“I honestly don’t remember a time that I didn’t want to pursue performing professionally.” That’s what Celisse Henderson, star of Broadway shows like Wicked and Godspell, said about her decision to chase after her artistic dreams. “I grew up in a very musical household I was always encouraged and a affirmed around my musical abilities. So it honestly just seemed like a very natural progression.” Today, I got to catch up with this musical powerhouse to talk inspiration, Broadway and playing music with Melissa Etheridge.
Ryan: What was your first professional performance you can remember giving?
Celisse: The first would have had to be my first time going on as the understudy in a show called Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco. It is longest running cabaret house show in the country and I was one of two understudies. (Fun fact: the other understudy was Ledisi.) I was 18-years-old and I played Glinda the Good Witch in the show. If I am completely honest, most of the experience is a complete blur. I just remember finishing the first my first week of performances and being so blown away by the fact that I was handed a check at the end of the week for singing and acting.
Speaking of Glinda the Good Witch, you’re an alum of the National Tour of Wicked but what I really want to ask you about is Broadway revival of Godspell. I loved it. So very much. How did being a part of that show challenge you in your craft in a way you hadn’t been challenged before?
Great question! The most challenging and most rewarding thing about Godspell was accompanying myself on my number “Learn Your Lessons” every night. I think most people miss how technically hard it is to play and sing at the same time, with ease. I had done my fair share of it up until that point, but needing to connect with the text and my character’s motivation in that moment was so much more important that what I was playing on those instruments. So, that meant that I needed to be so comfortable on the instruments, it wasn’t even something I thought about. Needless to say I practiced and practiced and practiced to get to that point. And subsequently, doing it 8-times-a-week gave me a level of comfortability in performing music in that way, that totally prepared my solo career.
Well, now you’re performing music with Melissa Etheridge. How did that come about?
How on Earth can I even begin to speak on the glory and wonder that is Melissa Etheridge? I adore this woman. I initially was introduced to her and her team through a fantastic NYC drummer and friend, Brian Delaney. I ran into him in New York and he mentioned that they might do a run of shows and needed background singers. I told him I would totally be interested if they were looking and long story short, I ended up being hired as her lead background singer. That meant I traveled with the tour and was in charge of the other two background vocalists in every city. During that run of shows, Melissa and I just hit it off and as time has progressed, I’ve started to do more and more with her. (Opening for her, playing guitar in her band, etc.)
I’m curious, what have you learned from working with someone with such a storied career?
I have worked with my fair share of major artists, but never had I encountered someone with the level of generosity of spirit and unadulterated love for music like she has! Her live show is unreal. I expected her to be good, but I also knew the majority of the songs I knew of hers were from when she was in her late 20’s and early 30s. So like many of her contemporaries, I assumed it would be goodish, but that some of the music would have lost its fire. Well…not at all. The first show I did with her on stage, I was jaw dropped. Literally. You can find many pictures of me that look like they let a super fan sneak on stage! She is singing and playing the shit out of everything. She is one of those performers where even if the music isn’t your taste, you can’t help but fall in love with her. And if that wasn’t enough, she is a dream to work for. She treats everyone with such care and respect and subsequently, everyone works their ass off because you want to meet her where she’s at. She has become a mentor and friend and I honestly can’t believe my luck.
How have you changed/grown as a person and an artist in the past year?
I am so deeply and truly in love with music. Beyond any words I could use to describe what I mean. It is the sort of thing where if I go a couple of days without playing something or writing something, I legitimately feel off. So with that said, I am, on a daily basis, trying to learn something new. A new chord progression, a new technique, a new way to communicate a lyric in a more succinct manner. If you came to a live show of mine a year ago as opposed to now, it would feel different. I hope to be the sort of artist that is still learning and growing until my last dying breath.
The life of an artist can be challenging. Where does your continued drive come from?
I love acting and I loved the musical theater and TV work I did for the 10 years I was focused on that. But, I ultimately stepped away from that kind of work because I felt and feel I have a bigger and better chance at being of service to the world through my own voice and art. Yes, this life is not for the faint of heart but in the toughest moments when funds are low and gigs are fewer, I am able to keep moving forward because my intention is to speak life and truth into people’s hearts. If someone hears a song of mine and feels more connected to themselves and their feelings, I have succeeded.
What’s inspiring you today?
I am incredibly inspired by the art that is a direct result of the political and social climate we are in right now. I am an artist that very much believes in speaking to the times that we’re in and as awful as our current government is, (I mean awful), it has and will continue to bring out so many powerful voices of marginalized people and their allies!
I have been working on a music video project to benefit the ACLU and the Movement for Black Lives for almost two years! It is my way of doing what I can to ignite and inspire people, while hopefully raising money for these two incredibly important organizations. There will be a fundraiser event on July 9th at Joe’s Pub and the video will be officially release on July 10th!