The critically acclaimed singer from Jackson, Florida, LISA McCLENDON is a critic's favourite. Tony Cummings reports.
She reckons she's classic soul not neo-soul. But either way Lisa McClendon is a singer EVERYONE seems to rate. Her stunning vocal technique - one part India.Arie, one part Jill Scott and one part pure originality - has won Lisa a bevy of fans while her last album 'Live From The House Of Blues' shows this exceptional song stylist can deliver in front of a clubland audience as well as in a recording studio. Lisa spoke recently about how her live album came about. "Raymond Allmon wanted to record at The House Of Blues and it just made sense to record in New Orleans because my band and my background singers were all from New Orleans. Instead of bringing everyone to me, it just made sense for me to come to them. And it turned out perfectly. It was wonderful for those people who weren't necessarily comfortable coming to church; it truly gave me the opportunity to minister to those who might not ever make it there. For those people, the seed was planted. And it's up to God to help make it grow. Doing a live recording is really a challenge. You have to make sure that everyone, including the band, catches the vision. And they did catch the vision. Sometimes, I think they may have caught it better than me! I was pregnant at the time. But we were all on one accord. As far as the sound, it's similar to what I've done in the past, but it's got an Al Green sound. It's amazing how God blessed the album. The message is clear, but the music is soulful."
Lisa told U magazine how she got her start in music. "I have the typical church story: raised in church, daddy was a pastor, participated in children's choir. The interesting part is this: our church choir had to sing at another church and no one showed up to go except three people. I don't know where this crazy boldness came from, but I nudged my mom and said I would sing a solo. She looked at me and said, 'Are you going to sing for real? You better not freeze up!' She called the choir director over and told him that if the choir didn't show, I would sing. I was 12 and I remember closing my eyes. I had this death grip on the mic because I was so scared. When I finished the song, I opened my eyes and everybody was sitting there with their mouths open going, 'We didn't know this girl could sing!' All the while, I felt like I was going to pass out."
Having established her vocal abilities Lisa was soon enrolling in a national Star Search contest. "Everybody kept encouraging me to go on Star Search, so I did. It was a gospel music version in Palatka, Florida and I won that and went on to the finals and finished as a runner up. I was about 13."
When she graduated from college Lisa travelled around the South Eastern US playing gigs with music and dance street ministry 3NI. She looks back on the experience with something less than enthusiasm. "It's hard to work with other women! It was drama. Everyone wanted to be the leader. I realised that I didn't want to deal with groups if I ever wanted to sing at this level. I did acquire a great work ethic though, we practised all the time! Before I moved to Jacksonville I was living in Orlando and singing with 3NI. I moved to Jacksonville after I married my husband and we tried the distance thing (with the group) but it wasn't working out. After we got to Jacksonville my husband took my song book to the producer Maurice Henderson at the Potter's House, where we go to church, and I started writing for his artists."
Maurice Henderson is a gifted producer who has worked with such acts as Verbs and Out Of Eden. He also ran an independent record label Shadrach Entertainment. After awhile Henderson announced that he wanted to record an album with his gifted songwriter. The resulting project, 2002's 'My Diary, Your Life' reaped lavish praise from the critics. Gospelflava.com enthused, "'My Diary, Your Life' is a glorious 19 tracks that McClendon uses to paint intimate portraits of her faith, using her extensive palette of vocal colors and supported by organic instrumental textures that emphasise the roots nature of her alto pipes."
It didn't take too long before her impressive debut brought Lisa's prodigious vocal talents to the attention of Christian music biz movers and shakers. Lisa explained, "I had a publicist who took my first CD to Jackie Patillo of Integrity and Jackie was looking for a girl who was a new-soul/urban artist. My publicist said, 'I've got a perfect girl!' She gave her my CD and they flew me in. I parted with my old label on a happy note around November 2002."
Her debut for Integrity Gospel was the critically acclaimed 'Soul Music' (2003). Enthused journalist Lizza Connor, "'Soul Music' is the 27 year old's smooth offering of singer/songwriter neo-soul. In her rich alto McClendon relays personal insights on life, from motherhood to spirituality. While the blend of funk, pop, jazz and blues places this Jacksonville, Florida praise and worship leader into a musical category akin to India.Arie and Stevie Wonder, McClendon's lyrics reveal that she is also a poet and thinker who ponders the mysteries of life and God."
'Soul Music' picked up Stellar and Dove Award nominations. But Lisa said she never set out with a deliberate intention to bring a neo-soul vibe to gospel music. She said, "I'm not really sure how that happened. It's just an expression of me. 'Soul Music' was more classic soul than neo-soul. I truly like classic soul like James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin; that's soul to me. So after the first project, we went for a more classic sound and that's how I classify myself - classic soul. I don't want to be a trendy artist. When it's classic, it will be around for years. Jazz and gospel are definitely strong influences in my sound. Ella Fitzgerald was a strong influence on me. As far as gospel music goes, we grew up on Commissioned and The Winans. Also, when I was growing up, we listened to a lot of quartet music like Willie Neal Johnson & The Gospel Keynotes and The Soul Stirrers."
Many of these influences can be heard on Lisa's 'Live From The House Of Blues'. One of the outstanding tracks on the album is "Move On Over". Said Lisa, "The groove of the song was definitely a New Orleans inspiration. When I started writing it, I really felt like, 'You may not do what I do and you may even do it better than I do it, but I do what I do for God.' I believe people are hindered or they allowed themselves to be hindered and they don't do what they need to do to get their breakthrough. They are afraid about how other people will receive it or perceive it. They're afraid of what other people might say. We have to get to the point where it doesn't matter what people say. We need to do whatever it takes and do what we need to do.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.