Despite 'Brand New Day' being their album debut, the jazz funk stars BEEHIVE have got a big following in the club and festival circuit. Mike Rimmer spoke to "soul diva" Kaz Lewis.
A mention in The Guardian, a blistering album debut and an ever-growing following in clubland, this could well be Beehive's year. The band was originally put together by keyboardist Rob May, guitarist Guy Houchen and drummer John Graham after they left the Saltmine worship band. The original vision was to take the music out into the pubs, clubs and universities. Originally called Funky Beehive after they spotted the name written on dome graffiti, they dropped the "Funky" last summer because it was overstating the obvious.
The vision to work in the mainstream means that the band built its reputation on the club circuit rather than the church circuit so to many fans of CCM they're a new outfit. The many influences of the band members combine so that their sound is a musical soup of jazzy funky hip hop 'n' pop. Kaz herself grew up listening to a lot of jazz music and she tells me about the influences that have helped her develop an impressive vocal style. "I like to think I'm a great jazz diva!" she laughs, "but I think that's probably more in my own mind. The sort of music that influenced me most singing-wise are people like Stevie Wonder. I'd listen to every intonation of his vocal and try to copy them."
Already in their first rungs of the ladder they have attained some critical acclaim. I'm impressed that The Guardian has referred to Kaz as a "soul diva". At least I was impressed until Kaz goes very quiet... She has a confession. "That was my brother!" Yes, Kaz's brother wrote for The Guardian and did his bit to help Beehive's cause. Ho hum! However, even that piece of blatant nepotism doesn't spoil the fact that Kaz actually deserved the praise!
After dabbling with single releases, Beehive began work on their debut album in June of 1996. Kaz describes its origins, "Our manager came up with some money and it was a choice between just buying some studio time in a proper studio, or getting together some gear and setting up our own studio. We weighed up the pros and cons and decided to set up our own digital studio. It all came together brilliantly and we now have our own studio in the East End of London in the basement of a church and it's called Sound Foundation. We worked on the album when we didn't have too many gigs and we could do it at our own pace."
What about the recording process? I wonder whether the guys all did their stuff and then left Ms Lewis to add her vocals. Kaz explains, "We'd try and have three or four songs on the go, so sometimes I'd go in and do a few vocals in a day. Then we'd try to get the bass line done. The good thing about it is that you're able to swap and change with digital format. We tended to do whatever, whenever!"
From such a loose approach, an incredibly tight vibey album was produced. The band was augmented by the punchy funk horns of the Living Horns - Ben Castle, Raul D'Oliveira and Mike Innes. Kaz and I swap observations on the highly talented Ben Castle: "Scarily talented! They're brilliant!" is how Kaz begins before describing their involvement. "They came and did some stuff on the last single we did. In fact, Ben did some stuff on the last single too. He's a lovely bloke. He did all the arrangements as well. We just wish we could afford to have them on the road with us all the time."
Lyrically the album covers a variety of approaches but the songs all reflect a Christian worldview. Kaz explains, "A lot of the stuff that we write is about us, our experiences and the biggest part of us is our faith. I think that does come across in our lyrics." Kaz describes her own faith journey. "I became a Christian when I was 16, in the sixth form. For the first time in my life I came across a group of fellow students who were Christians. I was intrigued by the fact that they were normal and funny, yet they had this faith as well. I was compelled to find out what they were all about and along the way I found faith myself."
She continues describing her life before joining Beehive, "I was a residential social worker. I worked with different client groups. Being involved in church I've always done singing and the worship at church. Then I got into recording in the gospel scene and did some backing vocals on worship albums. The guys originally heard of me, through a friend of mine with whom I'd done session work. That's when I first did some stuff with the band."
The mixture of music and faith are a foundational part of Kaz's life. "For me, they're synonymous," she says. "I've only ever been singing since I was a Christian and it's always been church worship music. Going into Beehive and working with four other Christian guys, the whole thing is a very Christian outfit and my faith has always been part of my music. It's almost like I can't tear them apart. It's hard to think what one would be without the other.
"It sort of goes in sessions. Sometimes it is crazy. Last week we went everywhere and the van broke down. Then we had another gig and meetings. Then there'll be weeks when we have just a few gigs so there's lots of spare time. When I first joined the band I thought I couldn't do it, what with all the late nights and being on the road. I felt ill! I'm married as well. But I have it a bit easier than the other guys because my husband is an actor, so a lot of the time we'll have a morning or afternoon together."
Since she spends such a lot of time on the road with the guys in the band, I wonder whether it ever gets a bit laddish? Kaz laughs and then exclaims, "It does! I do find myself getting a bit laddish! I feel like one of the boys really. Having said that, they're really respectful when I'm around. They're not all madly into football or anything -just one of them! I'd have been long gone otherwise."
The launch of the new album and the fact that it is being distributed in the Christian market by Word, means that Beehive's profile will be raised amongst the church. Kaz describes how she feels about Beehive playing on the church circuit, "We've done less of that because when we started we wanted to get out of churches and to take our music and our faith into the clubs and university scene. We didn't really market ourselves on the church scene. I think to begin, it was- by virtue of the fact that we came out of Saltmine, which still got us gigs on missions. Slowly we've built that side of things up, so we do school gigs and missions. That is still very much a part of what we're about."
So what is different in Beehive's approach? I wonder if it's simply about what is said in between songs? Kaz thinks for a moment before responding, "I think so. If we're being employed by a church to do something that's part of a mission, we'll be dictated to by them. If they want us to do our testimonies or talk about our faith then we're happy to do that. Whereas when we're employed by pubs and universities, they're employing a band to come and entertain so we don't feel it's our place to be open about our faith. We hope and pray that our faith comes out in our lyrics and the people who we are."
Are they like many bands who have grand aspirations to mainstream success? Despite the fact that they have huge talent, Beehive have their feet firmly planted on the ground. "We never started out thinking we were doing this just to get secular success," Kaz explains. "We always wanted God to put us where he wanted us and if that was to just carry on doing the pubs and clubs circuit, then that's what we were prepared to do. I think our vision has developed over the time we've been together. We're basically pushing doors and seeing which ones open and which ones don't. We had an industry showcase the summer before last, when we released our single. We had another one at the beginning of May where a lot of industry people came along to see if they liked us or not. We're so open to whatever God has got in store for us. I guess that the more success we have, the bigger the platform we have for people to see and hear what we're about."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.