Avalon: A maze of grace

Thursday 1st October 1998

They've been on the road almost continually since 1995 yet found time to record one of the catchiest pop albums of the era. Tony Cummings caught up with America's AVALON.


One of the snappiest, poppiest, most hook-laden collections of Christian pop tunes recently made it to number one in the US Christian music charts. The album in question was 'A Maze Of Grace', the second album for Avalon. None of the fresh-faced foursome had dreams of following a professional singing group. For Jody McBrayer, his career as a singer came into focus only after a broken ankle ended his aspirations of playing professional tennis. Nikki Hassman prepared to be a gymnast for nine gruelling years, enduring daily five-hour practices and moving away from home when she was 12 to train for a berth on a future Olympic team. Only when she let go of her dreams of gymnastics glory at age 15 did her singing bear fruit. Michael Passons joined Avalon harbouring doubts about how he would be able to further develop his passion for solo ministry and piano playing. And now, after two years of constant touring. Janna Potter battled insomnia and fatigue the week of this interview, forcing her to wonder if she had the strength to climb onstage for one more show.

But God is faithful, stresses Jody. Even with the foursome's gruelling touring schedule - they've been on the road practically non-stop since the group's inception in 1995 - they're able to say that God has strengthened and encouraged them when they've felt frail.

"God has been faithful in supplying us with what we need to survive our touring schedule." Jody says. "This past week has been tough for Janna; she was at the point where she said, 'I don't think I'm going to be able to do this tour.1 She wasn't sleeping well. After a while you have to say, 'I'm not giving it my all, and I'm not giving my 100 per cent.' That's really hard for us because all four of us are perfectionists."

They all know about each other's idiosyncrasies. "It's a relationship, like being married to three other people," Jody says. "You glean the great things from each other and you try to buff out the rough edges. We have our disagreements, but that's what makes it healthy and real."

Being real, being honest and bearing truth were all goals when the group sat down to work on their second project, 'A Maze Of Grace'. With Avalon's first album, the record label played it safe, leading to comparisons to other four-member vocal ensembles and a critique of Avalon's lack of a focused, unique sound. "Even though it's flattering being compared to other groups, I think we're glad that we finally got something that's our own." Janna says.

"We really wanted to take ownership of the second album, to be able to write a lot more, be able to really communicate what's on our hearts," Michael says. "With the first album, the label didn't necessarily let us do what we wanted to do. This time they let us do our own thing." Thus you'll find more upbeat, bouncy dance tracks with more of an R&B, 70s feel alongside the standard worshipful ballads. But all of their songs share a focus on grace. "The message of grace is foreign to a lot of people, even Christians," Nikki says. "We want to let people know that grace is the one thing that Christianity offers that no other religion does. I think that gets lost sometimes."

Jody adds, "I think there are a lot of people out there who are searching for something. I grew up in the Church and I didn't know about Gods grace and that he cared enough about me to die for me. I think people see these rules and regulations and they lose sight of the fact that it's a relationship and that he loves you. I grew up hearing all the don'ts. There's a lot more to God than we think."

Avalon was birthed in 1995 to proud parents Sparrow Records and Norman Miller, the Scottish artist manager who after relocating to Nashville became the producer of the 'Young Messiah' and 'Emmanuel' tours. All of the band members had moved to Nashville at different times to pursue Christian music. Michael was involved in his own solo ministry; Nikki was singing back up for Clay Crosse and country artists; and Janna and Jody met while singing in the veteran CCM team Truth. But it took Miller and Sparrow to persuade four individuals to join a group. Nikki says, "It's really been God who has brought together four people from around the country... each with an individual calling on their lives... to be in this group. There are too many extenuating circumstances that would prove otherwise."

Yes. God may have brought the foursome together for these first two projects, but there are new plans in store now. Nikki Hassman recently signed a general market solo deal with Sony, the Tommy Mottola-led label that serves as home to such artists as Mariah Carey and Fiona Apple. Though contractually obligated to Avalon through the end of this year, it is expected that Hassman will be released from her contract and the upcoming Crystal Lewis/Avalon tour once a replacement is found.

Prior to the Sony deal, Nikki was already writing songs for release outside of solely Christian circles through her general market-publishing contract with EMI. When discussing Avalon's latest release. Hassman notes that writing with non-Christians brings a fresh perspective that provides balance. "My songwriting with non-Christians broadens (Avalon's) point of view." she says. "I go into the secular setting and write with people who aren't Christians and get their take on things and write a song that maybe has a positive message, but not a gospel message. To be able to take those perspectives and bring them into the group and to know what people are thinking that aren't Christians is invaluable."
To Janna, reaching non-Christians is about admitting your life is not your press photo: "I think just letting people know that we struggle through the same difficulties as everyone else is the key. People think (being in a group) is all glamour, and when people see you struggle with the same difficulties, that gives you a common ground. I think people are looking for truth these days, and we can find a way- to relate if we say, 'I don't have it together all the time.'"

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.


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