BY DAN EWALD
Singer/Songwriter Heather Williams’ Story of Overcoming
“I always feel like Charles Dickens when I start an interview,” Heather Williams sighs — and for good reason. The singer with the massive vocals behind the radio hit “Hallelujah” witnessed so much rejection and abandonment as a child that you can hear the hurt lingering in her voice to this day. Just as quickly, though, she’s able to laugh about some parts of her past. Hers is a story of redemption, and that’s reason alone to be transparent with those who are inspired by her music.
On Her Own
Living with her aunt and uncle in Detroit during her senior year of high school, Heather felt like she was just an intrusion on their burgeoning family. Her uncle was finishing his doctor residency, and her aunt was about to have their first child.
Heather was 18, a big drinker, and high on one drug or another most of the time. She was the “difficult girl” often associated with trouble. One night, she chose not to come home and didn’t bother to show up for school the next day. She believed there would be no consequences with her relatives. “I told them I was an adult and knew everything now. I figured I’d gone to Detroit Public School long enough to gain all the knowledge in the world,” Heather laughs, with a throaty cackle. “I was really flippant, rude, and disrespectful to them. They had rules in their house, and I was really prideful and didn’t want to listen to it. So I packed my stuff in a black garbage bag and left with nowhere to go. I really didn’t think it through. I had no vehicle. I’m telling you, I just get more and more intelligent!” Heather walked through the freezing weather with a trash bag swung over her shoulder— the image that reflects her Charles Dickens reference.
She found her way to a strip mall she used to visit on Michigan Avenue. One shop had unlocked exterior doors and Heather found some warmth in the foyer area sleeping among other homeless folks. Later, the owner of a donut shop took pity and gave her a cup of coffee. After several days and nights of wandering around, she walked three and a half miles to the home where she had lived with her Grandpa from age 11 to 16. He had since moved to Florida, and his house was abandoned.
Heather stood on the porch of her old place and knew she had to break in somehow. She found a pile of bricks in the backyard and used one to smash a window. Crawling through the shattered glass, she felt like she had hit rock bottom.
“It was the oddest feeling breaking into this house I had lived in. I went to my old room and covered up in these blankets my grandfather had left. I was so desperate. I had been walking around in February without a coat. I just had the sweater I was wearing, so I was freezing.”
MEET THE PARENTS
The next day she called a friend whose dad was a police officer. He did a little bit of digging and located Heather’s birth father. She had never met her dad but knew he lived in Michigan.
“He was a stranger to me. It was a very surreal moment walking into the living room and meeting him and his parents, these people I was related to … I had been through so much in my life. I was pretty hardened.”
Heather’s parents split when she was just a baby. Her mother married a military man who didn’t have room for Heather and her brother, the “old kids,” once they started having children of their own. So Heather and her brother were left to fend for themselves — booted out to the garage with nothing but their clothes, beds, and the cement floors under their feet.
The abuse worsened. Their stepfather disciplined Heather and her brother by making them drag rocks back and forth from one side of the yard to the other. One week’s diet consisted of just bread and water. “I think he just wanted to be in control of his family,” Heather surmises. “We didn’t watch television with them. We didn’t sit at the kitchen table because that was ‘family time.’ It was more a systematic removal of us from the family.”
Ironically, Heather’s stepfather and mother took them to church. She remembers sitting in Sunday School singing “Jesus Loves Me” and thinking, No, He doesn’t. That’s such a lie! She always believed God existed but didn’t necessarily want to hear what adults said about Him. And why would she? Her stepfather treated her like she was worthless. Her own mother never told Heather she loved her — no hugs, no affection.
So upon meeting her birth father at age 18, Heather felt like he was just another adult who had abandoned her. “The little girl inside of me wanted my daddy to love me. All of us as women crave that, but I was so hardened and angry. I wasn’t going to be vulnerable, so I sat there stone-faced as he tried to find a place for me to live. The catch was, I would have to attend church with him. I thought, Oh man, why does everyone make me go to church?”
GOD SEEPS IN
Church was different this time around. As weird as it was, sitting next to the biological father she barely knew, Heather was glued to the sermon. The pastor spoke about how “Jesus loves you right where you’re at,” and that message cracked through Heather’s hardened heart. “It just seeped in, and my soul responded,” Heather says with a smile on her face.
She got her GED and completed her high school education. Then she met, dated, and married a nice Christian guy who showed her the kind of love that had been missing in her life. Then Heather enrolled in college but was unsure what major to pursue. She loved writing and knew God had gifted her with words.
“I think I was just trying to ‘right the wrong’ of dropping out of school,” she chuckles. “It was like, Let’s be educated now!” So at age 21, Heather geared up for her first day back to school since high school. “I had been so far removed from my teenage years, and I was a completely different person. I was a little apprehensive, thinking, Am I going to back into those old habits — smoking or drinking? Will peer pressure get to me? It was kind of terrifying because I didn’t know how I was going to react to it. My husband dropped me off, and I remember looking over my shoulder, thinking, Take me home!”
At the end of the semester, Heather’s last assignment was to do an oral report on what she wanted to do for a living: “I was freaking out as I shared my music and gave my testimony. I didn’t even play live. I played it back on CD in the classroom— the most cold, sterile environment. No pressure at all, you know!” she laughs. While some of the classmates brushed off her Christian message, one guy took a CD and told Heather he wanted to hear more. That was the first time she experienced the power of her story.
“That song is me. I remember exactly where I was when I wrote it and how I tried to display sincerity in those lyrics — that I am nothing without God in my life.” — Heather Williams, on her song “Holes”
“I love being able to tell my testimony. That’s my favorite part,” Heather insists. “I mean, I love singing and writing, but there’s something about telling your story and having that human connection and seeing somebody get it — the light bulb going off that says, ‘Oh, God could do that in my life.’” Heather’s pastor posed a great question once: “Where do you get your worth?” As she pondered the answer, he continued, “Your worth comes from somebody who thought so much of you that He died for you.” And that message underscores the songs Heather wrote for her full length album that’s releasing this fall on INO Records.
“We cannot reach out or disciple somebody if we’re not willing to say, ‘This is what I’ve dealt with, but this is what God has done,’” Heather says. “That’s why the Bible says there’s power in the words of our testimony. I believe very strongly in that. God is able to use us when we’re transparent. If we can really hang onto the fact that our worth comes from Christ, especially at the college age when we’re treading water and figuring out who we are, that’s a powerful thing.” A conclusion no Dickens character ever reached.
Dan Ewald says once he heard Heather’s music, he got even more excited about the interview. It was one of those assignments that introduced him to new music he actually likes. (And that’s rarely the case.)
Music in the Nick of Time
A radio station played Heather’s song “Hallelujah” during a Share-a-thon and a woman called in saying she had no money to donate but wanted to thank the DJ for that song. She was in such a bad place. She had been sitting in her car, motor running, garage door closed. She was ready to commit suicide when Heather’s song came on the radio. The woman turned her engine off and prayed, “I don’t want to have this depression over me. I want to have more of You in my life” and went inside to call the station.
“That’s heavy,” Heather says, searching for words. “I walked around with that all day. That’s not just someone saying your song is catchy. I mean, that’s what I want to be doing. That’s for all of us. The words that come out of our mouths are either influencing people for heaven or for hell. A lot of times, we get so caught up in the day to day that we forget the gravity of our influence on people.”
MORE THAN WORDS — See a video of Heather sharing her story at heatherwilliamsmusic.com.