With the natural excitement that audiences nationwide have come to expect from the 2004 winner of "American Idol" (one of television's highest-rated shows), Fantasia Barrino says, "I love my album! I'm so excited that I got no sleep thinking about how the world is going to respond to it..." The powerhouse vocalist from High Point, North Carolina whose soulful delivery made her an instant favorite with millions of viewers (and subsequently with SRO crowds from coast-to-coast on the "2004 American Idol" fall tour) need have no worry: FREE YOURSELF, Fantasia's much-anticipated J Records debut CD sizzled and burned with tracks that captured the energy that she invests into her every performance - be it in front of a camera or onstage with thousands of the fans she's created in just under a year of national exposure.

    Working with music industry legend and RCA Records Group Chairman Clive Davis (who served as a judge during the final stages of ‘American Idol') as the album's executive producer in conjunction with Simon Fuller, owner of 19 Recordings Limited, Fantasia began work on FREE YOURSELF on her days off from the 52 shows she did in the summer and fall of 2004. Davis assembled an all-star team to work with Fantasia including super hitmakers Missy Elliott, The Underdogs, Jermaine Dupri, Harold Lilly and Soulshock & Karlin.

    FREE YOURSELF includes three tracks associated with Fantasia's "American Idol" appearances: the chart-topping single, "I Believe" (co-written by former "Idol" contestant Tamyra Gray) which became No. 1 on Billboard's Singles Sales charts in June as Fantasia was celebrating her 20th birthday; the timeless standard "Summertime" (a constant showstopper for the singer during the final weeks of "Idol"); and a rousing rendition of "Chain Of Fools," a classic from the catalog of the legendary Aretha Franklin who Fantasia acknowledges "is one of my earliest vocal mother used to play Aretha's records all the time so I've been loving Aretha's music from way back." No surprise that Fantasia chose to pay further tribute to "The Queen Of Soul" (who she portrays in the 2004 television show, "American Dream") with her version of Franklin's "Daydreaming" which she says "is my favorite song of all time."

    Fantasia Barrino considers that her blessings began when she first started singing at a very early age. She was born into a musical family: both her mother and father and her three brothers sang and by the age of five, she and her siblings were singing at local weddings and other events. "We started singing at different churches," she recalls. "We did some original songs that my parents wrote as well as traditional hymns and gospel standards..." It didn't hurt that Fantasia's first cousins happened to be Ki-Ci and Jo Jo Hailey, original members of ‘90s supergroup Jodeci: "I used to see them when I was real young," she says, "and in fact, once I started singing at weddings, I used to do one of their songs, "All My Life." The whole family sang so I ate and slept music..." Unlike other households where gospel was the only kind of music played, Fantasia was exposed to a range of musical styles during her formative years: "I listened to it all - rock, jazz, country and, of course, R&B - artists like Aretha, Patti Labelle, Anita Baker and Luther Vandross. I used to listen to all the vocal groups like TLC and SWV and watch their videos and I really enjoyed the music of Brandy and Monica..."

    After school, Fantasia participated in local groups and sang with local bands, dedicated and committed to following her musical dream. "You hear how tough it is to get out there and make it in the business but I felt like God had given me a gift and it was up to me to share it with the world. To me, music was everything, it's what got me through when I was going through anything in life." Fantasia's earliest attempts to break into the music business started through some recording for a local gospel label; when a friend suggested she try "American Idol," Fantasia considered it. "I had a dream and I knew that I had to break through somehow. People make you think that you gotta look a certain way to make it in the music industry but I was inspired by women like Angie Stone, Jill Scott and India-Arie who showed me that it's not all about being ‘noticed' for your looks but about expressing your inner beauty through your music..."

    As millions of avid followers of Fox-TV's "American Idol" know, Fantasia triumphed after weeks and weeks of competing on the show but she remembers how she almost didn't get into the contest: "I went to the first round sign-ups in Atlanta and when I got there, they were not gonna let any more people in! To this day, I still don't know how I got in and but I figured God had a plan for me because I made it into that first round... Each week, she found herself advancing forward, encouraged by the show's judges: "I didn't look at it as a competition," she says with the same ‘realness' and down-to-earth manner that made her a favorite with the listening public. "I just kept thanking God for letting me be on the show. My mindset was that I would go as far as I could: I just wanted the chance to do my music."

    It was her soulful rendition of songs made popular by legendary superstars that consistently kept Fantasia in the running: "I think it was when (one of the judges) Simon Cowell heard me sing Bonnie Raitt's "Let's Give Them Something To Talk About" that he started to really pay attention." One of the highlights of the many weeks of performing was Fantasia's reading of the classic "Summertime" (from the Gershwin musical "Porgy & Bess") but, amazingly, it was not a song she had ever heard before doing the show. "I remember I had to pick a second song for one of the rounds and the keyboard player started playing the music to it. Once I heard the words, I knew I could relate to what the song was about. I didn't know it came from a musical or anything. I just did my thing with it on the spot and I was surprised at the reaction it got."

    "Summertime" helped take Fantasia to the final round: "I was just thankful that people accepted me for being me and I was fine whoever won," Fantasia states. "When (host) Ryan (Seacrest) said my name, all I remember is breaking the heel on my shoe and losing an earring! I realized that winning ‘American Idol' was really just the start of my career..." Signed to J Records through Simon Fuller's 19 Recordings Limited, Fantasia began recording during the "American Idol" show, initially cutting her version of "Chain Of Fools" for the RCA album, "American Idol Season 3: Greatest Soul Classics": she immediately began preparing for her much-anticipated first J Records set in July. "After I won the show, Clive Davis brought me into his office and we talked about the direction for the album. As a young person, I wanted to make sure we had songs that you could hear in the clubs as well as on the radio."

    Fantasia hit the road with the other finalists from "American Idol" in the fall of 2004 and speaking about the experience, she says, "We were on the road for three months. We ended the tour in Singapore and that was amazing for me - we were treated like royalty! The tour was great...we've been together for so long so we're all cool with each other." During the tour, Fantasia managed to find time to complete FREE YOURSELF and now she's ready for the next phase of her fast-paced career. Capping a year full of accomplishment, achievement and adventure, the singer - named "not after the Disney character but after an Avon product my grandmother used to use!" - reflects, "I haven't changed: I'm still the same girl from North Carolina with the same realness and attitude to life. I feel like as much as God has blessed me, I just want to give back..." 

    Contributed by David Nathan