For all her years in the industry, Crystal Lewis is unexpectedly candid when I speak to her.
Sure, I would expect the CCM veteran to create good rapport with me— you don’t release 28 albums, garner three Grammy nominations and pick up multiple Dove awards without knowing how to talk to a journalist. But there is something that opens up in her voice as she discusses her career with me. Almost like she is tearing apart the gauze on a perfectly articulated career, and showing me the scars she has earned along the way.
“I’m a veteran of this industry, but I feel like a new artist in so many ways,” she says, having just launched a crowd funding campaign for album 29 a week prior.
“Sometimes that’s a tough sells for fans, [they’re like] ‘For you to change who you are on us, we don’t know if we can do that.’ I think what people have to understand is you’re not changing who you are, you’re evolving as a creative and that’s what people do all the time everyday.”
No, there’s no need to panic and remove your worn copy of “Beyond The Charade” from your record collection. The singer with silky-smooth vocals and a penchant for jazz is still here, and she still wants us to reminisce about the times we all sang “Fearless” into our hairbrush as teens. But there’s something more to Crystal Lewis now. Something that fans have never fully seen before: complete vulnerability.
“I’m only realizing in this season of my life that I was only ever encouraged to write from a vulnerable place if it perfectly lined up with some kind of Biblical teaching,” she explains.
“That has prevented me from being as honest in my writing as I could, because I didn’t want to acknowledge that some of the things I believe didn’t line up with the things I was told to believe; or things that were happening in my marriage, or with friends or at home.”
It makes sense, after all Crystal grew up singing in church, and her father was a pastor. Like so many of her CCM peers in the 80s and 90s, she was portrayed almost flawlessly.
She terms the scenario to me as one where she was taught to “stick to the script.” Many singers like herself had to sign character clauses, agreeing to behave a certain way for the purpose of retaining album sales. And while this expectation held them to a Biblical standard, at times it cost artists their authenticity through life’s struggles.
“It’s a catch twenty two. You’re trying to be good. You’re trying to live up to this standard that you’ve set for yourself—that you’ve read in the Bible. But to give the impression that…you’re this perfect version [of yourself], that’s pretty impossible to live up to,” she explains.
“We did a lot of weaving — all the people I came up with…There was a lot of the time we were not the perfectly packaged versions of ourselves that we led on to be, but your label wants you to be this, literally to sell records.”
There is an incredulous awe and nostalgia to Crystal as she recounts the highs and lows of her career. She clearly loves her craft, and it’s almost as if the women telling me the story of how she sang with Bono, or appeared on Nickelodeon’s ROUNDHOUSE, is different to the family-name she has become over the last four decades.
I realise her humility comes from hindsight—the type you only gain after growing up in the spotlight from age 15, and gaining and losing nearly everything by 49.
“I’ve had a lot of really beautiful conversations with a lot of people who have said, ‘You were the voice for our generation then, and you’ve gone through a whole life’s worth of experiences now,” she says.
“I’m almost fifty years old, there’s a story there. There’s so many listeners who have gone through the similar things as me, so why in the world would I not try to connect with them on this level?”
The ‘things’ Crystal refers to have appeared subliminally in her songs since her last self titled album came out in in 2015. Hints of a struggle with depression echo in “Dancing Through Tunnels,” while a reconfigured faith comes out in “Love Each Other.” Other stories, like challenges she faced in marriage and huge financial loss after the music industry crash of the 00s, all have remnants in her recent tunes.
Unbeknownst to us, Crystal has been bearing her soul to the world for years now. And in 2019, she’s ready to tell to the stories of her scars to connect with those of us who share them.
“It’s a vulnerable position to live in as an artist, someone literally exposing their soul; literally bearing their heart and then giving it away…You just have to let it go and accept it. And that’s what I’m trying to do,” she says.
The inspiration for album 29 came to Crystal through a photograph, and after a few phone calls and a surge of bravery, she asked fans to help her fund a new project on Kickstarter.
“I saw the photo and I said, ‘I know what I want to do. I’m going to make a record that sounds the way this photo looks’,” she says with anticipation.
“I literally just decided one day, ‘Ok, it’s time!’”
It may seem like an unusual turn to some people, after all Crystal is a critically acclaimed and established singer. But as an independent artist, this is the one way she can share her story wholeheartedly with the rest of us. And with it comes the return to her jazz roots.
“It’s not a typical CCM record. It’s a jazz record in both feel and lyrical content, and I love these songs as much as anything I’ve ever written,” she says.
“This album is my first non-Christmas jazz recording. I fell in love with jazz as a teenager, with Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holliday. And for whatever reason the songs I’ve been writing for the last couple of years have just lent themselves to this sound.”
Crystal Lewis has always been an insatiable force in the Christian Music industry. She is a powerhouse female who paved the way for many of the artists in the 90s and 00s, including Katy Perry and Tori Kelly —but we’d be doing her a disservice to keep her in a perfectly curated box of 90s CCM artists.
Because the fact is, if we are willing to open up our hearts to Crystal Lewis in 2019, she is ready to share her stories with more vulnerability, truth and strength than ever before.
“For so many years I did not think my story was valid…but my story still counts. It’s still what happened to me. It’s okay to talk about it because I’m not alone.”