Tony Cummings spoke to Irish producer TREVOR MICHAEL about his 21-year involvement in Christian music
In this current season of financial turmoil, launching a British record label to serve UK Christian retail could well sound like a piece of monumental foolhardiness. Yet this is what has just happened with Joining The Dots distributing the debut album on Eastbourne-based 7Core Music. As it turns out, that album 'Good News' by singer/songwriter Ian Yates has already been described by Cross Rhythms as "one of the finest worship albums ever to emanate from the British Church." And, in an album-saturated marketplace, if that doesn't encourage readers to investigate 'Good News' fans should note that the producer of the album and the co-owner of 7Core Music is none other than engineer/producer Trevor Michael, who over the years has worked on some of the most significant worship albums, including albums by Spring Harvest, Martin Smith, Phatfish, Matt Redman, Paul Baloche and Graham Kendrick.
Trevor came to the Cross Rhythms office to speak about his long involvement in Christian music but began by talking about the momentous decision taken by him and his wife Rachel to start a record company. Explained Trevor in his lilting Ulsterman accent, "The idea for 7Core Music is one that has been brewing around for a few years. It's something that I kept putting to the back of my head. The timing never seemed right, and I wanted to make sure any bands, artists or worship leaders we worked with were ones we totally believed in and could wholeheartedly get behind and help push their music forward. Last year in October I spent some time at a conference in New York. It wasn't a Christian conference but a conference for audio engineers and producers. Geeks like myself. I was inspired by some of the seminars I went to from heroes of mine in the audio industry, and that stirring started up again. I met up with Ian Yates in November to discuss recording the follow up album to 'The Hope And The Glory'. He explained he was making this album on his own without the backing of a label, and the more we talked, and as I began to share the label idea I had with him, it all fell into place. The timing felt right, the project felt right, and as soon as Rach and I made the decision to go with it, we felt together that this was a God thing."
Production began in Trevor's custom-built studio, The Shack, housed at
the bottom of his garden. Those who have heard the album have
commented on the near perfect blend of Ian's passionate songs and
vocals and Trevor's masterly grasp of sonic dynamics. Said the
engineer/producer, "It was actually one of the easiest things that
I've ever recorded. Ian had already recorded his demos on Cubase to a
very high standard. For instance, most of the keyboards on the album
are from the demos - Ian played some, his brother played some. I think
there's a couple of little synth simple pads that I added when I was
mixing but it's generally all from his demos. Some of the guitar parts
changed, some of them we wanted to keep. So we sent tracks to Stu G
[the Delirious? guitar maestro] and he re-did some of the guitar
parts. When Ian heard them his jaw dropped and asked me to send Stu
Trevor and Rachel are wholehearted admirers of Ian's worship ministry. Said the producer, "We love Ian's heart. We love Ian's voice and we love his songs. For me he's not just another worship leader. He's an artist. He doesn't fit in any box, but he has a unique thing going on which I love. Hopefully others do too."
Cross Rhythms wrote about some of the tracks on 'Good News', "'You Are Here' starts with a long fade in (one of Michael's favourite audio techniques), then settles into a gently haunting piano figure, bringing in Ian's husky staccato vocal and then building relentlessly before cutting away with the emotive line 'You're closer than the air I breathe.' This is rich, deep, sonically satisfying worship music. To my ears the classic new song is 'The Cross Changed Everything' which manages to be truly haunting yet eminently suitable for congregational worship."
Before the retail launch of 7Core Music the label has been building up interest in Ian Yates with the release of three download singles, "Happy God", "Trusting In You" and "With Love". And so that right from the off 7Core couldn't be perceived as a one-artist-only label, the company also released a digital EP Counting Days by The Joy Brigade. There is a strong family connection between The Joy Brigade and Trevor. The group is actually an occasional ensemble fronted by Adrian Thompson, the one-time leader of Split Level who in the '80s and '90s made an impact in Christian rock circles, particularly in Germany. Adrian Thompson is married to Trevor's sister and for some years Michael and Thompson worked together in the ICC studios in Eastbourne. But it's the album that Trevor is currently finishing off with Irish outfit The Remission Flow, 'The Light That Floods', which will be 7Core's second retail release, set for 15th October. Said Michael, "The Remission Flow are from a little town called Monahan in the South of Ireland just over the border. Great guys. All they want to do is see people saved. Two of them were in a band before they were Christians. They toured the States, Japan and were signed to a record label. Once they became Christians they didn't care about all that. All they want is to see people impacted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That totally fits in with what 7Core is trying to do."
What about the prophets of doom who are undoubtedly predicting that in the current scene with the substantial downfall in Christian music sales and the folding of record labels and distributors, a small independent label has no chance of making a profit? With remarkable candour Trevor responded, "They're probably right, but 7Core Music isn't about making money. Many people have pointed out how financially precarious starting a new label is and when we say it's not about the money, they think we're mad. Quite honestly I don't see us making a living out of 7Core Music. I do think for the sake of the UK Christian music industry though, 7Core Music is essential. Music sales are down. That's fact. Not just in Christian circles but across all genres. The bigger labels can no longer take risks with new artists like they once did. A few years ago Kingsway had their Emerge label for developing new artists. That label no longer exists. We feel the UK scene desperately needs something like 7Core Music to bring through and develop artists, otherwise our UK Christian music scene is in danger of becoming stale. We're doing this because we strongly believe in Christian music ministry. Our plan is to release two or three projects a year, that way we can hopefully keep our day jobs, and keep this thing alive."
A key component in 7Core's vision is the distribution deal they have signed with Joining The Dots. Trevor spoke about the alignment. "We set up the download and there was this question 'Do we need distribution in the Christian trade?' After talking to different people it became clear that we did. So I went to see Jonathan Bugden at Joining The Dots, who I had done some stuff before with when he was with Integrity and a few other projects. There's something about him, the way he talks, his ideas, I like where he's coming from. So we talked about distribution and decided 7Core should go with Joining The Dots."
Trevor spoke about the particular vision behind 'Good News'. "With this album Ian's been on a bit of a journey. What is the Good News? If the good news really is amazing why are so many believers often scared to share it? Is it because we've never really grasped how good it is? Ian came to me with this idea that the Good News should be shared. He wanted to give away a free CD with every one bought, so Christians could give the Good News to their non-Christian friends. What a genius idea. So that's what we're doing. Every customer who buys a CD will get a free one exactly the same in a cardboard sleeve to give to their friends at school or colleagues at work."
Trevor was born in Ballymoney, Northern Ireland in 1973. His parents became Christians when he was six or seven years old. He recounted, "Most of what I remember was being brought up in a Christian home. But before that my Dad was a Church-goer. It was Northern Ireland that was what you did. You went to church whether that meant anything or not. Then my Dad became a Christian. We started going to this Elim Church in Ballymena. He found out about the gifts of the Spirit. There was a whole thing happening in the family. My dad played bass in a band around pubs and clubs before he was a Christian and when he became a believer that was one of the things he gave up. He started playing in a country gospel group. There were lots of aunts and uncles that became Christians around the same time. Pretty much the whole family circle, about 20 or 25 people in the space of a year or six months, started going to church and became Christians and started going to this Elim Church. I was eight or nine and I became a Christian along with the whole family circle."
Trevor's father and his country gospel outfit The Michael Brothers rehearsed regularly in the family home. Commented Trevor, "They never recorded an album and I think it's something that they regret but there are a few old videos and cassettes lying around. There was always music around my house. Then my uncle (Edward Michael - he's now the Elim superintendent for Ireland) went to Bible College so he moved to England. He left his Fender Stratocaster and his Fender twin reverb amp behind and they were in my bedroom for three years. That's when I started playing guitar."
Trevor was listening intently to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash "and a stream of country gospel stuff." Then, in 1986, his sister began going out with a young man called Adrian Thompson, who was playing in the Christian rock band Split Level, a group who had relocated from Ballymena to Milton Keynes and with constant gigging and albums like 'Break The Chains' (1986) and 'Sons Of Liberty' (1987) were establishing themselves as a name in Britain's growing Christian music scene.
Trevor's father, Ivan Michael, became a pastor and the Michael family moved to England to pastor a small church in Callington, Cornwall, the Mustard Seed. Remembered Trevor, "It was my last year at school and I was finishing my GCSEs so for about five or six months I lived with my grandparents. I finished school and then moved to Callington to live with my parents. So that's how I ended up in England. I lived there for about three years and during that time I was playing in a Christian rock band called 40 Days. Our drummer, Adrian Watson, used to work with Cross Rhythms in Plymouth in the summer. We did a couple of four song EPs [one with the immortal title 'Islands Of Custard']. They were very cheaply done. 40 Days were my first proper band and we were together for a couple of years. We played Cross Rhythms Festival and we played all over Cornwall and Devon."
In 1992 Trevor's parents moved back to Northern Ireland. Explained Trevor, "It was decision time. Do I move back to Ireland? I was an electrician playing in 40 Days thinking we were gonna be the next U2. So to move back to Ireland the band would finish. My sister had married Adrian by that time and they were living in Milton Keynes. They convinced me to move up to Milton Keynes. Split Level were still going and they were playing a lot in Germany so I got to go out with them on their trips. I used to change guitar strings at the side of the stage for them and stuff like that."
Financially though times were tough. There was a recession and Trevor couldn't get a job as an electrician. Eventually he landed a job working in the warehouse of British Home Stores. Then Trevor got a phone call from Paul Burton, who had gone to work at Christendom's renowned ICC Studios in Eastbourne as a sound engineer, asking for Trevor's help. "He told me it would entail three or four weeks in the back of a van recording the worship at Spring Harvest. I had done PA in church, recorded seminars and stuff but that was my first proper experience of recording music. It was basically lugging the gear around, putting the microphones up while Paul pressed record in the back of the van."
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