As one-third of Destiny's Child, Michelle Williams' multi-platinum success with one of the biggest girl groups of all time has long overshadowed what she's done on her own. But that hasn't stopped her from carving a solo career packed with reinvention -- and lots of ambitious risks.
Nearly a decade after the group's swan song, Beyonce is a singular pop force and Kelly Rowland has perfected a unique brand of slinky urban-pop. Williams, however, has dipped her toes in numerous lanes. She has issued hit gospel albums (she was the first to go solo), tackled Broadway with roles in "Aida" and "Chicago" and has toured with productions of "The Color Purple" and "Fela!"
Her fourth album, "Journey to Freedom," released Tuesday, is her first effort since 2008's underappreciated dance-pop-R&B trip "Unexpected." Already No. 1 on the iTunes Christian & Gospel chart, "Journey to Freedom" blends the many genres Williams has explored for an uplifting set that retains the soul and fiery grooves her fans have come to expect.
The album has quite a declarative title. What has your journey to freedom meant?
I'm still on the journey. It's a journey of leaving the past and moving forward and being free from anything that's going to keep me from being my absolute best. Sometimes you're scared of letting go of your comfort zone. You might be scared of letting go of familiar territory. On the road to greatness or success there is a season where you have to be alone and you have to get free from those worries and those doubts.
What was the comfort zone you felt you wanted to break from?
I can't tell you how many times I got cursed out, because there would be a song and I'd say 'That's not for me.' I allowed myself to be put in a box. People say, 'Oh that's the good girl, she's conservative.' I had to get out of that comfort zone of feeling like what gospel music is supposed to sound like. Somebody hit me on Twitter a few days ago saying 'You're not a Christian because you mix secular and gospel.' It's stupid. I didn't know there was a sound to gospel. I thought it was more about the message. I don't think God cares if it's an angel playing with a harp or if a rapper is talking about the good news and inspiring.
Six years have passed since the last album. Did Broadway delay the project?
From 2007 to 2013, it was consumed with theater. Some of these shows require six months or more. I had done "Chicago" in London, Morocco and then we toured with it. My contract with "The Color Purple" was for a year. For a year I toured with "What My Husband Doesn't Know" and for seven months I toured with "Fela." [The album] probably could have came out last year but I was doing "Fela." I would have been stupid to not do "Fela," it was such a great opportunity to be with such an historic show. Hopefully next year I'm on the Broadway stage again.
You were supposed to tour with "Jesus Christ Superstar" but the production fell apart in the eleventh hour. What did you take from that?
There were so many people counting on the show. I really wanted to do the show because I understood it. [The show] was always meant to be an arena-type show. We got the phone call that it was canceled and I was heartbroken. I was looking forward to being in an eclectic cast, but I was going to have to do the tour and film [upcoming Oxygen reality series] "Fix My Choir" at the same time. It was going to be brutal. This is the first show I've ever done, whether it's touring with Destiny's Child or anything on my own, that has been canceled. I'm thankful this is the first time in 15 years of doing this.
A few years ago you were tied to a reality show, but it never came to fruition. Why come back to the genre?
I got cold feet. I thought it was going to be a train wreck and I come from an era of artists where we don't tell all or do stuff like that. But then again I know how reality shows have helped people's music. There are people who want to know me that don't know me or didn't get a chance because of the group. "Fix My Choir" came about from growing up in the church and directing the choir. It was right up my alley.
This album isn't overtly gospel. Was that intentional?
My very first gospel album, I was told it's got to sound like a gospel record. And then the second one I got a bit more eclectic, but by the time I did this third gospel record, I didn't want to alienate anybody. When you call it a gospel album, people are already like, 'Eh, I don't know.' But because of my association with Destiny's Child, people might pay attention a little more.
I wanted to work with producers and writers who come from where I come from in the R&B-pop world ... who are faith-based. Harmony Samuels, the only producer on the album, does Ariana Grande and Chris Brown, but he'll be at church playing at all three services. He's balanced. I know I'm in the right space. Those people that like [Beyonce's] "Drunk in Love" will like "Fall."
You reunited with Destiny's Child for "Say Yes" and Twitter exploded. All these years later there is still massive demand.
It's an honor that people still even ask if we'll do another record. Ten years later and we haven't put out an album. It's like, wow. We're still sisters and we're still friends and we love each other. [Beyonce and Kelly] are having kids. I'm just blessed to have great friends and great sisters.
What's one thing you did this year that put you closer to your definition of freedom? Anything you still battle with?
Taking accountability for my actions. When you're down in the dump, we blame other people. There are other people and elements that can contribute, but they say if you know better, do better. I do struggle with putting other people first. I'm still learning that it's OK to put me first. Call it selfish if you want to, but I have to do what's going to be best for me and my future family.