Lins Honeyman spoke at length to one of UK Christian music's pioneers, IAN WHITE
It's a widely-held belief, in Scotland at least, that few artists have had a bigger and a longer-lasting impact on the UK Christian music scene than singer/songwriter Ian White. Since 1985, the Ayrshire-born, Perth-based singer and guitarist has released in the region of 24 albums and has toured extensively here in the UK, in America and across the globe either on his own or with a full band in a remarkable purple patch that saw him sell over 250,000 albums and become one of Christian music's most sought after exponents. Arguably most famous for his reinterpretations of the Psalms which spawned a catalogue of six albums in the earlier part of his career, Ian fittingly continues to receive recognition for a body of work that few in the field have been able to match.
Cross Rhythms last caught up with Ian back in 1999 and it's fair to say that a lot has changed since then - not only personally but in the music world as a whole. With the advent of newer worship music trends, listen-for-free streaming services, YouTube and the like, the veteran songwriter is the first to admit that the halcyon days of substantial record sales are over and, coupled with a sharp decline in concert invitations that has also affected many other artists, Ian has recently found himself at something of a crossroads musically and professionally.
In keeping with a career-long pragmatism which saw him set up his own label Little Misty Music in 1985 instead of seeking out a relationship with an established record company, Ian has characteristically diversified in order to adapt to his new surroundings. Whilst church invitations have all but dried up, his new musical landscape includes being one half of a blues duo with Perthshire lead guitarist Pete Caban, teaming up with singer Marion Gray to form the covers duo Candlemaker Row and a classical music venture with composer Andrew MacDonald that has seen the pair record two original symphonies with the Czech Republic's Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra.
In addition to these ongoing projects, the seasoned troubadour has set up the charity Home Visit which sees him teach music to severely disabled adults in his home town which in turn offers his pupils the chance to perform in the aptly titled Inspiration Orchestra to small audiences across the region. I catch up with Ian who, having just returned home from a one-to-one teaching session with one of his Home Visit students, ushers me into the kitchen of his house in the Kinnoull Hill area of Perth and grabs himself a well-earned coffee. Offering me one too, he points to a coaster emblazoned with the words "Keep Calm And Listen To Cliff." The irony of his long-term musical associate Chris Eaton writing a number one hit for Sir Cliff is not lost and, wryly raising an eyebrow, he points out "my wife Carol is a lifelong Cliff fan and a friend bought her it for Christmas" before we get down to business. I start by asking him how his involvement with the Inspiration Orchestra came about.
"With my gospel record sales starting to decrease about eight or nine years ago, my local church in Perth very kindly started sponsoring me to work in the parish," he explains. "This involved me going to some of the schools in the town as well as the Capability Scotland facility for severely disabled adults in Perth. That all started about four years ago and, like many ideas, you begin with a small seed of something. There were a number of stages involved in developing the Inspiration Orchestra: stage one is being a performer and going in and singing some songs to them. Stage two is where you try to teach them how to play a little bit and, when I first went in, it was just having everybody in a circle and giving them tambourines or shakers without much of a learning structure. Stage three, which really made the thing take off, was everyone giving a performance. At that point, my local church decided to stop funding me and, with record sales and bookings drying up, it dawned on me that the work I was doing with the Inspiration Orchestra was really too important to give up and that I had to work out a way to keep doing it and that's when we applied for charitable status as Home Visit."
I ask Ian how he goes about the undoubtedly challenging but rewarding task of teaching people with severe disabilities to play an instrument. "The main thing you have to start with is this whole parallel thing. In my ignorance, I remember thinking that the Paralympics was something to do with being paralysed but it's actually about the word 'para' which means 'going alongside'. It means trying to treat a disabled person as still being able to do things but in a parallel way - meaning that they might not be able to do it the same way as another person but they are still able to do things. That leads to a whole view of humanity where you realise everyone is damaged. There's no such thing as a perfectly able, non-damaged human being. We all go through life needing a doctor for this, needing [to be] patched up or a pill for that - damage is there in everyone. It's just a severely disabled person carries a great deal of damage in their daily human existence but they are still able to do stuff. It's just an utterly, wonderful, powerful and expanding thing when you begin to realise that and that's when all the pity and condescending attitude that you might have for someone who is severely disabled disappears and you're really able to connect with them."
Making the assumption that Ian is a stickler for perfection, I wonder if working in this new musical environment where things can never be "just so" is a challenge or a liberation to which Ian puffs out his cheeks at the thought of being classed as a perfectionist. "Let's put things in context," he suggests. "When I made my first record in 1985, I couldn't play in time or tune my guitar. My association with Chris Eaton was an incredible boon because Chris had developed a network of top professional musicians and I had to really up my game. 'Psalms Volume 6' was made with Amy Grant's band and I can still remember Amy's drummer stopping half way through a track and saying 'will the guitar player please play in time'! I had my musicianship stretched upwards and I hope that some of my stuff over the years was of a high enough standard."
He continues, "Working with people who can barely make one note is obviously at the other end of the scale. The challenge is making several small parts work together to make something musical. I've now got 13 players where some can play two notes at the same time - none can play more than that and most of the folks are able to play a single note. Where I've not felt restricted in the slightest is in the challenge of arranging the individual parts so that we're making a sound together that can be performed to people. Rather than my work with the Inspiration Orchestra cramping my musical style, what I'm seeing come out of the people I'm working with is a therapeutic and achievement dimension that I have never ever seen in any of my work before. This project is so rewarding in so many ways."
I bring Ian back to the point he'd just made in passing about using CCM superstar Amy Grant's backing band on one of his albums. "On 'Psalms Volume 6', Chris Eaton and I were sitting thinking we should just programme the album as opposed to having lots of people involved. We'd been programming at Chris' house in the West Midlands for three days and we just got bored. There was this dull silence and Chris looked at me and said he'd just finished a tour with Amy Grant and that her band members were sitting at home in Nashville looking for work. Straight away, Chris phones up Amy's then husband Gary Chapman and we booked some of the band at Amy's place for four days. It was all spur of the moment and my wife Carol and I had to phone home and get our cat sitter to send our passports to us. We headed out two days later and recorded the album at Amy Grant's house!"
Before we move on to discuss his other musical projects, I press Ian to explain what it felt like to go from a very in-demand period to a spell where the record sales and invitations all but ceased. "Everybody likes to be a success," he points out. "I just kept on putting stuff out but what gets very hard is when different trends come in. I was filling venues mostly in the late '80s and early '90s and then a thing called Soul Survivor happened around 1994 with Matt Redman and Delirious? taking the world by storm. Those of us who were around at the time remember that, when Soul Survivor exploded onto the scene, no matter what you were doing and how well you were trying to do it you just couldn't keep up. For me, it's more important to just be glad of what you do but, if you start trying to change your spots in order to keep up with the current trend, that's when you run into trouble.
"I had a brief glimmer of hope in 1994 with the 'Faith Story' album," Ian continues. "It was touted by the Christian Booksellers Association as worship album of the year but Stuart Townend brought out 'Ruach' which beat it into the dust. Funnily enough, our paths crossed in 1997 - I'd known Stuart over the years - when he interviewed me for a worship magazine he was writing for. During the interview, he asked me if I'd ever considered writing actual worship songs and I said I'd go home and give it a try. I went home, wrote a set and Stuart asked me to record them for him to listen to. I was on tour with my band at the time - we were playing at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh - and I told them we were staying on after the show to record the songs I'd written. We did a live recording on stage of songs like 'You're Merciful To Me' and 'Pre-Revival Days' and the next thing Stuart's on the phone saying they're going to put them out on an album called 'Worship Together'. A couple of months later, he phones to ask for some more songs because the Americans liked the first lot! I wrote another batch of five and realised I had a whole album of stuff and I released all of the songs as an album called 'Pre-Revival Days'. My only gold disc came from that request to write worship songs with the song 'You Are Merciful To Me' selling over 250,000 copies on an American compilation."
Ian adds, "EMI ended up releasing 'Pre-Revival Days' under the title 'Encounter' and they invited me over to the US to launch the album. I went over to a worship conference in Nashville and there was a guy called Chris Tomlin who just burst onto the scene at that very moment and the rest of us who were there only sold 10,000 albums and it all died off. That really was the end of that part of my musical career. From about the year 2000 onwards, I didn't really have albums that went anywhere although 'Move That Foot' in 2005 kept me alive but that was the beginning of the transition to what I'm doing now."
With one of the busiest recording and performing careers on the circuit at the time, it would have been entirely reasonable for Ian to hang up his guitar and take things easy but this seems not to have been the case. "In common with anybody who loves performing, there's always a bit of you who just wants to be out there doing it," Ian explains. "It was only when it all backed off that I suddenly realised that I really liked playing, singing and performing and that I wasn't ready to stop. I really want to still be playing on the day I die."
Part of this desire to keep playing involves him teaming up to perform sets of blues-influenced covers with Perthshire guitarist Pete Caban - member of local blues outfit Wang Dang Delta and owner of Perth's long-established Bandwagon Musical Supplies - in hotels and bars on a monthly basis. "When the Psalms thing took off around 1985, I would be in and out of Pete's shop and he would always be interested in what I was doing. After all these years, Pete and I thought it would be great to play music together and now we're doing the covers gigs just for the heck of it. It's great to do some of the music world's standards with someone I enjoy making music with. I'm also really getting a lot out of teaming up with a singer called Marion Gray and, as Candlemaker Row, we cover a softer range of songs with me playing piano on many of them."
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