Singer/songwriter and worship leader Robin Mark recently took Spring Harvest by storm with a powerful new Album out, the man from East Belfast set to further expand his following. Tony Cummings reports.
Robin Murk's new album 'This City, These Streets' is inspired by his optimism for Belfast. In Ireland it's already been heralded as a classic with sell-out concerts at Belfast's famed Ulster Hall. In Britain too it is bound to be a huge sales success such was the impact of the unassuming 42-year-old songwriter and worship leader at this years Spring Harvest.
One of the most outstanding songs on Robin's new album is "Revival". "It's been taken up big time by some of the English churches and some of the English worship leaders who have heard it." Commented Robin. "It was never written initially as a worship song and it's basically all down to Colerain Christian Centre that it became a worship song because they did it out on overheads for me when I was down there and it really took off. It was also a bit like 'Days Of Elijah' in it's conception because it came about through a long thought process that I had and a conversation and thoughts shared with God and what I believe he shared back with me about the ordinariness of people and how he's a God who wants to turn their ordinary lives unto extraordinary lives."
Another song on 'This City, These Streets' resonates with the expectation of revival. "There's a song on the new album called 'Billy Spence', about a shipyard worker in the 1890s who started a revival down by the docks, and that song, that image inspired the album's title. Basically, it's saying that God loves this city and these streets - He's real, He's not a lifestyle, not a Protestant, a Catholic or a Charismatic -He just is, and His whole purpose is to lift people out of the mundane and have them do something with their lives. So that's the message I'm trying to bring."
Robin is well known in Irish church circles for his ministry at Christian Fellowship Church Strandtown. He actually became a Christian when he was 16. "I had a job as a drawing office technician and it was after a lunchtime conversation between a very Christian man called Paul Brown who worked for Evangelical Ministries -1 don't know where he is now - and another guy they used to conduct these large biblical discussions. I had been influenced heavily by my mother, who had sent me to the local gospel hall for about four years until I was the age of 11, and, then I went to the Methodist Church with my sister but had never thought anything about making a commitment until that day in work during one of their discussions. So I actually became a member of the Methodist Church and grew up in the Methodist Church until I got married and moved away from the area.
It's the old story, happens to many; we tried the local Methodist Church and I don't think we could even find one that was really in the area where we lived, so it wasn't exactly local and we tried a few other churches a bit closer to us and eventually we were asked by some friends if we'd like to come to a small Bible study. That Bible study turned into a house church, which is actually where a lot of the new churches were birthed. That's where I really started to lead worship and write worship songs at the end of the life of that small house church."
While still a teenager making music began to play a part in Robin's life. "I borrowed a really bad guitar off someone and learned three chords and when I went to university in Scotland I ended up buying a guitar because I had to give the borrowed one back. I then started playing in the Christian Union and various other things but I was just like any other young Christian guy. I liked the idea of playing acoustic guitar and did small gigs and that, but I didn't really have any vision to play music seriously because I had no proper training or anything like that."
Since his first recording in 1990, Robin has made a steady but continuing progress in the world of Christian music so that today he is able to play to sell-out crowds. His new album is more broad-based than previous recordings. Recently Robin told an Irish newspaper about the album. "I suppose in a sense I've been more of a church - a ghettoised thing," he said. "Maybe subconsciously with this new album I'm trying to break out of that. It's a taster for the English market and has a more reflective, singer-songwriter feel. With previous albums if the songs didn't work with congregations, they didn't make the records, while the ones that did work kind of made their own way through the church network so that I became known through my songs themselves - which I imagine is the opposite of how the mainstream music industry works."
Modesty notwithstanding, Robin Mark's calibre as a performer who can expertly work an audience is second to none. The outstanding point about his music, though, is its blissful simplicity. Its sound may reflect his own interest in artists ranging from Paul Weller to Don McLean - with whom his voice bears comparison - but somehow the presentation transcends age groups. "I must admit I don't really know who I'm aiming at," he said. "It's actually amused me the range of people who seem to have latched onto what I do - from four year old kiddies, who maybe like the simple melodies, to octogenarians. I try not to aim for anybody 'cos I know I'd miss them! It has been said to me that hi Ireland there's a generation who appreciate Willie McCrea and another generation who are into the likes of Charlie Landsborough and that I fit in somewhere below that, partly demographically, partly perhaps culturally. But then again, when you start to analyse something like this too deeply the magic disappears."
No one could accuse Mark of fire-and-brimstone proselytising, nor of platitudinous middle-of-the-road whimsy - a member of the same charismatic church as local rock icon Brian Houston (whose own impressive album sales are barely foothills to the mountains of Mark's) his material is based on soundly Biblical truisms and personal experiences. The new album, for instance, includes a song tackling the view that contemporary Christianity is just a cosy lifestyle option. Said Robin, "For me, it started about 15 years ago when I was overlooked for promotion in a job. I felt quite bitter at the time and decided to do a course to take my mind off it, which led to my starting a business which has led to the kind of lifestyle I enjoy today - so I admire people in the 'real' music end of things who've actually got to do gigs to eat. It's absolutely fair for people to accuse me of being middle class, but that's the way God worked it out for me and it's spared me a little bit from the sense of frustration and angst that a lot of people obviously experience in the music industry. I don't particularly want to be a rock icon and I think it helps that I don't have to depend on music for a living, but by the same token, if I woke up one morning and felt that God was telling me to jack in the business and go into music full time I know my family would back me up. The next question is, of course, do I hope I'm never asked?!"
For the moment then, Robin is happy to be the most popular and successful part time Christian musician in Britain. Those present at the Ulster Hall concerts talk of one of the most moving and God-breathed musical/spiritual experiences of the decade. What was the vision behind these concert/worship nights? "For me there's a three or fourfold vision. First there's unity; it's just tremendous that so many people of so many ages, children right up to pensioners, come out to them. Then, of course, they come from all different churches, right across the spectrum. So I feel a sense of unity in that. The second layer, if you like, of the vision is that when people join together to do anything - to talk, to pray, but particularly come together to worship and to worship in unity -there's a great spiritual significance in that I feel it's something that maybe we don't get to do as much as we should because we're tied to our own individual churches. So just that whole sense of all God's people coming together to give our worship, that really excites me.
"Thirdly, people get saved at these concerts and those who have maybe turned away from their faith for a season, rekindle their love for the Lord. So, when all is said and done, it gives you an opportunity to bring friends, family along and we try to bring a small element of entertainment into it as well. Some people do say that we shouldn't bring entertainment into it and so forth, but we feel it helps relax people and that's why some of the songs are not worship songs, they're message songs. We pray that those who come to be entertained will be drawn into the worship at some stage of the evening.
"And I suppose the fourth strand of the vision is that God has worked them all out. I didn't set off to do these concerts, they were not my idea. It was other brothers in Christ taking on what they thought God was telling them to do and I never thought that we could sell-out the first concert, which was the Assembly Buildings, sell-out the Waterfront, etc. We've also done some outside Belfast and God's done some wonderful things and it's been tremendous and the follow up has been tremendous as well. So there's a spiritual dynamic that God's doing, I think, and I don't even know if I'm fully aware of what He's going to do or will do through them or is actually accomplishing through them. Even when I don't think there's much significance to them, you find later on that someone's become a Christian or someone's bought an album for a friend who is depressed or whatever and it's made a difference. God's obviously working through his Holy Spirit."
Robin's first album 'Captive Heart' was only released in Northern Ireland on cassette. Yet it's still popular. "When you're a writer of songs you write for certain seasons and times and people still come and say to me that song is so anointed or appropriate and I say that song's 10 years old, and I wrote it at a time when I was doing different things and at a different place. A lot of that album was highly synthesised and as time has wore on we've tried to get a more natural sound to the records."
Surprisingly, Mark's favourite album is the six year old 'Not By Might1. "That was the one that brought me most interest, especially from other churches and at the time it was the best selling worship album in Northern Ireland. It was probably a more serious album, in the sense that 'Captive Heart1 was something that people had said, 'You should do this...', so I went along with it and everyone else did the hard work. On 'Not By Might' I thought more about what I was actually trying to do and I had more influence in that. Then 'Days Of Elijah1 was built around the song, because it became so popular. It was one that I basically put all the work into myself; production and that sort of thing. 'Room For Grace' was the live recording of the concert and I think it was one of the best concert experiences I ever had. It was obviously God's grace that we recorded it at the time. The title was also very important to me because leading up to the concert I had used all my 'normal' musicians - the ones who play with me week in, week out - and I was under pressure from a lot of people to use session musicians, professional and all that stuff. I didn't want to do it because I wanted to remain faithful to the people in my band, who are also my friends. Nearer the time I was just praying about it and felt God speak and say to me, 'Look, always leave room for grace in anything you do.' In other words, when you think you've got it all covered it's never going to work; and it's a biblical principle - you go in and give it your best and in giving it your best God uses it. So that's where the title came from and it's had a remarkable impact for a live album, high sales and very little post production, so it's a bit raw, a bit rough edged and to me that has even added something to it."
As well as being Ireland's best selling Christian musician, Robin is also a successful businessman. He spoke about the juggle between his music ministry commitments, his family and his acoustic consultancy business. "The business is our bread and butter. It keeps us fed and keeps the family alive and it's also miraculous in the way that it has developed, so I really feel God's hand in that. I believe that he gave me the business and that's why I also feel that if he asked me to drop it tomorrow, I would, no question; because I know that he would look after me. I try to keep commitments to anything at all to one a month and that's why when people ring up I say we're not available until June 1999 because we're just booked up. That makes sure that if one weekend we're maybe involved with the church and another weekend we've got a concert, then it gives me two weekends with my family and that's the way we try and do it. This year, 1998, we're actually up towards two things a month and it's getting a bit more intense. I mean I'm open to what God's doing and what he's going to say in the future and certainly things can get to a point where you feel something's got to give here, but everything I have done over the past 10 years with my family, the business and the music, God has been incredibly gracious; directing, instructing, guiding. And, the Bible says we're to do everything for the sake of the Kingdom and whatever our hands find to do, do it with all our might. As the old hymn says, 'Spend and be spent for God.'
"So far as I'm concerned, I want to do whatever He asks me to do and my first priority, and it's biblical, is to my family and everything an else fits in around that. So it is difficult to juggle it all and I do have to disappoint people at times, but my wife handles a lot of mail and stuff, my church as well, and Solid Rock Promotions all field enquiries and that. So, we'll just wait and see what God has in store for us."
Robin was asked what his hopes and ambitions were for the future. "My main theme would be that everything I do would be for the Lord and that's it. Specifically, an ambition is we'd like to hit sales of five figures for this album. I don't know if that's possible or not and I mean that is nothing in comparison to big American sales in the Christian market but if it happened it would be nice, but that's a small thing really. More than that I'd like the album to bless people the way the other ones have, so that even though people may not like the music entirely, they'll still get a lot from the album. In terms of plans, I have no specific plans in terms of changing the business or to change anything in terms of the music. I would have dreams that maybe one day I could devote the whole time to worship and to making albums but the Christian music industry, and that's what it is now, is just as fickle as any other industry. At the end of the day, if this album doesn't sell particularly well or if it's a bit of a disappointment, - which I hope it will not be and I'm working on it not to be - then it doesn't matter as long as it can touch one person's heart, bring somebody back from the brink, turn someone's life around, then it's been worth it. Getting down to specifics, sure I'll just leave those in the hand of God and see what he wants to do."