The fiery, acoustic passion of COLE MORETON has grabbed the attention of many a Christian fest audience. Andrew Long met the man.
Question: What have Van Morrison, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, The Waterboys, Hothouse Flowers and Sting all got in common?
Answer: Their names have all been dropped by reviewers describing Cole Moreton 's singing
Another reviewer called Cole's music "A profound spiritual journey out of the Christian musical ghetto into pastures where the hearer is encouraged to think."
So who is this impassioned singer/songwriter with the adenoidal voice and thrashing acoustic-based music? He was born in London, grew up in a Christian home and while still of tender years had made his own commitment to Christ. By early teens he was learning the first rudiments of the guitar until one night in 1987 he heard for the first time a well-known Canadian songwriter.
"Bruce Cockburn has been a great influence on me," Cole comments. "I first came across his music in 1987 when a friend gave me a tape of some really old stuff from about 1974-5 when he was into acoustic jazz. I thought the tape was pretty good and then I went to see him and it was one of those moments when things just turn upside down and I thought 'this is how one man singer songwriter stuff should be'. As a matter of fact, I rushed out of the gig in the middle with some ideas and wrote a song called The Undying Flame' and then rushed back in to see the end of the gig."
Cole's talents extend far beyond the realms of singer songwriter into other areas of the media such as radio presenting and journalism. On leaving school he got a job as a writer with a local newspaper covering everything from politics to pop. Cole continues his story. "After that I went to YWAM for two years where I was the press officer for the UK. I did various bits and bobs for them and also got my first band together. We just went into the studio and did a recording and, although we only made 300 copies, it got a really good response from the press; in fact I'm still getting reviews from it now. This week I bumped into somebody who told me that a friend of theirs in Canada has been trying to get that little tape of mine for three years, which is amazing. We got quite a few gigs from that including doing Greenbelt a few times and then we were asked to contribute a song to the Greenbelt acoustic album 'Down By The River'.
Cole tells me that he joined YWAM to travel the world and meet people, rather like a beauty queen, however for 18 months God kept him in Harpen-den in Hertfordshire. After a long time of moaning at God, Cole was given the opportunity to go on a writing tour taking in the Philippines, Thailand and Hong Kong and writing about his experiences of the refugee camps and the relief work that was taking place. I asked him whether this had much of an effect on his life.
"I'll be honest with you, it was a while ago now and I'm still working things out in my mind. It really turned my priorities upside down, you know. I mean, I went to Smoky Mountain, which is where everybody goes when they go to the Philippines, and that is just desperate. It's 20,000 people living on top of a rubbish tip and a couple of days later I went to the palace where the Marcos's used to hang around and there were 3,000 pairs of shoes for one woman. When the people bust in there they found one room that was just for jewellery and a couple of pieces had been left, just two or three bits, and they were worth a couple of million, so the contrast is rather great.
"I came back and the following week I had to go shopping, I wanted to buy a shirt and it was twenty five quid, and the previous week I'd been writing about the fact that twenty-five quid will send a Pilipino kid from Smoky Mountain to school for a year. It's really difficult to come to terms with what you're supposed to be doing - how should I react to this? and I don't know the answer. What I do know is that there are people suffering very severely in Britain and if one day we bust open the doors of Buckingham Palace I'm sure we'd find some things there that we wouldn't want to see either. So it's not a question of third world poverty and third world greed, it's a universal thing and we're all implicated in it because we don't stand up and say anything about it. But having said that, how do you react and what do you do? I suppose I'm still working that one out."
A year later Cole went on a similar trip to Ghana, although for a very good reason he didn't really want to go on this one...
I'd just decided to get married and there I was in this strange place where it takes about three days to fix up a telephone call to England. I was missing Rachel desperately, but I did get a lot out of it in the end. I was driven around Ghana by this guy in his battered old Renault and I taught him a lot of worship songs like 'Lord You Are More Precious' and all this other stuff, because in Ghana they can praise God really well, they can really go for it, it's great, it's happy, it's really positive but when it comes to more intimate worship and directly talking to God then we can teach them as much as we can learn about praise from them. Anyway, he taught me a chorus in a language called Twee, the words mean Thank Him, Thank The Lord' so I set it to music and wrote some verses one day as I sat on the roof of this guy's house watching a tropical storm approach from the mountains. When I came back to Britain I played the song at a YWAM gig and two people from Ghana came to see me backstage afterwards and said 'we don't know what you were singing in but it certainly wasn't Twee because your pronunciation's all wrong,' so they corrected it for me.
"Those two journeys had a pretty profound effect on my songwriting, I don't really like protest songs, things don't seem to have developed much since Bob Dylan, but I like to try and respond to things in a personal way and try to empathise, although it's impossible for someone like me to empathise fully. For instance, I wrote a song for a gig I did for Shelter, the housing charity which does some tremendous work, and I was trying to get into the mind of somebody who's come to London and can't find a place to live and therefore can't find a place to work. The song was called 'Where The Fire Is Bright And Warm' and I guess it's one way of responding."
After leaving YWAM Cole went to Middlesex Polytechnic to do a degree in contemporary writing. Besides writing as a journalist, Cole likes to venture into poetry and short stories, which he often includes in his gigs. He is a member of the Greenbelt Artists Committee and the Greenhouse Committee and a couple of years ago initiated the Freedom Train Project. I asked him what that was exactly.
"It was launched at Greenbelt and followed up by two six-month seasons at the Greenhouse and basically it's a little club for artists, poets, musicians and anybody else really. We've had some comedians and all sorts of things including fine art and photography exhibitions. It's a place where you can come as a new artist and try out the things you want to do in a friendly and sympathetic setting. Alternatively a more well known artist can come and try something they've never done before. It gives people the opportunity to explore their own creativity further and I think this is a tremendously important thing both for the church and for individual Christians. The church needs some creativity and some artists to put into their art the things that you can't say in words about the character of God. The Freedom Train is an expanding project, although it has been taken over by someone else now. Last year at Greenbelt we had Deacon Blue come and do an acoustic set there and that was really good and now other Freedom Train clubs are being set up outside London."
Cole belongs to All Saint's Church in Woodford Well, where he is
involved in leading worship and teaching. In September 1990 he married
Rachel, the vicar's daughter, and Cole took a rest from his activities
with the band. During this period Rachel and Cole established an
alternative multimedia worship service at the church. I wondered what
was the inspiration behind this.
"Essentially, it's doing two things - involving the people who, like myself, were feeling a bit culturally alienated from the church and also treating the idea of a service as something that can be done in a professional, theatrical way, the principle being that if you present it in a way that's relevant now it will enable people to worship better. We started it with only two or three people but now a tremendous team has gathered around it, probably about thirty people, most of them under 20, and every month we get 2-300 people to the service aged from 12/13 upwards. The oldest person who's been is my granddad, he's a Salvation Army soldier, been with them for years, and he came to the first one. When he saw what we were doing, which was really loud and there were spotlights and smoke and lassers everywhere and pictures all over the place, he was absolutely appalled and said 'this isn't right, this is the House of God, this shouldn't be going on, it's terrible.' Anyway, at the end of the service he came up to me and said 'I just want to tell you that I really felt the Spirit was moving tonight and that God was really here,' so he'd just given it a chance and he'd seen that it worked, so basically all we're trying to do is find another way of worship. Lots of people are doing it and we're just doing it in Woodford."
Cole likes to live dangerously with his songwriting rather than just sticking to 'safe' subject matter and this has led to him being thought of as 'a bit dodgy' by some people. One of the areas he particularly likes to explore is that of God as lover. I asked him whether this was a subject that he thought fitted easily into English middle-class theology.
"Well, judging by the amount of trouble I get into about it I shouldn't think it is. I have a song which is called 'My Lover Bleeds', which I sang once at a big YWAM thing. I didn't really have a chance to say what it was about as I had to play just before Loren Cunningham, the founder of YWAM, came on to speak. The metaphor of the song is quite explicit, it is referring to Jesus Christ, but it did freak a couple of people out.
"Basically, this whole thing about God as lover is twofold. Firstly, that you can have intimacy with God, it's difficult, but it's what He wants. You can have intimacy with God as personal and as intimate as a human relationship really; very few of us ever really reach it, but it's possible, and it's part of God's character to be our lover and to be both male and female. Secondly, it's just writing about God in terms of metaphor. Bob Marley used to write about his god as a woman sometimes, and he wrote songs that worked on one level as a love song and on the other level, if you thought about them a bit more deeply, as social and political and religious songs that gave a message, and I've just noticed that Bono from U2 is starting to do that as well, 'She Moves In Mysterious Ways' was a song that did that recently.
"Sometimes I do a song by Prince called 'The Cross' and a couple of years ago I was on a YWAM Discipleship Training School, which is like a mini bible school, but a bit more exciting, and there was a guy there who was an ex-semi-professional musician and a self-appointed prophet and it was his opinion that anybody who listened to Prince needed ministry, it was a question of get on your knees now, turn or burn. Now I like Prince, I don't agree with him, and I think that you have to be really careful what you're listening to, but there are songs like that which are great, so I was singing this song once in the communal showers there and along came the self-appointed prophet and he was listening to the words and got interested so he asked me who wrote the song. 'Guess,' I said, and we went through the whole list from Kendrick to Adrian Snell to Martyn Joseph, the whole lot, and anyway he came to the end of his list and I said 'Prince!' He wouldn't talk to me for 3 days."
Now that Cole has finished his degree he is planning to work as a freelance musician and journalist. He already writes for Alpha and The Church Times and has been known to contribute to a certain rag by the name of Cross Rhythms as well as some national newspapers. Cole has a new electric band, The Mighty To ngues Of Flame, and his EP "Wire And Voice" is a taster for an album they will be doing in the summer. The band is starting to get busy again, so look out for them in your area.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.