Often an artist's strengths inspire their best work. But for acclaimed contemporary Christian singer Mandisa, it's her very human flaws and frailties that gave birth to her stellar third album, What If We Were Real. The two-time GRAMMYÂ® nominee knows that nobody is perfect - and she wants her fans to realize that, too. Her new career-defining project, released on Sparrow Records, reminds us all that everyone struggles. The concept of the album - which follows 2007's exploration of inner grace, True Beauty, and 2009's look at personal emancipation, Freedom - came to Mandisa as she bared her soul to her more than 20,000 followers on Twitter (@mandisaofficial).
"A lot of people think we as Christians have to put our masks on and pretend that everything is great. But I was really amazed at the responses I'd get when I'd Tweet that I was struggling, or needed prayer with something, or having a bad day," she explains. "People said, 'I'm glad to know I'm not the only one.' Or 'I need prayer for that too.' It surprised me that people thought I had it all together. The truth of the matter is I have bad days too and am still learning to bring that to the Lord and let Him lift my burden."
That learning curve is evident on the vulnerable but empowering What If We Were Real. "Where I was at the beginning of this album and where I ended up are two very different places," confirms the Season 5 American IdolÂ® finalist and multiple GMA Dove Award nominee (She scored consecutive nominations for Female Vocalist of the Year). "It's been a process."
That process began with a disheartening battle with a familiar enemy. "I will always struggle with my weight. It's the thorn in my flesh," she says, recalling how a disappointing morning on the scale prompted her startling online confession that things are not always rosy. "I had gained weight and was so frustrated at that moment that I said so on Twitter. I said, 'I'm fed-up and over it.' I was feeling embarrassed and ashamed. I realized that I had only talked about how great things were. I never let people in when they were not. It was then that I decided I'd talk about the bad things too - that I'd be real."
And so she is, through 11 songs of struggle, worship, and redemption, starting with the title track. Propelled by a blaring rock guitar and Mandisa's distorted vocal, the song explodes, signalling that, yes, something different and new is on the horizon. "That song is going to throw people for a loop! It's definitely showing a different side of me," she says, clearly excited by the notion of adding some grit to her angelic vocals. "It couldn't be the kind of song that only sounded happy and joyful. It needed to have some angst to it." It's also one of songs Mandisa co-wrote for the record. "That song came pretty easily. I got together with my co-writers and I wasn't in a good place. I said I'm tired of smiling all the time and acting like it's all perfect. Sometimes I just want to scream."
Or shed some tears, as the album's most revealing track, "Just Cry", allows. Also co-written by Mandisa, the song reassures listeners that it is acceptable, and even healthy, to release one's feelings and emotions.
"I've always been trained not to cry, and to keep my emotions inside for the sake of making other people feel more comfortable," she reveals. "But the best thing to do is feel those emotions and let them out, not hide them. I meet so many people in my autograph lines who tell me their stories and say, 'I'm so sorry I'm crying!' And I tell them, don't apologize. Let it out."
Still, after all the crying and even shouting, Mandisa stresses, there is the promise of God's new day. She sums up that gift in the joyous "Good Morning", which, with its buoyant beat and uplifting refrain, may be her answer to Johnny Nash's iconic 1972 hit "I Can See Clearly Now". "God's mercies are new every morning. That was at the heart of this song. The darkest part is right before the dawn, but morning does come," she says. "I wanted a feel-good song to get me out of bed and make me remember that I am starting fresh."
"It's a good morning, wake up to a brand new day," she sings in the chorus. "You give me strength You give me just what I need."
And that strength - to persevere, to overcome, to be real - is the focus of the album's first single, "Stronger". Inspired by the belief that surviving hardship makes us more resilient, the tune sums up the past year of Mandisa's life.
"That song is very appropriate for me. When I look back on this year and reflect on the difficult things I've gone through, I realize I've grown the most not from when things were great, but from when they were hard," she says. "'Stronger' is encouragement for anybody who is going through a difficult time. As long as you're still here and still walking through, you'll be stronger in the end."
Mandisa is certain of that fact. Because she is living it. Because she is overcoming her own trials. And because she knows her Lord and Saviour is with her every step of the way.
"A struggle is a struggle, and Jesus is there through it all. He is there in compassion and grace. I have found that what He has spoken to me through these songs has been encouraging and I think that'll be true for other people who are going through their own hard times," she says, pausing to reflect on how far she's come since she first began her What If We Were Real journey. "I feel I have a closer intimacy with the Lord than when I first started. He is the reason I'm still here."