She was Celine Dion's vocal director for three world tours. She performed 5,000 times with Cirque du Soleil. She made it to the final 8 on NBC's "The Voice" Season 6. Now Sisaundra Lewis is back in Central Florida, releasing a single, auditioning for Broadway and starting her own foundation. She recently met up with us at Seasons 52 on Restaurant Row, where she talked openly about her dynamic music career and her childhood in nearby Polk County, Fla.
Tell us how you got into music.
I grew up as a migrant worker and singing in church. I’m a preacher's kid, and singing was just something I discovered I could use to express myself—and keep myself company—at a young age out in the groves. When I was five, I thought I was good enough to sing in front of the congregation.
How was it, working in the orange groves?
It’s hard work. When you start from these humble beginnings, you appreciate it, but you never want to go back and live that way. It gives you the strength to go on. I don’t ever want to pick fruit again. [Laughs]
What did you do after high school?
I went to Atlanta. I found a job working as a receptionist for an insurance company. My voice was always there guiding me, so I would go to auditions, and it landed me my first cover-band gig. I flew to Pittsburgh and from there I soon ended up in Tokyo where I met Peabo Bryson, and ended up doing "Beauty and the Beast" with him and Celine Dion. [The song won the Oscar in 1992]. He just had a number-one single, "Can You Stop the Rain," and I got to go on tour with him. Then one day, Celine's manager and husband, René, called me and asked me to tour with them. I couldn't believe it. I just wanted to drop the phone.
What does being a vocal director involve?
I hired all the singers and trained them for her, and also for the choreography. That was the great thing about coming on board with Celine. She let me be me in so many ways. With giving me that much trust, I only wanted to present my best. We became sisters on the road. We were gone about 10 months out of the year doing three to five shows a week. I think I've been everywhere but Australia and Africa.
Where do you go from there?
I was touring with Celine and got a record deal with a company in New York. So I moved, and after recording two albums and getting ready to release them, they canned them. I had to recover from a failed record deal. Those are the things you don’t know as an artist. What do you do when something like that happens? I started all over from scratch looking for jobs while sleeping on the floor of my friend's apartment in New York. I slept with my pager under my pillow; I walked the streets every day. I recorded jingles for Sprite, Folgers and Sears, and then when I got pregnant with my daughter, I decided to move back to Central Florida.
How did it feel moving home?
Before, I hadn't wanted to move home until I was a big success, because I wanted to make my hometown proud. But, as I stayed in Lake Hamilton with my parents, they really nurtured me back to being a bright, shiny star again. For that, I am forever grateful. Before my father died, he second-mortgaged our home to help re-start my career. I started an incredible relationship with Disney and was able to share that with my dad on his deathbed. Being a sharecropper, he got to see me with this magical opportunity.
You had a career with Disney and also Universal and Cirque du Soleil?
Yes, they were all wonderful partners. I got to be part of Epcot's "12 Days of Black History," I got to sing at City Jazz, now Rising Star, at CityWalk, and I got to be the voice of Cirque for a decade. It's a beautiful, beautiful show, with great friends.
Then came "The Voice."
Well, first I had decided to take a little break to be with my family—I now had three kids—but it was my daughter who encouraged me to get back out there. So in July 2013, I went to New York to audition. I stood in line with 12,000 people. There is crazy talent in New York, so it was a breath of fresh air to get a call-back. It was also redeeming being there in New York where my career had left off all those years ago.
What was it like for the live auditions in front of Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Shakira and Usher?
It’s really a surreal moment. When you sing in front of people like that, it’s big. I was nervous as heck. I sang "Ain't No Way" by Aretha Franklin.
All the coaches turned around. That doesn't happen often.
As I watched all of them turn around, I thought, 'maybe I really do have something.'
Many people were surprised you chose Blake, since he's a country music star.
When Blake started talking to me, he was so sincere. I thought, 'if I’m going to be away from my family and be mentored by someone, I want to be in his company.'
What were the highlights of being on the show?
It was a crash course in vocal success for me. The things we learned, the hours we spent, the sleep we didn’t get … to have all that time to focus on my craft was an epic moment in my life. And also, being on "The Voice" was the first time my mother attended an event like that. My parents didn't listen to secular music at all—they had never been to one of my Celine Dion concerts. For her to set foot in that theater was one of the most monumental moments in my life—to get that stamp of approval.
You made it to the final 8 out of 65,000 contestants, which is a tremendous accomplishment. What's next for you?
I’m recording a single—and working with AEG International. We’re waiting to see what’s going on with Broadway. And I've started my own foundation, the Sisaundra Lewis Foundation. I have a passion for just helping—period—especially when you come from a family who extended their home to the community in so many ways. I've been involved with the Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital's music-therapy program. I've been very involved with City Year Orlando. This organization helps kids at risk for dropping out of high school. I am so excited to be their featured entertainment on June 5 at Hard Rock Live for Red Jackets Rock. Education is where it's at. I fought for everything, and I can show them that anyone can do it with education. And in the last six to eight months, my voice has helped raise more than $1 million for cancer research. I feel more complete today than I’ve ever been.
For more information on Sisaundra's career, go to her website or follow her on Twitter. Clothing in the photo shoot was provided by Cache and makeup was provided by April Ross; location provided by Marc-Michaels Interior Design in Winter Park.