Mike Rimmer went to Birmingham's NIA to meet American-born INDIANA GREGG.
The mainstream album 'Woman At Work' introduced the world to Indiana Gregg, an American songwriter now resident in the UK. Her well crafted songs immediately pull the listener into the album and her live performances backed in simple fashion by her guitarist husband are both intimate and powerful. The first time I see her play, she is standing in a pale purple spotlight at the Birmingham NIA as the opening act for Lemar. A pretty impressive gig for an artist who has only released one album. Earlier in the day I meet her behind the venue and am immediately struck by how much she looks like the actress Cameron Diaz, especially when she smiles. It's actually quite unnerving! Apparently I am not the only person to think this and that she has been mistaken for the actress on a number of occasions.
As for touring with Lemar, her appearance on the tour has a much less prosaic story. "We were actually looking for any gig possible at the time," she remembers, "and it just turned out that Lemar's tour company was interested. We sent the album out and they said, 'yes'. And that's how we ended up getting to tour with such a wonderful group of musicians."
Indiana actually goes by the name of Indie once you get to know her! But you may not be surprised to know that this is not her birth name. She explains, "I was born in Indiana and my birth name was Melissa. When I started moving from country to country all the ex-pats would call me Indiana. It just stuck and it became my legal name. It's been about 12 years I've gone by Indiana legally. So that's how it all came about."
She was raised in the American Midwest and grew up in church. "Five times a week!" she laughs. "Every Sunday, every Sunday night. Every Wednesday I'd go to Bible studies, everything. My oldest brother is a minister. He's actually a minister back in Indiana. It was a very home-grown church community that brought me into the music world as well. I had a lot of influences and obviously in my music there is a really strong gospel influence. Although it's mainstream pop music it's got a large quantity of how I was raised built subliminally into the music. Which is great. I think it allows me to have a positive influence or be able to communicate a message that's really positive that somehow you don't hear that often anymore in everyday life or on the radio. It's been a long journey since being in the Midwest. You find your footing when you live in other countries. I think that a lot of my struggle was due to situations that were either beyond my control or within my control. But how do you react to life? Really that's what the album is about. It's about working, not achieving. REALLY working and getting your hands dirty and living life." Hence she has called her album, 'Woman At Work'.
Remarkably, when she was younger Indiana had problems speaking. She remembers, "My speech instructor started with me about the age of six. I remember first of all she was great because she would teach me to draw things and I would have to explain and say words like 'Eskimo'. I really had a strong lisp and impediment. And so she worked with me and at one point she asked us to go home and write a poem and the poem had to have lots of S's. At the time I had been given my grandma's upright piano and my brothers had been learning to play the organ and the trumpet in school. I had started to have an interest in music and so I came in and I sang her my poem because I had made up a little melody on my SwingSet. She recognised obviously how much easier it is to get your expression out if you have memorised it and putting it to melody was even more interesting for her. So she spent five years with me developing that. I wrote loads of little songs through elementary school. It was my personal diary, or my personal way of expressing myself whenever something was bothering me."
She continues, "It was a difficult period. My mother's father, my grandfather, had a stroke and was living with us in the house in a wheelchair. We had a nurse in the house. And my father had a very serious car accident so again, everyone from the church was bringing us food and looking after us because we were four children in a Midwestern home. It was pretty difficult. So I would confide in songs what was bothering me and bring them to school. And that's continued throughout my life."
Raised in a Christian home, it was only when Gregg got to university that she made some bad choices and her life began to slowly fall apart. "I kind of broke loose," she remembers, "and decided I would go and wander the world. I met a German guy, who came to be my husband, and I fell pregnant by him very quickly when I was about 22 years old. We ended up getting married and I moved to Europe."
As well as the challenges of overcoming her speech impediments, the young Indiana also had physical problems. "My mother worked with me very heavily. She was a dance teacher and as a child I wore leg braces. I didn't walk properly and she felt that dancing would develop my muscles. I won a championship in America from the National Dance Association in 1991. That opened up a few opportunities to work with Reebok and teach dance and aerobic classes and things. So when I came to Europe I was working in a lot of fitness clubs and centres teaching city jam and step aerobics and things like this."
She continues her story which takes a very difficult turn. "So travelling with my now ex-husband led to several different cities and so I ended up living in Manchester and Nuremberg and Helsinki and the South of France and Stuttgart. . .lots of different cities in Europe. It was a very interesting and enriching time. I can't say it was easy to do that because it was setting up house and things. And then it all kind of fell apart at one point. I decided to move back to France and stay at home with the kids because they were starting school. I had to stay somewhere solidly to get them in school and get them started. He was travelling every week and met someone through his work - a secretary - and left the family. I was of course pretty devastated and was surprised and shocked and everything, all at the same time. It hit me pretty hard. Somehow when you have these things happen in your life there's something called a strength that you get from the support of family and from God and through prayer. . .I'm sure that my mother was 'praying without ceasing' through that whole period of my life. It was really difficult but she's obviously been praying for me since birth non-stop but particularly in this period. I was, I'm sure, on a lot of prayer chain lists."
But what about her own faith during this period of her life? Often when we go through something like that it can drive people away from God or it can draw us towards God. Was she seeking God herself? "I think that period had already started in my life." She explains some incidents that had already pointed her firmly towards God. "I had a really scary time with my oldest daughter. She fell ill at the Millennium and it was pretty serious. Her hands were swollen and lips were swollen. She had a temperature. A fever - around 40 degrees or sometimes above. We couldn't get the fever down. I took her to several paediatricians and I was going frantic. I thought, no, there's no way that this child can maintain having a fever for five days. The doctors kept giving her antibiotics. It was the Millennium New Year's celebration around 10 o'clock in the evening that I took her to the hospital. After seeing six or seven doctors I turned up at the hospital and eventually we got to see someone in the emergency room and suddenly this man appeared. He came in and he said he was just in Paris, like as if he'd just stepped off the plane. He looked at her hands and her feet and said, 'Your child has Kawasaki Disease. It's very rare. It's one in so many million people will contract this disease and that's what she has.' He just wrote that down and said, 'Immediately start treating her with aspirin.' She was hospitalised for three weeks and he ordered an IV of immunoglobulin. She recovered. Normally this disease, if you let it go a day or two longer, would attack her heart and she would have a heart attack and die. So it was very amazing."
She continues, "As she started getting better I asked one of the nurses, 'Who is the doctor? Can you understand his handwriting? Can you thank him?' He was nowhere in sight. He just disappeared. A lot of people from my church had been praying for her obviously. I was in a church in the South of France at the time. We were meeting above a supermarket, where they sell frozen food!" She laughs, "We were meeting up there and it was a nice venue for the services. Kind of a rock and roll church. That's why I enjoyed it so much - the music and things. One of the girls from the church who was singing and playing the worship on Sundays came to the hospital. She said, 'Where is this doctor?' And the doctor didn't work at the hospital! So it was quite an overwhelming experience to think he'd just turned up to diagnose my child and disappeared."
The remarkable thing is that Indiana herself had a similar experience when she was a child at about the same age as her daughter. She remembers, "The same thing happened to me but I didn't get taken to the hospital. But I was in my room with a high fever and my mom was coming in and checking on me. Suddenly I was out of bed because I was playing with all these children that were in my room. There were like four little children. They were beaming. Absolutely beautiful. I thought, this is great! I feel great now! My mom came in the room and said, 'What are you doing playing? You're ill!' The fever had broken. It was gone. So in my situation I think that God has been. . . I mean, I obviously believe that we have guardian angels. I certainly can see where they've appeared and what they've been doing in these situations in my life."
Looking back she reflects honestly about the period when her marriage broke down, "I don't feel like I was reaching out to find God at that point. I felt like I was plummeting and somehow God was able to give me the strength to carry on and overcome and face the adversity that I had been stricken with. Sometimes, like Paul said, you're 'born to be broken'. Sometimes you get broken to find that strength. My life certainly hasn't been an easy life. It's not my new book; "Easy Living" by Indiana Gregg. That wouldn't be the title!"
There is still a great deal of stigma attached to divorce within the Christian community. People can be very judgmental. Did she find it a problem when her marriage collapsed? "It was really difficult," she reflects, "especially, it was difficult more with my own family than anyone else. I was getting sort of mixed messages from, what I should do, what I shouldn't do, how I should treat this, how I shouldn't. . . you know? So it was really difficult. I had lots of conversations with my brothers during that period. But no one really can say unless they've been through that situation how it should or can be treated. I was very, very pleased that I had a couple of very, very wonderful friends through that period who just lifted me up and kept me going. And would just have this sensitivity to just stop by the house when I felt like I was going to crack up."
Indiana has chosen not to perform overtly Christian music. Yet her faith comes through her songs in a subtle way. "I don't want to beat people over the head through my music. There's a very clear message that's subtle. Sometimes if you reach out and people want to find out more, you have a lot more impetus to communicate with them because they're receiving it on the level that they can understand it. I think sometimes that's necessary in the music world as well. I've gotten by with having a message even though a lot of people would rather I strip my clothes off and sing songs about other things! Is that not what happens in the pop world? I'd rather learn a new trade, plumbing or something!, than become exploited or have that kind of an image."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.