They've taken the sound of homegrown R&B to Children's TV, scored a stack of hits and their debut album is a million seller. Not bad for four Christian lasses from Croydon. ETERNAL spoke to George Luke.
We, the British public, have only known them for a little over a year and a half, but Eternal have made a big impression on us in that short time, if statistics are anything to go by. Let's just have a quick look through those statistics, shall we: six Top 15 singles off their debut album, which itself has sold over a million copies, and six Number Ones on the Dance Chart. Add to that four Brit award nominations (even if they didn't win) and the International Dance Award for Best Dance Act of 1994 which they received after an embarrassing technical hitch left them crouched on the stage floor for five minutes waiting for their music to start, before Kelle, the youngest member, got up and joked, "You just can't get the staff these days."
Having been something of a fan myself ever since the morning I accidentally caught them singing "Amazing Grace" acapella on GMTV, I jumped at the opportunity of meeting them for an interview. That chance came late January, and after getting lost in the nightmare that is Holland Park, West London (what sadist numbered the houses there, I wonder?), I managed to locate the hotel where the group were meeting with the Press for the day. Casually dressed, but, as usual, wearing their trademark 'boogers' (that's DM boots to you and me), they were as interested in their interviewers as the interviewers were in them, so we had a pleasant conversation.
Right from the beginning of their career, Britain's CCM fraternity has been buzzing with rumours that "one or two of the girls in Eternal are Christians", rumours which intensified after a look at the credits on their album sleeve revealed that none other than BeBeWinans had produced one of the tracks. So the most obvious question to start with was, "Exactly how many of you are Christians?" The answer: "All of us!" It turns out that Vernie and Easther Bennett grew up in the church their mother pastored, while Louise Nurding had a Catholic upbringing. Very wisely, the girls never disclose details of where they go to church (but if you really need to know, Easther and Vernie go "somewhere in Croydon"), so their local churches aren't overrun with star struck fans trying to catch a glimpse of their idols.
Eternal was formed in 1991 (it escaped me to ask where the name came from, but according to Touch magazine, they were going to call themselves Elle, but the magazine of the same name didn't approve). Vernie and Easther had been singing in church choirs ever since they learned to walk, while Louise and Kelle Bryan both attended the Italia Conti School Of Performing Arts, where they became close friends and had performed together on children's variety shows (Kelle is also a qualified dance teacher). A mutual friend of Vernie's and Louise's - and a member of the company that now manages them - introduced them to each other. Vernie brought in her sister, while Louise introduced her best mate, and the group was formed. Over the following year, they spent a lot of time together, working on their act, and just getting to know each other. Vernie had a particularly heavy workload at the time, as she was still in college studying law. Through the 1st Avenue Management Company, who also look after the careers of Dina Caroll and Michelle Gayle, they signed to EMI Records.
"We got to know each other pretty well," says Louise. "It's kind of different from a friendship, because you're with each other so much of the day, you actually become everything there is to become of somebody. You learn their terrible points and their good points, you go through pressure and good times together, and we're all there to watch each other's back at the end of the day, which, for us I think, is very important."
Their career choice was not without its detractors, though. Vernie and Easther's parents in particular weren't greatly pleased with it. "What every parent fears," says Vernie, "is that 'sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll' lifestyle - that's what they see as the big sins. But they've got to remember that it's an individual, and if that individual wants to indulge in those things they will, no matter what you say. For us as individuals, we're not into those things and it took our parents a year to come round to say, 'Look, these are our daughters and that's not what they're into, and they are doing good.' Kelle had similar problems from higher up the family tree. "My grandparents weren't really keen on it. They'd say, 'Look, Kelle, you shouldn't be doing this; it's not good, it's not godly, you shouldn't be singing secular music,' but in the end, they came round to seeing what good it does."
An accusation frequently levelled at Christian artists in the mainstream is that they often have to keep their beliefs a secret, as it isn't hip to believe in God (although why no one's told Prince that yet is beyond me). Was that true in Eternal's case, I wondered. No way, says Kelle. "I don't think we'd get into a situation, or a contract or something that we felt uncomfortable with. We're very open-minded people and we wouldn't want to hide our beliefs from anybody; we're proud of what we believe in and if someone wanted us to compromise that, then I don't think we'd stay in that situation at all." The decision to include gospel tracks on their albums was one taken together with their management. "For us," says Easther, "we always want at least one gospel song on our albums, to show our appreciation for what the Lord has done for us. He's brought us this far, he's brought us together, and he's done a lot of things for us, day to day. And the song 'Amazing Grace' is one that we all love - it says it all, really."
But don't go to an Eternal gig expecting altar calls, or homilies between each song. "This is our job," says Vernie. "Look at it this way - if you work in an office, you don't put 'God bless' at the end of every official letter that you write, and it's the same thing when we're on stage, we don't talk about God constantly, because it is a job and people have come to see us perform, not for us to preach to them. If we were a gospel group, we could actually do that, but we're not a gospel group; we're a pop group which has put a couple of gospel songs on our album, which we're pleased about."
What was it like being in the studio with BeBe Winans? "It was a great experience," says Vernie. "When our management told us we were working with BeBe we said, 'No way! You guys are lying to us!" but he actually came to check us out; see if he wanted to work with us, check out the vocal harmonies, so when he came back to work on the song 'Crazy' he knew what range we were. It was fun; we'd go into the studio and he'd say, 'Sing this,' and we'd be, 'I don't think that's my part - try Louise or Easther,' and he'd go, 'No, this is the part I'm giving you,' and you'd do it and come out of the studio thinking, 'Gosh, I actually did that!' It was nice working with BeBe." Other gospel singers they would like to work with include Margaret and Vanessa Bell and the Clark Sisters ("Their new album is kicking, it's happening," says a smitten Vernie).
According to Louise, keeping your faith in the face of pressure on the road isn't all that difficult. "When you've got faith, you take it wherever you are in the world, wherever you go, and whatever you do. Once you've got that belief, there's no way that you're going to lose it - not for the four of us anyway." And what temptations do people in their position come up against? "Day to day things," says Vernie, "like how, maybe, the record company wants you to dress for a video - you've just got to deal with them. We've all got high moral standards, so in a sense they'll never get us to do something that we feel isn't right, or wouldn't be seen as 'Christian'. Our temptations are mostly day to day things which we handle as they come."
We talk for a while about the thorny issues of race; of some of the problems facing black artists and how all too often black music fans, instead of being supportive when a black artist has 'made it', will turn round and accuse them of having 'sold out'. It has been hinted in a few quarters that the real reason Eternal are so successful is the presence of a white face in their line up, so how does Louise (the owner of the face in question) respond to that? "Everyone comes up against racial issues throughout their life - black people more than white, I'm sure -because of the way society is. But I don't get it in a really bad way." "We find it interesting," says Vernie, "that whenever we're being interviewed, people always ask Louise if there are problems being the only white member in an all-black group and never ask the three black members if they get stick for having a white member in their group - that's interesting."
The group describe their fan base as being very diverse, made up of people of different ages and social backgrounds. And they show their appreciation of their audience in practical ways - like travelling across Britain to play three free gigs in three different cities in one day, for the benefit of kids who were too young to attend, or couldn't get tickets for any of the dates on their tour of the country. Starting in Glasgow at seven in the morning, they went on to Manchester and finished up in London's Jazz Cafe at 10 that night. "It was a tough day," they say, "but it was worth it."
They've also been warmly received in other parts of the world. In October last year, they visited South Africa and performed at Johannesburg's biggest ever outdoor concert, in a line up that also featured Midnight Oil and Sting. In Taiwan, they visited an orphanage and in Singapore they signed their names on the Wall Of Fame. One of last year's highlights was a trip to New Zealand. "We performed to the Maori people there, and they were very wild," says Kelle. In Japan, fans showered them with gifts.
Obviously, with fans this devoted, they're bound to be the object of some schoolboy's sexual fantasies somewhere in the world, so how does a virtuous Christian young woman handle that knowledge? "When you're famous someone somewhere is going to fancy you, however you name it, so we just take it with a pinch of salt," says Louise. "We know it's sinful to think lustful thoughts about someone," says Kelle, "but at the end of the day, you can't put thoughts into people's minds, or take them out. Only one person knows what people are thinking and it's for him to deal with them on a personal level, not for us to say, 'You shouldn't be thinking sinful thoughts about us!' It's not for us to deal with."
So what does the immediate future hold for Vernie, Easther, Louise and Kelle? Later this year, they will perform at a gospel music festival in the States, together with BeBe Winans and a host of other big names in gospel music (I didn't ask about Greenbelt). Then, of course, there's that all-important follow up to 'Always And Forever'. Going by that old piece of advice, "If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it," they'll go about making the follow up the same way they made the first one. They'll start writing songs for it sometime between February and March, then meet with their management team to sift through those songs, plus ones that the management have chosen from outside, decide which ones should be included and hopefully, round about September, the new offering should be in the shops. Of course, it's too early now to say how big, or otherwise, that album will be, but nevertheless (and despite their not winning any of the Brits they were nominated for) my guess is that 1995 will be a year of even greater achievements for Eternal.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.