Kelly Willard: More Than Life
By Glenn Hascall
If you have listened to praise music over the years you have become familiar with a voice. This voice provided a clear call that seems to leave you wanting to know the Jesus she was singing about. The voice belongs to Kelly Willard.
Kelly has supplied vocals on projects by Fernando Ortega, Lenny Leblanc and Jim Cole along with dozens of others. Her vocal presence can be found most notably on classic praise projects from Marantha! In fact, she provided vocals on all but four of the twenty projects released in the “Praise” series.
In reviewing her latest album, ‘Paga’, (pronounced PAW-GAH) I was once again taken to a familiar place, one that invited me to sit at the feet of Jesus and declare His wonder, glory and majesty.
For more than two years I had been working to coordinate an interview with Kelly, but unknown to me at the onset of my request life had become an emotional whirlwind for her. Kelly’s eighteen year-old daughter, Haylie, had taken her own life and both of Kelly’s parents had passed away. All of this happened in a very short period of time.
The journey of ‘Paga’ is something that started before the loss and was completed as God was walking with Kelly through her own personal sense of loss. Kelly has completed a project that is new, yet familiar. Those who have enjoyed her music in the past will no doubt find much to immediately identify with on this project, but Kelly also worked with newer artists to bring a slightly new dynamic to her work.
What follows is the result of our interview.
GH: Your latest project ‘Paga’ was released by Autumn Records in July and the first single was released in September. Your work on this project has been 'in process' for about seven years. Was this intended to be a project for a label?
KW: The original intent was to create a record “label”, and release it ourselves. [We] did not really have a complete plan, but now I know that we probably would have needed all of the help and support of a record company who would have already had all areas covered, such as marketing, promotion, and distribution.
GH: What can you share about the past seven years?
KW: I can say that raising my two beautiful, awesome children was the joy of my lifetime. But, I can also tell you that 2004 was the worst year of my life.
In that one year I lost my Father, my Mother, my precious, only daughter, and a 29-year marriage. Recovering from that year has been an excruciating and ongoing struggle. There are things about that year that I will never understand, nor get completely over, but I have come to a place of trusting God. Firstly, His Word is true, and nothing that has happened in my life has changed Him or His promises to me as His child. And, nothing has been successful in separating me from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus.
I have asked “Why?” but I have had to accept the fact that there are just things in life that happen that we will never understand fully or be able to explain. Even knowing that, I have many times felt like a huge failure…but, you know what? [God’s Word says in] Romans 8:28, “All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.” If that’s what makes us a failure, then we’re all failures. But, I don’t believe we were told that scripture to make us feel like or label ourselves failures. I believe it was meant to emphasize the huge love, grace and forgiveness of our faitheful Lord Jesus.
Let me tell you something that happened in church one night, within a few months of the divorce and my dear daughter’s death. I had been feeling horribly guilty and remorseful about the way things had happened in my life. I had the sure feeling that I had “ruined my life”. As a matter of fact, I was convinced that I had ruined my life here on earth.
I was standing during worship, along with everyone else, and the same overwhelming feeling of complete and utter failure had just waved through me, leaving me very weak in every way. Just about that time, I heard the voice of God in my spirit, and this is what He said. (I know it was Him, because I would never have offered myself this much hope!) He said, “Do you really think you could ruin my plan for your life? How big do you think you are?”
Whoa, talk about being put in my place! Big things happen inside of you when God speaks to you! All at once, I had the opportunity to receive hope for myself, to relieve guilt from myself, to rid myself of the personal vendetta of believing that I had “ruined my life”, and I had the chance to repent for thinking I was as big (or bigger?) than God was in my life!
GH: One of the most compelling songs on the album is Beautiful Jesus, a duet with your daughter, Haylie. Can you share what it was like to complete this song?
KW: This song, to me, is just one of the most beautiful and moving songs I have ever heard in my life. (Written by Kelanie Gloeckler) The first time I heard it, I was in my kitchen, just standing. When the chorus of this song hit my ears for the first time, my knees literally buckled underneath me, and I knelt (hard!) on the ground sobbing and worshiping God for who He is, and for His absolute beauty. It was like I could see (with my spirit) what was being sung.
The idea came to me for Haylie and I to do this song as a duet. So, that is what we did. She was not even sixteen years old yet when she sang this with me. It is a precious memory for me, and I am so glad to have gotten her lovely young voice on a recording before she left. I am sure she is singing more than ever now.
GH: How has Christian music changed since the early days at Maranatha!?
KW: Well, a lot of music has come out since the, but I noticed that for a while it seemed like it [praise and worship] became the “cool” thing to do. I would like to think that the best and most effective “Christian” music comes through and from a Christian’s personal relationship and communion with The One Who made anything “Christian” in the first place. Those who know and walk with Jesus Christ portray who He is.
He does want the whole world to know Him, and He gives us songs. Thank God! That’s what was so “firey” about the Christian music (i.e., “Jesus music”) back then. People were just singing about their relationship with Jesus/God, telling what they were learning about Him, and inviting others to come along. But, I believe that there has remained, through the years, an “undercurrent “ of the pure stuff going on.
That’s just how I see it.
GH: Do you have any advice for Christian recording artists that are new to the field?
KW: Well, I’m sure that a lot of Christian artists would have more abundant and better advice than myself…
I don’t have a lot of technical, applicable “break into the Christian music scene” tips to offer… but, I would say these three things.
One, be hard on yourself in the area of keeping your heart right before The Lord, and always sing out of that relationship every time you sing anywhere, even if singing the same words threaten to be “boring” to you at times.
Two, record! Find a way, even if it is a small 4-track piece of recording equipment at home, to record what songs you write, as well as spontaneous songs unto The Lord that happen sometimes during worship.
[One of my] biggest regrets is that I have lost a lot of songs either by not writing them down or recording the music to them at the time they came to me. A lot of young songwriting/worshipping artists are now recording a lot of their concerts. Jason Upton, whom my son Bryan works with, records just about everywhere he plays.
And, three – don’t wait for a record company to discover you!
People in all genres of music are recording their own music and putting it on CD and making it available to the public. With the technological equipment that is out there and available today, there is no reason why you shouldn’t record your songs and make them available to the public. Your songs are not just for you. They are for everyone…to be a blessing to other people. Forget being shy or thinking that you’re “not good enough”. If you’ve got music, give it. Take advantage of the Internet. Make yourself a website, with a biography, and make your CDs available at affordable prices to people. You would be surprised at the interest that is already there waiting for you.
GH: You stopped recording in order to be home with your children, but now that you have grandchildren what does the future hold for you?
KW: One day I was really depressed, thinking that I am so far away that I would have no influence whatsoever in my grandchildren’s lives. After a while, it occurred to me that I already have influenced my grandchildren, through the way that I raised their father. The love and care and joy and peace and righteousness that I tried to sow into his life will be what is sown into their lives. And, for that I praise God! But, to answer your question, I am planning on doing as much singing as I possibly can for however long I will be here on this earth!
GH: From a personal perspective any duet featuring you and Lenny LeBlanc would have to rank among personal favorites. I know you two also worked on the Songs from the Red Letters project for Marantha! more than a decade ago. Do you still keep in contact?
KW: The times I have gotten to sing with Lenny are some of my very favorite times, also! I have not been very good at keeping in touch with people the past few years. Sherrie (Lenny’s wife) came to Haylie’s memorial service. They also contributed to the completion of my new CD, ‘Paga’, for which I am very thankful.
GH: What do you see as the most positive aspect of Christian music in 2007?
KW: Well, I am not real up with everything that is happening in Christian music these days, but I can say that I love the fresh sounds of worship that I’ve heard coming out over the last 10 to 15 years. Delirious, Sonicflood, Third Day, Jars of Clay, Mercy Me, Matt Redman, Jason Upton, Bryan Willard (my son!), Paul and Rita Baloche, the Worship Together series, Vineyard praise & worship, Morningstar worship, Darrel Evans, Chris Tomlin, Jeff Deyo, Tim Hughes, JoAnn McFatter, Rita Springer, Julie Meyer, Brian Doerksen, Anthony Skinner and many, many others.
There seem to be obvious signs of a new boldness in proclaiming our Lord Jesus and who He is, through song. That has been a blessing and an encouragement to me personally.
It was refreshing to visit with Kelly. It can be easy to discuss Christian music from the standpoint of sales and chart status, but this was never brought up. Kelly simply provided an earnest desire to share music about the only One who has remained stable in the midst of events that were anything but.
Those who know her much better than I will say that Kelly remains one of the most down-to earth individuals they know.
There was much more I wanted to ask, but maybe that’s because it was a delight to share a story that always came back to the one thing we can all count on – God’s faithfulness.
Glenn Hascall is a freelance writer and author. His works have appeared in books by Thomas Nelson, Regal and Bethany House among others. When he is not writing he is on the radio or corresponding with members of the Fellowship of Christian Broadcasters. His greatest joys are being a child of God, Nancy’s husband and Alyssa and Ryan’s dad. Email glenn.Hascall@gmail.com
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