Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Karen Clark Sheard: Back From the Dead
Interview by LaTonya Taylor
For gospel's Karen Clark Sheard, music ministry has always been a fact of life. As one of the Clark Sisters, she and sisters Dorinda, Twinkie and Jacky revolutionized the genre in ways that still reverberate throughout the industry. But Karen didn't stop there. She began a solo career in 1997 with Finally Karen, taking her distinctive vocal acrobatics to a new audience. Since then, she's weathered a life-threatening illness, produced three more well-received albums, and balanced her roles as a first lady and mother of two talented teens with a busy career and growing speaking ministry. In this interview, she talks about her new album, It's Not Over, her growth as a writer, her interaction with mainstream artists, and why she's recorded a favorite song—again.
On this new album, you chose to reprise "It's Not Over" from 2002's Second Chance—-and even made it the title cut. What was the reason for that?
Karen Clark Sheard: Before I recorded Second Chance, I had been very sick following unexpected complications from hernia surgery. I developed a blood clot in my lungs, then another in my leg. Other problems developed, and I was in a coma for three and a half weeks. The doctors gave me a two percent chance of survival. Then, I was bedridden for so long that my doctor told me I'd have to go to rehab to learn how to use my limbs again. When I heard that, I thought, I won't be able to sing anymore. I won't be able to play piano. The Enemy really tried to attack my mind, slapping me with that thought over and over: Wow, it might be over for me.
But God awesomely proved himself. He gave me strength. And one day, he spoke to me: "Go to the piano." I went over to the piano I thought I wasn't ever going to be able to play, and I began to play, and that's when this song came about: "It's not over / until God says it's over." I recorded that song on Second Chance, after I recovered, and it's become a weapon for me. Singing that song is like slapping the Devil's face. It's saying, "You thought it was over for me, you tried to make me think that it was over, but I'm going to title this album 'It's Not Over.'"
So, to keep slapping, you keep recording it.
Sheard: (laughs) Right.
One of the things that seems significant about this album is that it's your first with Word—-but not really, because The Clark Sisters recorded with Word.
Sheard: Yes! It's like I'm coming back home. When Elektra disbanded its gospel division, Word reached out to me, and I decided to come back and see how they can take me to the next dimension. I felt that Word could take me more deeply into the Christian market. They're doing a great job so far.
What do you think that next dimension will look like for you?
Sheard: With this CD, I started doing something out of my comfort zone, that I believe that God allowed—writing and producing. I would never have thought I could do that—I just thought I was so incompetent . . .
Wait. This is Karen Clark Sheard, talking about feeling incompetent?
Sheard: I'm telling you, years ago, I tried it, and I said, "No, I am not gonna embarrass myself and start writing." But with this particular project, people prophesied to me and said, "You're gonna start writing." And I was looking at them like, I think you're off, prophet. But all of a sudden, God just started blessing me to write. On this album, my son J. Drew and I co-wrote "A Living Testimony," which he produced. I also wrote "Authority" with Israel Houghton and Aaron Lindsey. So, I think that's part of the dimension that God is taking me to.
You've spoken before about your childhood, saying it was very strong in terms of musical training, but that you also had to sacrifice some typical childhood experiences.
Sheard: Yes. I find all of my sisters saying the same thing. Of course, my late mother [Dr. Mattie Moss Clark] was a great legend in the Church of God in Christ, and she decided that she wanted to bring her girls up in the church, and support us in the gift that God had given us. So we'd be out playing, and we'd hear her calling our names all the way down the street. I know they thought my mother was a crazy woman (laughing): "Come on y'all, it's rehearsal time." So we kind of missed out on some play time. Then a lot of times she would wake us up early in the morning, you know, and say "God gave me a song." At 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning! And we were like, "God gave you a song at 4 o'clock in the morning? Are you serious?" It's really funny now, but back then it was hard sometimes.
Now, it's paying off, because you just never know what God's plan is. And sometimes, I find myself encouraging my daughter [Kierra Sheard] the same way. Sometimes she's not free to hang out with friends. Sometimes she would rather stay home when she's been called for an engagement, and I can sympathize, because I know what that's like. But I can instill in her a strong foundation, the way my mother did with the Clark Sisters.
Both of your children are musically gifted. What has it been like to cultivate their development as artists?
Sheard: My son [J. Drew] is 16, and my daughter is 18. It takes me back to the way my mother brought me up. What helps is that my children have a love for music and ministry in them—it's not something I have to push them toward or make them do. Because they're still so young, it's been a little difficult at times, but it's all been good. God's given them strength and blessing, and opened doors that have, overall, outweighed some of the bad days and sacrifices. Of course, my husband has just been the engine, the support that's driving us. He's my business manager. I can't do without my man (laughs). I have to say that.
He sounds very supportive.
Sheard: He's been a great leader—-of course, he's my pastor, too. I'm up constantly, giving of myself in ministry, and through listening to him as a leader, and being fed the Word of God, my job becomes easy for me.
Your cousin, J Moss, has done a lot of production on your solo albums. Have you ever had to work out a creative difference?
Sheard: Oooh, yes (laughing). Many. Maannny!
By the time we hear your songs, it sounds like everything's gone smoothly.
Sheard: Oh, no. Once, when we were in the studio working on a track for Second Chance, I told J, "J, I don't want to sing that hard on this part—I want to sing light." But he kept telling me, "You need to do it like this, you need to do it like that." Finally I just said, "You come in here and do it, then, yourself" (laughing)! "You want it done so bad, you do it!" So we just fought—-that record was really difficult for us. But it drew us closer because we learned how the other works. J is more like my brother than my cousin, and we enhance each others' ministries. I respect him as my producer, and he respects me as an artist. So we learned how to deal with each other, and now we know what to expect, and it's easier to work together.
A lot of mainstream artists mention you as an influence. And you've had the opportunity to collaborate, to sing onstage or to minister. Would you share about that?
Sheard: It's really an honor to be recognized by such mega-artists. I was asked to sing one of Mariah Carey's inspirational songs on a tribute album for her, and I thought that was so awesome. I felt like it was so major just to have been asked. I was told that when she heard that I'd be part of the project, she was jumpin' up like I was a mega-star!
When I finally got a chance to talk with her, she began to cry and told me that she'd admired me from afar. That was really encouraging, because I've been criticized for locking arms with secular artists. But I know that I'm ministering to those artists as well as having a good time together. When I hear that someone was blessed by my music, or helped out of a difficult situation, that lets me know that I'm doing what God called me to do. So if I have to be talked about and criticized, so be it, as long as God gets the glory.
How do you handle that sort of criticism? It can't feel good.
Sheard: I'd understand the criticism if I were crossing the line and compromising, but I'm not doing that. These artists call me for ministry, and I do exactly that. The criticism hurts, but it helps me to know that God is pleased with what I'm doing. Fortunately, my church prays for me and encourages me. I'm not going over there to cross over, and I believe when someone reaches out to you, you're supposed to show yourself friendly, not shun them. You don't know whose life you may touch. And mainstream artists have shared with me that they see a difference: Your music blessed me. You didn't come over here and do what we do. But you have let your light shine.
I'm not going to lie: I've received offers to sing secular music. One company even offered me a deal, as long as I didn't sing inspirational music. But I've taken a stand. I held up my banner for God. And that's because of what my mother instilled in me. She taught me that you have to have a strong foundation. A lot of our gospel artists waver because they lack that foundation. You have to know that there are certain things you cannot do representing gospel, and God. I think that's why I'm where I am today, because God can trust me, even when I go into a secular arena. He can trust me to continue to live a Christian lifestyle.
I'm sure some of those opportunities would have allowed you to make a very good living.
Sheard: Those offers have been tempting, because of the setbacks we have had in our own gospel world. Gospel was not accepted, when I was growing up as one of the Clark Sisters, as it is now. But I'm blessed today, wanting for nothing. And I can say I didn't have to go to the world to get this. God has blessed me and opened many doors.