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

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.
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 Chris Anthony in Australia @ 12:08 on Mar 18 2018

The most beautiful voice I have ever heard singing our Catholic music

Posted by Faustine Nizeyimana in Uganda, Kisoro district @ 14:25 on Jan 22 2018

I started Listening Marilla's music when I joined University of Kyambogo.
The song are really touching the deepest bone marrow. They are therapeutic.
I have downloaded plenty of them.
May God Bless Her Abundantly

Posted by Roscoe Dyal in Parker, Colorado USA @ 04:49 on Jan 5 2018

I found your music on you tube tonight and I love all that I heard especially Holy Is His Name. What a joy it is to hear a beautiful voice as yours singing songs about our Lord. May God keep and protect you and yours always.

Peace and God Bless,

Posted by Terezinha Kunen in Manila, Philippines @ 07:20 on Dec 27 2017

Rely I love your musics, so mystic and lovely.
I would like to have the lyrics of Magnificat: holy,holy is His name... I love this song , we pray everyday in our community as a evening prayer.
Thank you so muck. I love you

Posted by Mark Butler in New South Wales, Australia @ 09:52 on Aug 15 2017

Hi Marilla
I have been a Christian since I was 21 (for the last 44years). Rarely have I heard such a beautiful voice give praise and worship to our Lord and Master Jesus. You have on many occasions lifted me and drawn me closer to Christ in my time of need. God bless you. Mark

Posted by Bernadette Hayes in N Ireland @ 20:09 on Sep 2 2016

There IS just something that draws me every day to listen to the word of God through the voice of Marilla. The words, Her voice truly touch my soul and heart. Thank you from a fellow Northwrn Ireland woman. God Bless.👏🏼🙏🏽✝💛& #9752;

Posted by Carol McGowan in west Scotland' @ 13:44 on Apr 27 2016

I found.marilla after my mum died my sister had a few tapes and recorded them for me. I love her voice and presence. These days it's cds and my favourite spotify......found her again recently..... O my lord I can't get thro a day without listening to them. My favourite is on a new album songs for lent.....through a mother's eyes (Mary) o I cried and cried brining such human feelings into her songs makes u understand our holy familys sorrow thank u Marilla God bless

Posted by christina holmes in liverpool uk @ 23:16 on Apr 20 2016

I have been trying to find more information on Marilla as part of church cleaning team i sometimes take my laptop and play relevant hymns of time of year. the flower lady showed me he picture and history but unable for some reason,unable to print off.and possibly to buy sample/s depending on cost to listen as we work. would appreciafurther information if possible...thank you

Posted by Fr. George Wabwire in France Diocese of pontoise @ 22:20 on Mar 24 2016

Iam a romain catholic priest. I work in France. By origin I comme from Uganda. I have been listerning to Marilla church songs for the last 20 years. These songs helps alot when one wants to come close to God. I always pray for the people who help her to produce them. God calls us in many ways. by his holy word but also by the testimony of others.I hope one day to come and participate when there a gathering, where you sing in the Church or social centres. God bless you and your family.

Posted by angela griffiths in frome, somerset @ 16:38 on Jan 13 2016

lovely cd of yours called Sorrowful Woman. I bought it in a charity shop, and I play it a lot. It has blessed me.
I go to Christ Church in Frome.
Thank you Marilla. God bless you.
With love, Angela.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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