Sisaun­dra Lewis Comes Home

Where Orlando - - Front Page - BY LAURA AN­DERS LEE

She was Ce­line Dion’s vo­cal direc­tor for three world tours. She per­formed 5,000 times with Cirque du Soleil. She made it to the fi­nal 8 on NBC’s “The Voice,” Sea­son 6. Now Sisaun­dra Lewis is back in Cen­tral Florida, re­leas­ing a sin­gle, au­di­tion­ing for Broad­way and start­ing her own foun­da­tion. She re­cently met up with us at Sea­sons 52 on Restau­rant Row, where she talked openly about her dy­namic mu­sic ca­reer and her child­hood in nearby Polk County, Fla.

Tell us how you got into mu­sic? I grew up as a mi­grant worker and singing in church. I’m a preacher’s kid, and singing was just some­thing I dis­cov­ered I could use to ex­press my­self—and keep my­self com­pany—at a young age out in the groves. When I was five, I thought I was good enough to sing in front of the con­gre­ga­tion.

How was it, work­ing in the

or­ange groves? It’s hard work. When you start from th­ese hum­ble be­gin­nings, you ap­pre­ci­ate it, but you never want to go back and live that way. It gives you the strength to go on. I don’t ever want to pick fruit again. [Laughs]

What did you do af­ter high

school? I went to At­lanta. I found a job work­ing as a re­cep­tion­ist for an in­sur­ance com­pany. My voice was al­ways there guiding me, so I would go to au­di­tions, and it landed me my first cover-band gig. I flew to Pitts­burgh, and from there I soon ended up in Tokyo where I met Pe­abo Bryson and ended up do­ing “Beauty and the Beast” with him and Ce­line Dion. [ The song won the Os­car in 1992]. He just had a num­ber- one sin­gle, “Can You Stop the Rain,” and I got to go on tour with him. Then one day, Ce­line’s manager and hus­band, René, called me and asked me to tour with them. I couldn’t be­lieve it. I just wanted to drop the phone.

What does be­ing a vo­cal direc­tor

in­volve? I hired all the singers and trained them for [Dion], and also for the chore­og­ra­phy. That was the great thing about com­ing on board with Ce­line. She let me be me in so many ways. With giv­ing me that much trust, I only wanted to present my best. We be­came sis­ters on the road. We were gone about 10 months out of the year do­ing three to five shows a week. I think I’ve been ev­ery­where but Australia and Africa. Where did you go from there? I was tour­ing with Ce­line and got a record deal with a com­pany in New York. So I moved, and af­ter record­ing two al­bums and get­ting ready to re­lease them, they canned them. I had to re­cover from a failed record deal. Those are the things you don’t know as an artist. What do you do when some­thing like that hap­pens? I started all over from scratch look­ing for jobs while sleep­ing on the floor of my friend’s apart­ment in New York. I slept with my pager un­der my pil­low; I walked the streets ev­ery day. I recorded jin­gles for Sprite, Fol­gers and Sears, and then when I got preg­nant with my daugh­ter, I de­cided to move back to Cen­tral Florida.

How did it feel mov­ing home?

Be­fore, I hadn’t wanted to move home un­til I was a big suc­cess, be­cause I wanted to make my home­town proud. But, as I stayed in Lake Hamil­ton with my par­ents, they re­ally nur­tured me back to be­ing a bright, shiny star again. For that, I am for­ever grate­ful. Be­fore my fa­ther died, he sec­ond-mort­gaged our home to help re-start my ca­reer. I started an in­cred­i­ble re­la­tion­ship with Dis­ney and was able to share that with my dad on his deathbed. Be­ing a share­crop­per, he got to see me with this mag­i­cal op­por­tu­nity.

You had a ca­reer with Dis­ney, Uni­ver­sal and Cirque du Soleil?

Yes, they were all won­der­ful part­ners. I got to be part of Ep­cot’s “12 Days of Black His­tory,” I got to sing at City Jazz, now Ris­ing Star, at Ci­ty­Walk, and I got to be the voice of Cirque for a decade. It’s a beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful show, with great friends.

Then came “The Voice.”

Well, first I had de­cided to take a lit­tle break to be with my fam­ily— I now had three kids—but it was my daugh­ter who en­cour­aged me to get back out there. So in July 2013, I went to New York to au­di­tion. I stood in line with 12,000 peo­ple. There is crazy tal­ent in New York, so it was a breath of fresh air to get a call-back. It was also re­deem­ing be­ing there in New York where my ca­reer had left off all those years ago.

What was it like au­di­tion­ing live for Adam Levine, Blake Shel­ton, Shakira and Usher?

It’s re­ally a sur­real mo­ment. When you sing in front of peo­ple like that, it’s big. I was ner­vous as heck. I sang “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin.

All the coaches turned around. That doesn’t hap­pen of­ten.

As I watched all of them turn around, I thought, ‘maybe I re­ally do have some­thing.’

Many peo­ple were sur­prised you chose Blake since he’s a coun­try mu­sic star.

When Blake started talk­ing to me, he was so sin­cere. I thought, ‘If I’m go­ing to be away from my fam­ily and be men­tored by some­one, I want to be in his com­pany.’

What were the high­lights of be­ing on the show?

It was a crash course in vo­cal suc­cess for me. The things we learned, the hours we spent, the sleep we didn’t get … to have all that time to fo­cus on my craft was an epic mo­ment in my life. And also, be­ing on “The Voice” was the first time my mother at­tended an event like that. My par­ents didn’t lis­ten to secular mu­sic at all—they had never been to one of my Ce­line Dion con­certs. For her to set foot in that theater was one of the most mon­u­men­tal mo­ments in my life—to get that stamp of ap­proval.

You made it to the fi­nal 8 out of 65,000 contestants, and had great suc­cess on iTunes, which is a tremen­dous ac­com­plish­ment. What’s next for you?

I’m record­ing a sin­gle—and work­ing with AEG In­ter­na­tional. We’re wait­ing to see what’s go­ing on with Broad­way. And I’ve started my own foun­da­tion, the Sisaun­dra Lewis Foun­da­tion. I have a pas­sion for just help­ing— pe­riod— es­pe­cially when you come from a fam­ily who ex­tended their home to the com­mu­nity in so many ways. I’ve been in­volved with the Arnold Palmer Hos­pi­tal for Chil­dren’s mu­sic-ther­apy pro­gram. I’ve been very in­volved with City Year Or­lando. This or­ga­ni­za­tion helps kids at risk for drop­ping out of high school. I am so ex­cited to be their fea­tured en­ter­tain­ment on June 5 at Hard Rock Live for Red Jack­ets Rock. Ed­u­ca­tion is where it’s at. I fought for ev­ery­thing, and I can show them that any­one can do it with ed­u­ca­tion. And in the last six to eight months, my voice has helped raise more than $1 mil­lion for can­cer re­search. I feel more com­plete to­day than I’ve ever been.

Blake Shel­ton with Sisaun­dra

Lewis on “The Voice”

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