Long acknowledged by industry insiders as one of the best singers in UK CCM, NANETTE WELMANS has finally delivered a classic album. Tony Cummings met the lady.
The release of the independent album 'It's Personal' by Nanette finally brings into the spotlight one of the most talented vocalists on the whole UK Christian music scene. For though industry insiders have long known of Nanette Welman's prestigious vocal talents, and down the years her classy part-pop, part-jazz, part-gospel vocals have graced numerous anonymous praise and worship recordings, albums in her own right have been thin on the ground. It's only now with the release of 'It's Personal' that the sheer sweep of Nanette's interpretative vocal powers is realised, thanks to a masterly production from husband Russ Courtenay which brings funky, urban sounds to Nanette's silkily soulful vocals. Nanette visited the Cross Rhythms HQ recently to film an interview for God TV so I grabbed the chance to quiz this long-admired chanteuse and learn her fascinating musical and spiritual history.
"I was born in East Africa in a place called Nakuru," Nanette began. "My mother brought the three of us, my sister, brother and myself, to England in 1965. Unfortunately our family had split up before that because my father had some problems. So it was quite difficult. There was a coup in Kenya and they were worried for the women and children with a British passport so they sent them to England."
Nanette's was a musical home - her mother had actually trained in opera - and even as a child Nanette was showing a precocious talent. "I remember one time when I was 11. My idol was Shirley Bassey and I used to get all the moves to 'Hey, Big Spender'. I used to practise in the toilet at the school in Bristol and the kids couldn't believe it wasn't Shirley singing because I had got it off pat. They couldn't believe it wasn't her on a tape or something. So they dragged me all the way round the school, put me on tables and said 'sing'. Up until then I had this really horrific lisp and I used to be picked on all the time. The day that I did the singing it all stopped. I was suddenly accepted and everyone just said, 'Yes, Nanette sings.' All the mickey taking and everything just stopped."
But it was acting rather than singing that filled Nanette with teenage dreams. "I actually wanted to be an actress and I studied drama and went for auditions for drama schools. But I didn't get in. But then I went for an audition for a dance band in Bristol and got it. So became a singer with The Christy Lee Big Band. Years ago they used to have live musicians playing all of the chart stuff in the clubs. It meant that every week I had to learn about 10 songs off by heart! Also, I had to learn all the backing vocals for the other singers so it was a fantastic grounding for a 17 year old."
As she toured British clubland with the big band the last thing that was on Nanette's mind was anything of a spiritual nature. She admits, "I wasn't interested or thinking about God or anything. I was quite paranoid about my image and I used to wear these hats and these gloves and these big, sequinned gowns because by then I was working at Ronnies (the famed jazz club) and image was really as important to me as the music. I remember coming home to visit mum and I had all my hat boxes and everything and I dumped them at the front door. I opened the door and I saw mum standing in the hallway and I just looked at her face and she was different. There was something radiant about her. I thought she had actually met someone, a guy. She said, 'No, I'm going to sit you down. Something's happened to me.' I thought oh my goodness this sounds really quite serious. She sat me down, held my hands really tight and said, 'I have found Jesus.' I thought oh no, I have lost my mum! But she then took me to these little meetings in peoples' homes because it was part of the house church movement. I couldn't believe it when I walked in. I had never experienced such warmth. He came up to me afterwards and said, 'You are criticising someone that you know nothing about.' And I said, 'No, no, I am criticising SOMETHING.' He said, 'No, this is about SOMEONE, this is about Jesus Christ.' It really hit me. I said, 'Really, I'm just here with my mum; I'm not really interested.' He said, 'Okay, I'll do you a deal. Here's a Bible and I just want you to read it.' I said, 'No, there's no way I can get through this.' He said, 'Okay, just read what's written in red. That's all you have to do and then you will meet this person.' So I had a quick flick through and thought there wasn't too much to read. But once I actually read what Jesus said and the parables I couldn't resist Jesus. I was so excited I drove all the way from London to Bristol for the Billy Graham Crusade in the early '80s. We were late and I saw people running forward. I just ran with them. I said, 'This is absolutely what I want.' I never ever had a doubt or looked back."
Nanette's conversion had an immediate affect in the way she thought about herself and her carefully groomed image. "I used to tuck all these clothes I was buying away in my car. Well, it was all stolen, all of it. I had to go on stage that night just in my day clothes and I really felt God speak to me and say basically what you have is inside of you. It isn't on the outside. The rest does not matter. It's what I have placed in your heart, your skill is a gift that I have given you so don't worry about all that other stuff. It changed me. It really changed the way I looked at life and other people; and my values changed. I realised how vain I was. It really helped me get a perspective on my life."
Another thing which quickly changed for Nanette were her relationships. "I was in my early 20s. I was living with a guy and I remember saying to the Lord, 'Get me out of this relationship.' The guy had a real hold over me and I couldn't really put my finger on it. Within three weeks I was away from that relationship and I was fine."
Nanette's entrance into the world of Christian music recording came about quite unexpectedly. She'd caught a train down to Minehead to sing a couple of songs at Spring Harvest. She remembered, "I went to the cash dispenser and put my card in and it rejected it. I felt God saying to me, 'You've got to trust me about all of this. I am going to change your direction and if you trust me and live by faith then your needs will be provided.' It was that afternoon that I was actually offered a deal by Kingsway to do a little album and there was a little financial help there just to help me out of the situation I was in. It was God providing it. God was saying, 'I have had to humble you for you to see Christian music is a calling, that you are actually called.'"
The resulting Nanette Welmans album 'Step On Out', produced at ICC by Les Moir, was released by Kingsway in 1986. It was Nanette's first experience of songwriting. She comments, "I had never done songwriting so that was my first experience, and I know I have had to grow and learn so much over the years about how it is a craft. It's something you have to work hard on."
In 1992 ICC released in the UK Nanette's second album 'Come Into My Life'. Nanette admits that it was a bit of a compromise. "I started a project in Poland because I was trying to help a studio in Visoir, down in the south in the mountains, and it ended up being the 'Come Into My Life' album. It was supposed to have been marketed in West Germany. It ended up being a bit of a compromise really because it was not really a gospel album, it was much more mainstream. I don't know, I just felt I hadn't really honoured what God really wanted me to do in that situation. I learnt so much from that, which is why on 'It's Personal' I was determined to absolutely honour the Lord."
Throughout the '90s Nanette recorded numerous sessions, mainly cheap and cheerful worship albums for the major Christian record companies. But then Nanette brought that to a halt. She explains, "I was privileged enough to do a lot of sessions. But, and it's a terrible thing to say, I was thinking more about the financial reward of doing a gospel session than any sense of ministry. The worries of just trying to meet the rent and the expenses were actually taking over. So I phoned the producers that I was working with and I said, 'I'm not going to do any gospel sessions any more because I really need to get my heart right and I need to sort this out.' So in 2000-2001 I made a complete break and went to university.
"I did a degree in music and I found that learning something about the craft I had known for all these years was really a humbling experience. You think you know so much but actually you know so little until you actually study it. And it's lovely the way that doing that course has opened the door to teaching. I now teach music to young people and I can pass down all the experience that I have had which I find extremely rewarding."
In 2000 Nanette was one of the featured vocalists on a series of concerts and a CD put together under the moniker Good News Good Music by a pioneering jazz enthusiast and arranger called Scott Willcox. Explains Nanette, "Scott has a real passion for jazz but also was trying to establish big band jazz as a platform for a user-friendly presentation of the Gospel message."
But it wasn't big band jazz which was to be Nanette's ultimate musical direction. Having relocated from London to Oxford in 2001 with her composer and record producer husband Russ Courtenay in 2001 it was a bout of serious illness which was to prove a catalyst in Nanette's musical life. She explains, "I was in hospital and I thought oh my goodness I haven't done anything of value for you Lord. I mean if I pop my clogs now, I haven't done anything which is really, really good. So I started thinking about doing an album that I could honestly say I would be proud to present to the Lord. That was my motivation."
On coming out of hospital Nanette and Russ began to painstakingly plan an album. They were in a good situation to record one, as Nanette explains. "Russ was very blessed with his songwriting. He got a song on Tina Turner's album which enabled us to get a fully equipped studio at home. I was recovering while we were recording it and some of it I could barely get the breath in my lungs. But I was so determined to get the singing out and to try and make it as good as possible. The whole thing was quite a struggle but an amazing struggle at the same time because I learnt so much and I obviously got very close to the Lord as well. So I valued that whole experience."
One of the striking things about 'It's Personal' is its sheer gospel soul power. Without seeing the cover many people would think Nanette was black. "A lot of people say that," admits Nanette. "My grandmother was black so I am actually from mixed race anyway. One of the songs on the album is called 'Jesus Love'. It was about a musical we have written called Rainbow Beach which is about racism in America in the '50s, in Chicago, where the 'sit-in protests' first began just before the start of the civil rights movement. Researching that was a very humbling experience because here we were going into somebody else's neighbourhood with our flash camera, etc, etc, and I came away thinking oh my goodness, who are we to comment on other peoples' lives? I had to really tread carefully in how I would write and complete the play."
Another striking song on 'It's Personal' is the title track. "It came from the idea that faith is so personal and the way things are changing now with political correctness, if you say you are a Christian, people almost think you have grown two heads! It's really difficult to just say 'I choose to be a disciple of Christ.' Why does that make me almost an enemy of liberalism? It's liberal politicians and liberal policies that I think are losing us the traditions and the things we held so dear. Like that big furore about them wanting to rename the Christmas tree and all that kind of stuff. Plus there's so much blasphemy on television now. They shouldn't bring Jesus' name into their swearing because, as I know Jesus, it's offensive! So 'It's Personal' expresses the idea that we have a right to have a faith that is personal and we can't separate that from our lives, it's part of the fabric of who we are."
Another gem on the album and a song getting much Cross Rhythms airplay
is the towering soul ballad "Miracles". Said Nanette, "I have always valued the 10
Commandments and have always wanted to write a song that is loosely
based around them. Then I got to thinking how so much of what we
appreciate in this country is based around the legal system, so much
of what gives us peace and security in this country goes back, back,
back to the 10 Commandments and God's laws. But that's where the
spiritual dynamic comes in. The REASON I don't want to kill someone
and don't want to steal and don't want to do these things is not
simply because they're against the law but because I don't want to
hurt the God I love. It's not just a legalistic thing. It's more than
I don't want to go to prison, it's deeper than that."
Now that she's finally recorded a top quality album Nanette is keen to sing its powerful songs live. And she's come up with a unique way of enabling local churches to book her without dipping into church funds. The scheme is known as Gig In A Box. Explains Nanette, "If a church anywhere in the UK wants us to come and do a live performance they can contact us then we will send them a box of CDs. If they can sell them, even if it takes them a year or more, then we will come and honour that promise of doing a concert. So they don't have the burden of having to shell out money to pay for our appearance and PA and petrol and somewhere to stay for us to come. I'm keeping the music teaching going because that pays the bills and it takes the pressure off. But it means we are available without being burdensome." I've a gut feeling plenty of churches will be taking up Nanette's generous offer.