Once burdened with the impossible publicity tag "Britain's answer to Amy Grant" and going through some gruelling years of financial problems, NIA has survived to be more sure of her call from God. She spoke to Tony Cummings.
Few singers can boast having started in Christian music as a child and fewer still can have survived such dizzying ups and desperate downs as Wales' leading pop gospel export Nia. Nia Jones will shortly be undertaking a major UK tour working with the Operation Christmas Child charity linked to Samaritan's Purse International (president Billy Graham's son Franklin Graham). Meeting up with the 27-year-old pop gospel singer at a Leeds hotel, I began by asking her to fill me in on Operation Christmas Child.
"Basically what it is, is that every Christmas time they get children all over Britain and also in America, Australia and Holland as well, to put together a shoe box and fill it with simple things like toothbrushes, toothpaste, a hair brush, baseball cap, a cuddly toy, writing paper, a picture of themselves and a Christmas card," explained Nia. "Then Operation Christmas Child's job is to get that shoe box sent to a needy child somewhere in the world, a child that otherwise would probably have nothing at Christmas time. Last year it went to over 43 countries in the world. Actually over one and a half million shoeboxes went last year. It started nine or 10 years ago with just three thousand shoeboxes going to Romania because someone saw the plight of the children over there on television and thought let's do something. It's just really grown from there. I heard of it because it started in Wales. I thought it was a great concept. Then we're doing this mammoth tour, we're going into schools during the day, two different schools a day, to basically encourage kids to prepare the shoeboxes. Then in the evening we are going to 28 different churches to tell Christians about the work of Operation Christmas Child. It's a whole multi media presentation. Franklin Graham will bring a message probably from Mexico. He was there last Christmas with the shoeboxes. There will be footage from Armenia where I went with the boxes. There were 65,223 boxes last year. It was great fun, freezing cold, but great fun. I don't know whether you have seen the video 'Matthew1. A lot of my songs, I don't know why, have been coming from Matthew, in the last few years anyway. So I'm using a lot of that video because I often read Scripture before my songs in concert and give little stories as to why they are written. So this time rather than just doing that, the video is going to do a lot of talking. Of course the second half is going to be touching on my Christmas album, which will be released shortly, with some songs from that."
Nia began singing as a tiny tot. "My mum would say I was four when I started singing." By 12 she had joined a little group in church and by 14 she was writing to record companies, sending them demos. At 16 Nia joined the Continental Singers, the travelling evangelistic choir which has acted as a training ground for many a singer. "I knew that after my spell with them that I just had to use music to communicate the gospel."
In 1986 Nia signed to a Leeds-based independent Christian record company formed by manager and entrepreneur Kevin Hoy, with John Pantry and Christopher Norton, Ears And Eyes, which, with its emphasis on grassroots British artists, quickly built up an impressive roster of artists including Martyn Joseph, John Pantry, Triumph and Shirley Novak. Nia albums like 'You And I' and 'Dynamite' did well in the UK Christian bookshops and with the teenage singer touring extensively, Nia was clearly achieving her dream of a career in the Christian music industry. But by the '90s things had unravelled for Ears And Eyes. Debts piled up, people connected with the company lost out financially and Ears And Eyes ultimately closed down. Ears And Eyes artists moved to other record companies but Nia remained with her management team of Kevin Hoy and Dawn Wilson and began creating touring opportunities in the USA.
"I believe with all my heart that my ministry was God ordained and that God had started this work," said Nia. "There was a lot of rubbish flying around, not just with Kevin, but with everyone involved. There was so much stuff going on with different people and I felt like I was going on a roller coaster, just holding on as tight as I could. They were tough years because the music industry, if you want to call it that, was really what I was part of then. I was more in an industry than in a ministry. In a sense it took that mess for me to really find out where I should be heading. I thought it was the industry which God was blessing, whereas God is using our ministries and that's what creates an industry. I had it back-to-front. I don't think I would have come to these conclusions without those difficult years."
Back in the early '90s there were many rumours Nia had to contend with. "There were many rumours, from suggestions of affairs to my being gay, but they were false and untrue and really hurt me. What hurt me even more tremendously was that only one person came and asked me about it. It was all behind my back. I would sometimes hear it from other people but only one person, a very, very good friend, called me and wanted to see me and said, 'I don't even know if you know this is being said.' That hurt me more because I thought I really had a lot of people who cared for me in this industry and if they really thought the rumours were true, why didn't anybody come and see me?"
Returning to her manager's problems with Ears And Eyes, the singer continued, "Looking back now, it was a mess and Kevin made huge mistakes, but there were other people who made mistakes too. A lot of people were hurt back in those days. I know that God moves us on, not back. As far as I can work out, the biggest disaster isn't 'mistakes' but failing to learn from our mistakes. The evidence of the past six years since those problems shows that Kevin's learnt huge lessons and his integrity and commitment to my ministry show me I've made the right decision. But of course there are some things that still remind you of your past mistakes, and I know Kevin is still paying a huge price and in a sense so am I. That's okay in some ways because I'm not in this for the money anyway. When you take about £8,000 a year out of a turnover of £130,000 you're clearly not in it for the money - in fact in recent years an average of £12,000 a year has been given to mission projects in Romania as a result of my profits from album sales not needing to be used to put petrol in the van!
"Probably the most important thing in my life is family; they have been my backbone. They are the most phenomenal people. They supported me no end, even when things were at their most difficult."
When Nia began touring the US, she understandably tried to land a deal with a big US CCM company. But it didn't happen. "We had close talks with Benson and I was disappointed that it didn't come off because I thought that it equated to God telling me whether or not I had an okay ministry. I look at it now and think I was so back to front. Lord I'm sorry. Again it made me focus. I asked myself do I quit now then because Benson don't want to make a deal with me? But did the Lord call me to be with Benson or did he call me to go out there and minister to people? So I carried on. It mean't no razzmataz, it mean't getting out there sometimes just in front of maybe 80 people. But if somebody comes to God through a song, if somebody turns back to God like a prodigal son through a song I've sung, that's what it's about. So in a sense I feel like a musicianary."
In recent years Nia, helped by the tireless work of her management team, led by Kevin Hoy, has built up an impressive network of church contacts. Her recent albums expertly produced by Mal Pope, like the pop gospel 'Rain Will Come', the praise and worship 'Calvary's Lamb' and now the Christmas album 'Christmas Child', produced by Nigel Hopkins, show that she has matured as a singer. Gone are the Amy Grant affectations of those '80s albums and in their place is a strong, expressive voice able to sing songs of faith and devotion to Christ with real conviction.
Nia's faith has been the one constant throughout the years. "God has always been my strength, but the local church have been a great support too. I've been going to the Church Of The Nazarene and I must say they have made me feel very, very welcome in the past nine months since moving to a new area of Leeds. I know they're praying for me and are behind me."
Nia still has to
maintain a gruelling touring schedule. "I tour America six months
every year and 75 per cent of my annual income comes from there. I
wish it didn't. It's a great country, I think they're wonderful
people, but it's not home. Dawn Wilson, our concert co-ordinator, now
spends up to five months each year at our American office. Jeremy
Jarvis, our new promotions and media co-ordinator, has a lot on at the
moment with establishing the web site, regular newsletters and
updating the data base. He is also coming on the American tour for
seven weeks this time. As has been the case for many years now, Kevin
and I continue on the road for some 150 plus concerts a year. It's
tiring of course, but wonderful to see all that God is making possible
through my ministry around the world. I could never really have
dreamed all this would be possible. Who knows what God has in store