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Gospel Great CeCe Winans Talks Releasing Her First Live Album During the Pandemic: 'That’s Not What I Planned, God'

CeCe
CMONCreative/Elijah Rodney

CeCe

Live albums have always been a staple in the faith-based music community, and with the release of her new album Believe For It this week, gospel great CeCe Winans found a way -- despite the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the live world for the last 12 months -- to add her voice to that musical legacy.

Surprisingly, this is Winans’ first live collection, and the iconic 12-time Grammy winner admits the timing was a challenge. “Last year I was talking with management and they said, ‘Why don’t you do a live record?’ I was like, ‘I guess it’s time.’ Of course I didn’t know the pandemic was going to hit, so I was like, ‘Okay my first live record with no people. That’s not what I planned, God,’” she says with a good-natured laugh.

“When we started managing CeCe [two years ago], looking back at her catalog, we were shocked that she’d never done a live record," says Chaz Corzine, partner in the MWS Group, which manages Winans. "And we just got to the point of going, ‘With or without a pandemic, this is the right thing to do.’”

Although the planning began pre-pandemic with a large audience, COVID-19 restrictions changed Winans' plans to a smaller, but still passionate crowd. For Winans, the connection and message is the same regardless of the number in attendance.

“It was pretty powerful with just a few people that we had,” Winans says of the socially distanced audience of around 30 people. “It was so intimate. I just get lost in worship. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lot of people or a few people because that’s my life. I can go from a storefront church to a packed-out stadium, and I just give God everything I have, no matter who is there or who is not there. My prayer is always the same: ‘Lord let us capture your presence. Let people experience you and let them walk away with something they didn’t have before they listened. Let them be encouraged. Let them be saved.’ I wanted people to have a worship experience and He did that for us.”

Coming Friday (March 12) on Pure Springs Gospel with label services & distribution via Fairtrade Services/Columbia Records, Believe For It was recorded in late 2020 at Trinity Broadcast Network and filmed for a television special that will air March 19 on TBN.

Believe For It features such worship anthems as “King of Glory” and “Worthy of It All” and Winans’ classic “Alabaster Box,” alongside new tunes including the title track, which Winans co-wrote with Mitch Wong, Kyle Lee and Dwan Hill, and the soul-stirring opening song “Fire.” There are also studio versions of “Believe for It” and “Never Lost” aimed as the first two singles for radio.

“You do get some live music at radio, but not always,” says Greg Ham, Corzine’s business partner in the MWS Group, which also shepherds the career of Michael W. Smith. “What we learned with Michael with [his hit 2019 cover of modern worship standard] ‘Waymaker’ is there was a live version of ‘Waymaker,’ and then we came back and did a studio version -- and that’s what hit most of the CCM radio. Taking a cue from what worked, we really wanted to make sure we had not just a live radio edit, but an actual studio version of ‘Believe For It’ and ‘Never Lost’ [for radio].”

In addition to the new album, Winans, who has won 23 Dove Awards and 15 Stellar Awards, will also be the subject of a mini-documentary, available on YouTube, Facebook and other platforms. Winans is also featured on Carrie Underwood’s upcoming album, My Savior, duetting on the classic hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”

Although Believe For It is Winans’ first live album, such recordings are a staple in the faith-based community “because they are full of emotions and excitement,” Winans says. “You go from dancing to crying. Those moments are so powerful when you experience it live, so that’s probably why so many people do it. With gospel music, it’s not just [about] the song. It’s the song and the people and the reaction of the people too. If you are singing something and somebody is crying out or somebody is saying amen or people are singing along with you, it just makes it that much more exciting. You don’t get that in a studio."

For many artists, the live album experience is rooted in the church. “Gospel singers came up singing in the church live on the spot, so as a result they know how to do that really, really well,” says E.J. Gaines, co-executive director of Motown Gospel and vp of marketing for Capitol CMG. “A lot of artists get in the studio and perfect their craft behind a microphone. They’re a recording artist. A lot of people have to develop the skill to be a live performer, but church singers are live performers from age two and three... It doesn’t matter where the stage is or what the venue is, it feels like church.”

Gaines says the goal in making a live record is for listeners to feel like they are in the room, which means often leaving in the audience’s reaction. “You have to be sensitive to the moments of a live project -- it’s not necessarily about the song,” says Gaines, who says 50% of the albums Motown Gospel releases are live records. “We did a Ricky Dillard album live in Chicago, [Dillard’s 2020 Motown Gospel debut] Choirmaster. I said, ‘I want people to listen to this and smell the wood pews. I want them to feel this old carpet.’ All the video content, every graphic was intentional… It got two Grammy nominations, but when they came back and said, ‘I feel like I was right there,’ that was the win.”

Ham agrees. “Worship is such an experience whether it’s by ourselves or with a group of people, and to experience it with people, it goes to a different dynamic,” says Ham. “A lot of these church movements are live records because they are capturing worship, which is so experiential. It’s hard to get that in a non-live scenario. The studio just doesn’t quite capture the fullness of what’s in the room. With CeCe, and not to over spiritualize it, I really think it’s like God showing up and then capturing it.”

Snoop Dogg at 2018 Stellar Awards