When you hear Stephanie Mills' new CD, Born For This!, don't be fooled by the tales of heartache, pain and betrayal.
These days, the diminutive pop-soul veteran is happier than she's ever been. The record, her first in almost 10 years, was released in August on her own label, JM Records, and has been well-received by critics and urban radio. At age 47, the doting mother of a 3-year-old son is in control of her career -- making music that reflects who she really is. And life seems to be more peaceful without the constant pressures of staying in the Top 10.
Calling from her home in Charlotte, N.C., Mills says, "I've grown so much. I've made my mistakes and picked myself up. I used to be very insecure about my songwriting and my singing. Now, I'm much more confident about what I can do."
The artist will perform at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Saturday night as part of the Ladies of Soul show, benefiting the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Mills will share the stage with Regina Belle, Jennifer Holliday and Melba Moore. Let's hope the walls of the place are able to withstand so much vocal power on one stage.
"Honey, there will be a lot of singing in there," Mills says with a chuckle.
Since the release of her last album, 1995's gospel collection Personal Inspirations, Mills has been active -- albeit in a quiet way. She has toured sporadically and appeared in a few gospel plays around the country. The singer did a little recording: a 1999 stellar dance single, "Latin Lover," produced by the Masters At Work; a duet with Bebe Winans on his 2000 Love and Freedom CD; and a guest spot on DMX's 2001 album The Great Depression, reprising her 1979 breakthrough hit "What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin'."
While the Brooklyn native was away from the spotlight, she also put some roots down in North Carolina, "surrounded by lots and lots of cousins and family." And, at 45, the singer gave birth to her first and only child, Farad.
"When you give birth, you feel like you can do anything," Mills says. "My son is the joy of my life. He travels everywhere with me. Having my son taught me patience and took attention off me and made life just simpler. When it's just you, you're looking at yourself through a magnifying glass, and you tend to be selfish. Now that I have my son, nothing else really matters. I have more focus."
Feeling spiritually fortified and emotionally centered, Mills decided to return to the studio about two years ago. Fans had been flooding her Web site with questions about a new project. The Grammy-winning performer had been on and off the road since her last record, so she knew there was an audience out there. But when she decided to approach major labels for a deal, Mills was dismissed over and over again.
"I went to New York, rented an apartment and set up meetings [with labels]," she says. "I thought record companies would be interested, but none of them were. They were like, 'You've had your best day. There's no audience for you.' But I refused to let someone tell me that I couldn't put a record out. So I just set out to do the record on my own."
For Born For This! Mills reached out to noted producer Barry Eastmond and Grammy-winning songwriter Gordon Chambers, the men behind big hits for Anita Baker and Whitney Houston. The singer wrote four songs herself, and Bebe Winans contributed the title track. But before she recorded a note, the artist made it clear to her producers and arrangers that she wanted the new album to sound mature -- modern, but not out of her character.
Mills has been in the game for 30 years with six gold albums and 10 No. 1 singles to her credit. Known for her piquant, gospel-imbued style as distilled on such classics as "Never Knew Love Like This Before" and "I've Learned to Respect the Power of Love," Mills didn't want to compete with the Beyonces and Ashantis of today. (Though she certainly could if she wanted to. Trim, shapely and radiant, Mills looks fantastic and sounds stronger than she did in the '80s.)
"I'm a grown woman, honey," she says. "I told the producers I'm not 21. I didn't want to do the hip-hop thing and talk about hit me on my cell and whatever. My audience would have thought I was crazy. I felt if I did a good product, it would find an audience."
The record is a nice return to form for Mills. Vocally, she sounds assured and comfortable in the slick, spare arrangements that pepper the 10-song set. Lyrically, Mills is taking no mess from no-good men ("Free" and "Healing Time"). She's transcending pain and re-emerging wiser, stronger: I had my heartaches and pains / From lovers playing games / I've even given up on love / When the hurt was just too much ...
"I've been through a lot in my life," Mills says without divulging any details. "Some of the songs are personal. When you write songs, you write from your experiences or things your friends have been through."
Except for a bland and unnecessary remake of her 1989 chart-topper "Something in the Way You Make Me Feel," Born For This! is a solid effort, a shimmering reflection of an artist in love with life right now.
"I just love being in my 40s," Mills says. "I love it. When a woman turns 40, you feel like you can say what you wanna say. You've been there and done that, and you're tired of pleasing others. I have my creative freedom as an artist. I have my son. I do me much better now."
See Stephanie Mills in the Ladies of Soul show at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., Saturday night at 8. Tickets are $50-$25,000. For information, visit www.baltimoresymphony.com or call 410-783-8000.
Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. at WTMD-FM 89.7.