One reviewer suggested "Sheryl Crowe meets Beautiful South" to describe the sound of Belfast-based DECEMBER BLUE. Tony Cummings reports.
Every once in a while you hear a voice that instantly turns the hardened reviewer's knees to jelly. Such was the first time I encountered - via a scratchy little demo passed on to me by Sammy Horner - the extraordinary vocal chords of Sharon McFeeters. Today Sharon is the lead singer of one of Northern Ireland's hottest new bands December Blue, whose 'Remember This' CD debut is now turning more knees to jelly wherever it's played. December Blue will be making their English debut at the Cross Rhythms Festival. Music buffs there will be delighted and intrigued by the eclectic styling this top line team weave across Sharon's hauntingly, moody voice. Acoustic, Crouded House-style rhythms interlock with power pop, searing blues rubs shoulders with a kind of Maria McKee Goes Celtic sound, and throughout erudite lyrics and catchy hooks keeps the listener at maximum attention.
The band lines up with Sharon McFeeters (vocals), Alistair Hamill (guitars, keys), Martin Clarke (guitars), Peter Snowden (bass) and Michael Houston (drums). December Blue formed in January 1993 and after a demo 'Whatever You Say, Say Nothing', found an increasing popularity on the resurgent Irish Christian music scene. They told Ulster Christian magazine about their motivation, "We do not see ourselves as a worship or traditional gospel/evangelistic group. There are already a number of groups doing that and doing it really well so that is not really what December Blue is about. We write, as any artist does, about the world around us, and the day-to-day issues that we have to face as ordinary, flawed people and we try to question them and address them from the perspective of our faith. We don't even try to provide answers all the time, simply because we don't have nice neat answers to the issues we address. We feel it's important to be honest about our Christian lives and the fact that we do have problems and there are issues we don't understand or have an answer for.
"There's a misconception that when someone gets up on a platform or stage it appears that they've got their whole Christian experience together, when nothing could be farther from the truth. We are average, everyday people, and it's important to us that we do not try to be something we clearly are not. God has blessed us with a talent and a real love for this style of music, and it is the best way for us to express ourselves through it."
December Blue's lyrics eschew "Jesus died for me/At Calvary" evangelical clichés in favour of a more thoughtful, more enigmatic approach. "We hope our lyrics have a personal meaning for the people who hear them. They require a bit of individual interpretation at times and will mean different things to different people depending on their personal experiences, hopefully this means they are songs that a listener can relate to. For example, 'One More Day' is a ballad which asks a lot of questions, a real yearning for peace with God and with the world around us, but the only answer we can provide for any of them is to trust that God has an answer for those difficult questions. A song like 'Love Like This' is fairly obvious, it's an attempt to describe the first feelings and emotions you go through after a conversion experience, and then there's a song like 'Somewhere Else' which is full of images of discontentment, and is about how we never seem to find satisfaction in our lives; we are always searching for that elsewhere that is better than were we are. The song asks where is your faith based, is it only in a hope for tomorrow or is it a real here and now experience. 'First' is a stylistically different song for us, it's a jazzy bluesy song about a real dissatisfaction with the hypocrisy and low moral standards of the media, and contrasting that with what Jesus taught about humility.
'"Killing Time' is an idea we had to try to look at a real life situation. The passage of 2 Corinthians 6.14 is about getting into a relationship with someone who doesn't share your faith in Christ, and the Bible clearly states that it is a situation you should avoid at all costs. We were discussing why this should be so, and decided to try to look at it from the perspective of someone who has let themselves in to exactly that situation and to see how they cope with it. The person in the song is caught between their love for God and their love for the person they are involved with. They are basically putting off dealing with the situation because whatever way they choose there is going to be a high personal cost to them, their two loves are pulling in opposite directions and something has to give somewhere. It's a song about frustration.
"Music is probably the most powerful media to communicate through. One of the great philosophers said that if you want to change a society, you should change its music. Releasing a CD has placed us into an incredible position of privilege whereby we can present our faith in our own way, where people will take our songs and ideas and beliefs into the intimacy of their homes and cars, which is why we are so concerned with our lyrics and the way we write and the things that we write about."
After years of relative stagnation since the '80s high points with Moral Support and Split Level, Christian music in Ireland is again on the up. Says December Blue, "At the moment there is somewhat of a revival of "CCM in Northern Ireland; for a long while there was almost nothing happening at all, but now the last year or two has seen several really good bands making a big impact on the province, the likes of Alistair Bennett's Band, Barry Bynum and Halcyon Days have proved there is a real interest in this music and these bands have something really positive to say about God. If we can add to that in our own way and share in what God is doing in a wider sense, then we feel very privileged to be a part of that. We try to draw people's attention to the fact that God is very relevant to the modern world and to challenge them to stop and think."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.