Marilla Ness: How a 50 year old housewife became Catholic music's biggest star

Sunday 1st December 1991

MARILLA NESS is a singer of praise and worship songs who is helping to further break down the divide between Protestant and Catholic Christians. Tony Cummings spoke to her at her Cheshire home.

Marilla Ness
Marilla Ness

Hers is the kind of Christian Music success story with a fact-is-stranger-than-fiction edge. A 50-year-old housewife and mother of three goes into a recording studio with a group of amateur musicians. The resulting album is released, not by a big company; not by a small company; but by her husband who, when not running his engineering company, can often be found folding inlay cards on the kitchen table. The album is a big success: with several represses, a CD-reissue and bigger sales than most high budget rock gospel albums.

So who is this housewife-turned-gospel-star success? Now there's the real crunch. Few indeed are the Cross Rhythms readers who've heard the name Marilla Ness. It's not just the fact that Marilla's sweet-toned balladry is light years away from the mosh pit and acid rave. Marilla is a Roman Catholic and it's only in very recent times that the Catholic Church is emerging from its religious music cultural prison. As Brian Ness, the mastermind behind gospel music's most unlikely cottage industry, Merciful Love Music, explains: Today we're see the barrier between Catholic and Protestant breaking down Marilla ministry is pioneering acceptance to the idea that God can speak to us through the vehicle of music."

Marilla was born in Caledon, Northern Ireland and while still a small child moved to the Midlands. She'd been brought up in the Catholic Church but it was in the 70s that Marilla began to look for a deeper experience of God. "I was dissatisfied and began to take stock of my life. I realised I wanted more of God. I began to read a lot, the lives of the mystics, and particularly the Bible which I'd never had any encouragement to read in my early church life. And as I began to pray the Lord Jesus became more and more real to me."

The music had started in the early 80s when a prayer group of which Marilla was a member decided they needed someone to lead them in worship. "I thought: well, learning guitar can't be that hard so I got a guitar. It was that hard, of course, but I persevered. After a while people began to hear about my singing and I was asked to go and sing in various meetings."

The meetings became larger and by 1990 Marilla was known by thousands particularly through her ministry at healing services in Tadcaster, Leeds and Manchester. Amy Sage was Marilla's keyboard player while Brian would often accompany her on drums. There were now literally hundreds of people clamouring for a Marilla Ness recording. "I saw that when Marilla was singing people would bring cassette recorders in to record her for themselves. Their tapes must have sounded terrible and I realised that the time had come to make an album." The album 'He Touched Me' was an immediate

Jesus" and "Sing Of A Girl" alongside Protestant charismatic praise choruses from the likes of Chris Bowater, Graham Kendrick and Stephen Fry. Marilla's voice was sweet and pure, with a hint of the same poignant tremulousness that once made Marie McKee such a major gospel star but with (thankfully) none of the tatter's leanings towards Irish country and western. Marilla says: "I get songs from a whole heap of sources. I used to spend months practising songs I intended to record and then end up not using them on the album! Now I'm learning to pray more and be open to what God would have me record."

Marilla's second album 'Holy One Of Israel', was like its predecessor, recorded at Cavalier Sound Studios, Stockport, and was again produced by the studio's engineer Lai Cooper. It also uses largely tried and tested material, this time from the pens of Twila Paris, Noel Richards, Carl Tuttle and Maldwyn Pope, amongst others. In October, she enters the studio for album number three and further sales success for Marilla and Merciful Love Music seem assured. "We are grateful to the Lord for the success we've achieved so far" says Brian Ness Our work is very much a ministry. It's exciting, the opportunities God is opening up for Marilla She's just been asked to perform at an ecumenical conference before 5000 people. Believers outside the Catholic church are now becoming aware of Marilla's ministry. It's lovely to see people touched by the Spirit when my wife sings." And the future? Laughs Brian: "Let's just say I really sense that God hasn't finished with Marilla quite yet." CR

About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by Marie Barrett in United Kingdom @ 12:48 on Feb 7 2015

last Sunday I was listening to Clare Balding talking to a lady called Una Kroll, who has had an amazing life. Next I heard this glorious voice singing "Peace like a River" and immediately went online to order some of Marilla's music. Years ago I attended a Divine Mercy service in a church in Airdrie and was so enchanted by it, I got the priest to make me a copy of the music he had used. One hymn that has stayed with me is "The Love I have for you me lord" and am sure its Marilla's voice, so now searching for a cd including that music

Posted by Baltazar Luby in San Antonio, Texas USA @ 15:41 on Oct 24 2014

Every morning I start my day with the angelic voice of Ms. Ness with "Holy is His Name". Thank you

Posted by Harry Mc Cormack in Wallasey,Merseyside,UK @ 19:49 on Sep 24 2014

First heard Marilla's version of Be Not Afraid at a friend's funeral in a Catholic Church in Liverpool last week and immediately resolved to find out who this lady with the voice of an angel is.
She is truly gifted and I'm so happy to have discovered this resume of her history.

Posted by Jim Holland in Arkport, NY @ 22:13 on Jul 9 2014

"Just" a Protestant man Mightily Blessed through God's Servant, Marilla Ness, as She Sings Scripture In Praise To The King of Kings and Lord of Lords! I Look Forward to Meeting in Eternity, but even more, I Look Forward To Worshiping Together In Eternity Our God and Father, Our God And Savior And Redeemer, Our God and Holy Spirit ....... For Ever And Ever And .......

Posted by Carolyn in leesburg, florida @ 06:09 on Jul 5 2014

I was in a book store in r.I..and heard a cd playing of marillas. I purchased it and before I left I bought all they had by marilla. I hope she records ..surely the presence of the lord is in this place. We sing it in church and I sing it all week when I am alone. God bless you marilla.

Reply by Joanna in Manchester @ 19:26 on Feb 23 2015

Actually, Marilla has recorded that particular song !
It's on her CD "I Believe in You"

[report abuse]

Posted by Rachel in Gatineau QC Canada @ 03:27 on Jun 12 2014

What a discovery Marilla I did on Internet! Discovering your lovely and angelic voice. What a wonderful gift from God and you use it so beautifully.
Really, I just discovered you this week and since you are always singing in our home. I enjoy so much your godly soft, so inspiring, so uplifting.
May God bless you, your husband and family.
Together in Christ and with Mary, our Mother

Rachel & Robert

Posted by Michael Marshall in Salford UK @ 02:18 on Jan 28 2014

I was a member of the original prayer group core membership that needed someone to accompany them with the music. Her voice is just as amazing now as then . Thankyou God for Marilla

Posted by miriam attard in malta @ 15:13 on Nov 1 2013

I would like to thank god for you for the holy charism he gave you. by your holy songs I grew more nearer to god I ve been in a catholic charismatic praying group since year 2004 and I am going to attend the praying group till the end of my life tks to you and your husband

Posted by Donna doliveira in Trinidad and Tobago @ 06:08 on Aug 26 2013

I love her voice it is so soothing, every song is sang with such feelings.. God is working through your soul your whole are surely one of Gods Angels. Also the Holy Rosary is one of my favorite witch is also sang so beautifully. May God Bless and your family always..

Posted by Marion Stanbridge in Sydney, Australia @ 12:54 on Jul 20 2013

I am Anglican but occasionally buy birthday cards at the Pauline bookshop in the city. I rarely visit the city but last week I visited the bookshop and decided to look at the music section which I hadn't visited before. I really wanted some Christian music to play whilst cooking or working in the kitchen and I asked the Lord to show me. I was overwhelmed at all the albums (and singers) listed on the ipad and was just about to give up when for some reason I was attracted to the title On Holy Ground - well I played it and fell in love with the music that drew me closer to the Lord.
Thank you SO SO much Marilla.

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