Following up their Grammy-winning, platinum-selling debut album, American divas MARY MARY return with a storming follow up. Mike Rimmer met the sisters in Nashville.
Recently, life has certainly been full of some weird stuff for Erica and Tina Atkins - otherwise known as Mary Mary. The success of "Shackles" has won them critical acclaim, huge record sales and fans in mainstream music. Suddenly everybody wants to work with them. The girls tell a witty story of meeting Elton John and discovering he's a fan. And of course, there are those Mary Mary fans who visit their church and sometimes stick a video camera in their faces during worship. Hmmmm... clearly this fame thing has its downside!
Erica explains, "We're happy that people notice us though. I would be sad if nobody ever said anything! That would really be a downside. So we're glad that they notice and that they listen. When you see people all the time on TV and in magazines and stuff like that, you just sort of feel this connection. You might not actually be connected but you feel that way, about certain entertainers or movie stars or singers. When we first saw Shirley Caesar at an airport right at the start of the Mary Mary thing, being from LA, we obviously like to keep our cool when we see people that we admire. But when we saw Shirley Caesar... we got up and we RAN over to her! It was like, 'Hiiiii!!! ' Just all excited. Of course we got embarrassed afterwards but we were so excited! So if someone does that to us, we have to understand that was the way we felt with Shirley Caesar because her music has meant a lot to us, And that is how our fans feel as well, it's the same thing. If our music is helping somebody or blessing somebody, they just feel a connection and they want to express that when they see you. So we cannot be mad at that. Even though it can get overwhelming sometimes."
The success of "Shackles" has made Mary Mary hot property when it comes to writing songs for others and guest appearances on gospel artists' albums. Kirk Franklin, Woody Rock, Michelle Williams and scores of others have been queuing up to work with the pair. Suddenly they are everybody's best friends! Tina shares that there is some truth in my joke, "That part is funny because you really are everybody's 'closest friend'. You might not even remember their name but you're their 'closest friend'!" She laughs, "You can't be mad at that because I look at people who I've enjoyed and they have this accessibility thing about them, so you think they're your best friend. Before I knew Kirk Franklin, I was like, 'See, that's ma boy! ' but I didn't know him!" She pauses. "I mean, he is ma boy now but ya know!" She laughs and Erica chips in, "Or like Shirley Caesar, Yolanda Adams... you meet these people, or you watch them and they just have this thing about them. Like Patti LaBelle for instance, she just seemed like the girlfriend down the street, the down-to-earth person, even with you not knowing her. I hear people going, 'Oh see, that's my best friend! ' I think that some people might feel that same way about us and you can't be mad at them for that. We do the same thing to people that we admire." I joke that on the radio I will be telling everybody in the UK that Mary Mary are my best friends from now on. Erica screams excitedly, "Oh yeah! And that's the way it is!" Tina adds loudly "Hey... Mike is ma boy y'all!!"
Sisters Erica and Tina are in a lively mood. They're excited about their new album, the modestly titled 'Incredible'. They're talking at the speed of sound and interrupting each other and joking around like a pair squabbling siblings. They're both married now. Tina shares, "My husband is Teddy Campbell from Chicago!" Then Erica chips in, "Mine is Warren Campbell from LA!" before Tina explains, "They happened to have the same name but they think they're real brothers now though... big time!" Erica laughs, "I mean like REAL brothers! They're stuck together now! Wherever we go, they're with each other. If I call Warren right now, he's probably with Teddy somewhere... eating, playing basketball!"
The girls reflect that their lives have always been intertwined. Tina shares, "We went through high school, puberty, the dating thing. All of it together. We're the only two in the family that are singing together. We always lived together when we moved from our mom's house and our birthdays are two days apart. I joke with Erica that when we get to have children, I want to have mine... all on my own! It's about the only thing I get to have to myself! Make sure you don't get pregnant around the same time! '"
I bravely step into the sisterly banter and point out that from a career point of view, it would be good to get pregnant at the same time, it means that professionally they could have a bit of a break! Tina jumps in, "Yeah! I mean, she needs to slow down, she's too anxious!" And Erica shoots back, "But you know what? I'm going on my two year marriage mark and I got a house I got to fill up!" She pauses. "I'm just kiddin'!" Tina can't resist commenting, "Actually, I'll probably be the first to have children, Erica will probably wait 'til she's about 57 before she starts havin' kids!" This is too much for Erica who shouts, "Nooo I won't!!" before she comes over all outraged, "Oooh... that is evil to say that!" None of this knocks Tina off her stride as she continues, "Yeah, she'll be about 61 before she has her first kid!" Another pause before she adds, "Naw, just kiddin'!" There is a lot of kidding between Erica and Tina. The two women's infectious personalities and zest for life communicate itself very strongly in the music that has taken them into the gospel music premier league. After the worldwide success of 'Thankful', many have been excited to hear the follow up. Album release dates were scheduled last year and then moved and moved again so that now 'Incredible' is over a year late. The girls explain the delay. Tina states simply, "We were making sure that it was right! We did a fresh draft. We wanted to make sure that we came back with a great follow up album. It took us a little while to get the right song, the right sound, just the right everything. I'm glad we waited."
While it is exciting for the duo to build on the success of "Shackles", following up a worldwide smash has its challenges. Erica shares, "There's definitely a little pressure but we realised that you cannot remake a hit, unless you do the exact same song over. So we weren't striving to do another "Shackles" or anything like that, we were just striving to do another incredible record. I think we did that and we called the album 'Incredible' and recorded a single 'In The Morning' that should be impacting radio soon. We don't think we took it a step down at all, we think we took it all a step up."
Tina tells the story of "In The Morning". "That's the first single," she explains, "and it's pretty much just letting people know that we all have dark days but the sun will shine again. Every day you wake up, it's a new opportunity to make the best of your day. So that's why it's called "In The Morning". It's very up-tempo, the song to us is very 'bright', if that makes sense to you! That's how it makes us feel and so we hope it affects the world in the same way. A lot of times in life you can have such a horrible day and it drags over into your night but in most cases, when you go to sleep on it and you wake up, either it's not as intense as it was the night before, or you've just moved on. So we put that idea in the song and in the Bible, in Psalm 30v5, it says, 'Weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning. ' It talks about how God's anger lasts only for a moment but his favour is for a lifetime. In the morning you will be alright because the Bible says so. So we put it in the song and we think it's gonna fly! It's gonna work, man!"
One of the inspirational elements of "Shackles" is clearly continued on the new single and album which is packed with an uplifting message. The duo are writing songs that everybody can relate to. Another outstanding album track, "Trouble Ain't", also carries that message. Tina explains, "I think we just want to show how incredible and awesome God is. The US has gone through a lot in the past year, they need to hear that it's going to be okay. They need to know that trouble won't last always. Sadness is a part of life and devastation is also a part of life. There's a line in the song that goes, 'You can't go through life problem free. ' If you never have problems, you wouldn't appreciate problem free days because there's no difference between the two. If you didn't have darkness, you wouldn't appreciate light the way you do. If you didn't have sadness, your happy would be a little less amazing. We have to have balance there, it's just a part of living. So with the issues that have been going on, a lot of the songs like "Trouble Ain't" and "God Bless" and "He's So Close" and things like that, are very befitting to the time right now."
Erica chips in, "We're really about motivating, encouraging and uplifting people. A lot of times people have preconceived ideas about what a Christian is supposed to be like, act like, dress like, sing like. We annihilate all that! All those preconceived ideas! From Tina's red hair, to the way we dress, to our funky music, we just represent something different. I think it's great, especially for young people to see, because they can open their eyes to somebody who is saying, 'Hey! I love God and it's cool! ', and they can see you on the cover of a magazine and they can see your videos being played on the same station that they're playing the Jennifer Lopes video. It's really good that we're doing what we do, in such a way that is uplifting and encouraging. That's just the Mary Mary thing."
The mention of Tina's red hair brings to mind the strength of the band's visual image. She confesses that her hair "keeps getting brighter and brighter and brighter!" With a straight face, I point out that I think there's a lack of integrity for people who colour their hair! This from a journalist with obviously bleached blonde hair! Quick as a flash, Tina shoots back, "And what colour is your hair then? You know what's crazy about it? When I first dyed my hair red, even though the actual shade of red might change every now and then, when the red thing first happened, I was like, 'Oh my goodness! I look like Ronald McDonald! This is not going to fly! I'm looking like a punk rocker here! I am so not with this! '. But it kind of grew on me and now, I would feel soooo boring without my red hair!" Erica ruminates, "People recognise Tina way faster than they recognise me!", and Tina continues, "And I think for what I do, it definitely works. If I was like the office exec, I don't know if the red hair would fly but it works and I think I wear it in good taste. I'm not all crazy, crazy wow kind of stuff." Erica is outraged, "Yes you are!" she shrieks before Tina gets petulant and laughs, "I am not, okay! What about some of the funky hairdos you wear my sista?!?" and the argument ends there.
The duo's fusion of pop success, R& B music and a Gospel message has inspired a lot of other artists to consider crossing over. The charts suddenly seem within reach even with a song that is uncompromisingly about Jesus. Already there are a number of new artists emerging behind the group eager for a chart placing. Erica responds, "That's a great feeling to know that people have paid attention to that and feel the same kind of confidence that we had to do this. It's a compliment when people come out and they have some elements of what we had going on. It's definitely a plus. But we want to say to a lot of other people that are out there, that are up-and-coming and have got music that's on the way out, it's important to make music that you feel can reach the world. Don't be so gung-ho on the idea 'I got to cross this over! ' that you forget what you're representing. Don't be, 'Oh it's kind of like R& B/ gospel! ' No! It's just gospel and it has to have something that attracts all these different listeners. That was our motive from the start, we weren't trying to be like, 'We want R& B people to think this is kind of like what they do. ' We didn't have that intention, we just wanted the world to 'get it'. We wanted them to be able to relate and that should be the focus. They can in a lot of places and if it has the right exposure, it will cross over."
For me the mainstream impact of "Shackles" in the UK is reminiscent of the classic "Oh Happy Day". A song with an obvious spiritual message but with a huge singalong chorus that seems to plant itself in the subconscious. Tina is pleased by the comparison, "That's cool, that song was BIG!" She continues, "You've Brought The Sunshine" did the same for the Clark Sisters as "Stomp" for Kirk Franklin and "Open My Heart" for the Staple Singers. So many other people have done this but I think maybe we're the first female duo in this era. So it's cool for people to say 'I want to do that too! ' because that's pretty much what we're all doing. We're all standing on each other's shoulders. We're standing on the shoulders of Kirk Franklin, Trin-i-tee 5 7, Yolanda, Fred Hammond, Shirley Caesar... all the greats. When we keep standing on each other's shoulders, God's message goes farther and farther and it reaches more hearts and more lives."
Having first met Mary Mary before "Shackles" hit and observed that even with their success the pair have remained grounded and Christ-focused, it is intriguing to hear many people waiting for the group to sell out and water down the message to record an R& B album of love songs. Tina passionately rebuffs the suggestion. "I am in love, I'm very much in love and I sang a song to my husband at our wedding, that I considered putting on the record but to me, it just really wouldn't make sense to be on there. There could come a time when we have a song that's a tribute to the love of our lives and that's not far removed at all from someone who is a Christian or gospel artist, you just have to keep things in perspective. We write love songs, I mean we're writers! We may write songs and other people might sing them but of course it's nothing that is contrary to what we believe and it's only pure love! But as gospel artists, that's who and what we are and that's all that we want to be. So you don't have to worry about us putting out an R& B record! We're not going down!"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.