Ashanti stars as Latasha Montclair in season 7 of Lifetime's...

Ashanti stars as Latasha Montclair in season 7 of Lifetime's hit drama "Army Wives," premiering March 10, 2013. Credit: Lifetime

Ashanti takes a deep breath before letting out a laugh that turns into a scream.

"It's hard!" she says, laughing about how much her life has changed, going from full-time R&B singer-songwriter to part of the cast of the Lifetime drama "Army Wives" this year. "I feel like I'm in school." (The series returns Sunday at 9 for its seventh season.)

She rattles off a typical day in her new life -- filled with costume fittings, table reads and interviews as well as, you know, the acting. It's the kind of regimented day that a self-employed, creative free spirit like Ashanti hadn't seen in a while.

"You know me," she says, from the show's set in Charleston, S.C. "I'd get up when I feel like it. I'd go to the studio when I feel like it. I could wear my pajamas to the studio. I could fly to Miami, do some recording, then Jet Ski, then come back and finish the record.

"It's definitely a different lifestyle, but it's good," she continues. "This is a whole new and different opportunity. It's something I'm exploring in myself and getting a chance to explore my talents and understanding responsibility. It's been 10 years now of traveling; it's time for something different."

After all, next month marks the 11th anniversary of Ashanti-mania, when the then-unknown 21-year-old singer from Glen Cove burst onto the music scene with a string of hits that she co-wrote. It culminated in her smash, "Foolish," which was No. 1 on the pop charts for 10 weeks and gave her album "Ashanti" the biggest opening sales week ever for a female artist's debut, a record that still stands.

Ashanti is quick to point out that music is still her first love. And she is working on her fifth album, tentatively titled "Braveheart," during her free time from "Army Wives," planning a release around the time the show's season ends this spring.

However, "Army Wives" is her new priority. Ashanti says she auditioned because she was such a fan, even though, at the time, she had just launched her own record label, Written Entertainment, and was set to executive produce and co-host the new nightly music news program "Fuse News."

"I really wasn't putting a lot of thought into what was going to happen," she says. "But having so much respect for the show and ABC and Lifetime, it started to dawn on me, 'Oh, my gosh, this is an amazing opportunity.' "

Changing her focus

Ashanti says it was scary thinking about changing her focus to acting while she was in the middle of so many music-related projects. But it felt right, especially considering how it was working on her upcoming album, about two years ago, that led her to become a fan of the show.

"We would get home at 6, 7, 8 in the morning, and my mom would be watching the repeats of 'Army Wives,' " she says. "I was like, 'Are you kidding? It's 6 in the morning, why is she watching TV right now?' She was hooked because my mom was actually an Army brat. So I would come and watch it, and I would get into it ... It's so funny how things are full circle."

"She's witty. She's sassy"

Now, Ashanti finds herself among the characters she followed so closely. She plays Latasha Durant, a mother of three young kids, whose husband is serving overseas. Like all the "Army Wives," she is based on a real person.

"She's such a loving, strong woman who's infatuated with her kids, who supports her husband and understands her role," Ashanti says. "She's witty. She's sassy. She's smart. And she doesn't take no lip."

In fact, in her first episode, which airs next Sunday, Ashanti's character both speaks out at a public meeting and gets into a bar fight.

"We're all very excited about Season 7, in which a new tribe emerges from the shadow of tragedy," "Army Wives" executive producer Jeff Melvoin says in a statement. "Maintaining the enduring premise of 'Army Wives,' the audience will witness a remarkable set of women -- some familiar, some new -- form friendships that see them through the challenges of Army life as their husbands serve at a dangerous outpost in Afghanistan."

Ashanti is paired with another new "Army Wives" addition and fellow Long Islander, Torrey DeVitto, the Huntington native best known for her roles in "Pretty Little Liars" and "The Vampire Diaries." The daughter of Liberty DeVitto, Billy Joel's former longtime drummer, plays a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq, now opting for domestic life with her staff-sergeant husband.

"We didn't know each other until the announcement," Ashanti says, "but we jelled really, really fast."

Strong in the face of adversity

Though Ashanti doesn't want to give too much away about what Latasha will face this season, she does say that it was important to her that the character be strong in the face of adversity.

"The writers are truly brilliant," Ashanti says. "[Latasha] is sassy but respectful. She's got a bit of gangsta in her, but she's still educated. She's got a perfect mix so that people are able to relate to her... I think it's important to show women that have that nice balance."

Ashanti says that she hopes she can be an example as well, by trying new things. "Trying is how you grow and progress," she says. "Yeah, there are things that you fail at. But it's the way that you get up again that really shows your success."

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