Now firmly in the singer/songwriter mould of Tori Amos and Fiona Apple, ex-Shine girl NICKI ROGERS finds her own musical path. Mike Rimmer reports.
2002 will always be a special year for Nicki Rogers. At the end of 2001, she and the other members of Shine folded the group and went their separate ways. At the final gig in Holland when we spoke about the future she was cagey about what her next step would be.
It was only when I met her again at an Alliance Music showcase that she confessed she had been in the middle of finalising a deal and couldn't say anything at the time. It was only after I watched her run through some intimate songs with her own simple piano accompaniment that I realised how far away from the music of Shine her debut album 'Colour Scheme' was going to be. Understandably nervous as she first stepped into the solo spotlight to sing in front of various record company personnel and Greybeard Cummings and myself quietly representing the media, Nicki unveiled a powerful gift for songwriting.
Fast forward a few months, with 'Colour Scheme' completed and gaining rave reviews, Nicki and producer/recording engineer Andy Harsant head up to Stoke for promotional duties and I am locked in a windowless studio chatting with the ginger haired singer. After the final Shine interview where I described Nicki as a "weird magnet" because strange things always seemed to happen to her, she now confesses, "I'm trying to be a bit more sophisticated but my friends that I work a couple of days a week with saw (some photos of me) and said, 'Nic, that's a lovely picture, but it's not "our Nic" because.you haven't got chocolate all over your teeth! Or, you're not lying in a heap somewhere laughing.' There is one little picture of me in the CD booklet chewing grass!"
Aside from the occasional imitation of Ermentrude from the magic Roundabout, Nicki is clearly maturing as an artist creating songs that are more Nichole Nordeman than Shine so is she trying to build a mystique with her image? A serious singer/songwriter image? "I'm trying!" she admits. "I think it's failing. It's quite funny because my friend said to me, 'Nic, you look quite sophisticated but you're just not, are you? Nothing about you is!' So, I'm trying but no, I don't think it's going to work!" This isn't actually the truth because if you shut your eyes and allow the music of 'Colour Scheme' to wash over you, there's plenty of sophistication in the songwriting department as Nicki tackles a wide variety of experiences in a voice filled with passion and beauty. Reflecting on her time doing R&B and dance-tinged teen pop she says, "I loved the music in Shine, I loved the choreography and dancing and yeah, R&B. But truthfully in my heart, what I like is rock ballads and Tori Amos type stuff. That's what I always liked and they always called me the 'oddball rock-chick' in the band.I also love Joan Osbourne and Shaun Colvin is my absolute favourite! I love Sting and all that kind of stuff."
The album opener "Good Lord" certainly sets out its stall with a pretty hefty melodic rock feel and is probably the only song in contemporary Christian music to ever use the word "unction" so I have to ask the question. Is she a Pentecostal? Quick as a flash she responds, "Is this about the unction?!" Rats, I'm rumbled! "I KNEW it was going to be about that!" she screeches excitedly. So obviously a lot of people have been asking her about the unction! "No," she counters, "but I could just tell it was a Mike Rimmer question!" She breaks into laughter and then continues, "I was brought up in a Pentecostal church.and I function from the unction! I would describe it as a stirring, or a need to, or something that drives you to express something or do something."
Obviously her childhood in a Pentecostal church continues to impact her thinking and songwriting. "My mum started going to a Catholic church and really, was searching for God. She didn't go just because she thought it would make her feel better. She kind of went because she was really questioning. She read the Bible and the particular Catholic church that she was at weren't prepared to talk about the Holy Spirit. She was reading the Bible and trying to match up how that related to church and how Jesus related to church. She couldn't really find it in the church that she was at, so she went to a Pentecostal church in Barnsley that's fantastic. She started going there and I started going along with her. I gave my life to God. And then my dad got saved and he started going. So I suppose from being 10, it was a Pentecostal kind of thing."
Later in the afternoon, Nicki is live on air with Martin Purnell on Cross Rhythms radio. In the office Tony Cummings, Andy Harsant and I are listening and chatting together and there's a feeling that on radio Nicki's Barnsley accent makes her sound like a presenter on the TV programme Changing Rooms! Harsant's role in forging the first album can't be underestimated. Nicki explains, "Andy's been brilliant really. I've been adopted by him and his family, so that's quite nice! He's been a secure place to try things out. I didn't come with everything polished and neat, I came with things in pieces and with things that I wanted to change. It's been a great process to have somebody involved like Andy, who's definitely further on musically than I am and has got a better idea about piecing music together. He's just worked with me really, to get everything how it is on the album. He's given me the confidence to do that."
Shine had a definite ministry role in reaching out to young people. Now that she's solo Nicki has some strong ideas about what she is doing. She explains, "I've got this BIG issue with having to have some kind of ministry attached to being a musician who sings about God. I think God has given me a responsibility to witness to people about him, whatever I do, wherever I do that. I think the way that I feel God is taking it, is that this is going to appeal to an older audience. A lot of the audience that this appeals to are going to be Christians already. I've got a real heart to talk to Christians about my experiences, even though I'm only 24, I feel like I've gone through everything. What I have gone through has taught me about God's absolute love for me. Christianity can get ever so complicated sometimes, when it's really quite simple. I'd like to see God use me and to spend time talking to people and praying with people, who are dealing with real life issues."
When it comes to real life issues, one of the key songs on the album is "I Saw You" which talks about her father dying. Nicki was only 12 when it happened. "It's something that obviously really shaped me as a person. He died from cancer as I was just turning 12. He'd given his life to God and God has been amazing! He's given me this special ability to really know him as Father. I hear some people say, 'I just struggle to understand God as a father,' because people can have bad experiences with a dad and so just can't quite relate. God's given me an ability to understand him as Father. I really needed that. He's also really helped me deal with trusting him with my life. But it was a hard time and it was very confusing. I put on a brave smile and 'hallelujah'd' and said 'God's going to do good things and God's going to help me!' But then I got to 15 and thought, 'Actually I'm quite angry!' Quite angry that he died and quite angry that my mum met somebody else and remarried. So that was very difficult."
She continues honestly, "But it's just incredible how God has totally changed my life around and helped me. I'm not angry anymore. I feel his peace and I don't fear so much and that kind of thing anymore. 'I Saw You' is just me trying to express what it's like to lose somebody. It's quite a surreal thing. No matter how much you love God, you don't understand death. It's a very strange thing to be separated from somebody. So, it's just me expressing that."
But surely she must have had questions to throw at God? She responds simply, "It's really funny because I think a lot of it was worked out by the fact that I'd experienced God. It's hard to explain, isn't it, how you 'experience God'? But you do. When God has touched your life somehow, you can't forget it. I think as a teenager, when I got angry, I was a bit angry that I'd chosen this God. I was having to sacrifice all these things that teenagers want to do. He'd let my dad die and so subconsciously, I was angry. I think surely God's big enough to let you get angry with him? At least if you direct it to him, there's the big chance that he's going to hear and give you an answer. In the end, I gave up trying to resist things as a teenager and gave up. And in doing that I realised how real God is and how much I missed him and how much I'm not going to understand everything that he allows to happen. But, if I can accept that I'm not going to understand everything and just love him anyway, then a lot of my striving and struggling might calm down a bit at least. It's still a question but there just are going to be things that you are not going to know. But it doesn't change the fact that God is real. We can trust the Bible and believe the Bible but a lot of it is hard to understand and I don't think God's got a problem with that. As long as you come to the point where you say, 'God, I don't understand that but I trust you, I believe in you and I'll live for you. Despite all this stuff, I pray that you'll give me understanding, as much as I need it, to be able to love you and to live peacefully.'" She is enjoying finding a new audience. "I think what I do is for slightly older people now. People in their 20s and 30s. So when there's church events on, outreaching, Alpha weekends.Anything where there's going to be people searching, or dealing with issues, I think it'll go down well in those situations." So now Nicki is out with her piano, playing, singing and telling her story. And no more Shine-style choreography? "Nope, no more choreography!" she confirms. Not even in a Kate Bush kind of fashion? She pauses, "Well, I might do! I might try that! That would be interesting!"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.