In 1996, there was a song that dominated the airwaves, and it was called: “I Love You Always Forever” by Donna Lewis. With its catchy chorus and Lewis’ lovely angelic voice, it’s no wonder that the single became one of the top love songs of all time. Today, Lewis is still making music that is magical — and meaningful. We caught up with the Welsh singer/songwriter to talk about her battle with breast cancer, her son Archie, and how to embrace your journey.
Let’s talk about the impetus for your new album, Rooms With A View.
Before I was diagnosed, we were planning to release a new record around the 25th anniversary of my debut album that featured “I Love You Always Forever.” We were looking at a bunch of unreleased pop songs that I had already recorded.
I never planned to write about my cancer journey. Then out of the blue, Holmes Ives, an electronic producer, sent me a bunch of instrumental tracks. Holmes and I had worked together in the past; he had remixed one of my songs from an earlier EP, I Told You So. He said, “Do you fancy writing some lyrics? Do they inspire you?” I hadn’t told him what was going on, but I began reading through some of the journals which I had been writing in throughout my treatment. The lyrics came to me; it was about cancer being the uninvited messenger, and so I began working on the song using Holmes’ track and the lyrics from my journal.
Slowly, the songs started to emerge and before I knew it, I had written “Corridors.” The song is about my nurse, Eileen, who I loved. She was always the one who I’d ask for to take my blood before chemo. She was so gentle — I’m such a baby, so I would ask, “Can you give me the baby butterfly needle?” [laughs]
That started it, and we wrote several songs together. Usually when I write lyrics, I want people to hear the song and interpretate it in their own way, but all these songs became my story over the duration of a year. I felt with “The Messenger” that it could be about anybody going through something uninvited or unexpected in their lives and how to deal with it. Each song reflects a chapter in the journey and the treatments that took place in the different rooms that I was in.
What I love about the album is that it’s open to interpretation. It can be any trial or tribulation that you’re going through in your life. Sometimes we only want to show the highlight reel, but showing the raw and authentic resonates more with people.
When I got diagnosed with cancer, it became the fear of the unknown. You don’t know what to expect and it’s scary. But when you talk to other women who have been through it, they give you the strength you need to get through it. They told me, “You can do this.” There’s so much going on in the world right now and Rooms With A View is an offering of hope for anyone going through a dark tunnel, and if they feel better after listening to the album, then that’s awesome.
I’m one of millions of women who have had breast cancer. At the end of the day, these songs are dark but they’re also inspirational. “The Mark” is one song that I wrote about radiation treatment. It’s like five days a week for five weeks but it became my meditation time on the table. I was aware of the red lights while they were radiating, and I would look for the white light to come on at the end, so I knew I was done.
When my best friend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I remember she said to me, “I used to ask myself, ‘Why me?’ and now I think, ‘Why not me?’”
Exactly, and it does change you. I live my life in a very healthy way. I have a 20-year-old son now, Archie, and while he was in school, I’d run myself ragged. You are running around like crazy and not giving enough time to yourself. When I got my diagnosis, I sat and thought about a lot of things. I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t have to say yes to everything. I can say no, and it’s okay. I try and tell myself to make the most of each day. The cancer diagnosis was a wakeup call.
It’s all the things you know you should do, and you don’t do. It lets you live probably in a way that you never would have.
Yes. When you get that first diagnosis, it’s hard but you do change. The best advice somebody gave to me was to pull up your big girl pants and just do it — and so I did. Now I live life a little braver and a little stronger.
As an artist who is well-known for the brightness of “I Love You Always Forever,” how does it feel to write an album that is, as you said, a little darker?
The music definitely inspired the darker tone in some of these songs. Cancer is not pretty, and I wanted to write about how I was feeling being in a different room each time and how the chemo made me feel. For example, in the song ‘The Imposter,” I used words like “raw” and “torn” as I remember having a mouthful of ulcers where I could hardly talk. It was so incredibly painful.
Even though that was how I was feeling, I still wanted the chorus to be an uplifting anthem. It was a thank you to all the doctors and nurses who were amazing as well as friends and family. But really, it was a thank you to myself for being brave and getting through this because it’s not easy.
I think the songs all have a little darkness but then there’s also some light. They have this hypnotic vibe that comes from Holmes, which coaxed the lyrics from my journals out into the music. He wrote these incredible electronic tracks apart from “Rooms With a View.” “That song is particularly special to me because I wrote it with my son and it culminates everything about the journey. It’s very different from the others because it’s more acoustic with real strings. It talks about Martin, my husband, who came to chemo with me and watched me for hours while I was plugged into my cold cap and the IVs. It can be hard for caregivers to watch their loved ones go through something like that, I’m grateful that Martin was by my side every step of the way.
You had mentioned journaling earlier and I personally think that it’s an amazing way to get through things.
When I went to Canada to make my first record, I took a journal with me and documented my experiences, and when I was traveling and promoting the album. It’s so interesting going back to ’96; I still have those journals and reread them because you do forget certain things. Especially over the last few years, journaling has become like therapy. You have so much going on in your head and when you can write it all down, it does help.
I find it very grounding.
It is. I like to write pen to paper — I’m so old school! When I collaborate with other singer/songwriters in the studio, they write everything on their phones. I have so many journals and notebooks everywhere. It’s important to write down your feelings at certain times of your life.
Let’s talk about your work as an ambassador with the American Cancer Society.
They asked if I would be an ambassador for the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Central Park. It’s really about sharing my story and helping to spread awareness. I’ll probably be doing different fundraising events with them; I just performed a few of the songs from the new album at a breast cancer symposium. To be working with the American Cancer Society makes me feel good because my story could help other women with their journey.
Now, you had your son at age 43. I also had my last child at the same age. What was the experience like for you?
I remember turning 40 and thinking we’d like to have a child. My OB-GYN told me that your fertility starts to dip after 40. I did get pregnant when we were living in Ireland, but I miscarried, which was very traumatic. People told me that it would be hard to get pregnant at 42, but I did. I felt good during the pregnancy; I felt healthy, and I had my baby at 43. It was the greatest gift I could ever have been given.
I think you don’t start feeling like an “older mom” until your child starts school.
Yes, you start feeling it when they start going to school. Archie would walk into school and say, “My mum is 53” and he was quite happy about it! I was like, “Bloody hell!” [laughs] At the end of the day, I was so involved in his childhood and school — the “older mum” thing never bothered me.
People might assumed that you stepped away from music when you had Archie but that’s not accurate.
In my dream world, I thought that I could still go on tour and have my baby with me. When Archie arrived, though, I didn’t want to be apart from him at all. I really wanted to be that full-on mum. I did step away in the sense of not doing it all. I still wrote and recorded songs, and there was only one school concert of Archie’s that I missed because I was touring in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Maybe because I was an older parent, I felt that it was such a miracle that I had a baby who was healthy after going through the miscarriage. He was like a gift, and the good thing is that I had this whole amazing life before him, so I was happy being a stay-at-home mum.
One of the biggest blessings of being an older mom is that you’ve lived so much. You’re a little more relaxed as a parent because you’ve built your self-confidence and know who you are.
I think that’s true. There is so much wisdom and experience you have. And Archie has grown up to be a great kid. We’ve been lucky because we both could work from home, so he’s always had his mum and dad around. He was always interested in learning, and I think that was from taking him to Europe and traveling. He’s been involved in so many things, like theater and music, and he’s grown up to be a very secure young man.
The other day we were watching footage from when he was a baby and toddler and we were in stitches. Archie said to us, “Wow, I was really loved; you both loved me so much. It was magical to hear those words come from him.
It’s so lovely when your child can recognize that and share it with you. Now, “I Love You Always Forever”. I have to ask you about it.
It’s crazy, the journey with that song. When I wrote and recorded the song in our house in Birmingham, England, it came together very quickly. At that time, I was working on a little 8-track machine, so if I wanted to do any background vocals, I had to record a bunch of tracks and then bounce them onto one track so I would have room to record more. We always thought “I Love You Always Forever” was a strong, catchy song. I remember trying to rewrite the chorus because it sounded too much like a nursery rhyme, but when I did, it didn’t work so I kept it the same. The song you hear is basically my demo. So now when I record, I always record everything because those first takes are sometimes the magical ones.
Eventually the song got in the hands of Jen Stark who worked in A&R at Atlantic Records and had heard it. Everything was like fate, really. And then it was embraced so well at radio. I feel that there’s always a right time and place for different songs and music, and this was my time for my song.
And the song is as popular now as it ever was.
It was on the Billboard Top 500 Best Pop Songs of All Time. They said it has one of the best pop bridges ever. I really do believe that songs come in on the wind to you to be written. And thank God because I am so grateful that it’s still being played today. We’ve had two big remixes done recently and they’ve done amazing. Younger people love it and it’s a 27-year-old song.
It has the sweetest feeling.
It appeals to 5-year-olds up to 90-year-olds. It’s just one of those charming, sweet love songs that everyone loves, and it’s become an iconic pop song. I have never been a writer who thinks that I’m going to come up with another “I Love You Always Forever.” All I can say is, thank you, please make it last forever!
When you look back at the various versions of yourself, what would you tell them now that you didn’t know then?
Just to stay who you are. To be honest, I’m glad I got my record deal later. I was 30-something and in a way, it was a blessing. If I look at my 18-year-old self, I’d say to stop trying to be someone you’re not. Don’t be swayed by other people saying a song wasn’t right because I might have thought they were right. I know who I am and I’m happy in myself and my work as well.
All of those versions of yourself got you to this moment.
When I was talking about my cancer diagnosis with a friend, I remember thinking, “How the hell can I get cancer when I’ve been a green juicer and lived a healthy lifestyle? He said, “Since you were like that all of your life, you’ve been able to handle it better than others might have.” All of us have to go through something, and that was the thing I had to go through. None of us are invincible, are we?
Rooms With A View is all about creating art with my music. I just want to make a beautiful piece of work and I would love to do some live dates again. But really, I’m very proud of this album. It’s taken me in a bit of a different direction, and I’m truly writing from the heart. I think that it’s important to remember that in a challenging period in your life, even though there might be darkness, there’s also light.