Music

Crystal Lewis' Second Act

By Lindsay Williams

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With a renewed perspective and a fresh self-titled album, powerhouse vocalist Crystal Lewis reflects on empty nester syndrome and rebooting her career at 46.

With a voice as big as Whitney or Mariah, Dove Award-winning vocalist Crystal Lewis was synonymous with Christian music in the ’90s, producing a string of radio hits, including “God’s Been Good to Me,” “Beauty from Ashes” and “People Get Ready… Jesus Is Comin’.” However, as the decade of Christian music’s heyday closed, and technology began to evolve causing CD sales to decline, Lewis found herself at a crossroads.

Since the late ’80s when she signed her first record deal, she had been recording and touring non-stop. She and husband Brian Ray founded their own label in 1992 to launch new artists, and in the meantime, they also had two children. Still, road life began to take its toll on Lewis and her family, so they decided to make an unconventional move from their longtime home of California to the open skies of Montana.

“By the time [my children] were 10 and 12, we just had lived a whirlwind kind of existence—very gypsy-like—and we were felling like we needed a dramatic shift in life in general,” Lewis explains. “We did a good thing by deciding to raise our kids away from whatever it was that we were trying to get away from at the time—materialism and just all of the craziness that was clouding our judgement and crowding us.”

The move out west was a welcome change for the family of four. Away from the limelight, Lewis could focus on being a mother to her two kids—Solomon and Izzi. Although she still dabbled in music, toured on the weekends and even recorded an album while she was living in Montana, she took an extended creative hiatus, which proved to be both good and bad. The respite was needed, but she wistfully looks back on those years wishing she had maintained core relationships with friends in the music industry.

“We wanted such a break from reality that we shot ourselves in the foot in many ways, so I just want to make sure that I learn from my mistakes and don’t let [relationships] go,” Lewis candidly remarks. “I don’t regret moving there, but I think I would do a better job of maintaining relationships and connections, if I had to do it over again… You can’t go back and redo anything, so you’ve just got to pick up where you left off and move forward.”

Over the course of the last two years, forward motion is exactly what she’s achieved. Solomon got married three years ago, and Izzi has since moved back to California to pursue a music career of her own. Thus, Lewis found herself in an empty house attempting to figure out her role in the years to come.

“To have your kids up and out of the house and to find yourself an empty nester in your mid-40s, I don’t know why on earth it took me by surprise,” Lewis observes, laughing. “Your life is your kids—whether you’re a working mom or not—and then all of a sudden they’re gone. It’s beautiful and wonderful, and that’s the point of parenthood—to raise kids that can contribute to society and live great lives and fulfill their dreams, but from a mother’s standpoint, it’s hard and it can be gut-wrenchingly painful to have your kids grow up.”

Her brother-in-law, Chris Lizotte, whom Lewis co-writes with frequently, suggested she channel her grief into her songwriting. However, the normally upbeat Lewis found it unnatural as she began to dream about another possible album.

“The songs really convey almost more of a victory,” she says of her latest self-titled project. “I found that interesting, because I certainly wasn’t feeling those things when I was attempting to write them.” Lewis admits that if anything, she endured a season of depression as she dealt with her kids exiting the nest. It left the singer wondering what the future held—especially in regards to her career.

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“I’m not done,” Lewis affirms. “There’s more for me to sing and say and do and write.”

“I admittedly let a lot of [doubt] creep in and create depression and lots of anxiety that I had never in my life, let alone in any creative attempts, experienced,” she shares. “It’s hard to process all of that and still feel like, ‘Am I relevant? Does anyone want to hear what I have to say?’”

With strong encouragement from family and friends, Lewis decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money necessary to fund a new album. “It was the epitome of DIY, and it was very time-consuming and difficult,” she says of the campaign, which involved regular updates to fans as she re-entered the studio. Lewis admits she was hesitant to even execute a Kickstarter project in the first place.

“People look at you as a veteran artist, and the assumption is ‘Oh, they have it made. They don’t need anything from anyone.’ And that is utterly untrue,” she contends. “It was a very humbling thing to ask for help.”

Despite her reservations, fans fully funded Lewis’ self-titled project, which released in September via her own label, Metro One Music. Furthermore, the singer says the recording process was one of the most challenging, yet most rewarding of her tenure, which is quite a statement considering she’s worked with some of the best musicians in the business.

“I’ve experienced the creative process more times than I can count, basically, and each one is unique in its own way; but this one really kind of took the cake as far as level of difficulty,” she says. Lewis encountered countless roadblocks along the way, resulting in a two-year waiting period between the time her Kickstarter project ended and her new album was complete.

Traveling to California in search of creative inspiration, she reconnected with Elijah Thomson, her former bass player, who agreed to produce the majority of the album and ended up becoming instrumental in helping Lewis renew relationships with key musicians, many of whom she worked with during the days of her landmark GRAMMY®-nominated album, Fearless. As she eased back into writing and recording, her fears began to dissipate, and the music began to take the shape of joy despite her anxious heart.

“It was such a bizarre high from the extreme low I had experienced months before—one of my all-time favorite recording experiences ever,” Lewis maintains. “It’s uncharted territory, which is scary at 46, but it’s also empowering to realize that there are women who started careers—new careers—at 50, and it’s not impossible.”

In the midst of recording her new album, Lewis was also reconnecting with family in California. As she flew in to work for months at a time, she stayed with her sister who cares for their ailing mother battling Alzheimer’s disease. “It was such a fun time of reestablishing these [professional] relationships, and at the same time, I was doing that with my family. It changed everything moving forward, I feel like. I’m grateful—really, really, grateful for it,” Lewis reflects. “It was just the craziest extreme of emotions, and it made for a really unique, beautiful experience.”

The satisfaction of rekindling personal and professional relationships led Lewis and her husband to make the decision to move back to California where she can plug into music again full-time and help care for her mother. While she says she isn’t sure how long they’ll stay, she’s certain it’s the door to her next chapter. In the meantime, the Rays will also keep their home in Montana, not yet wanting to let go of the peaceful retreat they’ve created there.

“Montana is exceptional. I mean, it really is an extraordinary place, but I want it to be the type of place that enables me to take deep breaths; and right now, for me, it feels like a weight,” Lewis admits. “It feels a little bit suffocating because it’s slow. It’s a very good thing, but when you’re trying to run, it makes it very difficult.”

And off to the races she is. “I’m not done,” she affirms. “There’s more for me to sing and say and do and write.” Lewis is also certain that there’s more for her in terms of relationships, and right now this new season is allowing her time and space to invest in the people around her who matter most.

“Life is short, and family and friends are important,” she says. “We’ve got a lot of those down here, and we want to make sure that we don’t miss out on too much more.”

For additional info about Crystal Lewis and her new self-titled album, visit www.crystallewis.com.

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