It’s hard to believe that it’s been just over a year since Mandisa shot to instant fame when millions of TV viewers across the nation were captivated by her winning smile and powerhouse vocals as she sang her way into the final rounds of “American Idol’s” fifth season. Not only did she garner a multitude of new fans who now simply refer to her as “Mandisa,” but she wowed critics with her stunningly expressive voice.
"Mandisa is powerful and has tremendous breath and pitch control, and there's no reason that woman should be working as anything other than a singer," Daily Variety associate editor Phil Gallo told USA Today after watching Mandisa’s performances on “Idol.”
Entertainment Weekly also chimed in with praise (“It’s all about Mandisa!”), claiming Mandisa turned “American Idol” into a one-woman show. “Following her powerful performance of Chaka Khan’s soulful classic ‘I’m Every Woman,’” EW raved, ”if you weren't doing a little bit of couch dancing when 'Disa! cut loose on the piping hot arrangement, then you'd better check the cushions for your soul.”
So it’s with the release of her debut album, True Beauty, that Mandisa fans will finally get what they’ve been waiting for: a full-length project that, to no one’s surprise, packs a pretty powerful punch. A collection of funky rhythms, gospel-tinged melodies and pure pop power ballads, True Beauty reflects a versatility that few vocalists possess, and Mandisa delivers the goods with an unaffected ease.
Showcasing Mandisa’s stylistic range was the task set before the five sets of producers who lined up to work with her on the album—top-notch names like Shaun Shankel (Beyoncé, Natalie Grant); Brown Bannister (Amy Grant); Christopher Stevens (TobyMac); Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders (India.Arie, Johnny Lang); and Double Dutch, the team of Robert Marvin and Josiah Bell (Matt Kearney, Matt Redman). Mandisa also spent personal time with the album’s writers before the songwriting process began, sharing her vision for the project and what she hoped to communicate through the songs. The end result is a seamless flow of tracks that create a diverse landscape for messages of hope, inspiration and faith.
“As I went through the recording process on this album, I realized I’m very eclectic,” Mandisa shares. “We have all kinds of different flavors on here, and each one of them is me. I love them all.”
The album’s bouncy title track, which she co-wrote with producer Drew Ramsey and singer/songwriter Cindy Morgan, defines an essential theme in Mandisa’s own terms: “Visions of perfection/Such a misconception/’Cause the real connection is deeper than the eye can see. “It’s all about the fact that our view of beauty should not be built around our outside. An unfading beauty comes from a gentle and quiet spirit,” Mandisa explains. “I really believe that someone can have an inward beauty that shines so much that it makes them even more beautiful on the outside. We chose this as the album’s title because this is such an important message to me.”
“Only the World” is the album’s funky, energetic first single. Written by Matthew West, Sam Mizell and Clint Lagerberg, it captures Mandisa’s joyful spirit well. “We all have difficult days we wish we didn’t have to go through, but it gives you so much peace and joy when you realize that it’s only the world we’re living in, and one day we’re going to go to a much better place,” she says of the song’s theme. “This song makes me want to roll down the window, turn up the volume, throw my hands up and just have fun!”
Both “Only the World” and the inspirational “Voice of a Savior” were co-penned by Sam Mizell and award-winning songwriter Matthew West (whose songs have been recorded by many top names in Christian music as well as country superstars Rascal Flatts). “I believe so many people will resonate with ‘Voice of a Savior’ because we have all turned to different things to fill that void in our soul,” Mandisa explains. “This songs talks about how we all really want the same thing – to hear that voice that says ‘I love you.’” Another important—and personal—moment for Mandisa on the new CD comes on the song “God Speaking.” “A lot of people don’t realize that God really does speak to us,” she shares. “I went through a very difficult time right after ‘American Idol.’ I was being criticized publicly for some of my convictions and things I’d said. I didn’t understand why God was allowing it to happen, so I caved in and shut everyone out for a while. While I was lying in bed one night, I remember feeling like God was really trying to speak to me, but I didn’t want to listen. I tried to ignore him, but eventually he broke through. And you know what? He didn’t judge me or tell me I was wrong. He simply said, ‘I love you.’ And I think it’s so important for people to realize that even though we may not always know what he’s trying to say to us, we know that he loves us.”
A latecomer to the project is “Love Somebody,” a new song written by TobyMac and Aaron Rice. The minute she heard it, Mandisa knew she wanted to add it to the album, which was already in its final production stage. “I’m so excited to have this song on the project because I loved it the moment I heard it. It features TobyMac and his band, Diverse City, and it’s one of the most fun songs I’ve done. I can’t wait for people to hear it.”
The desire to live free of society’s expectations sits at the heart of the messages interwoven throughout True Beauty. Issues of self-esteem and self-worth are front-and-center among those that most young women struggle with today, and Mandisa admits she is no different. “My struggle with my weight has been the biggest struggle of my life. Rather than turning to alcohol or drugs when I was going through emotional times, I turned to food. As a result, I’ve become unhealthy—and it’s a day-to-day process to overcome.
“On the flip side, we as women are not defined by the way we look, even though society would tell us otherwise by what we see in music videos, magazine covers and beauty pageants,” Mandisa continues. “They give us this unattainable standard of beauty that doesn’t really exist. It’s amazing how the self-esteem of young girls is so low right now because of what society is feeding them, and I really do hope that America is waking up to the importance of that issue. If we really understood that our value is not based on how we look, but in who we are as people—I really think we would be much more free.”
It’s not surprising that Mandisa made such an impression on the millions who heard her TV performances. Music has been the backbone of her life since growing up in Sacramento, California. “I don’t ever remember not singing,” she says, recalling the years she spent performing in church and school choirs before heading to Nashville, Tenn., to attend Fisk University and earn a degree in vocal performance. She even invited the Fisk Jubilee Singers (she used to be a member) to join her on the new album. They add their inspirational voices to “Oh My Lord,” a song about freedom, wrapped in the musical stylings of an old Negro spiritual.
After attending Fisk University, Mandisa remained in Nashville where she did session work and performed backup for a wide variety of artists including Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood, Take 6, Sandi Patty and more. She also traveled across the nation singing with various worship conferences and women’s events before venturing onto the American Idol stage.
Since becoming a household name, many doors have opened for Mandisa. She recently joined musical legend Gladys Knight and other performers such as Lalah Hathaway, Shirley Murdock and The Boys Choir of Harlem on stage at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater at the First Annual Benefit Gala “Back to Harlem,” sponsored by the Ashley Stewart Stores Community Foundation. The premiere event raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for three outstanding charities: the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Dress for Success and The Boys Choir of Harlem. Mandisa also signed on to be a spokesmodel for Ashley Stewart Stores, the trend-setting fashion retailer that outfitted a number of her performances on “American Idol.”
Her faith plays a major role in her life, a role that was evident to Mandisa’s fellow ‘Idol’ contestants, the judges and viewers. And even though it didn’t always come with positive results, Mandisa never shied away from being true to herself.
“My faith certainly went through some tests of fire,” she shares, “but it’s stronger because of that and it’s also made me want to know more about it and how to articulate it. I think I came out of that whole experience understanding Jesus better. I’d been a little sheltered in Christian circles for a while and it helped me realize the kind of impact that Christians can make when they actually step out of their boxes and get involved in the world around them. More than just a career, I really want to have a ministry that has an impact on people. I just want to follow through with what is in my heart. I never want to look back and wonder, ‘What would have happened if….’”