Tony Cummings met up with Michigan-based singer/songwriter JEAN WATSON
One of the most unexpected visitors to the UK in recent times was a Michigan-based singer and violinist called Jean Watson. Her exceptionally beautiful album 'Unveiled', recorded with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, even picked up an award from fledgling UK organisation New Christian Music Alliance. Jean is a lady with an extraordinary tale of faith overcoming adversity. She came to the Cross Rhythms office to tell me her story. Jean's background was strongly musical. "I was born in Pennsylvania in the United States - about an hour north west of Philadelphia, in Reading, Pennsylvania - the sister city of Reading, England. I grew up in a musical family and was trained as quite a young woman as a violinist. I started playing the violin when I was seven and I ended up pursuing violin as my career and got a Master's degree in violin performance. I think I wanted to be a soloist but I didn't have that level of talent. To be a soloist you have to be the best of the best and I sort of struggled a little bit. I was very good on the violin but in the performing world you have to be not just good you have to be the best. I also did not have that kind of competitive nature that you have to have to succeed in the classical world. So I played in orchestras for a while and then I got married and had children and my life took a different turn and I actually didn't play music for quite a while. There was a 20-year period where I pretty much laid it down completely."
Although a Christian, a number of poor choices ended with her struggling to make any sense of her life. "I found myself with four children, about 40 years old, divorced and struggling to feed my kids. I became very, very clinically depressed and in a hopeless state that I never thought I'd find myself in. I think I knew intellectually that God could help but I don't know that I believed that in my heart. It was just such a state of hopelessness that I reached a point where I wasn't even able to properly take care of the children. You just have the sense of hopelessness. You can't go back and change the past and you don't know how to go forward to the future. So you stagnate. You sit there and you just don't know what to do. And at that point, at my lowest point, I remember just lying on the bed and crying out to God the words of David in Psalm 116: 'God, save me, help me because I can't help myself. I can't even do one per cent. If you are God, you are going to have to do 100 per cent.'"
Jean's crisis, in the year 2000 in Michigan, was met with an immediate answer to her cry for help. The phone rang and a stranger was asking, "Is this the Jean Watson who plays the violin?" Remembered Jean, "The man said he was Barry Ross and he'd been in a restaurant the night before and someone was talking about me. He was the concert master of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. I had just moved to Kalamazoo that year. And he says, 'I'd like to hear you play. Can you come play for me in three days?' I hadn't touched the violin in years. But I said okay. I got out my violin and started practising. I went to play for him and he told me later, 'Here's this woman that walks into my studio and plays the violin and she's absolutely on the floor and has no idea how talented she is.' And so I began to play in the orchestra again. That was the beginning of a resurrection experience. More significantly though, shortly after that a friend came to me and said that she missed hearing me sing and would I sing some songs on a tape for her for a Christmas present. So I did that."
The demo session which produced the tape for friends and family had an unexpected outcome. One day, as her landlord was setting up her Christmas tree, Jean was playing the tape. Remembered Jean, "He stopped what he was doing and sat down on the couch, listening, and he started to cry. He said, 'Is that you singing?' And I said, 'Yes, that's me.' And he said, 'Jean, that's what you're supposed to be doing with your life. What are you doing? You're sitting here, laying around depressed and God's given you this amazing gift and you're not using it.' And he said, 'I want you to take your rent money and give it to the recording studio and keep recording.' So with the money that he gave me, I was able to record my first CD 'Aireborne'. That was in 2003. After the CD came out I began to receive invitations to come and sing and speak in churches. And even though I was not healed at that point, I was still in a state of depression, the Lord was answering my prayer. Suddenly there was a reason to wake up the next morning because I had something to do. And the most amazing thing happened: people began to be healed through my brokenness. And even though I wasn't fully healed, people were responding to my words and my music and receiving their own healing." Jean began to do more and more church engagements. As she said, "I had my violin, some backing tracks and a keyboard. Just a little one-woman show."
In 2004 the Lord opened a way for Jean to make her second album, 'Christmas Presence'. "It was a wonderful, wonderful answer to prayer. I thought I'd love to record some Christmas music but of course I didn't have any money. I'm still the single mother with four children, struggling just to get food on the table. So I was stirring the stew one night for supper and I thought, 'Lord, if you want me to make a Christmas CD then bring me money.' I didn't think another thing about it. The next morning at 8.30 there's a knock at my door. My first thought was who in their right mind is knocking on my door this early in the morning? So I went downstairs, still in my pyjamas. There at the door were two friends standing there with a cheque. They said, 'Here's some money. The Lord told us to give you some money and we'd heard you want to make a Christmas CD.' So just that quickly the money was there. The Christmas CD was done, just locally. It's kind of acoustic and simple but I think it's still my favourite of all the CDs I've made."
Jean's next recording was to be a bigger, a much bigger, production. Explained Jean, "My dreams and my level of faith were growing. If God can do this then maybe he can do something bigger and I saw the Scripture that said that God can do exceedingly, abundantly beyond what we can ask or imagine so again, I'm that kind of a person, daring God to take me to the next level. So I remember praying that prayer. I thought, you know, I'm going to pray to the end of my imagination because God's beyond that. So what's the biggest thing I can imagine? Well, I'm gonna pray for the best musicians in the whole wide world and a world-class producer, preferably Irish, 'cos I'd really like to have an Irish producer, and a full orchestra, Lord I'd really like to have an orchestra. So I prayed that prayer. I decided to just go for the best. I thought who would be really great with my music because I've got a classical flavour I want to preserve, so who knows classical music and pop? And the first person that came to my mind was Keith Getty, the Irish hymn writer. So I went on the internet, found his website and contacted him. Next day I received a response, not from Keith but from Joni McCabe who's his production co-ordinator, saying, 'Jean, I'd be very happy to help you. What would you like us to do for you?' And I thought who are they talking to? Me? Do they know how small I am? Do they know that I'm just this little person over here and that I've never done anything of that scale or that scope? So I was in church around that time period and I asked the Lord - trying to make this coherent here - there was an opportunity where we were supposed to pray for whatever we wanted to and I said, 'Lord, what should I pray for?' And he said, 'Pray for about 20 to 25 thousand dollars.' So I thought okay, I'll pray for that. So the conversation I had with Joni, I asked what's the price tag for this? Oh, about 20,000 dollars. So what a surprise! So we had that conversation February 7th 2005. And this is amazing, February 7th 2006 - 365 days later, I had 20,000 dollars cash in my bank account. To the nose and 365 days. God is a God of perfection. He's not the God of 364, or 366. He has to get it right on the nose. So here I am, I've got all this money and I called Joni and said, 'We're ready to go.' I'd been given the money and it came through grants. I applied for an Arts Council grant - secular, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I told them about my mission and I made very clear it was a Christian project but I said this is about healing people physically, emotionally and spiritually and it's based in my faith and I'm not going to hide that. But my mission and my goal is to share the healing love of Jesus Christ with the world through my music and my story and they said, 'You know what? We're going to back that and gave you a grant.' And I also got money from private funding from CD sales and on that day, the 365th day, it was there. So we made the project with strings from the City of Prague Philharmonic. It was just international in scope. It was amazing."
The resulting album 'Unveiled' impressed all who heard it. The Cross Rhythms reviewer described it as "This album from a Michigan-based singer, songwriter and instrumentalist brings together a selection of her own compositions, traditional folk hymns and sacred music in an easy listening meets classical styled package. There's no doubting Watson's skills as a performer. Jean's clear, strong voice betrays her classical training without ever becoming so ornamented that it sits awkwardly in the modern arrangements. Her own compositions are gently meditative and delve into the mysteries of faith. "Mystery Unveiled" considers the miracle of the incarnation, "Purple And Red" the depths of the Father's love for his children while "Mother's Day" is dedicated to mothers who have known the loss of a child. The hymns are handled with similar delicacy - even school assembly favourite "Lord Of The Dance" has Celtic-tinged new life breathed into it. If your tastes run to gently inspirational worshipful music with an orchestral feel then 'Unveiled' will add welcome textures to your CD collection."
Now plans are well under way for a new recording. "I'm looking to do something stripped down this time, a little bit more close to what I actually do in the churches, a little bit more accessible. I don't feel like I need a big production this time. I really want to go simple and more acoustic." But whatever future recordings she makes, Jean is determined to take every opportunity to minister the Gospel. Jean has a simple yet effective way to get engagements. "I sing at one church service, the Holy Spirit shows up, people are touched, their lives are changed. Then they go home and tell their friends about it and I get an invitation to go to another church and the same thing happens. The most amazing thing is all I have to do is show up and sing and play my violin and do my thing and the Lord does the rest. Really, I am just a vessel, a vehicle. I am very much aware that it isn't me doing anything. I'm just making myself available."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.