It’s midnight at the Apollo Music Café, and the director of the theater is asking if Celisse Henderson can do one more song. The crowd roars its approval, and Henderson gamely jogs back onstage for her encore, a high-energy, guitar-driven rendition of Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World).” Henderson’s wide-ranging set features a polished selection of R&B classics and her own rock ballads and blues originals, an appropriate blend of old and new for this multitalented multi-instrumentalist.
Henderson is a strong singer, an accomplished pianist, a devastating stage presence, and one of the best live guitarists in New York City. “I’ve worn a lot of different hats in the business,” Henderson tells me. “Ensemble member and principal in Broadway shows, guest-starring actress on television, background and lead vocalist, vocal arranger and musical director, instrumental sidewoman and frontwoman. I’m certainly most satisfied when I’m able to perform my own music; it gives me the opportunity to purely communicate my art. But I am the artist that I am today because I’ve been fortunate enough to work in so many different mediums and to channel so many voices.”
In honor of Henderson’s headlining show at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center on December 7, WSWD caught up with this versatile performer to find out more about her passions, her process, and what she’s got planned for the New Year.
What Should We Do?!: When people ask you what you do for a living, what do you say? How do you define yourself?
Celisse Henderson: Because I engage my art through a lot of different mediums, titles can be challenging. I say I am an artist, plain and simple. Very often people need exact clarification of what that means. ‘So you’re a waitress who sings and does plays on the side?’ Not quite. I am a working artist and constantly seeking the best way to lift people and speak to their hearts.
WSWD: What brought you to NYC?
Henderson: I came here from San Francisco to pursue a career in musical theater. I started working professionally right out of high school, so I wasn’t coming into a situation like a lot of people who had showcases or connections from college in the city. What I had was a lot of blind faith and one very lucky break.
WSWD: What was that?
Henderson: A couple of nights before making my first trip to New York to crash open-call auditions, I was practicing some music from my audition book at my friend Jake Heggie’s place. My friend was, and is, a really successful opera composer, and he’s friends with Stephen Schwartz [lyricist and composer of Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked]. Jake invited Stephen back to his home, where, to his surprise, they found me; I hadn’t planned on being there that evening. Jake convinced Stephen to listen to me sing, and I had the honor of singing his song “Spark of Creation,” with him accompanying me on piano. He asked me to sing more, so I did. I believe I sang all four or five songs that were in my book at the time. After I finished singing, Stephen asked, ‘So what is your story? What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I am an actress and singer, and I want to see if I can make it on Broadway!’ Stephen said to me, ‘You have a talent and a gift like I have not seen in a long time. I’m going to help you.’ At the time, I was maybe 20 years old; I didn’t know how important that meeting was. Two days later, I land in NYC and I get a call from just about every major casting office in the city. ‘Stephen Schwartz says you are someone we should meet! Do you want to come into the office and sing for us?’ I couldn’t have gotten a better reception.
After about a half year of going back and forth to audition for shows on both coasts, a New York casting director told me, ‘People are talking about you, but if you want to work in this town, you really need to be here.’ So I packed a suitcase, an acoustic guitar, and I think $175 in cash, and I came to NYC to stay. I spent nine months cleaning houses, walking dogs, working retail, moving sublet to sublet, and crashing open calls, just waiting for my big break. Then I was cast in the ensemble of the first national tour of Wicked and my life completely changed. I’ve been working as an artist pretty much ever since.
WSWD: What advice would you give to an artist looking to get started in New York City?
Henderson: WORK. HARD. So much focus gets put on the smoke-and-mirrors side of this business—how many followers you have, how many likes a post gets, how many views are on that video. Those metrics have their own importance, but have little to nothing to do with the art. Imagine what could happen if that same amount of focus was put on the craft itself?
If you consistently show up for every opportunity with integrity around your work, bigger opportunities will come your way. Excellence cannot be denied. It just can’t. The timing of it we can’t control, but the growth of the art itself is completely in our hands. If you want to be a successful artist, my question to you is how much time did you spend working on your craft today? What did you do today to learn more than you knew yesterday?
WSWD: When you’re writing a song, how do you decide what tools to bring to the job?
Henderson: Most of the songs I write start from the guitar or the piano. No effects, no production, just the lyric and the melody.
WSWD: You have a very intimate and intense relationship with your guitar onstage; how much of that is stagecraft and how much of it is rapture?
Henderson: One thousand percent rapture! I put a lot of emphasis on preparation for my shows, but the guitar part of it is entirely immediate. When you come and see me perform solo, what you’re seeing is whatever the guitar wants to make me in the moment. It is such a raw experience and it’s been so incredibly freeing.
I’ve had an acoustic guitar since I was 18 or so, when I took a community college guitar course to learn how to play five chords…you’d be surprised how far that will get you! Maybe five years ago, I had this electric guitar that was sitting on the wall and I really decided to get serious about it. Once I learned 12-bar blues, I knew this was the instrument of expression I needed.
WSWD: When you’re performing a cover, how do you get inside of a song and make it yours?
Henderson: I was against doing covers for a long time. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with wanting to interpret someone else’s music; it’s just the formulaic culture around it. I avoided it at all costs. Then about a year ago, I had my iTunes on shuffle and the Jacksons’ “Blame It on the Boogie” came on, and immediately I knew I had to learn how to play it. Something about the joy and funkiness of that song wiped out my earlier cynicism with a really simple idea: I could cover songs that I really love from artists I adore and still be true to my own work!
These days, if I’m going to work a cover into my act, I want to do something unique but that also completely honors the original version. It’s really fun and challenging to take modern classics and find my place in them. Honestly, I never feel like I’m making them my own; I’m just hoping to breathe a little bit of my own life into them and learn something along the way.
WSWD: As a songwriter, how obliged do you feel to discuss the current political and social climate in your work?
Henderson: I don’t know if I’d call it an obligation as much as a responsibility to speak to the moment we are in. We are living in a challenging time in our country and it feels impossible for me not to share my perspective about it in my work.
I always felt like I wanted to have some point in all of my shows where I speak to the deeper and more nuanced things in life…not that love and heartbreak aren’t important, but the pains and heartaches of moving through this world, about having hope and loving yourself, are what I consider really important. If I have a room full of open minds, hearts, and ears, I take what I am saying to those people very seriously. My desire is to show that we can make a difference and that the power to change is solely in our own hands.
WSWD: What can we look forward to from you in 2018?
Henderson: I have been working on a video project to raise money for the Movement for Black Lives and ACLU for more than a year now. This video and the call to action that comes with it will more than likely be released at the top of the year. There will also be new music and a lot of exciting shows in NYC and beyond.
WSWD: What’s your ideal NYC day?
Henderson: I’d probably start with coffee and a little quiet book reading and journal time at Vbar in Greenwich Village, then breakfast at Jane Restaurant with a close friend to just chat and catch up on life. Next, I’d go to a matinee of a new Broadway show. Then I’d make time for a between-show late lunch with theater friends at Glass House Tavern. After that, I’d go see a show at Joe’s Pub—either an artist I love or someone brand-new—and get a side of Joe’s fries and a tequila ginger ale. Then late-night dinner at a rooftop bar with some friends and a stop by the magazine stand on Sullivan and Prince Streets to get my classic rock and blues magazines on my way home.
Celisse Henderson’s Faves…in a NY Minute
When Harry Met Sally (so cliché…but so good!).
Little Branch on Seventh Avenue is just so cool and cozy that, even though it can often be crowded, the drinks always feel worth the wait.
I don’t care what anyone says, Ben’s Pizzeria on MacDougal beats Joe’s Pizza any day of the week.
I have a special love in my heart for the peach cobbler at P.J. Clarke’s. My dear friend Craig Jessup introduced me to it at the Upper East Side location almost a decade ago and it’s still my fave place in town!
Place to take out-of-town guests?
Circle in the Square.
Place to watch the sunset?
Jimmy at the James Hotel.
Place to splurge on jewelry?
Stella Dallas Vintage.