Tony Cummings quizzed UK-based CHARLES TIMBERLAKE and USA-based JOHN DANIELS about their unusual musical collaboration.
Instrumental music, particularly instrumental renditions of worship songs, have long been looked down upon by many Christian music buffs. Too often banal renditions of hymns and choruses resembling a kind of sanctified muzak have been heard playing in Christian bookshops across the land. However, one instrumentalist who has avoided the wrath of the critics and whose sensitive piano interpretations of both his own compositions and those from the worship songbook have proven popular with many looking for a soothing meditative aid is Titchfield-based Charles Timberlake. Although Charles has never benefited from the help of a Christian record label, his independent albums have proven popular with many Christians young and old. His latest project sees Charles team up again with another hugely talented instrumentalist and a man who in the 1980s was one of the most popular figures on the British Christian music scene, John Daniels. I quizzed both Charles and John about their spiritual and musical journeys.
Charles grew up in a "typical English family". He was brought up in a house full of music and started formal piano lessons at the age of six. Spiritually, it was a slow progression for Charles. Remembers Charles, "I attended confirmation classes and was confirmed in Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral in December 1971 at the age of 14. I did not really get to grips with the more theological aspects of what I was learning or doing, but do remember the commitment I made and the surge of power that went through me when the Bishop laid his hands on my head. I guess it is true to say that all through my teens and early 20s I preferred to keep my contact with God to myself, feeling comfortable with my daily prayers and chats with God. While studying for my degree (in law) I resisted the invitations from a couple of my fellow students to become involved in the Christian Union. I remember one evening when I kind of 'gave in' and agreed to go to a meeting at a church in Bath where an American film was being shown. I remember feeling distinctly uncomfortable and could not wait to leave. I suppose my most religious 'experience' at that time was an afternoon I spent at Dyrham Park, a National Trust house just outside Bath. I remember feeling very close to God that afternoon wandering around the beautiful grounds - being alone with him and with my thoughts and feelings, and talking to him."
Although Charles had never mastered the art of reading music, he was an accomplished pianist who enjoyed "doodling" (his word) at the piano keyboard. His life changed when at the age of 24 he took up a post teaching French at Yardley Court, a boys' prep school in Tonbridge, Kent. Says Charles, "I was to stay a blissfully happy 11½ years, becoming Head of Pastoral Care and Assistant Housemaster. The school was run with very much a Christian ethos, and I was to learn much from the Headmasters during school assemblies and from my colleagues on the staff. In 1985 I fell in love with Suffolk and bought a small cottage retreat as a bolt-hole from school. With a love of walking and cycling it was the beauty and the peace of the quiet country lanes and beautiful surroundings that was to provide the inspiration for much of my early compositions. A year later I came to faith in the sense of asking the Lord Jesus into my life, and began to recognise and feel from that moment the power and love of God in my life. I feel that he has been the source of all the inspiration for the music since that time.
"Having been painfully shy at playing in front of other people, it was at Yardley Court that people first had the opportunity of listening to my music. I was writing the music for carols by performance by the school choir, and in 1986 and 1988 wrote the scores for two musical adaptations of Gobbolino The Witch's Cat and The Magician's Nephew."
Charles recorded his first collection of solo piano pieces in 1991. The 'Between The Worlds' album got an enthusiastic review in Cross Rhythms and has been in catalogue ever since. After leaving Yardley Court in 1993 Charles did some hotel and restaurant playing, worked for a firm of estate agents and then moved to work with homeless people in his home towns of Fareham and Gosport, Hampshire. He also played for, and led, some services in his home church, St Peter's Titchfield. In 1996, in response to a calling from God, he visited Dunblane and ministered to the community by playing gently in the cathedral over the course of three days a fortnight after the tragic shooting.
Charles continues his story: "In 1998 I bought a Kurzweil electronic piano and accompanying equipment and began playing at craft shows around the country, where I have used composing as my 'craft' and began ministering to the visitors at the shows as well as entertaining them with a whole variety of musical songs. In 2000 I recorded a second album of piano and instrumental music played on the Kurzweil 'The Celestial Picnic'. That year it was at one of the shows that I met John Daniels who was visiting with his family and who introduced himself to me. At that time John was living not far from me near Portsmouth. He invited me to his home and to his small studio set-up, and I remember that when I first heard his music it was one of those 'take your breath away' situations and it really touched my heart."
By 1995 John Daniels had accomplished a huge amount in Britain's Christian music scene. His albums with singer, worship leader Dave Pope 'Love Offering' (1979) and 'Thank Offering' (1980) had been Christian bookshop best-sellers while subsequent albums 'Streams' (1984), 'Undivided Heart' (1986) and 'Run Like The Wind' (1989) kept him in the public eye. As well as these solo releases John produced somewhere around 50 British Christian music albums during the 1980s and wrote several very popular songs.
John had been brought up by his district nurse mother, his father dying when John was 10 years old, in the village of Cowplain, a few miles outside Portsmouth. Says John, "The older I get, the more I am grateful for the example of faithfulness to God, among other things, that I experienced from my mother's and father's lives growing up. Cowplain Evangelical Free Church was my 'home' church from childhood up to my early 20s. And that was where I made a childhood commitment to God, and where my interest in music began to develop. Like a lot of teenagers in the 1960s I was fascinated by guitars. And having had a year's piano lessons at about 11 years old, I seemed to be able to pick up the guitar fairly easily. The biggest musical influence on my guitar 'dabbling' at that time was the Shadows. I would spend hours playing along to their albums (no CDs in those days!), and eventually in my late teens a few of us in the youth group at church formed the Good News singing group (that was in the days when 'folk' music was pretty much the cutting edge of contemporary Christian music!). That was when I started to write songs - basically, because there wasn't much material around in those days."
When John left school in 1970, he started work as an accountant, but in 1974 had the opportunity to join evangelist and singer Dave Pope for a year working full-time in church missions and concerts. Remembers John, "I had met Dave during a mission at my church in Cowplain a couple of years earlier and had been playing with his 'folk' group The Alethians. Well, that first year led to another year, then another and another and now, 32 years later, I'm still amazingly working in Christian music!"
One of the most popular songs that John Daniels was to write in his career was the Spring Harvest anthem "Lights To The World". Remembers John, "The lyricist Phil Thomson and I have written quite a few songs together over the years, and generally Phil would send me various lyrics and I would pick out the ones that I felt I could write music to. So, if I remember correctly, it was the same with 'Lights To The World' . I think Phil had known about the theme of the Spring Harvest programme for that year, and had sent me several lyrics which were based on the theme, and I chose this particular one to put music to."
In 1981 John married his wife Tami who comes from Fort Worth in Texas. Comments John, "As you may imagine, a 'transatlantic' marriage carries its own set of complications, and our family has made three transatlantic moves in the last 15 or so years. We are currently living near Tami's family in Texas, and for the last 12 years the major part of my work in Christian music has been composing and producing the music underscore for RBC Ministries' weekly national TV documentary programme Day Of Discovery here in the USA."
At the time Charles and John met up Charles had begun working on a new recording project. Charles recalls, "Some ideas were floating around on an eagle theme - and I asked John whether he would like to help me with this new work - to which I am so pleased he said 'yes'! He arranged and orchestrated the compositions and it came together with the title Wings Of An Eagle' released in 2002. It also includes the solo piano track 'The Eleventh Of September', recorded on the evening of 9/11. John said he would like to do another similar album with me. There were some songs that had been floating around in my head and these came together the following year with the title 'Face Of Gold'. John had by this time moved back to live in the States (Texas) with his family, so this album was put together via transatlantic email links!"
The collaboration between the two musicians continued when Charles and John began to work on interpretations of well known worship songs. Says Charles, "I preferred this one to be in our joint names, and it was released in 2004 with the title 'If You Lead Me'. This is a compilation of 11 worship songs and four of my own compositions. The way this was received encouraged us to do a follow-up, and our latest work was released in April of this year with the title 'Called To Freedom'. This is our interpretation of five worship songs together with six of my compositions, and I am delighted that John has written two tracks specially for this album."
John is enthusiastic about the way they work together. "When we moved back here to Texas around four years ago, we decided to see if it would be possible to continue things long distance, especially given the kind of music and computer technology which is so available these days. So, that's what we've been doing - Charles effectively sends me the piano track, and I add the orchestration. So, on one level it's fascinating to work from thousands of miles away on the same project. On another level, I simply enjoy the fellowship and friendship with Charles and his simple (and I mean that as a compliment) and uncluttered approach to music and piano composition. I enjoy the simplicity of his writing, and simplicity is the hallmark of most great music - classical, contemporary or whatever."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.