Tony Cummings interviewed singer, songwriter and keyboard player VIVIENNE NEVILLE
The ongoing popularity of Celtic-flavoured devotional music has thrown up some fresh new talents in recent years including singer, songwriter and keyboard player Vivienne Neville. Since 2009 long established independent Plankton Records have released three projects by the wistful voiced songstress who studied electro acoustic music at Durham University, the EP 'Holy One', the full length album 'Veiled In Mystery' and the Christmas EP with fellow singer Liz Clarke, 'Advent'.
Vivienne began her Cross Rhythms interview by speaking about the importance to her of Celtic Christian spirituality. "Our lives have become so busy, many of us have no idea how to get off the treadmill now. Life is so fast paced and we are bombarded with so much and so much is expected of us all. Celtic spirituality brings a sense of peace and order to our inner lives. God meets us in a deeper way in the quietness and stillness of life. But we need to make time for stillness. Just reading the works of our Celtic writers helps to slow us down and brings a stillness into the centre of our being. At the moment I greatly admire the work of people such as Philip J Newell, former warden of Iona Abbey. His poetic book of prayer Sounds Of The Eternal is an aid in helping us to be still, as you read and say the prayers you sense the peace and presence of God. The Celtic saints glowed with specific qualities as they practiced the presence of God throughout their daily lives. They praised God in the most menial of tasks their whole lives, whether doing their daily tasks or preaching or practicing hospitality or whatever it was, it was all wrapped up in their devotion to God and care of others. Holiness began in prayer and total commitment to God. Visiting places such as Holy Island and Iona I actually experience the peace and stillness of God. These are special places with a wonderful Celtic spirituality history."
Vivienne was born in Woking, Surrey, one of five children. Hers was a very musical background. She remembered, "We would spend many hours listening to Dad sing while playing the piano. Mam in her younger days sang with a dance band. I remember the first vinyl single Mam bought for me was 'O Happy Day'. I had heard it on the radio and told Mam how much I loved it, so when she gave me the single it was a happy day. I was very fortunate to grow up in such a musical family and was greatly inspired by my parents' talents and love of music."
Vivienne began piano lessons from age seven, being taught by Brian Gutteridge. Vivienne remembered, "He was very passionate about music and was an excellent teacher, his enthusiasm and love of music transferred easily. Practising the piano and clarinet was never difficult for me because I loved it so much. When I got to the higher grade standards six to eight, two hours a day was my practise time and I loved hearing what was developing, especially during the fast sections of a classical piece."
As Vivienne's musical skill developed she continued to attend church. She explained, "My Mam has had a great faith in God all of her life, she has been a great example to me throughout my lifetime. So I have apart from a few years always attended church. I grew up being told that Jesus cared for me and loved me and that he gave his life for us all. I stopped going to church for a few years as a teenager but at the age of 19 Mam asked me to come back, so I said okay I will come back for six weeks and then decide whether I am going to continue after that.
"During those six weeks I was asking lots of questions. I had always been told that Jesus loved me but I wanted to feel that love inside. I wanted the head knowledge to change into something more than that. While I was attending an Assemblies Of God Church for those six weeks I listened to the people who were there and I knew they had something I didn't have. They seemed to have a real clear understanding of the love Jesus had for them personally. I knew I didn't really understand this. Week six came and I was heading to the exit door after the service finished, in my mind I was praying 'Lord if you are real I really need to know and feel that you love me. At this moment in time I don't, so I have given this six weeks and now I am walking out of this door and I am not coming back. I am sorry if I am doing wrong here but I just need to know that you love me and, if I am to be real and honest with you, I don't.' I was about six feet away from the door and I had just finished that prayer when a young girl Angela Elwin called over to me, 'Viv, you may think this is a bit strange but I feel I must tell you right now that God Loves You and I really feel that he wants me right now to give you a big hug and tell you again that He Loves You.' Then she just held onto me for a while.
"I hardly knew Angela at the time but she held me tightly at that moment. Was this just coincidence? Or a God incidence? I began studying this historical person Jesus Christ and after my research I came to the realisation that I was deeply loved. It is a little difficult to explain. I can only compare it with when you fall deeply in love with someone you can't see that love but you feel it deep inside. I knew that I was deeply loved by God, I didn't have to prove myself to him, I didn't have to be good enough, none of us can be good enough, nevertheless Jesus love us. I decided to accept that fact and I have never looked back."
Vivienne met and married a young man, Paul Neville, who was responding to a call into the Anglican ministry. While Vivienne was studying for a BA Hons degree in music at the same time her husband was studying for a degree in theology at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Remembered Vivienne, "They had a wonderful programme at Wycliffe for the spouses of the trainee ordinands. There were also certain lectures within Wycliffe that were open to all. I was privileged to listen to lectures by Professor Alistair McGrath, Rev Dr Graham Tomlin, Michael Green and some wonderful visiting theologians from around the world. Spouses were also welcome to attend any of the weekly services that were on throughout the week. There were many great musicians there during the few years we were there including Brenton Brown, Vicky Beeching, Steve Liley, Liz Shea and Jeremy Frost. I was also encouraged to help lead worship at times. The church we attended on a Sunday when my husband wasn't on placement was St Andrew's, a wonderful large welcoming evangelical Church in Oxford. We also attended other churches in Oxford on special occasions including St Aldates. I was also very fortunate during those two years to be asked to play the organ/piano at wedding ceremonies held in some of the beautiful chapels in some of the Oxford University colleges."
Vivienne began a postgraduate MA degree course in electro/acoustic music at Durham University. However, due to personal reasons she was unable to complete the course. But as she found out God had other plans for Vivienne. She recalled, "I have always loved the work of Iona and other Celtic bands and artists. The very day I left Durham University I wrote my first two contemporary Christian music songs. 'Holy One' and 'Don't Be Afraid'. So that day I knew that although leaving Durham was very difficult to do and not an easy decision to make I knew that day that a switch had happened from writing electro acoustic music to writing CCM. When you are at university you are following a programme of study. If Durham had being running a programme titled CCM I would have been on that course."
The two songs Vivienne wrote on that transitional day were to appear on her first release, credited to Viv Neville, the 'Holy One' EP. The singer/songwriter recalled the recording sessions for the project. "My friend Start Elwin and I recorded 'Holy One' on his little eight track home system. Stuart is registered blind and has a great passion and love of music and recording. It took us a long time to record this EP but we had great fun working on the project. When the tracks were coming together it was a really exciting time. The EP was then released by Keith Dixon through Plankton Records. Cindy L Spear, who has written some wonderful tracks for Iona, worked in collaboration with me on two of the songs on the EP, 'Celtic Saint's Prayer' and 'Lover Of My Soul'. It was a joy for me to work with Cindy's beautiful Celtic poems."
Soon after the release of 'Holy One', Vivienne began working on her first full length album, 'Veiled In Mystery', an experience she described as "the biggest learning curve of my life." She said, "For me personally it has been the most important and rewarding project I have ever worked on. From the fist lyrical themes and ideas to the completed project was a huge journey. When embarking on a project like this many people get into the boat with you and God has been so gracious and amazing at the people who he has brought into my life to help breathe life into this project. I remember a few years ago listening to an interview that James Blunt gave, he said as a songwriter we start the initial process, we write the lyrics and the melody but it is the band or the producer who breathe life into a track."
'Veiled In Mystery' was produced at Broadwater Studios in Gateshead by Gavin Richards and Dez Minto with some tracks produced by Chris Smith at Raindance Studios in the Midlands. Said Vivienne, "These very talented producers brought my work to life. Before we started work we spent many hours discussing my preferences in music, what I liked and what I didn't like and what my vision was for the overall feel of the album. From the outset I wanted the album to convey to the listener a sound that would help the listener to experience a soothing peace and to be drawn into a quietness and stillness. I prayed over ever area of this project, I especially prayed for the Lord's guidance during the recording process. Last week I received an email from a vicar who very sadly lost his wife suddenly a few months ago. He wrote to tell me the following, 'I want to thank you for your CD "Veiled In Mystery" which I purchased on the night of your concert here. I have been playing it pretty much constantly ever since and it has been a constant companion since my wife's death. I've used it in services as well to great effect and I just wanted you to know that your music has provided great comfort to both me and my daughter.'"
Two of the outstanding tracks on the album are the title track and "Let Me Know Your Presence". Vivienne spoke about the "Veiled In Mystery" song. "Two people who have greatly inspired me throughout this project have been Cindy L Spear and Paul Poulton. Cindy for her lyrical intelligence and talent, who worked with me on three of the tracks, and Paul for his musical and lyrical talent. Cindy when writing reaches a deep place inside and is able to express that so beautifully lyrically. Her words have enabled me to reach a deeper place as a writer. Paul has inspired and encouraged me musically so I asked Paul to lay down a guitar track on this piece which he has done. The message of this piece is 'A new day is dawning for you and me'. This song is a message of hope in God who is leading us and guiding us if we will allow him, and to be encouraged that even in those fragile areas of our lives a new strength can emerge."
"Let Me Know Your Presence" was inspired by a prayer written by Philip J Newell. Explained Vivienne, "This song is a collaboration with Philip. It is right at the heart of Celtic spirituality. When we ask the question 'where is God' the answer is 'he is all around us'. 'Unseeable I have seen you this day in the green of the earth/Untouchable I have felt you this day in the warmth of the sun/Unseeable I have seen you this day in the lights of the skies/Untouchable I have felt you this day in the touch of another.'"
Last year Vivienne undertook a Christmas tour with another singer, Liz Clarke. Vivienne spoke about the tour and the events leading up to it. "Liz and I met just over a year ago through our agent Noel Donaldson. Liz came and gave a concert in our church. As we talked we soon became aware that God was leading us both in very similar directions. Within a short space of time we have become great friends, we are often invited to the same events and last summer we went on tour together to the US performing in churches and regular venues such as Nashville Palace and across Tennessee. We had a wonderful time of blessing. Our Christmas Tour together went really well, we had lots of fun driving in the snow. Our joint Christmas EP 'Advent' was recently released as a taste of the full joint Christmas album to be released later this year."
It's taken a fair while for the doors to begin to open in Vivienne's music ministry. The singer/songwriter views the waiting period with considerable maturity. She said, "When God calls us to a specific area of work for him, he often lays the idea in our minds and the desire in our hearts well in advance of that work being fulfilled. The work is often preceded by a time of waiting and preparation. God brings his will to fruition in our lives in his time. His timing is perfect but we may not see or understand this until after the call is being worked out in our lives. So I think the spiritual lesson is be patient in the waiting and preparation time, because if something in your life has been ordained by God it will happen."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.