Cross Rhythms' Martin Purnell went to Washington DC to speak to one of the biggest figures in Christian music, CARMAN.
Back a few years ago one of the few American CCM names you could drop in a UK Christian youth group meeting and get a glimmer of recognition was Carman's. Such classics as "Who's In The House" and "Addicted To Jesus" were SERIOUSLY funky while his epics of Bible-turned-into-cartoon-melodrama like "Lazarus Come Forth" and "The Champion" were duly acted out before parent congregations by seemingly every Church-based drama team in Britain. His truly phenomenal US success (he still holds the record for the biggest attendance for one Christian music artist at any gig) was never likely to be duplicated in Britain. Even before Carman video clips appeared on the ghastly Tarrant On TV show so that the studio audience could sneeringly giggle at what they saw were the excesses and eccentricities of US religious television, many Brits were struggling a little with Carman. From the distance of a couple of thousand miles, the singer showed a transparent credibility gap. Not in his spiritual integrity, since his emergence in the early '80s Carman has been a towering figure of personal honesty and don't-fudge-the-message non-compromise. But Carman's musical diversity has bemused many, his renowned ability to lock into the musical pulse beat of youth offset by his nods to the Moms And Dads market. Witness the quantum musical differences between a release like 1996's T Surrender All: 30 Classic Hymns' where ancient American hymnody was treated to the most glutinously MOR renditions and his latest "Mission 3:16" single with its Street Flava and Club Mixes.
Clearly Carman remains a quixotic musical chameleon and even now with his 16th album 'Mision 3:16' he's still finding new musical stones to uncover, his latest epic, as well as the blistering funky rap grooves and the heavily orchestrated inspirational ballads, offering the listener stabs at surf music ("Surf Mission" - with Phil Keaggy providing the oohs and aahs), a cajun song for kids ("Not Ashamed") and some finger snapping doowop with Dawn's Tony Orlando ("Legendary Mission"). With another 'story song' based on one of his own sermons from the 'R.I.O.T.' tour and some carefully selected guests like R&B girls Out Of Eden, 'Mission 3:16' no doubt has the capacity to produce the American Christian radio hits.
More importantly, the Mission Impossible/Dragnet/James Bond-style concept running throughout the album is a powerful metaphor for the need for radical witnessing that Carman expounds. The intro sets the tone. "Good day. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to risk taking a very urgent message to all nations. It won't be easy. If you, or any member of your force, are discovered, don't worry. It's supposed to be that way."
The mission of 'Mission 3:16' as it takes to the biggest stadia in America and overseas will be to passionately and dramatically communicate that message. My mission, when I arrived in Washington DC on a balmy day in March, was to speak to Carman Licciardello, one of the biggest selling artists in the history of Christian music but a man who still burns with the missionary zeal of the true evangelist. I met him in his hotel where he was attending a National Christian Broadcasters Convention.
Martin: I began by asking him to give a concise history of his
Carmen: "I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, the east coast of the US where they make all those gangster movies. So when you see those movies and hear the way they talk, those are the type of people I grew up with, kind of the Godfather Goodfellas-type folks. My mother was a musician and my father was a meat cutter and I grew up in a musical family because my mother played the accordion all her life. When I was about 17 I went into playing clubs and bars full time, wherever I could get work. When I was 20 I went out to Las Vegas, Nevada, to pursue the next level of show business performance and probably do floor shows and get in some casinos, get out of the bars and maybe take a step up. I met my sister out there. She had a church in Southern California with her husband, who is a pastor, and just being in a Christian home really made me hungry for the things of God. I didn't know what it was; I just knew I wanted whatever they had. Someone brought me to an Andrae Crouch concert and when I heard the Gospel set to music I understood what they had been trying to explain to me for 11 years. The very next day I gave my heart to the Lord, was born again and soon after that I started to write songs. I left all of my ties in secular music. When you first get saved you don't know what you should do. All you know is what you shouldn't do. So I knew there were certain things I shouldn't do that I needed to get away from. I got involved in a church, got a regular job and started living what I knew to be a normal life and I gave up music pretty much entirely. I was very content that I had found the Lord but then I started to write songs and because I had these songs I had this innate passion to share those songs. That started to drive me out of my job - I was upholstering chairs for restaurants. I had actually gotten raises and moved up to foreman, I was doing really well. I hated to give that job up. Back then, 1980-81, Christian music was in its infancy and if you wanted to do music full time you were really rolling the dice. I didn't know how I was going to make a living or whatever so I was really trusting the Lord all over again with my career. But as I went into music full time just singing at churches - you sing at your own church and somebody says will you come sing at our church - so I go and sing at their church and before you know it I was singing at churches all over Southern California. Then one day somebody walks over to me and says, 'Hey, you know you should record,' and I signed the record contract. That's when I went nationwide and started to open for the Bill Gaither Trio and the Imperials back in the early to mid-'80s when they were pretty hot. I got started and did more records. One thing led to another and audiences grew and, fast forward to 1998, now here in the US we are doing very big concerts. We're doing 10 stadia on our next tour which will be 50,000 and above and 45 coliseums which are 18-20,000 seats."
Martin: Will the 'Misson 3:16' tour come to
Carmen: "We're planning on coming overseas. We have done some things overseas; we were at the Hammersmith Odeon doing a couple of concerts there. We went to Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and we've had some very big concerts in South Africa. We went to Wanders cricket stadium and had over 50,000 people there. It was a big cricket stadium and they never had any Christian music in South Africa, Johannesburg. It was just at the time when they were having the height of their apartheid problems and it was so appropriate to go in and do a concert. It was good for us because it let me see that there was a hunger for the Gospel overseas that I could be able to participate in and that there was a desire for the music that I had and the Lord was blessing it overseas as well. It's a little scary overseas because you don't know if you are going to be received as well, if you're going to relate to the audience. It reassured me that Jesus is the same in England as he is in Johannesburg as he is in New York so it's the same Jesus."
Martin: As usual, there're all kinds of musical influences on
your new album. There's even a version of 'The Lord's
Carmen: "I remember singing that very long ballad song of the Lord's Prayer which is always hard for me to sing. I thought, 'I wish we could just sing the Lord's prayer in a way that is very easy that could be sung by people who don't have a range or who can't hit notes like Sandi Patty could be able to sing - guys like me.' So I thought, 'Let's put something together that everybody could participate with, could sing along.' So we did it. We kind of gave it a Celtic feel and what we would call international. You may hear things in there that you may not necessarily hear in Ireland but we combine Hawaii and Ireland and maybe a little bit of Scotland with an Americanised, homogenised interpretation. This is what it could be. Feel free to sing along."
Martin: I understand that there were major financial problems
with the 'R.I.O.T.' tour of the US.
Carmen: "It was the first time that we had financial difficulty. We did our tours for the past 10-15 years free of charge - no admission fee. The reason I did that was very much like Billy Graham doesn't charge for a crusade. You want to see as many people as possible and you see that there're many people out there who need the Lord, who need to hear the message of salvation, to hear about Christ. I'm willing to pay the price, whatever that takes. My dream was to 'do big concerts and stadia free of charge for anybody to come and hear. Kids who are from very poor families or people from very rich families, anybody who wants should have an opportunity to come. I don't want a dollar bill to stand between them and the Gospel. So doing that we got into a situation where we had a formula going. We knew on average how many people were going to come and after so many years of doing it we kind of knew what the offerings were going to be -within a reasonable amount. We kind of knew how much product would sell in concert - within a reasonable amount. In order to come up with a budget you have to sort of know what the realistic possibilities are, and when you're taking up offerings from kids it's much lower than you can ever anticipate. It's amazing how little they give. Be that as it may. We started to get our formula down and we knew what we could and couldn't afford. On the last tour those formulae all of a sudden started to break down and offerings were not coming in like we thought they were. To cut a long story short, we were about two thirds of the way into the tour we realised that if we finished the tour we would be about one million dollars behind. For us that was a big thing because our hope was to break even and to pay for everything and to get out of the tour without owing anybody anything, unlike other tours where they can pretty much know what their guarantees are before they show up. We haven't a clue! We are totally trusting the Lord.
"Well, we got two thirds of the way in and we started to examine the books and realised if we finished the tour we'd wind up being out about one million dollars. For us that would just be crippling and I had to come to terms with the fact that we may have to cancel the last third of the tour. It was a really emotional time for me because there was a lot of prayer and crying, 'Lord, why have you forsaken me? What did I do wrong? This is terrible!' I started to calculate that (and I believe it was under the direction of the Holy Spirit) how many people would have gotten saved if we would finish the tour. Now we had about 40,000 people make first time decisions so far on the 'R.I.O.T' tour and if we were to finish this tour, judging by the crowds, we would see another 10,000 people born again on the tour. Then I started to think this is going to be so difficult because there are so many people who could be coming to Christ if we would finish. Then the Holy Spirit put something into my mind. 'The question is, are 10,000 souls worth one million dollars?' As an evangelist and as a Christian you are bound to say 'Yes Lord'. But the next question from the Holy Spirit, and he always has a way of taking you a little further after you think you've got there, 'Are 10,000 souls worth YOUR million?', which is a whole different story. Would you pay 1,000 dollars if you knew somebody would come to Christ? You'd be surprised how many people would not give that. So I was compelled to say, well, you know what? Yes! It made me recommit myself to souls because it was costing me something all over again but now the price tag was higher. In a sense it was but in another sense it wasn't because the stakes were higher but the crowds were bigger but the Lord always brings you to a point where 'are you willing to pay and are you willing to take the next step of faith?' So I had to say that if it cost us a million dollars and we had to pay it, we have set our hand to the plough and we can't look back, let's finish the tour. If God will give me 10,000 souls, sure, that's what we'll pay.
"I went back out and told the crew we're going to finish the tour and a revitalisation came to our crew. We had 60 people - a lot of them not Christians - a lot of them were coming to Christ on that tour because they were seeing something different at work here and all of a sudden the spirituality of everybody just leaped to the surface and at the end of the tour we didn't lose a million, just 700,000 dollars but the other 300,000 would have been money that we would have had to go to the bank for and the 700,000 was money we had invested but we couldn't recoup so at the end of the tour we didn't make anything but we had spent everything so we still had nothing. So we had to downsize our ministry from 15-16 people in the office down to four or five and we went from a 6,000 square foot building to a 1,200 square foot building. We found that we could accomplish the same amount of work with the four that we could with the 16 and without the same amount of room with less overhead. So we actually dropped our overheads and we got into a profit-making margin. I didn't have to go out and continue to work as hard as I was in order to make the same amount of money in order to pay all the bills which gave me more free time to work on the record and to spend the time to really make the record what it needed to be and in honour of what took place. To me it was all about souls, it all gets back to John 3:16, 'For God so loved the world...'. I said to everybody, 'This is our mission, to go out and bring the Gospel to the world and if God's going to give us the people it's no matter what the cost. We have to do this.'"
Martin: Which of course brings us really to the new record and
Carmen: "I called the record 'Mission 3:16' because that's our mission and that's the story of where it came from. As a matter of fact on that tour I preached a sermon and in the sermon I used the illustration of someone standing in the courtroom of eternity and God was the judge and Satan was the prosecuting attorney and Jesus was the defence attorney. So where would you stand if the Devil was prosecuting you because he always comes up with the right stuff. He always accuses you of things you have done but then there's Jesus. And because of that sermon 50,000 people came to Christ so on 'Mission 3:16' I took that sermon that we had paid such a dear price for to see that many people saved and just so that I would never forget the price we were willing to pay to see souls saved I took the sermon and set it to music and that's where the song called 'The Courtroom' on the album came from."
Martin: How did you feel about the people who had to be laid
off from Carman
Ministries? Do you struggle when bad things or disappointments happen
Carmen: "The Lord always works on both sides of the equation. He never does things just for the benefit of one and the inconvenience of the other. He s always concerned about everyone's benefit so if for some reason someone's job became obsolete it means that he has something else better for them and everyone that left the ministry and went to other things went on to something that was much better suited to them and to their skills It was a little difficult time for some of them but they knew ahead of time that their situation became obsolete. It was hard because these are your friends, who you work with, and you don t want to disappoint them but at the same time there is only one Lord for each and every one of us and that's Jesus and we cannot depend on man in any way. When it comes to our personal success in life, one person is your ticket; the Lord's your ticket. He's the one who's going to take care of you. I've had to go through disappointing times but at the same time I have to trust God, I can't lean on my own understanding, as it says in Proverbs, 'In all thy ways acknowledge him and he shall direct thy paths.' So it was a little difficult at first but I know what it's like to go through difficulties. I honestly tell them, 'God will take care of you'. Many times in the ministry God leads you into it supernaturally and leads your job I could tell you supernaturally what God did that allowed this opportunity to come my way,' and then sometimes that opportunity becomes obsolute or the job ends, it's over or the tour is over and the dancers must find other work and the sound people must find other work. They may have supernaturally got the job, but naturally it comes to a conclusion, so sometimes that is difficult, emotionally, to see a natural conclusion to a supernatural work."
Martin: God has brought you big success. Platinum albums, huge
stadiums to play in. Isn't there a tendency in all that for it to be
stroking your ego?
Carmen: "You don't have to stand in front of 70,000 people to have a big ego. By the time you've grown into the place where you have 70,000 people coming to see you there's so much responsibility that goes along with that. There're so many years of growth and training that it's not as big an issue as you would think. To me, when I think about 10 stadia, I just think about the responsibility and what we're going to have to do to prepare and then wondering where the money's going to come from. There're so many other pressures that do not play to your ego. I think if you were just starting out and went from zero to a stadium I think it would mess with your ego a lot more because you would think more of yourself. You'd think, 'Oh, I'm really great,' but in this case it takes 4,000 volunteers to make a stadium happen and you have to work with the churches and build a prayer base and there're so many meetings and dialogue. It doesn't just happen; it's a lot of work. And for anybody, anywhere, any Christian on any level of doing any occupation there are three basic things that keep you strong and keep you in the presence of God. Firstly, reading the word of God, putting God's word in your heart. Like David said, 'Your word have I hidden in my heart that I would not sin against thee.' That's the number one thing that keeps you away from sin, putting God's word in your heart. Secondly is prayer and talking to the Lord and having communication with him. You cannot develop a relationship without dialogue, whether it's with your wife, your children, your friends, people on your job or the Lord, you must have conversation, communication and dialogue to develop a relationship. So that way you know how he's feeling and thinking before he has to say it. If you have a relationship, let's say with your wife, after you've been with each other for a while you can look into their eyes and tell if they're angry or upset or hurt or happy. You can tell or you know what to do that would make them happy because of your relationship, because of the time you've spent in communication. So, putting the word of God in your heart, having good communication and then also finding a good church and having the fellowship of the saints, coming together. You can't be a lone soldier out there. You can't be a part of a football team unless you play with the team. You can't win a championship. You can't just show up one day, after being absent for two years, in uniform and expect you're going to know what the plays are or how the thing works or everybody works. That's how you learn how to deal with people and you learn how to love the body, how to love God's people. If you love the Lord you'll go visit him. Imagine how somebody says they really love you but never want to come to your house, they don't want to visit you or look through your family albums and find out what your history is. After awhile you're thinking, 'You do not care about me.' You want to find out about the Lord, his life, his people, his family, his children, the fellowship of the saints and that's how you grow. If you pretty much take care of those three basic things you'll be okay. You won't have to deal with the bigger evils of this world."
Martin: You've never married. Why is that do you
Carmen: "The Bible says the single person has time to think about the things of the Lord so for whatever reason that (marriage) has not come into my life yet. So in the meantime I just devote myself totally to Christian service and that's really all I know. You always hope you're coming close to that time when the Lord says, 'Okay, here's the right person.' I don't think it's always about finding the right person. You have to be the right person and I think for my particular life on the path the Lord has for me it required a certain amount of dedication and blind commitment. All the travelling I have done is not necessarily conducive to a strong family life. So I may have saved some poor girl a lot of anguish. But my life has changed a lot now and I don't travel nearly as much and even when I do it would be very easy for me to take a family with me. So maybe things could be changing."