Mike Rimmer spoke at length to those R&B gospel divas Erica and Tina Campbell, aka MARY MARY.
It's April 2005. I am looking out of a window at the famous Nashville skyline. Although I have visited this city many times before I still don't know the name of some of these buildings but there's one I always call The Batman Building because it looks like it's been shipped here from Gotham City. The view doesn't hold my attention because I am listening to the pre-release of the new Mary Mary CD. I am excited because it's time to meet my best friends Mary Mary. This is a joke. When Mary Mary hit big in 2000 with "Shackles", they suddenly discovered that everybody was suddenly their best friends. Now the mainstream success has died down a little, they're releasing their third album and it seems a funny time to give an album an eponymous title.
Erica and Tina Campbell bounce into the room all smiles and loud noise and after hugs sit themselves down in the window waiting for me to fire questions at them. So, not unreasonably, I wonder out loud about the self-titled thing. Tina responds immediately, "Because sometimes when you first come out you don't really know who you are as artists or musically. You haven't really found your niche. I think this time around we are so comfortable being Mary Mary, we're so comfortable doing what works for us, we're so comfortable with the ministry that God has given us - just the way he has given it to us. I think musically on this record you get a more well rounded view of what makes us up musically and spiritually. So that's why!"
So there! I have learnt over the course of many interviews that it's futile to argue with Mary Mary. Erica describes Mary Mary saying, "We're God's girls. Chosen and gifted to do what he wants us to do, the way he wants us to do it. Sometimes you can't always grasp that concept. You're chasing what you think other people want you to do. You're allowing them to influence you to the point where you're not being yourself. To me it's almost like a slap in God's face. Like, 'I gotta be like somebody else to be good,' or 'I have to be political to be correct.' You know, you just do what God gives you to do the way he gives it to you."
They're definitely in a buoyant mood! Tina joins in, "To me, when your relationship with God is a little more intact and you're just confident about who God has made you to be, you're able to do freely what you do."
These girls are more confident now than they were when I first met them as "Shackles" was becoming a hit. Tina explains, "Because confidence doesn't come with necessarily a hit, or with success. Sometimes you're doing all these things on the outside and on the inside you don't really know who you are. You don't really know what you have. You're really unsure of yourself." Erica adds, "Think of the people who sell millions of records and then kill themselves. Or the people who travel the world and make loads and loads of money and then they're depressed or are on drugs to alter their current state because they're not happy! We are so content and happy with who and how we are."
This is good news. After the success of their debut album, nobody got as excited about the follow up, 'Incredible'. They now admit that perhaps in the past some of the things they have done have been a little contrived and perhaps they were trying too hard. 'Incredible' seemed to suffer from record label indifference and there wasn't as much of a buzz about the release. Tina remembers, "We didn't go to any of the places that we went the first time around to promote it. So nobody knew it was out. But you know, if that's what God allowed to happen?" She sighs, "Ah well!" Erica interjects, "We're not mad at it."
The album still went gold in America and Tina points out, "That's still a feat in gospel. That's still definitely a testament to God's greatness in gospel/soul. Lives were still changed. We still sing that music and I know that people have been blessed by it."
The new album certainly sees the duo stretching out and trying some new things. Producer Warryn Campbell, who is also Erica's husband, came up with the idea of doing a big band number. "The Biggest Greatest Thing" sees the girls coming on more like the Andrews Sisters than the Campbell sisters! They were nervous comparing themselves to the greats like Ella Fitzgerald but Erica admits, "It came out quite well in the end and you gotta challenge yourself! You can't always do what's comfortable for you to do. Not that you want to go so far out of what the world knows of you that you're just completely different; all of a sudden, Mary Mary was the soulful group and now they're rockers or something like that. Do a little bit. Do one rock song before you just flip it! So I think with the big band, we didn't just completely go somewhere different on the whole record but we tried a few things out. I think that people will be pleasantly surprised because it really turned out well."
Spiritually their new album finds the two women more confident than before. The bold opening track "Believer" is an uncompromising track testifying to God protecting them. Erica explains, "The first verse is about when we were kids and we had a fire at Christmas time. Where the fire was, was right in front of my mom's room and my four little sisters' room. Had we stayed there, there's no way they could have crossed that path because we had bars on the doors of the house. But for some reason my mom said, 'Something's not right. Let's go. We're gonna stay at your aunt's house tonight.' When we got there we got a call at about three o'clock in the morning saying that the house was on fire."
Tina jumps in, "My verse talks about me having an accident about eight years ago. My car flipped up in the air and I remember it all. I was just shouting, 'JESUS!' I mean, what else could you say?! I ended up upside down. And my car just got totally destroyed. The roof caved in, all the windows busted out. No glass on me, no scratches, no scars.nothing! No pains, no whiplash, I had none of that! Days later and weeks later? Nothing! But the car was totalled. I'm facing traffic but guess what? I ended in the island. My car flipped up in the air and ended up on the island, not in the traffic. C'mon! That's nothin' but God's greatness! Now you ask me why I believe? That's why. Because he saved my life! I think that when we try to perform that song live, I'm not going to make it through it because I'll start thinking about it. Like, wow! I should have been dead, hurt, something should have broke or something!"
She's getting excited. I'm half expecting her to leap out of her seat and do an altar call! But it goes to show how Mary Mary don't just talk it, they live it. Tina shares, "We're able to talk about things like this on the record. I think each song is a testament to God's greatness in a different way. Each song fits its own slot. One is worshipping God and talking about how great he is. The other one is saying, 'His words are so powerful, listen to them!' Another is saying, 'He saved me!' Another is saying, 'This is why I believe!' Another is saying, 'He's the biggest, greatest thing.' So I think the record is very well rounded. I think it's a great representation of us musically and it covers every area. It's crazy. We really believe in this record. We really love it. We really know that we asked God to give us what he wanted us to have."
Since the last album, the sisters have both married and started families. Perhaps their new found confidence is as much to do with feeling settled? Tina responds, "I think with life you grow. Everybody grows. Well everybody should grow! Everybody should learn from the lessons that you face in life. I feel like we've grown as women, as ministers. You meet so many people and you hear their stories and they encourage you, and you learn things from that. Other people share their woes and their cries. I have a core group of friends and we talk so much."
The way that the two members of Mary Mary have seen their lives mirror each other, they could be twins. They joke that their family thinks they are twins even they were born two years apart! Both of them married men named Campbell, who weren't brothers. And now they both have their first children who were both born in September, a year apart. Tina laughs, "We say the same things, we finish each other's statements, or we'll answer at the same time in the same tone saying the same thing. It's crazy! And you know, Erica wants to be like me!"
This last comment brings a howl of protest from Erica. "But I was born first!" There's a moment where I can imagine how these girls must have carried on when they were younger. Tina continues to joke, "She likes what she sees in me, you know?" She teases her sister, "That's why I have to tell her, you have to appreciate what God gave you Erica because you can't be me." They dissolve into laughter.
There's no doubt that the girls are glad to be back with their new album but they've also enjoyed the time away from the limelight. They've enjoyed having the time to relax with their husbands, see movies and hang with the rest of their family. How will having young children affect their work routine? "We're a lot sleepier," laughs Erica. "I was reading about the Dixie Chicks and they have seven kids under four between the three of them. And they're all on tour! Them, the kids and everything! So we can do it with one each, if they can do it with that many! My mother juggled with nine kids. Being the choir director, working, all of that! Her and my dad. If they could handle it, we can surely handle it with one."
The diversity of the album makes it something special. From the big band of "Biggest Greatest Thing" to the floor filling "The Real Party" and the old style gospel of the ministry song "Yesterday", there's something for everyone. "I hope that this album changes lives," muses Tina. "That's what I hope more than anything else because we get so distracted by whether it wins awards or how many times it's spinning on the radio. What I want to know is, whose life has been changed? That is the most important thing. Because if the whole world hears it and nobody can hear Jesus, then it is all for nothing! It's absolutely for nothing."
Erica adds, "Ultimately it's going to do what God wants it to do. So if our aim is that our record does what God wants it to do, then it's less likely that we'll be in the way promoting our own agenda. And that's what we don't want to do this time."
Talking to them, they have a keen sense of starting again. Tina comments, "We hear all the time, 'What about 'Shackles'? What about 'Shackles'?' Shackles' was great. 'Shackles' opened up a bunch of doors for us and I'm grateful for that. But you can never do your beginning again." Erica chips in, "We made that record already. Can't make it again." Tina continues, "It's always our beginning. That's what it will always be. I'm grateful for it. It introduced us to a lot of people. But from now, we'll grow on and move on and do newer songs and other songs. And hopefully we'll make more songs that impact people in such a wonderful way that they won't try to get us to re-do what we've done. We're not mad at 'Shackles'. We're not mad at that song at all or the doors that it opened, but you cannot re-do what you've done. God is not in the past. God is today, right now. He's doing big, wonderful, great things every day and we don't want to be too far behind that. We tryin' to keep up with the Lord! He's great every day! He's doing new things in our lives and I think that's what we should be trying to do, as opposed to living in the past."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.