Mike Rimmer met up with the R&B gospel trio from Leeds, SOL and spoke about their interesting past and exciting future.
The release, through Spirit Music, of the 'Sons Of Light' album has finally brought to national attention one of the most talented groups on the whole UK gospel scene. Brothers Lanre and Arinze Phillips and lifelong friend Tom Gray are SOL and their delicious R&B-orientated 'Sons Of Light' album has been picking up considerable critical acclaim. SOL's origins go back to a church in the Chapeltown area of Leeds where they and their parents attended. The gospel choir there, The voices Of Reconciliation, gave the teenagers their first musical experience. During interludes Lanre, Arinze and Tom would get to do a solo spot as Tenor Time. The fledgling Tenor Time even got to make a recording, the cassette EP 'Chonz' though the group look somewhat embarrassed when I mention that rather rough and ready effort.
I first met the three of them when they were kids and I was a friend of their parents. Tom's father is a drummer and the brothers' father is a hugely talented gospel singer. These days he's an elder of Chapeltown Community Church where the group are based. Back in the '80s when we were all in church together, his Sunday morning singing as part of the worship team would send tingles down my spine.
Lanre comments, "He was offered quite a few contracts in the late '60s and early '70s. That included the Apple label, which was owned by The Beatles at the time. He was actually signing a contract when he was 21 and God said, 'What are you doing?!' Basically God told him not to sign because he had other plans for him. Much to the disappointment of the rest of the family and particularly his older brother as well because the deal tied in my uncle, into the writing. So he was looking at all the millions dwindling away! He decided to follow what God had for him."
Listening to Lanre and Arinze sing, it's obvious that there's something of their father's DNA that has been passed on into their voices. Since 1999, along with Tom, they've been SOL and although they began by playing on the live circuit, in the last couple of years they have taken time out to build a studio and carefully produce their own debut album. Tom Gray explains, "Basically it was important for us to be hands-on with it and produce it ourselves. But at the time we didn't really have the skills to do it properly so we had time away, learning the craft and then we went back to it."
They set up their own studio, recorded the album and are now trying to establish themselves as a production team. So why make an album? "Because the world needed to hear it," comes the cocky reply. Tom adds, "No. We've got so many songs that didn't make it on there. They'll probably make it on to the second album. Those are the songs that were around at the time that we were able to finish! But it's turned out to be a good little album there." Lanre adds, "We want to touch the youth as well with a different message; a positive message."
Lanre continues, "The album covers a range of topics. There's a track on there called 'Is That Love?' and when I was writing that song I was working a different job. Just hearing some of the girls, their definitions of what love was. One of the girl's experiences was like, she'd do anything to make her boyfriend show her some attention. So if he hit her she knew that he loved her.! I was like, that is so out of whack! I had to say, 'Well look at the Bible's definition of love.' There's a song on there called "Gangstaz" as well. We live in an area called Chapeltown, which is notorious for street crime, it's an inner city kind of thing. We're just looking at so many things in the media; the rappers, the singers, the portrayal of a glamorous gangster life and you've got a lot of kids that are trying to aspire to that. We're saying that there's so much more to life and we've found that in Christ."
I observe that at the moment their music seems to be aimed more at the mainstream than the Church. Tom agrees, "Yeah. Certainly with this album it is. That was our aim really. We want to be out there in the secular world and in the mainstream. Bringing the people in." So why did the trio sign with a Christian distributor? Lanre responds, "Because when we were looking for distributors my conversations with Rob at Spirit Music were just excellent. He was saying everything that we needed to hear. Just the advice he was giving as well was fantastic. Just a good group of people who care about the artists as well as the ministry behind it."
Now that the album is out, the group are hoping to get back into the live scene. "We're just starting to gig again basically," Arinze reports. "We stopped gigging while the CD was waiting to happen. Basically we were fed up of doing gigs and everyone going, 'Have you got a CD?' And us saying, 'Uh, no!' So we stopped doing that and now we're just getting back into it."
All three of the group grew up in the Church. Quite a lot of people when they grow up in church are put off Christianity and put off God because they feel that they're restricted. What is the group's experiences? Lanre answers straight away, "I've enjoyed it." He adds confidently, "At times it's been hard. But it's been amazing. I know what I would have ended up like. There's so many people around me that wouldn't have let that happen. When I see other people who I was close to growing up and where they've ended up, some of them have completely lost their minds on drugs and on other things. Ended up in jail. I had a friend, he was absolutely mental. He's a mental thief now as well. I was really close to him. We probably would have been in cat burgling or something together because we were into gymnastics!"
Tom comments, "I think we've all had our struggles and I'm sure back-slidden like every Christian has." Arinze disagrees, "I haven't back-slidden. Struggles? Again, I guess the way my parents have brought me up, my struggles were IN God but they weren't about leaving God. I went through hard times but I used God to get me through hard times. It's just the way I've been brought up. But I saw my brother fail and mess up so it was quite good for me!" Lanre laughs, "See I got to train the younger brother."
Tom thinks about his own life experiences, "Yeah it was tough. Certainly in my late-teens and early-20s I did find it difficult. I was really chasing after the musical career that I wanted for myself and the desires and ambitions that I had for myself. My own personal ambitions were starting to get in the way of my walk with Jesus. I was pursuing my own goals and my own ambitions and that took me off for a little bit but I realised that Jesus wanted the same things for me as I did but just coming from a different angle. He's the best thing for your ambitions and for your career. As soon as you step into line with him and what he wants for your life, it's amazing what comes off the back of that and how suddenly your life comes together. All the jigsaw pieces come together. So it's been a struggle but I'm glad I'm here now and the timing feels right as well."
The band are confident that the songs on the album will minister to both Christians and non-Christians. Tom reports, "One guy in our church listened to a track and he kept on repeating it over and over again. He fell on his knees and he started crying. I've got loads of Jewish friends and they are all buying the album. They love it! Loads of people can buy it you see because it's not preachy preachy. It's got the Word of God in it. And so they buy it and they love it. People are saying they understand that it's God music but also can relate to tracks as well. So people are buying it and they're loving it. The feedback we're getting is really positive."
Lanre shares, "I think one of the really good things is to see how different people have embraced it. There's a DJ called Steve 'Smooth' Sutherland, he's the four-times MOBO Award winner for R&B and hip-hop music in England. Steve, when he heard the album, he was just completely blown away by it. He's just been like, 'Right, what can I do to help push this album?' Just seeing how even when he's very much in the secular industry, he has taken to it. He's just been pushing it. He's just been making sure everybody hears about it as well. People feel this is a classic soul/R&B album. Me and Tom are synth crazy but we're musicians as well, so there's musicianship and melody in the songs. Arinze is the same, even vocally as well, the melody that he'll pick. It's a little bit more circa '95 and stuff like that as well."
Lanre continues, "Many different people are getting into the album and then realise, 'They're not talking about sexing up some young girl that they've met in the club that minute. This is different!' It's actually edifying to them as well. One of the biggest comments that we've had is that there seems to be a peace that people get when they listen to the album. They're saying there's such an overwhelming peace. People listen to it every day, which is fantastic for us."
The group are heading into exciting times with a confident well received debut album. It's taken a while but they think it's been worth the wait. Tom shares, "I mean if we had done certain things different ways possibly it could have happened a lot sooner for us, but it definitely feels right in the Spirit right now though. As we were making it and as we came to the end of it, it definitely felt like we were in the right place and it was God's timing. So we've not regretted taking this long to get here because we feel we're in the right place now to do something with it. So the future looks good for us. We're really excited and glad that God is using us."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.