Chelsea Moon: Giving ancient hymnody a bluegrass makeover

Wednesday 14th November 2012

Tony Cummings spoke to CHELSEA MOON about her approach to music, ministry and life

Chelsea Moon
Chelsea Moon

One of the most unexpected American visitors to these shores this year was new bluegrass singer Chelsea Moon. Her progressive bluegrass recastings of old hymns on albums 'Hymn Project Vol 1' (2010) and 'Hymn Project Vol 2' (2012) have gained her considerable critical acclaim and her visit to Cornwall's Creation Fest last summer showed that the singer has the talent to go far in music circles. Strangely, considering her musical stylings, Chelsea grew up not in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains but in the middle of Los Angeles. Her father is in fact a renowned composer for film and TV and is responsible for the music for Nickelodeon cartoons.

Chelsea laughed about her lack of authentic bluegrass roots. "Apart from I recorded my second album, I had never been to the Ozarks, never really been to any parts of the Mid West that had any more than a mile from one house to the other. The band the Franz Brothers, who I collaborated with on my second project, live in a very small town in northern Arkansas, in the Ozarks. I spent some time living with them out there, about three months. It was a totally life-changing experience - very culturally shocking to me. I had been to 17 countries in my life, but never had been to a place like the Ozarks. It was probably the worst culture shock that I've ever experienced. The Ozarks were where bluegrass was born, so I learned a lot."

Chelsea spoke a bit more about her experience in Arkansas. "I think probably the biggest difference is that life is just so slow out there. A lot of places close earlier than you would expect. There are a lot of things not in stock: you have to order them ahead of time. A lot of people won't work over-hours. It's a much slower lifestyle, and in a lot of ways that was good for me - just to be in an environment where you're not required to be doing-doing-doing, going-going-going all the time. That's what it's like in Los Angeles: lots of people driving fast; doing things; going places; fast food; you can purchase anything you want any time you want. Bluegrass being born out of a place like that, it just made sense to me: these people have time to practise their instruments, to sit and enjoy the sounds they can create. There's so much space, and such a lack of noise that you have that ability to practise all the time."

Chelsea spoke about her own musical background. "My dad grew up in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. His name is Guy Moon; he now is primarily focussing on cartoon music - mostly TV, but he does films every once in a while. Fairly Odd Parents is a really popular show on Nickelodeon, Danny Phantom is another show; he's now working on Big Time Rush, a new live-action show with four guys in a boy-band. They're actually touring the world now, they're doing really well, selling albums like crazy. In the past he did the Brady Bunch Movies; Cow And Chicken is an old cartoon he used to work on; Johnny Bravo; Jonny Quest. Los Angeles is not a place where it's common to find born-again believers. My dad is a very well respected composer in his speciality, which is cartoon music, and he has a lot of opportunity to live a life before people that shows that God is his vision and his refuge. From the time when I was very young, I've always seen him handle that responsibility very well. It's cool to see the opportunities God has given him to speak into that industry. Not in huge ways as far as the art, but in the relationships he builds."

Chelsea Moon: Giving ancient hymnody a bluegrass makeover

Chelsea has a brother and sister who are both musical though in a style very different from Chelsea's rural sound. Said Chelsea, "They produce house worship music under the name Mirror Dimly. My sister writes worship songs - she's a singer/songwriter, and she's working on her second full-length album now. She is an incredible writer, she'll write these songs and give them to my brother; he'll produce the heck out of them - dubstep, drum and bass, electronic. It's really amazing to see the response. They have an EP on iTunes called 'The Easter EP'. They have awesome material."

With a father composing cartoon music and a brother and sister deeply involved in the electronic music arena, bluegrass seems an unlikely direction for Chelsea to take. She explained how it came about. "It's kind of interesting how it fell into my lap. I had never really listened to bluegrass music before I started making it. Doesn't normally happen that way! My dad is my producer, and we record all of our projects at our home studio in California. When I graduated from Bible college, it was really heavy on my heart I had such a passion for hymns. I had realised as I was leading worship that people's response to the hymns was so much greater than their response to songs being written today. I'm not exactly sure what that is - my theory is the rich quality of the lyricism, and also the theology is so pure. We just have a reverence for them as soon as we sing the lyrics, because there's such a depth. The worship of God is not only emotional, but it takes worship to an intellectual level: you're thinking through the aspects of who he is and what he's done for you. I came to my dad with that idea; I said, 'I really love hymns, and I'd love to do an album of hymns'. I wasn't writing my own music at the time. He said, 'Let's do it'. He loves working with his kids; he did a lot of the groundwork to find the band that we were going to use to accompany me and arrange the songs with me. There was a group called Uncle Daddy that lives in Los Angeles; they're a rootsy acoustic rock group, but they can definitely play some bluegrass as well. The leader of that band was the worship leader at Bel Air Presbyterian church: that's how we found them. They just started to shape and form the sound of the songs. I would give them the songs, we knew the melody and the lyric, and they would run with it; I'd sit there and sing. So I didn't have a huge arranging hand in the first album. I just watched it all happen and sang. But the second project was very different, because I had now started listening to bluegrass musicians - particularly my favourite Alison Krauss And Union Station."

On the release of 'Hymns Projects Vol 1' Chelsea began visiting churches, performing her plaintive recastings of old hymns such as "Nothing But The Blood", "Jesus Paid It All" and "When I Survey". In 2011 Chelsea began planning a second volume. She admitted, "I didn't feel like an artist on the first one: I was more just a singer. On the second project, when I had gotten around to sitting down and looking at some hymnals, let the lyrics seep into my heart and my life - having to choose from 300 and narrow it down to 20, so we could start somewhere - the Lord had brought these people into my life. The Franz Family, the band that the Franz Brothers are from, were on tour in California, they came to our house and performed at Bel Air Presbyterian Church. They recorded in our studio and they were in the process of taking a break from playing music together, because three of them were getting married in six months. They had been touring together for 20 years, so it was a very transitional time for them. I felt like, 'This is the group! These are the guys that I want to play music with.' The girls were going on their own journey; they were going to quit music for a time. I knew the guys were still willing, so I asked them, 'Would you want to do a project with me?' They said, 'We'd be so honoured'. So six months later they flew out to Los Angeles, and we arranged 16 songs in two weeks."

In November 2011 recording for 'Vol 2' began. "It took us about two months to finish the recording process - a couple trips going back and forth, and bringing some other musicians in as well. We had a cello player and a violin player from the Uncle Daddy band - a bass player as well. From the time we starting arranging to the time we released the album it was only six months. That was record timing for us, because the first record took two years. It felt like it was my baby: I was way more involved in the arrangement process; I played some piano parts, and was a lot more involved in the production of the vocals. I think I've graduated to being an artist now."

Chelsea Moon: Giving ancient hymnody a bluegrass makeover

Since 'Hymn Project Vol 2''s release Chelsea has been busy taking her music around the churches. "We went to a lot of places in the Mid West, based out of the Franz Family homestead in northern Arkansas. I had a friend come a long with me, who was someone I had been discipling in LA, and her job was fizzling out at this restaurant she was working at. She was our merch girl: she sold our CDs and did our financial details. That was really a blessing for me to have a friend come along to do those business aspects, and she really helped in that area of selling. I started doing all the booking myself, all the promotion - I run my Facebook page, my ReverbNation page, my Twitter and everything. There are some people who get to a point where someone else has to run all that stuff for them, but as of now I'm still doing the booking and all the promotion. It is a lot of stuff on my plate; it's helpful to have some people come on the road with me."

For the future Chelsea is still keen to pursue bluegrass versions of hymnody. She commented, "I'd love to do outreach but for now my vision is more inreach, putting hymns back into the Church in such a way that our generation can appreciate the richness and the theology. A lot of our music that's being written sounds the same. Not to bash modern worship artists: there is a time and a place to talk about how we feel, introspectively looking into our own hearts, and also a time as a Body of Christ to repeat a phrase to the Lord over and over as a meditative worship. But when we get to heaven, I'm pretty sure that the praises we're singing to the Lord are going to have nothing to do with us, nothing to do with how we feel, but rather who God is, what he's done - it's going to be proclaiming those attributes of him, and also praising him for what he's done, his character. And we'll be getting to know more of that throughout eternity. There's no end to what you can know about God. Hymns really go deep."

Chelsea continued, "Most of the hymnals that you'll buy are categorised by subject matter; there's 25, 30 different hymns written about the same thing. I shy away from choosing too many in that one category - talking about a broad spectrum of characteristics of God within an album. I think is definitely important not just musically making it diverse, but also lyrically, so you can reach different parts of where people's hearts are, what do they need to hear, and how can God minister in different ways? From what I've seen with most of the hymns that I've listened to, there's a lot of hymns being redone - 'I'll Fly Away' or 'Amazing Grace'. 'How Deep The Father's Love', I actually did that one; it's not necessarily an old hymn, but it's known as a hymn."

What about taking a hymn's original words and putting them to new melodies? Chelsea responded, "We have done that on one song, 'In The Secret Of His Presence'. Sandra McCracken did a version of that song I love. I wanted to do her melody, but I vowed to myself on the second project that I wouldn't do any licensing. I wanted to do public domain and not get permissions. That took about 12 months. So I figured we'll either write our own melody or use the original one. As it turned out, the original melody was a little too 'hymny' for us: even with bluegrass instruments it sounded like an organ was playing it. So we decided to re-write it. We separated for a couple hours then came back together. Emmett, the dobro player, came back with this amazing melody and we decided to sing it as a duet. That's the only one that we completely re-wrote the melody. We did a four-part acapella as well, 'Beneath The Cross Of Jesus'. We tried and tried, and it still sounded ancient no matter what we did with it. So I re-wrote the melody of that in a tune that I thought sounded bluegrassy - with my very little knowledge of bluegrass. I brought it to the guys and they said, 'Yeah, that totally sounds bluegrassy. Let's put it in four parts.' The first two verses are major and then the third verse, because it talks about dark concepts - 'There between us stands the Cross, two arms outstretched to save' - you have a minor key, then bring it back to the major for the last, so it's more victorious. It's just interesting what you can do with the music to complement the lyrics."

Chelsea spoke about what God has been showing her since her venture into music ministry. "Probably the overwhelming lesson that God's been teaching me over the last couple years has been affirming my identity in him. For so long when I was younger, I sang in musicals, did jazz gigs, was really in the LA music scene, and my heart was in a place that was looking for satisfaction in that - longing to be noticed in that. You can know that in your head, but I think I'm finally starting to know it in my heart: I no longer look for the reward that's so small, that's the praise of people. I read a quote just recently that continued to confirm it to me. It's funny, because it was a Bill Cosby tweet: 'I don't know the secret to success, but I surely know that the secret to failure is trying to please everyone'. I thought, 'Wow. That's so true.' When people are really big to you, and your God is very small, that's a prison - it's not a good place to live. Your identity is based in how people see you, what people think of you. God's taught me through a series of disappointments, failures - you get to the end of yourself - in everything in life I have to remember that my value is in how God sees me. Living for an audience of one, that really helps me be victorious in every other aspect of my walk. Especially being on stage all the time, having people think whatever they want to about you, the only way to truly let it roll off your back is to stand firm in your vision and who you are in the Lord." CR

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.


Reader Comments

Posted by Belinda Thompson in Winchester UK @ 09:16 on Nov 16 2012

I stumbled across Chelsea Moon this morning singing 'Be Thou My Vision' on YouTube. I loved the feel and honesty of her sound so I looked her up. I absolutely love this re-freshing take on worship music and how the words in hymns enale us to worship God on an intellectual level through the rich lyricism they contain.

I love that she makes hymns feel modern and less dry whilst retaining a depth. This means we can use them to worship God along with other songs we like.
She has put into words for me what I was finding hard to express. Thankyou Chelsea Moon I will be downloading your music...

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

Add your comment

We welcome your opinions but libellous and abusive comments are not allowed.

We are committed to protecting your privacy. By clicking 'Send comment' you consent to Cross Rhythms storing and processing your personal data. For more information about how we care for your data please see our privacy policy.