Whether it's growing up with 18 brothers and sisters or journeying through her father's cancer diagnosis, Karyn Williams has stories to tell through her music. And that's just what she does on her debut release, Only You. Karyn recently talked with us about her music, the importance of family, and what God is teaching her now.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. When did you begin to pursue music full time?
From a young age, I knew that I wanted to surround myself with music; it's the only thing that has ever really made sense to me. Growing up, my dad spoke in churches a lot and my mom would travel with him and sing. One night when I was about three years old, I begged my mom to get up and sing with her. She reluctantly agreed thinking I would probably hide behind her skirt the whole time, but when the music started, apparently I grabbed the microphone and took over the song. She sat down on the pew in the front row (laughing of course) and watched me finish! I was hooked and music became my thing.
In the summer of 2007, I felt the Lord tugging at my heart to move to Nashville and pursue a ministry in music. I was absolutely terrified, but I packed my car, said goodbye to my family in Orlando where I grew up, stepped out on faith and made the move. It was the scariest experience of my life, but it was also the time when Philippians 4:7 came to life for me. Even though I cried the entire way to Nashville, I also had a peace that I couldn't understand or explain. I didn't know anyone or anything other than the fact that if the Lord was leading this journey, I knew I was in good hands.
I made a promise to the Lord on the drive that day that I would walk through every door He opened, as long as I felt it was from Him. I have kept that promise and the doors He has opened led to signing a record deal at Inpop Records in 2011, paving the way for me to release my first full-length album.
From the minute I walked in to Inpop, it felt like a big family hug and I'm beyond thankful to have such a great team of people around me who have true hearts for putting out music that will encourage people in their walk with the Lord! I'm so excited to have put together a collection of songs for this record, Only You that speak truth about the hope of Jesus; that's really the only thing that matters to me. The Lord has used music as a powerful tool in my own life to draw me close to Him, and my prayer is that these songs will do the same for other people.
What do you hope people come away with after listening to your songs?
As I have traveled and shared music over the last few years, there is one thing that has become very real for me: people are hurting. Sometimes in a very big way and sometimes in ways they don't show. There is something we are all carrying around or walking through every day of our lives that is difficult, unfair, or something we don't understand. We have gotten very good at putting smiles on our faces, walking out the front door and going about our day when sometimes we're dying inside.
If there's one thing I want people to take away from these songs, it is hope. Real hope! We as humans can do without a lot of things in our lives, but hope is not one of them. Many of the songs on Only You were born out of a very personal (sometimes painful) place, so the journey of writing for this record has been very healing for me. I believe the Lord has allowed experiences in my own life over the last few years so that I can share this music in a way that encourages someone else walking through the same thing. Sometimes all we need is someone to put their arm around our shoulder and say, "Hey, I know you're in pain right now. I've been there, and you're gonna make it through." Music has a way of healing and encouraging in a way that sometimes nothing else can.
For me, being a Christian artist is the biggest honor in the world and it is even bigger than just the songs on this record. Ultimately it is about helping people connect to God in a deeper way and trying to provide real hope for real people living in the real world. The only thing that matters to me is that I spread hope and encouragement everywhere I go and the fact that the Lord has allowed me to do that through music…well that's the ultimate dream come true!
Your first single, "Rest in the Hope" was born out of your dad's cancer diagnosis. How has God used this song since its release to radio?
As songwriters sometimes we have to go searching for great song ideas, and then sometimes they fall in our lap. "Rest In The Hope" was a song that fell in my lap, but not in a way I ever expected or wanted.
On February 4th, 2011, my dad called me with news that would change both of our lives forever. He shared with me that he had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Multiple Myeloma, a blood & bone marrow cancer that was "incurable" and there was "no surgery" that could be done. I was devastated. I mean devastated. My dad has always been my rock, my hero, and then somewhere along the way to adulthood, he and I became great friends. We've done 7 marathons with each other, wrote a book together; he's just my favorite guy in the world. So this cancer news rocked me to my core and I walked around for many weeks in a complete fog trying to understand it and figure it out.
I had a lot of questions for God, most of which started with the word "Why?" Those first weeks and months were extremely tough: lots of treatments, countless doctors appointments and lots of tears and uncertainty.
After a few weeks, I remember collapsing on my bed in tears and asking my husband, "Am I ever going to feel normal again?" It was in that moment that I realized I was exhausted trying to figure it all out and I had to lay this down and allow God to be the One in control of this situation. When we don't understand something, our human nature is to wrestle it to the ground and try and figure out what God's doing in our lives. The truth is, we won't always understand, and His ways aren't our ways so we have to trust and rest knowing that He is still in control, no matter what we're walking through.
Not long after my dad’s diagnosis, he said, “I thought I was close to the Lord before, but now I feel like I’m sitting on his lap hugging Him around the neck.” I thought that was such a beautiful picture of resting in the arms of Jesus and that is really the statement for how "Rest In The Hope" was born. When I realized this would be my first radio single to the world, I was overwhelmed.
This song is personal for me in a way that’s hard to explain after walking through my dad’s illness. It is a song of comfort and hope, and my prayer is that whoever hears it will realize that the Lord is right there in the middle of whatever they’re going through. He knows right where you are and is walking with you every step of the way. We have a hope beyond measure and we really can rest knowing that He we belong to Him.
Rest In Hope
How have you and your family learned to "Rest in the Hope" since your dad's diagnosis?
Well, cancer will definitely teach you to rely on the Lord in new ways! I will never ever forget the devastation of learning that news. It has given me a new understanding and a new respect for what people go through when someone close to them is diagnosed with cancer. Everything stops.
Although I cried every day for weeks, I finally made the decision to lay it all down. I had no other choice. God is still God even in the middle of circumstances we don't understand. Cancer or any other difficult situations in our lives is not God punishing us; it is simply something He's allowing us to walk through as a chance to mold us, grow us and help us learn to rely completely on Him.
I can remember the moment when I finally said, "Ok Lord, I may never understand this…but I'm not going to question it." We tend to only thing that we are "blessed" when things are going well in our lives. But I believe the Lord allows us to be in different situations in order to share His name. Sometimes we don't like those situations, but ultimately, the only thing that matters during our time on earth is that we shared Jesus with everyone we came in contact with. Whether that's done from a hospital bed or a pulpit – we all have a ministry to share right where we are.
And how is your dad doing now?
He is in remission! Praise the Lord!!! At his age (71 when diagnosed) getting his cancer in remission was going to be a challenge. He has always been a health nut and has always taken extremely good care of his body. He used to say, "I'm getting in shape for old age." Now he says, "I didn't realize it, but I was getting in shape for cancer." It was an extremely grueling process of treatment, but because of his good health at the time of diagnosis, he did a lot better than the doctors expected! It's a good lesson for all of us - skip the pizza and eat greens, and tomorrow morning, hit the gym instead of the donuts!
Adoption is a central part of your family's story. How has adoption impacted you?
I was four years old when my parents started adopted children, so I don't remember much before my brothers and sisters from different nations started joining our family. I have siblings from Romania, South Korea, Brazil and the Philippines and I wouldn't trade it for the world. My unique upbringing has definitely shaped me into the woman I am today; you learn a lot as the big sister in a family of 19 kids!
My parents did a great job of keeping things running smoothly and stressing the importance of responsibility at a young age, so we all had morning and evening jobs that were age appropriate as we grew and matured. We were all very involved in sports, art, dance, cheerleading or whatever it was we were passionate about. If you came into our house on any given afternoon you'd find us outside playing basketball, swimming, sitting in the library reading a book or out back playing a family game of whatever we could come up with. Hanging around playing video games or staring at the TV was NOT an option! My mom ran a pretty tight ship; my dad used to joke that she wore sergeant stripes on her pajamas!
When I was 12 years old, I traveled with my mom to Romania to bring home one of my little sisters, Gabriela (Gabi). I saw the orphanage where Gabi had spent the first five years of her life, and in an instant, my perspective changed. We have so much that we take for granted here in America, and seeing those conditions as a pre-teen really impacted me. All I've ever known is brothers and sisters who didn't look like me, but I have learned that if we put the color of our skin aside and get past our language barriers, we all have one thing in common and that is our universal need for God. No matter what side of the world you are from, God created us all with a void in our hearts that only He can fill.
I am so thankful for everything instilled in me because of the diversity of my family. Growing up with so many people around, I learned quickly how to get along with different personalities and how to look past the color of someone's skin. I've seen what it means to give of yourself, and how to work together as a team. I also learned pretty quickly that life didn't revolve around me! There were a lot of kids to worry about, so we all had to pitch in, help where we could and we learned pretty quickly how to be self-sufficient.
Watching my parents taught me what it means to open your heart to someone in need and I've seen firsthand the rewards that God has waiting for us when we do. My dad used to say, "I have 19 children, 14 of which are adopted but I forget which 14." I always loved hearing him say that because he never saw any difference in my biological siblings and adopted siblings.
Because of his example, we all followed suite. From the minute a new child joined our family, we were so excited and tried our best to welcome them into the fold. As a longtime NBA Executive, my dad could have done a lot of things with what he and my mom were blessed with. But instead of building a bigger kingdom for themselves or going on more expensive vacations, they chose to invest in the lives of children in need. We are all adopted into the family of Christ and in some small way, I think what my parents did is a beautiful picture of the way God opens His arms to us and welcomes us into to His family.
What has God been teaching you lately?
The biggest thing the Lord has taught me this past year is to rely completely on Him. We read about it in Scripture and hear it preached in sermons all the time, but learning how to effectively do that is hard sometimes. As humans, our nature is to control things and many times we think we are in control. But these last few months for me between my dad's cancer diagnosis, walking through the process of making a record and so many other personal things in my life, the Lord has really helped me understand what it means to rely on Him in new ways. He is in the One driving my life and I have found it works a lot better that way!
The Scripture that I have made my life verse is Galatians 1:10, "Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God?" Decisions are easier with that mindset. We get so wrapped up and stressed in the busyness of our lives, and sometimes we forget that there's really only one thing we were put here to do and that's honor the Lord in everything we do and tell everyone we can about His love. The title track for this record, "Only You" was born out of that verse and the experience of doing this record has brought me to a place of knowing who my complete dependence is on.
To purchase Karyn's new album, click here.