first hip-hop elements. GRITS later brings hip-hop back in spades on “A Place Like This,” an album standout which features the duo and CeCe yearning for heaven.

“When I heard what GRITS did, I was like, “Ooooh! I love – I mean, I really, really love – what they did,” says CeCe. “I enjoy creative minds. I love seeing people do what God has anointed them to do.”

Responds GRITS’ Stacy “Coffee” Jones, “Working with CeCe was an honor. She's a legend. The Winans were our Jackson 5 – know what I'm saying? Her openness to work with some hip-hop cats took the respect level up a notch, if that's even possible. We’ve got nothin’ but love for Mrs. CeCe.”

Of the 13 songs on "Purified," CeCe co-wrote eight. Her siblings, Angie and Debbie, helped her pen “Always Sisters,” an ode to their relationships. CeCe’s son Alvin, meanwhile, co-wrote three of "Purified"’s best – “A Place Like This,” the surprising, Sade-esque title track and the lovely and moving celebration of race and diversity, “Colorful World.”

“I think really, as the body of Christ, we should be the first to celebrate the uniqueness of everybody and celebrate our differences,” says CeCe. “I think we all miss out on a lot of things because they’re different. … It takes time, a lot of time, to tear down different walls. We have to be patient and keep chipping at them.”

She then considers her own family. “I don’t know who my children are going to bring home when they get ready to get married. My thing is, I just want them to love the Lord. It really doesn’t matter what color they are. It doesn’t matter where they come from. ‘Do they love the Lord and love you?’ Other than that, I don’t have a problem with it. And I praise God for that. A lot of people are not there, but that’s the heart of God.”
Winds of Change

When CeCe talks about her kids, the delight she takes in them is clear. Her son Alvin, the excelling musician, is 20, while daughter Ashley is 17 and started college at Baylor University (Waco, Texas) this semester.

“I tell my kids, ‘You put the Lord first and you’re going to be OK. If you don’t put Him first, you won’t be OK.’ You put that in them. Now I’m at a stage in my life where I have to trust what I’ve put in them. I can’t tell them everything to do anymore, so I give them advice… I have to trust that I’ve lived the life in front of them and have raised them in the fear of the Lord.  But they have to have their own relationship with Him. So that’s been a tough stage for me.”

Having her kids entering adulthood isn’t the only major family change she’s going through right now – not by a long shot. This past June, CeCe’s family experienced the passing of her brother Ron.

“With him being gone, you just promise yourself that you’re going to try to love your family even more,” she says. “Because my thing is, ‘Lord, if I would have known that he was leaving, I probably would have just gone in a couple of weeks before and just spent time talking to him, laughing and hugging him.’ So I’ve definitely been guilty in the past of being so busy that you don’t take out enough time for your loved ones. And losing Ron is something that made ‘All That I Need’ and so many other songs on this new record become so real to me.”

Before she finished the album, CeCe sent a couple songs out to friends who were going through rough times. “I had a couple at my church who lost their son. Then I knew a wonderful pastor who passed, so I sent the song ‘You Will’ and ‘He’s Concerned’ out to them. I just felt like they would minister to their hearts, not knowing that I would lose my brother a few months after that.  So just listening to the CD … it’s comforting. A few times I’ve sung ‘He’s Concerned,’ and that’s been kind of hard for me to get through because it is a ministering song.”

When CeCe went into the studio to record "Purified," she knew it would turn out to be an extremely personal album. She just didn’t know how deeply connected she would become to it herself.
That’s the beauty of art. That’s the heart of God.

 © 2005 CCM Magazine.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.   Click here to subscribe.