Tony Cummings quizzed Scott McNamara about his dramatic testimony and powerful band THE VELVET MELODIES
Bands from Northern Ireland have long punched way above their weight in Britain's Christian music scene. From Split Level to [crave] to the Rend Collective Experiment, there have seemingly always been quality Irish music makers. Now a band from Causeway Coast Vineyard in Coleraine, The Velvet Melodies, have emerged with an impressive debut CD, 'Salvation Sings'. The current lineup of the band is singer, songwriter and guitarist Scott McNamara; his wife Jaye on guitar and bvs; Matt McGookin on drums; and Ian Hannah on keys. Ian is the newest addition to the band and is also a well known worship leader who once released the album 'The Journey' which Joining The Dots picked up for retail distribution. Explained Scott, "Ian and I have done some songwriting together over the past few years. He became a fully fledged member of the band a couple of months ago, after he felt the Lord speak clearly to him to join. Matt also came in recently as our drummer. We have also known Matt for many years and along with his musical abilities, he does great work sharing Jesus with the youth of our town."
Scott has experienced some of the highs and lows of the entertainment industry. He recounted, "I put together a boy band in 6th Form at school, called Exposure. Shortly after this we started to attract interest both locally and nationally. The kids TV channel Nickelodeon sent presenter Jenny Powell to interview us at our school in Liverpool. We were also invited to London to do a photo-shoot and interview for a feature in teen magazine Shout, who subsequently went on to feature the band a couple of times after this, due to our popular appeal with their readers. We had a few high profile managers around that time, Dave Holly (Ant & Dec) being one of them. He represented us for awhile which was fun. We really connected with Dave, as we were all very working class lads. Dave was with Ant & Dec since their Biker Grove days and nurtured their whole career. We got to meet Ant & Dec also as a result of this. Dave paid for us to record in Newcastle in the same studio as another local band, The Lighthouse Family. We also played some very high profile gigs. We played the BBC Big Bash alongside the likes of Westlife. We were known as Riverside at that time. We also played another high profile event alongside Backstreet Boys. One Christmas we were asked to turn the Christmas lights on in Liverpool, alongside Atomic Kitten, Gazza and Samantha Janus. It was a real honour to be involved in this in our hometown.
"We were then picked up by Mike Hughes Entertainments. Mike was a prominent manager in the '80s steering the careers of all the big TV stars of that era. Mike was an extremely well connected individual. Which is how we managed to get our demo into the hands of Mr Simon Cowell. Simon heard a song my band mate and I had written called 'Please Come Home' and said it caught his attention immediately due to its acoustic guitar intro. We were invited to showcase for Simon at Nomis Studios in London, where many of the now industry glitterati first got their chance to shine, including the likes of the Spice Girls who auditioned there also. We chatted with Simon and then performed our set for him. It was only the band, Simon and our two managers in the room so the whole thing felt very relaxed. As we finished Simon rose from his seat and approached us exclaiming, 'I'm going to turn you into superstars!' He then went on to tell us a little of how he would conjure up this master plan. Then the band made our way home and left our management team with Simon as they fleshed out all the details. On the way home we all were thinking that our dreams were about to come true.
"How wrong we were! Our management told us to expect the signing of the contracts to commence within the week. When we didn't hear anything after two weeks we started to grow extremely anxious. After lots of stalling from our managers they eventually and hesitantly told us the deal had fallen through. It transpired that Simon and our representatives had a locking of horns over contractual details after we left. Simon walked away and the deal was lost. I bumped into Simon at the Astoria in Manchester about six months later at an awards ceremony and he approached me and told me to get a new manager and come back and see him. However, shortly after this I descended into an abyss of destruction and became fully ensnared in the grip of addiction."
As cocaine use took hold of the talented singer/songwriter so music making disappeared. His once promising music career seemed to disintegrate as drug-fuelled parties became his main focus. Scott recalled, "My best friend from school in Liverpool was a drug dealer. I found myself partying closely in the company of notorious gangsters, some murderers. I actually formed friendships (albeit cocaine-fuelled friendships) with some of these individuals. One of them was a millionaire and head of a firm (gang). He had gained notoriety after burning a man alive in a taxi. My debauched hedonistic lifestyle culminated in having to witness my best friend taking a drug overdose. One night a gangster friend of mine gave me £500 worth of uncut cocaine as a gift. As we made our way through this potent drug, my friend overdosed in front of me. He was taken off in the ambulance and had to be resuscitated (he incidentally got saved six months after me and the Lord is using him powerfully, pastoring a church that was founded upon tent crusades he held in a local council estate). As I was standing in the street my body began to convulse and I could hear some people from the party telling each other they thought I was going to overdose also. It was then that I saw in my mind's eye a doorway. I was on my way to this doorway and I knew instinctively if I made it there I would go to HELL! So I prayed and asked God to keep myself and Steven alive and I would turn to him. Every time I felt I was about to take my last breath it was like someone pulled me back from crossing that line. I got through it, and the next morning Steven discharged himself from hospital."
Having survived the overdose experience, Scott began to explore spiritual things. He'd grown up in a Christian home; in fact his mother had answered a call from God to go and work in the orphanages of China. At the beginning of 2001 Scott found himself at a New Year Christian conference. Explained the singer, "It was then the Lord reminded me of my promise some months prior to this. Jesus met with me in a way I would liken to a road to Damascus experience. I saw beams of light protruding from people's eyes, and I was instantly filled with the Holy Spirit."
A couple of weeks after his conversion Scott had an extraordinary spiritual experience. He told Rejoice Always website, "I was sitting in work when I heard the words, 'take Bibles to China'. It was an audible voice to me but when I turned around to see who was speaking, there was no-one there. So I prayed, 'God if this is you, bring a man to me to tell me to take Bibles to China. Amen.' A week or so later I found myself at a Sisters Of Mercy retreat with nuns everywhere, and could not help thinking to myself, what am I doing here? Then a man approached me, came and sat next to me and introduced himself. He said, 'I'm John. I've been delivering Bibles in China for the past year.' He put me in touch with CCSM and before long I was in China smuggling Bibles through the Chinese border to my brothers and sisters there."
After his experiences in China Scott felt the Lord instructing him to go to London Bible College. He admitted, "I was a little surprised as I had left school with only two Cs in GCSE English. I knew it was God though, so I applied. When I received a letter denying me a place I felt challenged to put my faith into action, so I got the train from Liverpool to London and proceeded to knock on their door asking to speak to someone. I then relayed how God had told me I was to come to the college, even though they had told me I couldn't, and I relied on Jesus to do the rest. And he did. They told me if I completed a distance learning course they would review my application. So that's what I did and was then offered a place. The whole experience was very surreal, being surrounded by some of the best Bible scholars in the world in what is probably the most prestigious Bible college in Europe. On my first day there, as I walked through the doors a very attractive girl from Northern Ireland handed me my 'welcome pack' and the Lord spoke to me telling me that she was to be my wife. Within three weeks we were going out and within two years we were married."
Despite his powerful experiences of the living God Scott found that there were still major problems in his life. He explained, "I started experiencing severe post traumatic stress, due to a near death experience I'd had prior to my conversion. This manifested itself in severe anxiety attacks. I took my eyes off Jesus temporarily and turned to alcohol as 'a crutch' and started falling back into the lifestyle I'd been rescued from. Before long I ended up estranged from my wife and my then one year old daughter and found myself homeless, living on people's sofas and bedroom floors. I went to stay with my mum and sent emails to old friends in Liverpool looking for a place to stay. An old church friend offered me a room for a week. The night before I made my coach journey from Bournemouth to Liverpool I wept before the Lord asking him to show me he still loved me. Next day as I went to pay my fare to the coach driver, he told me to come back tomorrow as it was necessary to pre-book online. Then I heard a voice and a girl in the queue handed me a ticket. It went all the way to Liverpool!
"I was picked up by an old Christian friend who noticed I had no shoes and he gave me brand new designer shoes and Laura Ashley bed linen. That night, as I sat on my bed, I realised exactly what had happened. Like the prodigal son I had returned home to my Father and he was now again lavishing his love upon me. Within three weeks I had a place to live, a job and was able to visit my wife and daughter. My wife, Jaye, said she took one look at me and saw that the light had returned to my eyes replacing the darkness that was reflecting the state of my heart. She knew I had really come home. For the next eight months I worked as many hours as I could to enable me as much time off as possible, and I would fly over to Northern Ireland, at least every other weekend, to stay with my precious family.
"Since coming back to my Father I have heard him say, 'Make music for my people'. And that's what I've been doing. I've been both privileged and blessed to have met Mark Riley, who moved from Manchester last year to head up a youth ministry called Pais, and Phil Drummond, who moved from Scotland to intern at our home church, Vineyard." Scott, Phil and Mark, along with Jaye, began recording in 2012. Recording the seven-song project 'Salvation Sings' was, in Scott's words, "a joyous experience." Said Scott, "Most of the songs on the EP didn't, and still don't, really sound like anyone else, or anything else that's being done. They stand up as sounding original. This excited us and still does. We want to write songs for the Church, but songs that sound fresh and not just imitations of other successful worship artists."
With their new lineup the Velvet Melodies are still gigging "My God" and "All I Want" from the 'Salvation Sings' mini-album. However, "All I Want" has taken on "a new form." Explained Scott, "I was invited to the Vineyard Records songwriters retreat last month. After playing my tracks to some other writers, a great worship leader called Joff Alexander Frye had an idea to change the style of 'All I Want'. He rounded up a few of the other writers/musicians he knew and we pulled in one of the Vineyard Records producer/engineers and recorded a rough demo of it there and then. Everyone was very excited by it. This track was written as a love song to Jesus. To simply say no matter what else I gain compared to you it's not enough for me."
The Velvet Melodies have just recorded two new songs, "I Lift My Hands" and "No-One Like Our God", like the 'Salvation Sings' tracks, recorded with producer Mark Rainey. Said Scott, "The style and sentiment on these two new tracks is a little more worshipful and more suited to a congregational setting, although still very current and contemporary in their production and arrangement. This was a natural reflection of how I was feeling when I wrote these two new tracks. 'I Lift My Hands' was a song that as soon as I wrote it, I knew it was crying out to be sung in a corporate church setting. 'No-one Like Our God', in comparison, is a little more contemporary, but a real anthem of a chorus that the Church could declare and sing boldly. I found this to be just so a couple of weeks ago, when we were blessed to be invited to play at Saints In The Stadium, a National Day Of Prayer (NDOP) event, put together by HOPE (House Of Prayer England) and Jonathan Oleyade and his team.
"We've seen thousands of worshipers, most who'd never heard our songs before, really engage and worship God as we played. This was a joyous and encouraging moment, made even more poignant by the fact that we were the only unsigned band to be invited to play amongst a lineup of well known Christian artists. We are planning to release both these tracks on iTunes in the next couple of weeks. Our vision is to make music for God's people. Providing the Church and the listener with something that's fresh, relevant, anointed and inspiring. Which will help them enter his courts with praise and thus draw closer to our wonderful Saviour. We also will continue to write songs that are reflective of our journey in coming to know Jesus, relaying our story of restoration and hope."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.