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.
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."