Things are changing for America's JACI VELASQUEZ. Her new album is a long, long way from the perky Latin pop of old. Mike Rimmer learnt about Jaci's painful past and exciting future.
These days you're as likely to find Jaci Velasquez behind an executive desk at her own label A'postrophe Records as recording or singing. After selling a respectable several million albums and enjoying success in both the Christian and Latin scenes, the now married Ms Velasquez has been spreading out a little. Not content with simply delivering the sort of album her record company are accustomed to receiving, she moved to London for a period of 2004 and recorded 'Beauty Has Grace' which sounds British, organic and much less polished and perfect than previous releases. Her American label put the album on hold for a few months while they scratched their heads and decided how on earth they were going to market something so radically different. It's clearly an interesting time to be in Jaci Velasquez's shoes.
These days it seems as though it's almost easier for Jaci to operate in the Latin scene because there's less pressure than in Christian circles. She admits to a certain amount of schizophrenia in the two markets, "I definitely have to say that I'm two different people in them. I'm actually a lot nicer in the Latin world! I find myself being nicer and a little bit more of a little girl because everybody's a rebel in the secular world. Nobody wants to push the envelope in the Christian world. So I kind of figure that's my job." She pauses and laughs, "I do the opposite of what's happening in each scene."
Jaci was very young when she was launched on the Christian scene with a million-selling debut album. Pushed forward by her parents and encouraged to develop her ministry, she was a typical Nashville CCM artist but the pressures of the business paid their toll on her family life. She is reflective when she looks back. "Unfortunately there's been some jaded ways that have come along with being in the music business for so long. You realise in the Christian world, it's not just a ministry. It's probably 75 per cent business. But when you're a kid you don't see that. It actually wasn't until I got a little older that I saw that, because I was just too naïve."
She's honest as she thinks about the kind of artists that can be produced by the American scene. "Everybody says the same thing." She adopts the squeaky-clean voice of a Miss World contestant, "I just want to bring hope to the world. World peace!" She continues, "Everybody just says that and really, what is it?! What is it that I'm trying to say? It challenges you, it makes you question your beliefs and why and how. It's sad to watch that happen. You'd love to keep that childlike faith but as you get older, it does go away."
Seeing her parents divorce took its toll and the situation wasn't easy for Jaci to face especially since she had to do so as a public figure working in Christian music. She remembers, "You feel betrayed. It's like a death in the family except nobody's died. But you know that a part of your life will never be the same again. Everything that you've known is never going to be the same again. I felt at fault because I was the singer and my dad - who always had a kind of ego thing - always felt weird about his daughter suddenly becoming THE spotlight. I think he felt a little resentful towards me. He admits that now. We talk about that now, it's no big deal."
But back then she had to do some difficult things and her whole life changed. She reflects, "When my parents split up I moved out of the house. When I signed my record deal to give the label a sixth record, the label said, 'We'll buy you a house because you're giving us a sixth record.' I remember my parents fighting over the house and fighting over how to split things up. I just remember looking at them and saying, 'You know, you are both acting like kids! I've given up my childhood in order to have this stupid house!' That's what I felt like. I thought I would never figure out who Jaci was. That's what I thought and that's what I told them. I said, 'It's really all your fault! You guys signed me to this record deal!' And I didn't know because I was only 14-years-old! I just was doing everything mom and dad said, I was just excited, an excited child. So I felt really frustrated with them that they were actually fighting over a stupid house. And that they were going to take something my record company had given me for making another record and just split it up and then go their separate ways when I had worked so hard to get that."
She continues, "So I took the house back. I said, 'This is MY house. You guys can't have it!' Then I moved out and I was really mad at them. I was actually more mad at my dad because he could have stayed but he didn't want to. I'm sure it's always two-sided so there's never just one side. I felt like God betrayed us because we were these faithful servants. My dad was a pastor, mom was a pastor's wife and I'd been the perfect little angel. And I WAS the perfect little angel. I mean, I never did anything wrong."
Jaci moved out and spent some time trying to sort out how she felt about everything. Having spent years of her life devoted to ministry she began to question her faith and her relationship with God. "I was a Christian and I believed but my heart wasn't in it anymore. I was just a bit of a robot. I knew what to say because I'd been a pastor's kid. I had counted on my parents for so much. I basically held them up to some sort of a standard that it's unfair to put anyone on. I'd lived my relationship with Christ through them, which a lot of kids do. I'd relied on their prayers. So finally at one point, I had to just stop and consider what I really believed and why I believed it. Where is it actually MY relationship with God?"
Ultimately things settled in her heart and she moved on. Now the 24 year old is making her own decisions, has her own record label and is recently married. The struggles have made her consider how she is creating music and how she is ministering. She explains, "People can see through you when you're fake. I've been very open about my flaws and there's been a bit of backlash about that."
It's interesting that as Jaci is discovering that she can admit to her flaws in public, her latest album 'Beauty Has Grace' is less than perfect too. Where her previous albums have been slickly and perfectly produced in America, this time she has gone for a more organic feel, visited London and recorded an album that will not only surprise Jaci's fans but has also blindsided her record label. She worked with mainstream producer Martin Terefe whose previous work included Leona Naess, Shea Seger, Ron Sexsmith and Clarkesville.
Jaci was determined to work with Terefe. "I stalked him for three years!" she confesses. "I tried to find him and finally at six o'clock one morning, somebody emailed me with his mobile number. So I called him at six in the morning while I was still in bed and said, 'Hi, my name is Jaci Velasquez and I'm a big fan of yours. I'm a singer and I want you to produce my record.'" Terefe was less than impressed since he'd never heard of her. She remembers, "I gave him my website address so he could see that I was the real deal and not some psycho calling him! He called me back but my label wouldn't pay for me to go to London because they didn't really want him to work on my record. They'd never heard of anything he'd worked on and he didn't have a Christian following and wasn't a safe route! So I spent the money. I bought my own flight, I booked my own hotel and I came out here for two weeks and wrote with him."
During that fortnight she met Michael Clarke from Clarkesville and she wrote with him on a couple of songs. Clarke also duets with Jaci on the album on "Tonight". She remembers, "Martin Terefe is agnostic so it was funny listening to him talk about Clarkesville. He says, 'Well you're a Christian, you know Michael, his parents are missionaries!' I fell in love with their music. I fell in love with his voice. It is my second favourite song on the record, mostly because it's Michael Clarke and I think he's got a far better voice than I do!"
The album's got a different vibe to it because Jaci recorded it in London and because of the changes that have been happening in Jaci's life. Could it be that she's finally discovering her real voice? "It's not perfect," she responds. "You notice there are things that are not aligned, there are things that are a little out of tune; and that's Martin's big thing. He doesn't use Pro-Tools so it's very organic, very raw. That's what makes him pretty brilliant; everything's vintage."
And the label back at home, when they heard the tapes? Jaci laughs, "They were like, 'What in the heck do we do with this?!'" The label's reticence can be measured in the fact the release date has been put back twice. She says, "And of course now, they're talking about taking it to the mainstream side of America! So we'll see what actually happens and see how everything goes."
Jaci is happy about how her life is shaping up. She shares, "I would definitely have to say that I do feel more comfortable. I feel more enlightened. I understand things and see things in a different way than I ever did. I love where I am musically, I love where I am spiritually. There's always room for growth of course but I love it, I'm happy."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.