Since the early days of the Jesus movement, Kelly Willard has been a part of Christian music, recording with many of names associated with the pioneers of CCM before releasing her 1978 debut at the age of 21. With nine albums to her credit, Willard has also been featured on more than two dozen worship projects from Integrity Hosanna!, Vineyard, and Maranatha! Music. Now with the release of her new CD Paga, Willard is finally back on the scene, though she's never been totally absent. She spoke to us from her Florida home about the things occupying her time for the last 15 years: her family, her recording career, her ministry, and a series of tragedies in 2004.
Your last album was in 1990. What have you been up to all these years?
Kelly Willard It was a priority to be home with my husband and children, since I home-schooled both children. And although I stopped recording my own albums and touring to raise my children, I didn't stop working in Christian music. I lived in Nashville, so I continued to do session work. I've done background vocals for artists, and I've done solos on praise-and-worship albums. I've always followed what was going on in Christian music, and I've continued to do as much music as I could.
It sounds like life has been busy.
Willard Very busy. My mother had Alzheimer's, so we took her in and cared for her for ten years. I was responsible for her health while my children were growing up. I was home-schooling and doing studio session singing while caring for my mother. I haven't done much since 2004 because of what life has been like since then.
What happened that year?
Willard It was the worst year of my life. On Valentine's Day, my father died of pulmonary fibrosis.
Later, in March, my 29-year marriage fell apart. I worked so hard on the marriage, even going to counseling. But the marriage fell out from under me because the spiritual foundation of the home fell short. My parents were divorced when I was 13, and I said I'd never divorce. It was so traumatic, because my marriage and family were my life. It's been hard for me to accept.
Then my 18-year-old daughter Haylie fell through the cracks—on August 29, she committed suicide. She had severe depression and she stopped taking her medication. The divorce was a huge factor in her death. It's the saddest thing ever. Whenever I sang locally in Nashville, Haylie would sing with me, and my son Bryan would play bass. She wrote songs and loved the Lord. Too much sadness just overcame her.
And in October, my mother died from Alzheimer's. So, it really was the worst year ever for me.
Did you struggle with feelings of failure during this time?
Willard Totally and completely. For your child to check out of life is just horrific. It's unthinkable, unspeakable pain.
Does depression run in your family, since it is usually a hereditary illness?
Willard Yes. In 1987, when we had just released Message from a King, my fourth album, I was diagnosed with manic-depressive illness. The medication back then affected me badly, so I stopped taking it. In 2002, the diagnosis was reconfirmed, but with a new name: bipolar disorder. I got on a newer medication and it has worked well. It helped me get through the trauma of the last few years. I believe my mother also had bipolar disorder, but it went undiagnosed.
How did your son handle everything?
Willard Bryan was out of the house already. He had gotten an apartment when he was 18 with his friend Phil LaRue and a couple other guys—he played bass with the group LaRue. Then he began to court his wife Liz and they married. So they now live in Nashville and have a daughter Ariel. He's 24 now and such a strong Christian—a singer, writer, and worship leader, traveling and playing bass for Jason Upton's band.
What have the last three years been like for you?
Willard It's been a time of healing. It's a slow process and it has taken time, but it is happening.
I moved to Jacksonville Beach, Florida for support from Beaches Chapel, a church that took me in and helped me move on after my life fell apart. Haylie and I had sung there in 2002 and they had a real burden for me. When things got bad, Pastor Steve McCoy could see how fragile I was. He would call me in Nashville. He asked me to come down for six months, so I did. I went into weekly grief therapy with a Christian grief counselor for 18 months. I also began taking classes at church. The accountability to my pastor and my grief therapist and Jamie kept me alive, as there were times that I honestly didn't want to live. But, God hung onto me, even when I felt like I couldn't hang on.
I read a lot of books about heaven, and I get really excited, because reading them helps me live the reality of what our faith is all about. Also, I met Jamie Wellington at church and he became a friend who stood by me. Eventually, he and I got married and I still live in Florida today. God gave me a brand new start in every way.
Which at last brings you back to recording a new album.
Willard I began working on it seven years ago. I thought I'd never record another solo album, but the Holy Spirit impressed on me to involve my kids in making an album with me. That's my son Bryan rocking on the bass when he was barely 18. His buddies Miles McPherson and Rob Hawkins also played on it. Haylie, who was 15 at the time, sang a duet with me on "Beautiful Jesus."
Your daughter had a beautiful voice. Is it hard listening to that song?
Willard I made myself listen to it once, just the other day. I saw her on the other side when I heard that.
Where does the title for Paga come from?
Willard I listened to a teaching tape by Jim Goll called "From Prayer to His Presence." He explained how the Old Testament priests would take incense behind the curtain and burn it as an atonement. This is called paga in Hebrew and it means "to make intercession." When Jesus became our sacrifice, he made the way for our prayers, praises, and worship to become like that incense to the Lord. I wanted this album to draw people to the Lord and take part in that intercession.
I like your cover of "Charity."
Willard As far as I know, nobody has recorded that song since Jamie Owens Collins recorded it for her first solo album in the '70s. Which is bizarre, as it's a great song.
What changes have you seen in the Christian music world since the Jesus movement music in the '70s?
Willard The '70s brought a surge of Christian music with Love Song and all the groups from California. It was a great movement of music. But about 20 years ago, I remember Christian radio changing and sounding just like secular radio with DJs trying to act and talk cool, trying to be hip. A lot of the music seemed to lose something. Then, a little more than ten years ago, I saw a revival begin. Very fresh worship and praise music was coming out. Artists like Delirious, Jars of Clay, and Matt Redman were singing about relationships with the Lord again. It was encouraging to see a turn back to simple relationships with Jesus. That's what everyone loved about early Christian music when people just sang about what Jesus was doing in their lives and they invited others to come along. It's gotten back to that in much of Christian music.
You're now ministering to the brokenhearted through Willing Heart Ministries. Tell us about that.
Willard I get a lot of letters asking me to come minister, and I've done so in state and federal prisons, juvenile detention centers, nursing homes and mental hospitals. When I first ministered in a maximum-security prison, I felt afraid until I sang praises to the Lord. You could have heard a pin drop. The Lord showed me his heart for these men and I could barely go on singing. Since then, I've had such a burden in my heart for brokenhearted people who feel like their lives are ruined. When I minister in these places, I can feel the presence of the Lord so strongly. It has been in my heart for many years to bring a message of hope to the hopeless. There are places I haven't gotten to yet, so I formed Willing Hearts Ministries [to help support me playing at venues that can't afford to bring in artists].
It sounds like the start of a new chapter in your life.
Willard I'm doing concerts and also selling albums on my website. We're coming into a time when I'll be able to go full-time again. That's exciting!
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