Mark Edwards: A hugely experienced producer offers his 'Hymns To Grace'

Friday 14th November 2008

Tony Cummings quizzed keyboards maestro MARK EDWARDS about his passion for music and passion for worship

Mark Edwards
Mark Edwards

Kingsway Music's release of the album 'Hymn To Grace' by Mark Edwards was in many ways a new benchmark for instrumental worship albums. For though many Christian bookshop marketed instrumental albums have been little more than elevator music style renditions of hymns and worship songs, with Mark Edwards at the piano there was a flair, sensitivity and deft musicianship which made 'Hymn To Grace' possibly the outstanding instrumental album of 2008. The East Sussex-based musician spoke to Cross Rhythms about the 'Hymn To Grace' project. "It came out of a prayer time. I felt I wanted to say thank you to God for all the blessing I have received through being involved in music. Kind of an offering. I wanted to say, 'Well, it's all from you Lord, it's all about you, here I am playing the piano for you, and I love it and I love you; thank you so much!' A few people really encouraged me around the same time too, without me mentioning it. I rang Steve Docherty at Kingsway about it and he just said yes, go for it straight away."

The material selected for 'Hymn To Grace' came from a wide variety of sources, both ancient ("Abide With Me" and "Great Is Thy Faithfulness") through to modern (Tim Hughes' "Here I Am To Worship" and Ishmael's "Father God"). Explained Mark, "They are all songs that have meant something special to me for various reasons. I didn't write any new songs but composed some new sections here and there. I basically locked myself in the studio for a week on my own and played piano. I just tried to worship and the arrangements came out of that. On a couple of days I struggled, but thankfully on the whole I had a great week. There were some real moments of joy and reflection which was what I wanted to capture."

Having laid down his beautiful piano tracks Mark then began to ask guest musicians for their contributions. Commented Mark, "I am so happy to have had some truly great musicians agree to contribute. Some old friends like Ben Castle who is just a genius, some new like Jose Joyette, a fantastic drummer and lovely guy and who I met recently on a trip to Moscow. Lou Fellingham did the only two vocals on the album; she is a special lady! Now that the album is out I hope that it will be an aid in people meeting with God, that is always the highest aspiration for a worship record. Also it would be nice to think it could be uplifting or relaxing in places. A while ago I went through a period of listening to Gregorian chant. I just wanted something simple to wash over me, a kind of break from all things modern. I found it a good way to calm the mind and start praying. It would be nice if some of the tracks could be used in that way."

Since the mid-'90s Mark has established himself as one of the most widely used musicians and record producers on the British Christian music scene as well as finding time to record with such mainstream figures as Carleen Anderson and Beth Rowley and gig with such figures as Chris Rea, Aztec Camera and Incognito. Clearly, the telling of Mark's story is long overdue so Cross Rhythms asked this multi-talented musician to fill in some biographic gaps. "I was born in 1965 in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. There was a piano in the house, my dad played.
I can't remember a time when I didn't. I started at the age of three. At five my parents sent me to my first piano teacher. Also, around that time a visitor to our home taught me a 12 bar blues and I started improvising. I have no idea who they were but I am eternally grateful. For the next 15 years I spent every available moment at that piano experimenting."

Mark is full of praise for the three piano teachers he had between the ages of five and 21. "When I look back now I realize how much they invested in me in time and energy. During my teens I studied with a composer called Anthony Smith Masters who really opened me up to contemporary classical music, though some of it sounded very odd at the time! He used some innovative teaching methods, took me to loads of concerts and a few recording sessions of his own work. Other than that I just played and played; I think 90 per cent of it you have to do yourself! A good teacher can give you enough information in an hour to inspire your practise for months and even years. I also listened to a really wide variety of music from jazz and classical to pop, soul, punk. . .anything. I don't understand the concept 'what sort of music do you like.' It's like 'what's your favourite colour?'. . . All of them!"

Mark performed in public locally throughout his childhood and teenage years and began playing on the jazz scene first locally and then nationally from the age of 17. He remembered, "When I was about 20 I did my first tour, it was with the Style Council. I toured on and off throughout the '90s with various bands all over the place, America, Japan, Europe, etc." As well as touring, Mark well and truly caught the recording bug. "I had loved being in the studio from my first experiences as a teenager. In my early 20s I was in a band called Cactus Rain, we signed to Virgin and spent nearly a year in the studio making our first and only album. A guy called E C Radcliffe helped us produce it. He was a genius, lazer physicist turned producer, who worked on a lot of early techno; Yazoo, Depeche Mode, Erasure, etc. (He only ever wore a grey track suit as long as I knew him as he felt too much time was wasted thinking about clothes. Very '80s.) Spending that year in his studio was a massive learning curve and really put in my mind the idea of being a producer. We had some fantastic musicians on that album; B J Cole, Bobby Valentino and the Reggae Philharmonic (who did the strings on Soul To Soul's club classics). William Orbit remixed our first single. I loved the whole experience of arranging and putting musicians and ideas together."

Mark with Stuart Townend
Mark with Stuart Townend

Mark became a Christian through the transformation he observed in his cousin Suzi. He explained, "Around 1989 she had a Damascus type experience. She had not been brought up in church, no one witnessed to her. God came to her in a light and an audible voice. It is still one of the most dramatic conversion stories I have heard. I went along to her baptism at Kensington Temple and it was that experience and the amazing transformation I saw in her that set me on the path home."

In 1994 Mark produced his first album, 'Live In Kemptown' by Sister Brothers, a radical team who were briefly Greenbelt favourites. Mark remembered the album sessions very well. "We played five nights at an old church in Brighton which had been converted into a studio. It had a magical atmosphere. I had been writing and performing with Kate (Simmonds) for a few years and we decided, with the help of Jamie Gosney, to make a live album over a week. We made a rule that we only sold tickets to church members if they brought friends who weren't church members. The Sister Brothers was never about playing to just church audiences.
It was a great band and a brilliant week."

Also in 1994 Mark produced an album for CCM veteran (and today a Premier Radio broadcaster) John Pantry. Over the next 14 years Mark went on to produce close to 30 albums for a head-spinning variety of artists, both Christian and secular. We asked Mark to comment on a few of them.

"I loved doing the 'Songs Of Dave Bilbrough: Let There Be Love' various artists album (1999). There were so many great people who played and sang on it. Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera) did a guitar solo for me. Herbie Flowers played tuba in my front room, Phil Keaggy and Sheila Walsh did sessions in the States. It was great working with Vanessa Freeman who is just awesome and should be a huge star. I remember a young Jon Bilbrough layering 10 tracks of singing in tongues! Everyone was just so up for paying tribute to Dave who is a lovely man. Les Moir at Kingsway gave me complete freedom to be as creative as I liked with re-working the songs."

Another great experience for Mark was producing Carleen Anderson's 'Soul Providence' (2005). Said Mark, "Carleen is the most dedicated singer I have ever met. I have known her to practise all night before coming into the studio to record vocals. She is an incredible inspiration and it has been a privilege to work with her over the last few years. We really took time on this album, demoed about 25 songs and picked the best. We really had great musicians. Favourite moments? Ben Castle put together an amazing horn section. One track took about seven minutes for them to do. Literally put the music up, run the tape and they were bang on first time. Sightread it, fantastic sound, absolutely tight, perfect intonation. Also, sitting behind the desk at Paul Weller's studio with him doing a vocal duet with Carleen and thinking, what am I doing here? He was really humble and gracious, kept saying 'You sure that's OK? Is that good enough?'"

Blue-eyed soul sister Beth Rowley is of course today a bone fide pop star with her album debut 'Little Dreamer' a major chart hit. What some fans may not remember is that before her fame Mark produced a couple of EPs for Beth. He explained, "I co-produced them with Ben Castle. She does an amazing version of the old blues 'Nobody's Fault But Mine' and the first verse is unaccompanied. Faultless pitch, great sound and emotion. When I first heard her singing in the studio I thought, this voice is going to become very well known! It's cool to see her doing so well."

Mark Edwards: A hugely experienced producer offers his 'Hymns To Grace'

Mark is not only adept at working with soulful voiced divas but also with children's ministry specialists like Doug Horley. So far Mark has produced three albums for Doug, 'Lovely Jubbly' (2005), 'Fandabidoze' (2006) and 'Flabbergasted' (2007), bringing club dance rhythms and rhythmic drive into a genre which in the past has sounded saccharine sweet. Commented Mark, "I really love working with Doug. Sometimes kids' albums are not of the best quality, which is a shame. I feel privileged to work on them because it's being part of building truth into young lives. I still remember Scripture songs I learned when I was five or six. Doug is really committed to excellence and relevance, he is a prolific writer and a real hard worker. He sees great fruit from his ministry. I'm always happy when I get the call from him - 'I'm doing a new album.' He's a good friend and we have loads of fun working together."

As well as Doug's projects, Mark has also had the opportunity to work on the New Wine 'Unleashed' albums. "These have also been good fun the last three years. ICC have given me a lot of creative freedom with these projects, and I have gotten to work with some brilliant vocalists. I played at New Wine this year and one night I sneaked over into the children's venue. It's fantastic to see hundreds of kids worshipping to one of your tracks."

Unlike the number of albums he's produced, Mark has long since ceased to be able to list all the recording sessions to which he's contributed his keyboard skills. He said modestly, "I must have played on a few hundred albums, it's been my job for 25 years. One which really stood out was the Aztec Camera album 'Frestonia'. We worked with Clive Langer who has produced some great albums (Morrisey,
Elvis Costello). He was amazing; he sat with us in rehearsal for two weeks before we went into the studio analyzing every part of each arrangement. I learned so much from working with him. Also last year I made an album with jazz veteran Bobby Wellins, one of the greatest saxophonists anywhere. The line up was a jazz quartet and string quartet. He walked into the studio, took his saxophone out and we had the first track done 10 minutes later, a stunning ballad which turned out to be my favourite tune on the album. A special moment."

With Colin Walker, Mark owns the Orange Room studio based in East Sussex. He has been married to Tracy for 20 years and has four children, Joseph, Isaac, Brydi and Annie. Mark spoke about Annie, "She has had quite a year; she spent six months dancing in the West End in a production called Into The Hoods. She brought the house down every show. I was incredibly proud, I must have seen the show 20 times and had tears in my eyes every time. Annie and her brother Isaac are world champion street dancers and have won loads of competitions."

Today Mark is as busy as ever. "Most of the time nowadays I am producing. I also do a lot of sessions for other people at my own studio because I've got all my old keyboards there. . .Hammond, Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer. These things are not that easy to take about! Apart from touring, most of the gigs I do are jazz gigs, something like 50 a year. And a few festivals. I am blessed to play in a couple of bands with some wonderful improvisers. Playing jazz can be an amazing transcendent experience. At its best, when the ideas are flowing, it's like riding a wave, a feeling of amazing freedom of expression. When the audience are with you it's like a fantastic party."

Mark is currently producing an album for a worship leader from Northern Ireland called Edwin Brown. Said Mark, "He's been over doing his vocals this week, and he's a great guy, it's his first album. I'm also doing an album for a jazz singer called Alyson Green which features some great players like Ben Castle and Troy Miller (drummer with Amy Winehouse, and a Christian.) I recently went to Greece and Turkey with Carleen Anderson. In December I'm touring in Ireland with Duke Special and in January we're making a new Stuart Townend album."

In view of his immensely busy schedule it's heartening to know that Mark retains a passionate desire to connect with God through worship. That is what 'Hymn To Grace' was all about. As he said, "It is such a gift, this rich and mysterious element in creation which we call music. Our creator has invested within it the power to heal, to calm, to uplift, to bring human beings together in unity, to touch and change a life, without the need of a single word. I believe it is a universal language of emotion and spirit. It has been a vital part of my daily life for as long as I can remember. Increasingly, over the past few years I have found playing music can be a way of expressing love and gratitude to our creator. That is what this music is about, a kind of 'giving back'; an offering to the Father who is so generous, patient and kind towards us. A hymn to grace." CR

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.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


Reader Comments

Posted by Manfred Jusaitis in Australia @ 13:27 on Oct 22 2012

I just attended the Stuart Townend concert in Adelaide, South Australia, and Mark Edwards was his keys player. I was blown away by Mark's rendition of Abide with me, and just had to get more of his jazz hymn renditions, so purchase both his recent albums. Fantastic!!! :)
Keep up the good work Mark!!

Posted by Michael Couling in South East @ 15:11 on Nov 24 2009

Hi, The last time I saw mark he was 18 and single !! how fantastic that there are now 5 new members of the Edwards family!
I and a few others are probably the very first musicians that Mark worked with and toured with, we were all about 10 years older....and unfortunately still are !
From the first time I ever saw and listened to Mark play I new there was something very special that would not go without discovery.
I went on to be a session player but not on the scale that Mark has acheived.
I am so happy that such a talent as Marks carried on to become and be so fantasticly involved with music and to be able to give so many people pleasure in his playing.....keep it up Mark..I wonder how good your memory is !!

Posted by Christine Dobson in West Sussex @ 13:26 on Nov 21 2008

Mark is my nephew and I love him dearly. I,ve followed his career from a small boy and there's no doubt about it ...he is a genious!He is also the best father in the world to his delightul children and I'm very proud to be his aunt!

Posted by Lesley Masters in crawley West Sussex @ 09:08 on Nov 21 2008

I am Marks sister and I would just like to say how incredibly proud I am of all that Mark has done in his life , he has a wonderfully supportive wife and 4 great kids , I would like to wish him well with his new album, lets all go and buy it and get a christian album in the top 20 of the charts, and who knows a nuber one slot !
God bless and keep on going, love lesley.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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