Kristin Chenoweth has friends in high places. And when she calls them, you’d better believe they show up.
On September 27, the Emmy- and Tony Award-winning singer-slash-actress is dropping her seventh album, For the Girls, a tribute to the female artists who have influenced her throughout her life and career. Chenoweth put her own spin on 12 classic songs by Barbra Streisand, Carole King, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Dinah Washington, and more, and she recruited some of today’s top vocalists to join her on select tracks. Ariana Grande appears on a rendition of Lesley Gore’s feminist anthem, “You Don’t Own Me.” Reba McEntire and Jennifer Hudson lend their voices to Peggy Lee’s hit, “I’m A Woman.” And Chenoweth joins Dolly Parton on a new version of her own iconic ballad, “I Will Always Love You.”
“As you know, we’re having a renaissance, us girls,” Chenoweth tells InStyle. “I think the universe is talking, and a lot of women are inspired. But I didn’t actually set out for that to be the theme — it was just a happy accident. I was writing down songs I wanted to sing, and all of the songs were by women. I thought, 'Wow, maybe I should do this album for the girls!'"
After narrowing her list of 45 tracks to a cool dozen, Chenoweth was determined to lock in one of the original singers for a cameo. “I knew that I wanted to do ‘I Will Always Love You’ with Dolly, and then I realized that it was the song she wrote after parting with her mentor, Porter Wagoner,” says Chenoweth. “I thought about what it must have felt like to really just bet on herself and go for it on her own. I never thought she’d say yes to doing it [for my album], so when she did, I did the ugly cry.”
Chenoweth sent Parton her version of the song “to see if she even liked it,” she says. “I didn’t want anybody to be on this album that wasn’t on board — although none of these women would do that anyway, because they’re strong. But Dolly emailed me back her version, and I burst into tears. Because Dolly just out-sang herself.”
Parton’s influence extended beyond just her song on the album. “Dolly did two albums with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, and those ladies are very different kinds of artists,” explains Chenoweth. “I thought, ‘Why can’t I do that? Who are artists that I love and I admire — not just that I’m friends with — that are all different from me?’”
The answer came in the form of Reba McEntire and Jennifer Hudson. “I listened to Reba all the time growing up, she’s a queen,” says Chenoweth. “And then J. Hud is one of the best voices alive. She could be queen of soul, in my opinion, but she’s also a gospel singer, a Broadway singer, a pop singer. She can do it all. When we did Hairspray Live!, I thought, ‘Boy, would I like to sing with her one day.’ I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do the song, ‘I’m a Woman,' but then in the middle of the night, I sat straight up in bed and I was like, ‘Jennifer, Reba and Kristin — it has to be done this way.’ They said yes, so I lucked out.”
And then, of course, there was Ariana Grande. Chenoweth has known the pop star for years, and the pair also worked together on Hairspray Live! “I’ve always just loved her since she was a little bitty thing — which she still is,” says Chenoweth. “When I was doing Wicked [on Broadway] 15 years ago, she came backstage with her grandma and her mom. She said, 'I want to be a singer,' and I said, ‘Oh that’s cute!’ I gave her this wand, and she kept it.”
From then on, Chenoweth has had Grande’ best interests at heart. “I’ve been mentored by some of the greatest — Carol Burnett, Julie Andrews — and these women have taught me and shown me, by their actions and their words, the kind of career I want,” explains Chenoweth. “So now when I look behind me, I think, ‘Who is the person that I want to do that with?’ And it just so happens to be the biggest star on the planet right now.”
Asking Grande to sign on wasn’t a task that Chenoweth took lightly. “I didn’t want to be yet another person to say, ‘I want to ask you to do something with me — but I don’t want you to feel like you have to say yes, because your life is so big,’” she explains. “But she said yes, and it meant a lot to me. I want to be like her second mom, and she knows I am. Whatever she needs, wherever she needs it, I’m there. And I’m not even talking about music; I’m talking about life.”
Once Grande was on board, the rest was magic. “I’m really proud of our track,” says Chenoweth. “I’ve always thought that Ariana — to put it in the universe — should have her Academy Award moment, as well, with playing the life story of Lesley Gore. So I picked the song ‘You Don’t Own Me’ specifically for her.” Chenoweth also saw the chance to send a positive message to Grande’s young fans, with her crooning, “I’m young and I love to be young, I’m free and I love to be free; to live my life the way I want, to say and do whatever I please.”
“The words are exactly why I picked it for Ariana to sing,” says Chenoweth. “We need to teach our young girls and guys now that we are our own people, and the things that make us different are the things that make us special. Nobody has ownership over anybody; we are the owners of ourselves. Even though this song was written in 1963, to me, it feels like it could be written today.”
Though For the Girls certainly packs a ton of star power, another one of today’s top artists was on Chenoweth’s mind as she put the album together. So, although she doesn’t appear on any songs, Chenoweth subtly pays homage to Lady Gaga. “I had to include ‘The Man That Got Away’ by Judy Garland — it’s from the original A Star Is Born, and of course Gaga had such success with [the 2018 version of the movie],” says Chenoweth. “This was my tip of the hat to Gaga, like, ‘Look what Judy started and look what you just did. Judy Garland won the Academy Award with that song. Barbara Streisand was nominated for the Academy Award for her version of A Star is Born. And then you won the Academy Award for your original song.’ That trifecta of women had to be on there — I did songs by Barbra and Judy, and then in my mind, this one is also a tribute to Gaga.”
Chenoweth’s latest album, For the Girls, drops on Sept. 27 and is currently available for pre-order on amazon.