The R&B gospel sisters VIRTUE return with a storming new album. Mike Rimmer met up with them in Nashville.
Ebony Holland, Heather Martin and Karima Kibble are the women of Virtue and they are in buoyant mood! They literally bounce into my hotel room for a chat. They are brimming with confidence and glad to be back in the fray talking up their new album, 'Testimony'. The R&B gospel trio have been away for so long that it almost feels like they are a new group. Having recorded three albums in the period 1997-2001, they released a hits package in 2004 and it's been silence since then. A change of label to sign with DarkChild Gospel and the production talents of Fred Jerkins III has kicked new life into the girls' music and ministry.
The Trotter sisters have been singing together all their lives and have their mother to thank. Ebony remembers, "When we were little she just liked us to be involved in different things and have certain activities to do within the church to keep us out of trouble. And singing was one of our favourites so it was always easy to sing a note." It may have been a maternal ploy to keep the girls in church but it worked and it's paid off. The girls are full of stories of the proud mother who is their number one fan!
They are clearly excited about the new album which features appearances from T-Bone and Martha Munizzi. We start talking about the opening cut "Follow Me" and all of a sudden the sisters snap into close harmony acapella and burst into song, singing me the song's main hook. They sound incredible! Heather comments, "Man, that song is amazing! It's really something that we think will cross over and be played everywhere. That's our goal." Ebony adds, "And we did our video to it. That's the first single." Karima breaks in, "Yeah, we went to Canada actually and shot a video in January and it's due to drop in June with the single and the video. We're so excited. It was written and produced by the new label we're on."
They're justifiably excited about the new label and the fresh energy it's giving to their music. It's like the trio are a new group and certainly they have been given a musical makeover and the release of 'Testimony' feels like a relaunch taking everything that's great about the girls' music and then taking it to the next level. Ebony admits, "This is a brand new start for Virtue. Brand new everything! We've got brand new management, brand new team of people working with us and a brand new record label by the name of DarkChild Gospel - the world-renowned producers Rodney Jerkins and Fred Jerkins."
Heather adds, "They are an awesome team of people to work with. If they believe in you, you are so set up! You are so taken care of. We prayed about the whole situation. I guess God led us to each other because it just kind of happened like, out of the blue."
Prior to this turn of events the group had been dropped by their previous record label, Verity, but Ebony says that at the time it was a blessing. "We'd been praying about it for years and years. When you have a team behind you that do not believe in you and don't put their best foot forward for you, why have an album out? We had produced so many wonderful albums and nothing has become of them. So when they dropped us we praised God! We got on our knees and said, 'Hallelujah! Thank you Jesus!' Because this is something that we had prayed for. We asked God to release us from them. And if he still wanted us to be in the ministry - in the singing - and to spread the Gospel, then he would find us another label. And a week later, there we go, we were with DarkChild Gospel!"
While other groups like Mary Mary and Trin-I-Tee 5:7 came along and were established, Virtue felt like they were treated differently and so couldn't establish themselves. Heather shares, "It was disappointing to see because you know the potential you have. And if that machine is not behind you pushing you 100 per cent, and you're giving your all, you're like, 'What else is there to do?!' There's room for everybody so seeing those other groups go forward gave us hope."
Karima adds, "We knew it would be our turn. We were happy for them. But at the same time, wanting to have a video!" The rest of the group break out in agreement. Believe it or not until this point Virtue were never able to record a video for any of their songs. So even the fact that this very basic promotional tool is in place for their new album is a source of encouragement to the sisters. Ebony observes, "So we think that everything that we've been through has helped us to grow and to become the people that we are now. When God sees fit for you to be ready for something he'll groom you for it and prep you for it. So I think right now, it's just time for us to go out and share our testimony."
Heather shares, "That's what this new record is all really about. All the songs are praisin'. It's so awesome I get excited!" On the day that we met, the girls were still discussing what they were going to call the album. Even as we're talking it seems that things are falling into place. Ebony states, "I think we're going to name it 'Testimony'. Heather chips in, "We've been talking about that all day because we really do have a story to tell. I think for a lot of people who will finally get to see us - because video is huge right now - I think that alone will make a difference. People will probably wonder, 'Where did they come from?!' But we have a testimony. We just didn't pop out of anywhere."
The title song is a sumptuous piece of melodic R&B with an infectious groove and interlocked vocals. Ebony explains, "It's a great song!" She enthuses, "It's talking about where I've been and just giving hope to everybody and telling you, if I've been here and if I've gone through this, then you can get through it too. Because I think we overcome by the power of our testimony. If people don't know what you've been through then they can't relate with you. So that song is all about saying, hey, when I look back over my life this is where I've been. And if you're there, listen to my testimony because this can encourage you."
Having gone through line up changes and all the recent changes in management and label, I wondered whether the vision for the group had changed since they started in 1997. Ebony shares, "I think we always want to grow. Our prayer is to grow spiritually every day and to really grow closer to God. I guess in the beginning, as you mature spiritually, your vision begins to change. When you get hands-on with people and you see people come to you after shows and tell you, 'Oh, it changed my life in this way just listening to the lyrics!', your heart changes and you feel like you know what's going on and you know what people need. So I think with every record, with more experience being on the road and coming in contact with people and just watching life, we've grown in order to meet people's needs. So I think definitely there's a lot of young people that we still want to reach. We still have some of the same goals and ideas that we had when we started Virtue."
Karima adds, "We just love young people. We love everybody but we have a passion for young people because a lot of them think that being saved is uncool. Loving Jesus is cool. Serving God is cool. You don't have to be stuck up or stuffy. You just have fun like we do! We just live life to the fullest." Ebony chips in, "We have our testimonies, our prayers and the songs and that's basically what we want to give to people."
They are getting really excited about it all now! Heather enthuses, "Yeah, when they see us being ourselves, when you're yourself, I think that shines through. People can relate to that because a lot of people think that they're the only ones going through problems and stuff and they see us on a different level. They think we're not human but we are. We go through things just like they do and that's what we want to let them know. We're human. You go through things. Hey! Don't worry about it, you get over it!"
There's an element of teaching in the ministry of Virtue. They are truly trying to help people grab hold of life changing truths and using R&B music to do it. Perhaps that shouldn't be so surprising since two of the group actually come from a teaching background. Ebony shares, "Sometimes when we have downtime we will teach. I just recently taught at a community college. Being right there, hands-on with people, I mean that opened my eyes up too. It just let me see that the stuff we watch on the news and TV, that is real! When people come to you and say, 'Look I got this problem and that problem', sometimes we get so far removed from that because we're in our own little worlds and we don't pay attention to it. But it just let me see, man, we've got work to do! So many people need Jesus. So many people need to hear something that gives them hope or encourages them to keep living. So yeah, it's a lot about teaching!"
I finish off by asking them about my favourite song on the album "1,2,3 Praise!" which features a cameo appearance from T-Bone. There is silence and then laughter. "You know what?" says Ebony, "I can't remember all the words to that one!" Heather observes, "That was the very last song we did on Monday before we left." Aha, so fresh they haven't learnt the words yet! Karima says, "The song is hot to death! I don't know if you guys say 'hot to death' in the UK? But it's hot to death!" I confess it's not an expression that trips off my tongue on a regular basis. Karima urges, "Start sayin' it, start sayin' it!"
OK, I will. It's good to have Virtue back again and their new album 'Testimony' is hot to death. Yep, that sounds right!