De-nn (pronounced Dionn) Lott was once among the most-in-demand background singers in Northern California. She recorded with gospel music greats Daryl Coley (In My Dreams, Live in Oakland: Home Again), Danniebelle Hall (Unmistakably Danniebelle), and Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir (Love Alive III), as well as appeared in concert harmonizing behind Patti LaBelle and Earth, Wind & Fire. Recently Lott has performed background vocals for current artists in the industry including, Gospel sensation Kim Burrell.

Two decades ago, however, the San Pablo, California-born vocalist put her singing career on the backburner, went back to college, and earned two master's degrees: an M.S.W. in Social Work from San Francisco State University and a M.H.R.O.D in Human Resources Organizational Development from the University of San Francisco.

Although she cut way back on her singing, Lott was never able to shake music from her system entirely. Now, she has stepped back into it, in the forefront for the first time, with a remarkable self-released CD titled Return to the Center. Ten of the 11 songs on the disc were produced by Jamie Hawkins, and seven are songwriting collaborations by Lott and Hawkins. The son of Tramaine Hawkins and the late Bishop Walter Hawkins, Jamie has served as musical director for some of the biggest names in R&B, including MC Hammer, Jodeci, Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and En Vogue, and has produced gospel recordings for both of his parents and for his wife, Sunny Hawkins (who contributes background vocals to Return to the Center).

"I'd done all the academic training, and I decided to take the leap and do this project," Lott says. "I had been out of music for so long, but I decided there was nothing to lose. I told myself to just jump, take the leap in spite of my fears, doubts and insecurities. With all that Id experienced in the field of Social Work I knew that my music was a natural expression as well a universal language"

Lott's return to singing isn't just about the music, however. She also sees it as a ministry and an extension of her social work with a far reaching range. "I have the opportunity to see sometimes the worst of humanity in terms of child abuse and the issues that plague children as they grow into adulthood," she explains. "I know from firsthand experience how wounded people are and the kinds of things that people are carrying. I thought when I went into social work that I'd be able to help some of those things, but it feels like the system is a very broken system that has little effect on helping.

"I find that through my ability to communicate through song and through the gospel of song, people find hope. There's a sort of communication and experience that takes place in the exchange. People feel hopeful, and they feel validated. Healing is present."

Lott's powerful, stunningly elastic soprano voice brings to mind that of Tramaine Hawkins and, when soaring into a higher register, that of onetime Andrae Crouch vocalist Krystal Murden. The upper register reminded Jamie of Deniece Williams, which is why he suggested that Lott include the Williams composition "God is Truly Amazing" on the CD. Lott's other favorite vocalists include Donnie Hathaway, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, to name a few.

Many of Lott's inspirational lyrics reflect what she calls her "personal relationship with God." "I like to talk about the human aspects of my spiritual experience," she says. "That includes getting angry sometimes, being disappointed sometimes, and yet, still pulling on my faith to get to the center of my peace again. What I get to do through the music is tell the story of that struggle and that human experience in terms of the spiritual relationship. Sometimes what we do in the religious or spiritual community is try to act as if there's no struggle in it or that everything should always be okay all the time, and it's not that."

While growing up in Richmond, California, Lott witnessed domestic violence and alcoholism. "My faith, from the time I was baptized, was the thing I depended on as a coping mechanism to get me through," she says.

One track on Return to the Center was not produced Jamie Hawkins. Lott's haunting treatment of the Daniel Iverson praise song "Spirit of the Living God" was inspired by the year (1998-99) Lott studied at the University of Zimbabwe. While she sings the melody in English, a quartet of South African vocalists does the background parts in Xhosa over a bass line played by onetime Weather Report member Alphonso Johnson.

Lott has vocal technique to die for, yet she uses it not for showing off but, rather, for putting across the messages in her music. As a teenager, she studied German and Italian arias under opera singer and vocal coach Jill Feldman at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond. Later work with choir directors Daryl Coley and Phil Reeder were also helpful in the formation of her style.

"Daryl and Phil both used classical technique in terms of the breathing and the diction," she says. "Both of them believed in telling the story of a song, as opposed to concentrating on the runs."

Lott first heard Coley and his group at the time, the New Generation Singers, opening at the Richmond Auditorium. "I was in awe of what I experienced," she recalls. "I just wanted to be a part of this group, so I showed up early at a rehearsal. Daryl was sitting at the piano, just kind of noodling chords and notes. I walked into the church and said, 'I've come to find out about joining the choir.' He said in typical Daryl Coley form, 'Sit down. I'll school you later.'"

After two years as a member of the New Generation Singers, Lott was introduced by Coley to Love Center Ministries in Oakland, where gospel singing star Walter Hawkins was the pastor. She was a member of his nationally renowned Love Center Choir for two years and also was involved in the non-denominational church's youth and young adult ministries. Later she toured with Daryl Coley throughout Japan in the 90s.

Being a background singer eventually became frustrating for Lott. "I got really serious about college after I decided there was so much chaos and craziness in the industry," she says. "I didn't think I was cut out for it."

"I went on to smaller groups and did some leads," she adds. "Even though I felt like I just wanted to do backgrounds for everybody, that wasn't the path. I've been really developing my lead voice over the years. And then I wanted to do my own material. I think I would have been comfortable just having someone else write material for me, but I was challenged to develop original songs based on what I wanted to say to encourage myself and others. Im glad I did and being able to deliver this material and to have a body of work to present is so fulfilling and inspiring."

Heartbreaking situations that Lott has encountered as a clinical social worker helped inspire some of the songs on Return to the Center. "The Promise," for instance, stemmed from the case of a three-year-old boy who had lost both of his parents and who Lott had to personally transport between four different foster homes in the space of six weeks.

"I think it's my faith that continues to give me hope, "she says. "In spite of the hopelessness I see for a lot of these children, somehow they're still able to be sustained. Somehow they're still resilient. My faith, I think, is what sustains me so that I don't plunge into despair. I believe that if I have hope for them, they can have hope in themselves."

Through her social work, Lott strives to uplift children in often dire straits. Now, with her deeply soulful singing and songs on Return to the Center, she is able to offer messages of hope for the whole world to hear and, hopefully, take to heart.