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Saturday, August 30, 2014
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The Woman In Me

The Woman In Me

Gregory Rumburg

She didn’t quite reach the end of her rope, but from where she hung Jaci Velasquez got a crystal clear view of it. A comment in her new album’s liner notes reads: "I have had the craziest year of my life personally, spiritually and musically."

Looking back, she notes, "I could have just said, ‘You know what? Forget this! Where is God? He’s nowhere! I’m going to walk away; I don’t need this.’ I could have just gone and figured it out on my own."

But she didn’t. Instead, Velasquez learned for herself God is faithful, "because I’m not psychotic, and I have every reason to be."

No Place Like Home

Coffee is very important around the Jaci Velasquez household. Starbucks, preferably. Today’s java flavor? Verona, a gift delivered just minutes before by her publicist who happened to be in Jaci’s Brentwood, Tenn., neighborhood. Another record label suit has dropped by to introduce Velasquez to her cardboard stand-up likeness, a bookstore promotional item for her latest album, Crystal Clear (Word). For a Saturday morning in a private home, there’s a lot of business being conducted.

Revering home economics queen Martha Stewart, Velasquez confidently works the well-equipped kitchen of her two-story brick home, opening a wooden cupboard here for coffee filters, there for white mugs large enough in which to bathe a newborn child. "The smaller ones just weren’t as pretty," she says with innocent charm, yet smiling knowingly as if admitting she’s been caught, awkwardly torn between the aesthetic pleasure of the housewares item and its lack of practical function.

That’s largely Jaci’s life M.O. these days, too. Almost 21 years old, Velasquez is on the brink of adulthood, living passionately, deeply. Five years in the music industry, Jaci is a confident businesswoman who admits her colleagues often find her difficult. A hard worker, she expects the same from her team. (Although she wonders aloud if she were a man, would she still be deemed "difficult"?) She’s evolving artistically, demanding for the first time untapped excellence from herself, foremost.

Yet, child-like desires to have fun lay ever-so-slightly beneath the surface of her vibrant—and sometimes satirical—personality. Perky this July Saturday morning, dressed in silver-gray Diesel jeans and a white tank top, her hair still wet from a morning shower, Jaci Velasquez appears to be a normal, well-adjusted young woman—anything but psychotic.

In the last year she’s become more private, "a homebody," says her confidant, roommate and brother, Dion. This new attitude helps give Jaci a sense of normalcy in a life that’s far from routine. Pulled like saltwater taffy between competing interests professionally and personally, she’s decided to take it all in, head-first, on her terms—period.

"This has been a growing up year," says Jaci, taking a place at her glass-top kitchen table. "Painful, but healthy as well." Personal family issues she declines to discuss distracted her from an already demanding professional schedule. Without going into details, she notes, "Had this happened to me two years ago, I would have quit everything I was doing just for the responsibility I feel. I couldn’t have handled it.

"I know God lets things happen for a reason, I just cannot figure out what He was thinking!" she laughs, hiding the seriousness of her confusion.

She says the season was her pruning, like what she does with her backyard red, pink and yellow roses. The garden, with its quaint, tiny pond, is a place where she gets away from it all, especially when she’s with her favorite companion.

"The garden is like my dog, Dallas. These things take my mind off everything. It makes the whole world just kind of stop, like that same feeling when you’re listening to a song and it kind of sweeps you off into another world. That’s what my garden does to me. That’s what my dog does to me. You just play with the puppy and you forget. It becomes simple again."

Star Light, Star Too Bright

Though tapped in April as Christian music’s Female Vocalist of the Year (for the second time), the biggest professional challenge for Velasquez in the last year was breaking into Latin pop, a distinctly different genre from Latin gospel in which Christian artists have performed before. Jaci claims she now knows "for a fact" that God wanted her to go into the Latin pop market. Two years ago, she wasn’t so sure.

Riding the success of her first two Christian records, Velasquez set out to fulfill another professional goal: to make a full-fledged Latin record. But three songs into recording, Jaci unexpectedly stopped the work. "I didn’t like who I was becoming, and I could not figure out why I was doing the record. I was getting my eyes off who I was and who I was for Christ.

"I was, in my mind, becoming my own little star.

"I was given a big career so young. I’d do it all over again, but I can understand those child stars who become drug addicts in their mid-20s, like after a successful sitcom that failed." Jaci says it didn’t make a difference that she made her teen success in Christian music. "You’re given so much so young. You think you’re invincible, and you go, ‘Wow, I really think I’m something.’

"I tend to be a little self-destructive when it comes to certain things in my life. For me, it means not caring what people think about me.

"Like, I’ll start to walk on stage in a tight pair of pants and my mom will go, ‘Don’t shake your hips,’ and I’ll do it 10 times worse just because I know people are going to get upset with me!" she says firmly and defiantly. Later, "I think, ‘What a dummy! What was I thinking?’"

Velasquez decided to make a change this past year. "I had to suddenly decide, ‘Why do I believe what I believe? No one’s going to watch over me, no one’s going to make sure that I go to church right now. No one’s going to make sure I pray. No one’s going to make sure I do my devotions. I have to do it. I can’t let my relationship with God rely on what my parents tell me anymore.

"Our relationship with God just has to become our own. It’s such a great thing, such a great place to be. It’s that pruning stage."

Liking herself again meant centering herself. There was more devotional time, more reading time. But it was the relationships around Jaci that helped the most. "I just really focused in on the people that really care about me, my mom, my brother, my family. I just didn’t share my time. People probably think I’m a snob because I don’t spend time with people anymore. I’m more private now."

Centering also meant avoiding those rebellious moments. "I really just had to quit being an idiot! Quit being self-destructive. I still tend to be at certain points, and I really have to be careful."

A Latin Explosion

Rediscovered, Velasquez knew why she needed to record a Latin album.

"It’s like when you fall in love. You just know. It’s not like I heard the voice of God one day while walking through Kmart. It’s just that I’ve always prayed, ‘Open the door You want me to go through and close the ones You don’t want me to go through.’"

Hand of God or not, doors blew open. Velasquez was signed by Sony Discos, the leading Latin record company—boasting names like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez—and released in 1999 Llegar a Ti. The record was certified platinum (250,000 copies sold, Latin market) in short order and nominated for a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Performance. In its Latin Music Award categories, Billboard nominated her for Female Vocalist of the Year and tapped Velasquez for New Artist of the Year. A No. 1 single on Billboard’s Hot Latin Tracks and Latin Pop charts for "Llegar a Ti" (the first Christian artist to do so) made it official: Jaci Velasquez had exploded into a certified Latin pop artist.

"Jaci’s on her third single, which gives her a strong foothold in the market. She’s doing really well," says John Lannert, formerly of Billboard, now Latin/R&B editor of Musicmaker.com. "Jaci’s got a great voice, a great show, she’s very personable. She’s made a great effort to work the market, which gives her credibility. She’s not just a Christian artist making a Spanish record and breezing through."

Certainly not. Velasquez is on a mission. She says she got to a point where she decided, "I’m going to do this record because Latin teens need to know they can live out their dreams just like me. I went into this to inspire little girls, to show them they don’t have to be dressing all sexy in order to be accepted by society," a noble, but tricky prospect for Velasquez, who’s been lauded by English and Latin press for her beauty—some even finding her sexy.

"Probably, I’ve pushed the envelope in the Christian market. But you know, it’s because I’m 20 years old." Overall, she’s not bothered by comments of her sex appeal. "No, I’m not because I am not trying to be [sexy]. There’s a difference when you try to be and when you just go with your natural female, feminine persona. The difference is when you don’t have to show everything in order to be considered sexy. It’s OK. God made us [feminine]." And this time she’s not trying to be rebellious. "I’m trying to still be 20 years old and not be a complete bore!

"I know I was given a platform to inspire people to do great things, to live out their dreams... and I am going to try to do that to the best of my knowledge. If I offend people along the way, Lord have mercy because I’m not trying to."

Becoming a Latin artist while being a card-carrying Christian artist is like leading a double life for Velasquez, a situation still more controversial than her sex appeal. Last year volumes of letters poured in from Christian music fans criticizing her for doing Latin pop. One church went so far as encouraging its youth to burn their Jaci Velasquez records.

She doesn’t understand the ruckus. "With the Latin market, I’m singing to crowds that the person who was onstage before me was humping the air and the people who are on after me are going to be a couple of girls... dancing their little booties off with their shirts up to here," she says, indicating a less than modest fashion style. Velasquez provides an alternative. "The Latin market is very open to songs about inspiration."

"She sings love songs that are sometimes ambiguous," says Enrique Fernandez, Lifestyle columnist for Ft. Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel, "so they could be secular or Christian. But this is true about a lot of Christian music, isn’t it, whether one is talking about a beloved or Jesus?"

He continues, "Her songs are very pristine. There is not any sensuality, really. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal. It’s so different. There probably is a public that likes it pure and not physical." It has earned Velasquez the nickname "la niña buena," the good little girl.

"Jaci did two Spanish [independent] records before she was even signed to a Christian label," asserts Dion. And although she is a native of Houston, Velasquez says her authenticity has not been questioned.

"Yeah, I did Latin stuff before it was popular. I always sang in Spanish churches when I was traveling with my parents. I don’t claim to sing authentic Latin tunes. All my songs are pop Latin. It’s a fusion of pop, merengue, cumbia and a bunch of different stuff mixed in."

Fernandez doesn’t see a credibility problem. "Pop is very general. It doesn’t have a strong identity with a cultural tradition. She has a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, but it is very common for an American-born Hispanic artist to develop the language for their music."

Says Jaci, "This [Latin music] is truly my ministry. This is where God called me as my ministry. But my English records are still my dreams, too. They are both my priorities. There’s not one that takes priority over another one.

"I think what happens in the Christian market is that they like to keep you only theirs. They don’t want to share you.

"You just want to go, ‘What are you thinking? You’re supposed to go out and reach the world as Christians!’ You just want to grind it into someone’s head saying, ‘Remember? Read your Bible! Jesus Christ surrounded Himself with His 12 disciples and then He lived among the people who didn’t know who He was or what He was about.’

"We think with our WWJD bracelets that’s going to be enough? No! We have to go out and live among the world and use our life as a testimony. That’s what I am trying to do.

"I want to make it crystal clear to people I am very much a Christian, and I am closer in my walk with God today than I have ever been due to the fact I recorded this Latin record.

"Jesus’ grace means the most to me. He gives me the air I breathe. He’s the reason I am here. He’s everything.

"I can’t understand why He always does what He does and lets things happen the way He does, but I know that He’s faithful to what happens. I know for a fact He is going to take care of me, and one day He is going to explain everything to me. Or... I hope He will," she trails off, chuckling.

Bye Bye Bye

When it comes to her English records Jaci Velasquez was a teen-pop tour de force before it was vogue to be one. But don’t fold her into that camp today.

"I’m not a teen! I’m 20. I’m too cool!" she says with a sarcastic hair flip.

"She would be if she could dance!" jabs Dion, waltzing through the room again. Even with a few salsa lessons, it’s doubtful Velasquez would be content doling out bubble gum pop.

"Jaci is older. She has something to say now," says Crystal Clear co-producer and longtime Velasquez collaborator, Mark Heimermann. "She doesn’t have to be told what to sing. She wants to express herself. She has life experiences to draw from."

While Crystal Clear is the most current sounding Velasquez record to date, it is also the most mature and personal. The Latin pop "Escuchame" finds Jaci speaking to listeners words her mother said to her: Listen to me. Don’t make the mistakes I made. The vibey mid-tempo ballad "You’re Not There," a song asserting God is eminent but also intimate, is one of two Velasquez wrote with Heimermann. For the first time, throughout recording, Velasquez influenced nearly every part of the process—from production to song selection.

"For example," says Heimermann, "the song, ‘Crystal Clear.’ That song pushed her buttons. It’s a song that says something she’s passionate about. We all liked it, but she loved it, and we were drawn to love it because of her passion in her heart and eyes for that."

"I had a lot of ideas when it came to backgrounds, weird stuff to do," says Velasquez, "whereas I never actually had ideas before. I was never truly interested."

A by-product of her investment may be Jaci’s noticeably stronger vocals on this record, a quality for which she credits Heimermann and co-producer Rudy Perez, currently the hottest Latin pop producer in music.

"Rudy and Mark stretched me a lot on this record," which Velasquez says had not happened on her previous Christian records. "I think everyone thought I was 16, 18 years old: What could I do? They always went, ‘Come on! You can do it! Drop your little pain-in-the-butt pride and just sing!’

"I was being cautious," she admits. But on this record, "I competed with myself, with being the best singer I could possibly be."

Heimermann adds, "I think she is settling into a place where she is feeling comfortable and confident being the same person onstage and off."

"I think it’s simple," says Jaci. "I just grew up. I actually appreciate what I do."

Later, outside admiring her roses, Jaci shrieks, "Oh! I want to show you..." her voice trails off in the summer Tennessee breeze as she turns to run like one of the young girls for whom she wants to be a role model.

There, at the back of her lot suspended from a strong tree branch with neon purple nylon is a tire swing. She climbs on; her long dark hair blows into her face as her brother gives her a playground shove. Coming into her womanhood, negotiating the temptations of the music business, Jaci Velasquez swings from the end of her rope with child-like wonder. Life becomes simple again.

 
 
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