Mandisa made her Billboard debut shortly after competing on the fifth season of American Idol in 2006. Seven years later, she is enjoying the biggest chart success of her career, with a No. 1 album and a single that has spent a collective 18 weeks on top. That title track from her album Overcomer is poised to bring the Christian music star to the Hot 100 for the first time, as the single rockets 24-3 on the Bubbling Under the Hot 100 list.
Mandisa spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about her new album, label mate Colton Dixon, her time on Idol and one of the judges from her season -- Simon Cowell.
The Hollywood Reporter: How would you define yourself as an artist?
Mandisa: I’m a pop artist singing about Jesus. I can do upbeat music with a little bit of funk, a little bit of soul and a little bit of rock.
THR: After recording three successful studio albums plus a Christmas release, what were your goals for your new album?
Mandisa: Each of my albums has reflected where I am in my life. Coming straight off American Idol, and having Simon Cowell talk to me about the way I look, I recorded True Beauty, [asking questions like] where am I going to put my value, am I going to determine my worth by people like Simon or am I going to put my trust into what God says about me. While recording my second album, Freedom, I was working on being set free from food addiction. Dealing with painful childhood memories, like rape and molestation, I gravitated toward songs like "My Deliverer" and "Freedom Song" and "Victorious." On my third album, I didn’t have to pretend I have it all together. I could let the world see me as I really am. What If We Were Real evolved from that. With the new album, I’ve never been in a better place. Things are going really well. For the first time, I’m content in my singleness.
THR: What was the inspiration for the title, Overcomer?
Mandisa: It evolved from walking through things, like Robin Roberts on Good Morning America did. I gave her my CD, knowing she was going to have a bone marrow transplant. You’re not an overcomer if you don’t face anything difficult. You are an overcomer if you face the battle and come out on top. Just in my own life, I have walked through battles.
THR: You’ve written songs on all of your studio albums. Does that continue with Overcomer?
Mandisa: I’ve written more songs on this than any other album, including "The Distance," "Face 2 Face" and "What Are Scars For," which was inspired by Giuliana Rancic. After she had her double mastectomy, she was getting dressed for the Golden Globes and her makeup artist said, "Do you want me to cover your scar?" She replied, "No it’s a battle scar for me." That applies to so many of us. Those scars, whether physical or emotional, remind us of where we’ve been. "Dear John" I wrote with Plumb for my brother. And there’s a song for my future husband, "Back to You."
THR: How do you start the recording process – where do you find the songs?
Mandisa: I know what I want to say, even in the songs I haven’t written. We have a songwriters’ breakfast at the label office. The record company provides bagels, fruit and bacon. A lot of songwriters attend. Publishers come even if their songwriters aren’t there. I give them all a word document with song ideas that have evolved out of my own life -- I’m always jotting things down on my phone.
THR: Can you give us an example of a song that resulted from this process?
Mandisa: I wrote "The Distance" with Matthew West based on something that happened on my Facebook page. I felt really distant from God. I received a lot of comments from my Facebook friends that God is never pulling away from me. This really hit a chord with people and it resulted in a song about God closing the distance between us.
THR: It’s been seven years since you were on Idol. Does it impact every single day of your life?
Mandisa: I don’t know what I would be doing right now if I had not been on Idol. It was the perfect launching pad for me, even with the good, the bad and the ugly. Looking back on a personal level, Simon making fun of me helped my weight loss journey in front of the world. I love looking back at the video where I forgave him, seeing myself 100 pounds heavier. That gives people hope. On a musical level, there are a lot of shows like Idol right now but it seems like American Idol is still the one producing stars. I came in ninth place and I’m doing well.
THR: Speaking of Idol, your labelmate is Colton Dixon, and you’ll be on the road together. Have you had a chance to spend time with Colton? Have you given him any advice about post-Idol life?
Mandisa: We first "met" through social media, on Twitter. We didn’t have Twitter when I was on Idol. Colton is from Nashville. I live in Nashville. I was at the movies, seeing Les Miserables. I walked out in the lobby and there was Colton. Now we’ve seen each other at more events. I’m looking forward to spending two months on tour with him. He carries himself with such grace and class, he doesn’t need advice from me. When I saw Colton on Idol I knew he was going to go into Christian music. I told my A&R person, "Keep your eye out for this kid." I was so elated he signed to the same label as me. I love everything from his awesome hair to his songs and amazing voice.
THR: From your tweets, we know you’re a fan of other reality shows.
Mandisa: My DVR is always recording American Idol and The Biggest Loser. The music video for "Overcomer" features three former biggest losers. As someone who has watched every season of The Biggest Loser, I can’t wait for people to see it.