Who are the significant artists taking Irish contemporary Christian music into the next millennium? Mike Rimmer flew to Belfast to check out one of THE breeding grounds for gifted musicians.
As the aeroplane flies in across the Irish scenery, I look out the window at the green below me. No wonder they call this the Emerald isle. This is my first taste of Ireland, a week in Belfast to check out the Irish Christian music scene, meet a few folk and check out what's going on. The results are to be surprising but as I sit on the plane, a busy week of meetings stretch out in front of me with no hints, just my suppositions.
Let's not underestimate the influence of the Irish on British CCM.
What dolona, The Electrics, Fono and Split Level all have in common?
The singers of all these influential bands are Irish. Meanwhile, the
whole world is waking up to
Irish worship leader Robin Mark, while Maire Brennan, the voice of Clannad, is currently one of the biggest names in Christian music. Add to that impressive list Halcyon Days, December Blue (now SCSI), Brian Houston and even younger bands like Clay and Snorkel, and you seemingly have a vibrant scene. Or do you?
The impression that I pick up, as I travel around and meet bands, is that there isn't a Christian scene as such, at least not in terms of a coherent collection of musicians fellowshipping and working together. Instead, it seems as though there are loose connections but no real focal point. Rossy, from a new band called Clay, sits on the floor of the lounge of his house surrounded by band members, and sums up the attitude of many Belfast-based artists when he says, "On a personal level there seem to be connections. You mentioned about Snorkel and December Blue and they're bands we have come into contact with. We're thankful for December Blue because when we first started out they said, 'Do you want to back us up?' and they were very good. The circuit's so small that we all bump into each other once in a while. There are other acts out there, small acts and they're very good, it's just a shame it can't somehow all come together. Maybe then there would be a scene."
On a rainy day I sit in a cafe with Brian Houston. Houston himself is respected across Belfast for his ability both as a live performer in the city's pubs and clubs and also as a worship leader. There are few artists who have managed to successfully scrape a living doing this. Brian is a local hero. As we sit and chat, he discovers I need a car to get around and, immediately, graciously lends me his car for the week. Suddenly I can see why he's treated like a hero.
One person who has championed Houston and many other bands is Steve Stockman. Until recently, he was responsible for booking the acts that played at the Greenbelt festival. His local radio show mixes Christian and mainstream music and is well respected. On top of that he works as the Presbyterian chaplain at Derrivolgie Hall, which is a residence for students at Queen's University. He is now editor of the Juice advertorial, and his small office is tightly packed with piles of CDs and books scattered around the surfaces and shelves. Steve is a seasoned campaigner and encourager of Belfast musicians. I have crossed Belfast in Houston's car to meet him, and Stockman greets me with a bemused smile that I actually made it to meet him when I was following his very vague instructions.
Steve is optimistic at how Christian-orientated music in Ireland can develop. "I think for me, where it can go, is that the artists who are already quality like Brian Houston and lain Archer, when he was here, were gigging regularly. There was a standard that Christian artists had to reach. I think that was very important to the development of Halcyon Days and Booley. I think it's keeping those artists developing their craft to the best they can and also therefore, those artists encouraging the ones underneath them to take over those roles."
He continues, "What I would like to do with those guys if they would let me, is to get them involved in a kind of a community base with the other artists. That draws you along and it makes you want to hone the craft even better than you can. The danger is that bands play in some wee coffee bar in some wee backwater church, and people tell them they're brilliant, and they think they are."
Stephen Orr until recently was the drummer with leading Irish group Halcyon Days but in the time it has taken to research this feature, his band have split up. Orr himself won't have any trouble keeping busy as he runs Badger Management (handling Booley, Johnny Parks and the Maroons). We sit drinking expensive coffee in the expensive coffee lounge of The Stormont Hotel and he admits, "I would love to be involved in trying to develop and establish some sort of community or collective. It would be for people who are involved in the arts, whether that be musicians, poets, sculptors or painters. I want to encourage people because I think they are often stuck by themselves, doing their own thing. It can be a very lonely existence, and very difficult, and it's important to have a support base, a network of people who can be accountable."
When I discuss this idea with Stockman, he is ml agreement. "I think my thing is, I'm a minister, so they see that the Church is affirming them when I affirm them. I'm also a fan, so maybe up until now I've been encouraging them musically whereas what I really am is a pastor, and I want to begin to help them spiritually and creatively, and bring those two things together. To say to them, 'What drives you? What are the things that should drive us? What are the priorities? How does the Kingdom of God fit into this? Where are the Kingdom values in our lifestyle as well as the music we play? How do we deal with promoters? How do we deal with the whole side of the business?' Trying to bring a pastoral, hopefully, as well as that kind of guru side you would call it to try and encourage them along."
My observation is that there has been a lack of church support for the development of a coherent Christian music scene in Belfast. There are few places for aspiring bands to play, and unless they are willing to take the plunge and play in clubs and pubs, few opportunities await them in local churches. This was the biggest frustration for bands and artists I talked to and time and again musicians would bemoan the lack of live venues. Aside from the Summer Madness festival that has acted as a showcase for Irish talent and the popular Exodus event in Port Stewart, there didn't seem to be many regular events for the talented pool of players to show off their abilities. Outside visitors have periodically been tempted to play in the city, so the likes of Delirious?, Bruce Cockburn, Larry Norman and All Star United have all made appearances here. Walking around the city centre, I'm shown the Irish bar where Delirious? danced the night away after their gig here. The Spires Centre is recommended as a good venue to play but the lack of promoters willing to organise events stifles the scene.
The Ulster Hall is a popular venue and regularly attracts large crowds to a worship event called Manifest. Until recently, Alistair Bennet had been the worship leader but when I met him he had just hung up his guitar and the mantle had passed to Johnny Parks. Parks is a youth worker whose band The Maroons released one album, a year or so back. We meet in Baskin Robins for a sandwich and lunchtime chat. He realises he has his work cut out for him. "There are a lot of different denominations and churches here which have very different understandings and ways of exploring worship.
The spectrum is from the charismatic to a more traditional way of leading worship. The difficulty is that in the likes of a youth event like Manifest where there are around 1500 people there, a lot of those younger people are coming from denominations which have very different ways of worshipping God. The difficulty is you can't just jump in at the deep end and go off, singing in tongues and singing prophetically and playing your instruments prophetically, because some people just don't understand it and it will be a shock to them. The difficulty and the skill is to try and lead people in a way where you're actually leading them but you're not running away from them. I want to bring them to a place where they're not just singing the songs and going through the stuff but actually beginning to get before God and worship him. There's a culture and a tradition here which is very diverse and it's how do we find some common way of worshipping God in the midst of that."
Even with a successful regular event like Manifest, there are issues, but at least it's a regular event attracting young people. There's plenty of talent to lead the way musically. Many bands and artists are releasing projects independently and Michael Cameron, Clay, Snorkel and SCSI all have good albums that demand attention. The likes of Booley, Brian Houston and Juliet Turner have begun to gain recognition outside of Belfast. Stephen Orr agrees about the talent in the city but argues that there are other problems, "There's a real lack of industry infra-structure. A lot of the artists and bands from here can't actually get their music exposed to the wider market, and I suppose that's something that I want to be a part of doing."
So how can he make a difference? "Certainly the idea of starting a label has been bounced about and it's something I'd be keen to do if it's right. I don't want to rush into anything. I'd certainly like to make sure that everything's thought out and done professionally. I love working with artists and musicians. There's always going to be a tension between the industry side of things in terms of profit margin, and the music side of things that bands are inspired by, and also working their faith out in what they do. I like the idea of being at the centre of that creative tension and trying to bring people together and make things happen."
That infrastructure is still a dream, but I can't help wondering what affect it would have, in releasing the talent of the area, to have more support on the ground rather than artists needing to be on the mainland to make it. Johnny Parks identifies another need. "We really haven't got a good recording studio in the whole of Northern Ireland, which is hard to believe. We don't have a Christian studio with an engineer who has an understanding of worship, and I suppose that most people who have some real talent will maybe move over to England or Scotland where there are more facilities and more money and more producers. I suppose my hope is that we'll get some more investment."
Steve Stockman returns to the conundrum of live performance and says, "Nowadays people are not happy to play in a church hall to 10 people. They want to play in better venues, and so it's trying to raise the profile of music here, so there is a fan base as well as good musicians, which is difficult as well at times." As Steve and I walk down the corridor of the hall of residence where he lives and works, he shows me the small hall and says, "It is possible that we could start a regular event to give people a place to play. We've Martin Joseph coming over again, he was over last year. We've had the Vigilantes Of Love, the Electrics and Glenn Kaiser. It's a hall for students - there are 88 who live in so you've got your audience already here." He laughs, "Whether they want to listen to it or not they hear it in their bedrooms. It's trying to raise the profile and do some gigs, but you can't overkill because people only go to so many gigs. It's trying, very slowly but surely, to show them that this music is really excellent."
And excellent it is, I reflect as I leave and drive away, to again get lost in the rain and the traffic of Belfast. Ultimately the same frustrations that pervade the Irish scene - lack of venues, difficulty of promotion, a lot of local church apathy, turn out to be the same problems experienced in the rest of the UK. There's no shortage of talent but we've yet to see the pieces of the jigsaw come together.