Best known as a songwriter for such luminaries as Cliff Richard and Amy Grant, the keyboard whiz, producer and singer CHRIS EATON is back with his own album. He spoke about it to Mike Rimmer.
Chris Eaton's world is not quite so wonderful today. He is lying on the floor of his home studio stretching his back and wincing in pain. Serious back pain! I am watching him trying to get comfortable as he plays me his new album 'Wonderful World'. It's been a long time since 1986's 'Vision' album and it's clear that despite the pain, Mr Eaton is more than excited to be back!
Three weeks later, I am again back in his house in the Staffordshire countryside. This time, having had three weeks to listen to the album, I am armed with enquiries. It is a Tuesday afternoon in February as we sit in his conservatory looking out at his tidy garden. Tomorrow he flies to America to begin a support slot on a tour with Twila Paris and Phil Keaggy. He is still suffering from back trouble. Advice from a specialist earlier in the day means he is now trussed up in a corset! Not very rock'n'roll but essential if he is to survive the tour. The bad back, he suspects, is the result of too many hours hunched over equipment in the studio but in the light of his excellent new album, perhaps the pain was worth it!
Now in his mid 30s, Chris Eaton is a bit of a Christian music veteran. Those of you who have long enough teeth might remember the Mark Williamson Band in the early '80s which recorded some pretty decent albums, had a unique sense of humour and wreaked havoc across the land. My main memories revolve around band member Rob Marshall's Sooty suit but that's another story. In the midst of the mayhem, Chris Eaton also began to make a mark for himself as a songwriter penning material for Cliff Richard, Sheila Walsh, Russ Taff and Amy Grant amongst others. In 1986, he recorded his debut solo album, 'Vision'. Why has it taken so long to do a follow up?
"It has been a long time," Chris sighs, "but it's not that I didn't want to do a record of my own, it's just that I got involved with the writing so intensely and then Amy Grant asked me to tour on a number of occasions and most of the time they're really long commitments, over 12 months. So I wanted to do my album when I came off tour and then something else would crop up. So for a long time I wanted to do a record but I wasn't really focussed but eventually it came together very quickly."
The turning point was writing the song "Wonderful World" a month before he recorded the album. It brought things so much into perspective that the record deal was on the table within a month and he was in the studio within two months and had finished the whole album within four months! Since the 'Vision' album took a year to prepare and six months to record, it must have felt like there was something very special happening. "It's my experience as a Christian that if things are meant to be then they happen very easily," comments Chris.
Writing "Wonderful World" encapsulated in one song the renewal that he had felt throughout the whole year. He turned down the chance to play on Amy Grant's 'House Of Love' tour in the belief that God wanted to do something new for him. Chris thinks back: "I wrote the song really out of being overwhelmed with what God had done in my life last year. I was happy with my life and yet I wasn't. I had to struggle for months to figure out what this heaviness of heart was. At the end of the day I knew I had to find God's peace and he just came in and really helped me understand that his peace was all I needed and all these other things of ambition, money, security, career and love would never give me the security I really needed. Having received the riches of what God had promised me in the space of a few days, I learnt to trust God and give certain things up and he made uplifting promises to me which gave me hope. I just felt this peace and release inside of me which made me sit down and write 'Wonderful World'."
Across the album, Chris Eaton has never sung better and this is highlighted in the passionate performance on the title track. I wondered what was happening in the studio when he recorded the song. Chris explains, "When you've written a song, if you can record it when you're still really into it then you feel it with a passion. Very often the vocal performance is something you have difficulty matching in the studio months later. I wrote the song and the day after I wrote it, I thought I'd get on the piano and record it while it was fresh, having no idea it would go on the record so I played it live onto a DAT here at home. My manager Stuart Ongley came up a couple of days later and was just weeping when he heard it. The passion of the song drew me into a much more passionate vocal performance than I've made before."
The album is very different to 'Vision' with a much sharper spiritual focus to it. Chris is very honest in the way he writes about his life and in recent years some of his experiences have been very difficult. Sadly, his wife Gill left him in 1990 and the subsequent divorce was a painful time. When he first began to choose songs for the album, Chris wanted a to include more love songs about his commitment and love for Gill. However, only the very poignant "Remember Me" was finally included. I wondered what happened?
Chris explains, "God has done such a healing in me and I feel like a different person now. I felt now was the right time to make the record because I wanted it to be positive. I've come through the divorce thinking, now I can talk about it. I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. It's easy for me to say that now, I know the pain I felt a few years ago and "Remember Me" is about a specific commitment in a relationship where you really think that God is at the centre of it and you feel let down by God as well as your partner because they've left and you thought the two of you were put together by him and there are no real answers."
On the album "Remember Me" is followed by "Something New". If the first song reflects some of the pain that Eaton has been through, then the second indicates something of the renewing power of God. As he explains, the sequence was no accident. "When 'Remember Me' asks the question 'Why did this happen?', 'Something New' says 'I love you' through it and there is a healing to be received. If I'd done an album a couple of years ago, I think my focus would have been far more on the pain of relationships. But now, I wanted to do an album that would help people realise that they can be uplifted and renewed."
The last decade has seen Chris working in the background for other artists; he produced a series of albums for Ian White and Phil And John. Eaton worked in Nashville adding his vocal talents to a huge number of CCM albums. He even found time to write the occasional number one single, most notably in this country where Cliff Richard's version of "Saviour's Day" topped the Christmas charts in 1990. So was it strange to step back into the limelight again?
"For years even though I've not come out with a record I've always thought of myself as an artist and I have done concerts. I've kept my hand in, in terms of performing so it's nothing new to perform but it is certainly unusual to go through all the promotional experiences where all the eyes are on you. I think the important thing is to have something to say. I just feel so focussed with the latest album that I have just followed the leading of God to do it. At this point I am very excited about what it will open up because I was very true to my beliefs so it has a lot of individual points to make about where I am in my life."
Now Eaton will have the chance to go out in front of audiences with songs that communicate his faith very clearly. Does he thrive in the spotlight? Chris smiles and answers, "I love to play my songs for people and the songs that you're known for obviously go down well. But these new songs mean so much to me and have given me a new life. Even as I perform them they do something for me. I love being able to share the reality of what has happened in my life. The songs have plenty to talk about but no miracles will happen with just me singing, the whole thing has to be blessed and I have to know that it's what the Lord wants me to do otherwise there's no point. It's a challenge and obviously it's a responsibility because lots of kids will be listening to the record and wanting to know what it's about and how it can affect them and I suppose one of the reasons I wanted "Remember Me" on the album is that I want it to touch people where they are and it wouldn't do that if the whole album was 'Oh Lord, isn't life great', because for most people, it isn't! At some point all of us are going to go through major heartache and if there's a balance there, of real stories then hopefully people will find something for themselves."
One of the most poetic and intriguing songs is "Westworld". I wondered whether it was based on a real experience? Chris thought back and described the scene. '"Westworld' is based on the initial part of the 'Heart In Motion' tour. I'd spent many days on a smelly bus travelling overnight and it can be very tiring. At one point we'd done this concert in Portland, Oregon and we were driving up Washington State and the scenery is vast and stunningly beautiful. Very often it takes something in nature to bring back the reality of God inside you. People often get in the way and nature is the one thing that remains constant. The bus stopped at six in the morning and I got out of the bus and was completely awestruck by this view. Really, 'Westworld' is an analogy of heaven and I looked and thought, 'It's not going to get better than this. I felt a welling up in my spirit of God's grace and mercy that he would allow me to see this thing and capture something of his heart and how wonderfully everything is made. That wasn't the whole story. I had been separated from Gill and she was very much in my mind as my soulmate and I felt it was one thing to see the purity of God in a situation like that but it would be the icing of the cake if you could share it with your soulmate. That's why Christine Dente is singing on the track as well because it helps the picture of two people coming together under the umbrella of God's rainbow to appreciate the scene."
Although Chris recorded the majority of the album out in Nashville, he has produced something which musically goes beyond the excellence we've come to expect from the studios of Music City USA. He is clearly proud of the new album when he says, "We were taking risks because this record really was made for the Christian market and we realised we were doing something new. In fact, it sounds fairly fresh for the pop market. Musically, it's something unusual for the Christian market."
One of the standout songs features some brilliant programming from former Bruce Springsteen band bass player Tommy Sims and his sterling work underpins another fine vocal performance. "'Let Them Come To Me' is a prophetic song and when I sang it on the album I felt a rush of God's power as I was singing. It was written in early 1991 after 'Saviour's Day' had done well in England. It's a very different lyric to the majority of the songs on the album which is one of the reasons we gave it a different feel production-wise."
The song is written from the perspective of God speaking directly to the listener. I wondered why Chris wrote in that fashion? "I must say that when I am writing a song, I just find it's so much more personal if it's 'I' or 'you' and if you believe with all your heart that the lyric you are writing is God's heart then why not write it from his perspective? When I am singing it I feel God's power in it."
I can vouch for the power of "Wonderful World". A couple of days after we met, I was driving in my car listening to the album. I found myself crying as God spoke to me through the songs and reminded me of his mercy and grace.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.