Orkney-based singer/songwriter MICHAEL HARCUS took time out to talk to Lins Honeyman about his life in music
Following a string of memorable performances at Perth's Revival Festival of Music in May alongside luminaries such as top Southern gospel outfit Legacy Five and Scottish worship pioneer Ian White, there is little doubt that Orkney-based singer/songwriter Michael Harcus is able to stand his ground in the world of Christian music. With his trademark genial charm and a fine line in country-tinged originals and old favourites, Michael has seen his music ministry grow from strength to strength with his latest release 'Hardship & Hope' - recorded both back home in Orkney and across the pond in Nashville - being an impressive eighth album since 1998.
Born into a farming family on the small Orkney island of Westray, Michael's involvement in music began when he joined his father and grandfather in the local male voice choir at the age of 13 which in turn led to membership of a number of local bands and leading worship at Westray Baptist Church in the early '90s. In 1998, Michael was encouraged to record a handful of self-penned songs culminating in the release of his debut album 'There Is' and his first tour of Scotland the following year.
Whilst maintaining his base on Westray, subsequent years have seen Michael continue to write, record and minister throughout the UK, Europe and America despite a lengthy and ultimately victorious battle with chronic fatigue. His aim of encouraging Christians in their faith and bringing the good news of Jesus to the lost has seen him perform in a variety of venues ranging from prisons and nursing homes to churches and festivals.
With travelling a major factor in his life these days, I fittingly catch up with Michael in the compact but comfortable setting of his family motor home - which happens to be parked off the scenic A9 just north of Perth en route home after holidaying in England with his wife Teenie. I start by asking Michael how it all began. "I was brought up with music," he confirms. "I was singing in the male voice choir when I was just a boy and some of the church music I was hearing was in the style of Southern gospel plus my uncles were really into rock music so I was brought up with that as well. As a result, I love quite a wide range of music which I think is helpful when you're writing songs. I don't tend to write in a particular style - it's what God gives me and however it comes out."
Despite being involved in music from an early age, it didn't immediately seem the obvious career path for Michael. "I started out as a farmer and farmed up until the year 2000," he advises. "I didn't mind that line of work but I had a sense that I wouldn't be doing it all my life. I had no reason to say that except for a feeling because, at the time, I had no sense of calling towards music - I'd written only about six songs by early 1998. By the time we had our third session in the studio for my first recording, we had another six songs - enough to make a complete album. It was like the treadmill of songs suddenly sped up and it went from being really slow to running pace."
Before long, Michael was invited to play in prisons the length and breadth of Scotland. "At first, I felt like a spectator," he admits. "I felt God was telling me to sit back and watch what he can do and what God did at these sessions just blew me away. The guys in there didn't come down with the last shower so you had to be genuine with them. They realised that I believed in God and that I wasn't there to have a go at them. That says more about God than what it says about me because I hardly understood anything about their lives but that didn't matter because God communicated with them through the Holy Spirit. I just had to be as honest as I could be and let God do what he needed to do through me with as little as I had to offer.
"There was one time when things got really hot at a prison event," Michael recalls. "There had been a drugs bust and the prison officers were expecting a riot and every time I talked about Jesus the inmates cursed and swore at me. I remember asking them to consider why the Prison Fellowship team came into prison during their spare time and explained that it was because they loved them. Well, their jaws literally dropped so I then went on to explain that I believed in a God that genuinely loved them and it pulled the rug completely from under their feet. I explained that God was putting down a hand to help them get out of the rut they were in but the question was whether or not they would reach up and take God's hand. What happened next was astounding - instead of jeering and cursing, they stood up and applauded. I nearly burst into tears - I didn't expect it at all. God was in control and he really moved in that prison that night."
Having cut his teeth playing in prisons, invitations to play in churches and festivals started to follow as well as a number of charity trips to countries such as Belarus. "It was in Belarus that I realised the Holy Spirit was an international language," states Michael. "There was a woman who couldn't speak a word of English who explained, through an interpreter, that the Holy Spirit spoke to her through the songs even though she didn't have a clue what words I was singing. That was incredibly encouraging and just shows how powerful God is."
In recent times, Michael went through a 22 month battle with a debilitating post-viral condition which led to chronic fatigue. "I learnt so much about being in a bad place of illness," he advises. "When I wrote 'A Place Called Brokenness' (a song from the new album 'Hardship & Hope'), my condition was really bad. Strength comes to those who wait but the 'how long is a piece of string' bit was the most difficult part. However, I learnt a lot of good things from being in a dark and difficult place."
Michael continues, "When I was unwell, it took quite a while before I was ready to let people minister to me but, every time someone prayed with me, God did something - not always physically but there was always some form of release. This sounds really cold - I promise you it's not - but my heart doesn't always break nowadays when someone is going through a bad time. Maybe they're on a journey and the last thing they need is for me to leap in and try to get them out of it. If they trust the Lord, he's got a path for them and it might include going through what they're going through. Like the album title says, if you're going through hardship as a Christian, please don't forget to juxtaposition the hope. Eventually, the hope will rub away the hardship and what you're left with is a smaller looking hardship whilst the hope part looks bigger."
Michael admits that "A Place Called Brokenness" is a special song for him on account of his struggles with chronic fatigue. "I sing that song now and I can smile about what went on in the past because I came out the other side better for it."
Whilst some of the 'Hardship & Hope' album was recorded over in Nashville following the relocation of Michael's regular producer Phil Anderson from Orkney to the country music capital of the world, I suggest being cut off from the mainland must throw up some challenges when making music. "I've always lived in Westray and, whilst there are challenges, there are also benefits of being a musician based there," he points out. "Obviously, you're out on a limb from where things are happening elsewhere in Scotland but the spokes of the wheel are just as important as the hub of it, in my opinion. Living in a place like Westray is great for me because you can be just who you are when you're there. If you have been put on a pedestal by anyone because you play music, everybody back home knows what Michael Harcus is really like. Back home, I'm just Michael Harcus who happens to play a guitar and write songs.
"Orkney is full of great musicians who play a wide range of styles and things are refreshing because we've got different people playing with us," Michael adds. "I also love singing with my wife Teenie and Mairi Warren who join me on stage whenever it's possible. Mairi is a great pianist as well as a vocalist and, together with Teenie, she really adds a new dimension to the songs."
With his music ministry very much on the up, Michael is refreshingly realistic about the need to rely on God in everything he does. "If God pulls away his anointing and the songs dry up then, who knows, I'll be back farming," he admits. "I'm sure it would be a good place to be if God wants it that way because trying to do music without God's anointing just wouldn't work."
Thankfully, things seem far from drying up for Michael as he confirms what the immediate future holds for him musically. "The next tour looks as though it's going to be in Ireland - some of which I'll be doing solo and some with a guy called Colin Elliot from the Irish band Live Issue which is really exciting. Then, in October, we'll be over in Norway to do a weekend event that came out of playing at the Whitby Gospel Convention and there is the possibility of doing more stuff in America next February. I've got about 11 songs so far for the new album so God's still giving me songs, which is great."
With a couple of hundred miles still to clock up in their motor home on their long trek home, Michael sums up by recalling his early days playing in prisons. "I remember one of the first times I played at a prison and there was one guy at the back who sat with his arms folded with a look that said 'you're not going to get through to me, mate'. It was quite intimidating and every time I looked at him he just stared back at me. Very soon though, he had tears running down his face - not because of Michael Harcus but because God was moving in that place that night."
He adds in closing, "I do well to remind myself that, every time I get up to play and no matter who is sitting in front of me and no matter how hard the person's heart is, God is great at disarming people and can even use little old me to do his work."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.