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Ten Independent Artists You Should Know (Fall 2003)

  • Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Ten Independent Artists You Should Know (Fall 2003)

It would probably amaze the average listener (and independent artist, for that matter) how many "indies" are out there today. In just six months since our last indie list, we heard from hundreds of hopeful candidates wanting to be included in our popular semi-annual feature. (And certainly there are hundreds more we've never heard from.) Nevertheless, we're up to the task of presenting tomorrow's talent today through a process that's become like our own personal version of "American Idol." So, here are ten more independent artists you should know. (Be sure to check out their websites for examples of their work.)

Ryan Farish

Daydreamer
Instrumental electronic pop
www.ryanfarish.com

I still maintain that having your instrumental music used by The Weather Channel is akin to having it played on Top 40 mainstream radio. Bearing that in mind, with five of the fifteen tracks on Daydreamer being used during the "Local Forecast on the 8s," Ryan Farish is something of an instrumental music superstar. With 1.7 million downloads of his music to date, he's one of the most downloaded independent artists today. He also provides custom electronic music for thousands of businesses across America with his Worldtrax Music Company. And, as might be surmised by track titles like "Holding Faith" and "Journey to the Light," his faith in God is the primary inspiration behind his compositions. "I believe God has been there, leading me every step of the way," he says. The soft electronica is soothing but not sleepy—reminiscent of Tangerine Dream and Enigma with occasional flashes of Moby. Farish composes, arranges, performs, produces, mixes, and masters all the music himself, and the results are exquisite. Because it draws you in without distracting you from other things, it's more "midground" than background music, making it excellent for work or worship.

Stephanie Cuomo

Awaken Me
Worshipful pop/rock
www.stephaniecuomo.com

One glance at Stephanie Cuomo's photo, and you might expect someone who sounds like Sheryl Crow or Chrissy Hynde (The Pretenders). Not that she can't rock, but her voice is much less brash and her sound much more modern—like Plumb, Kendall Payne, Jaci Velasquez, Jewel, and Michelle Branch. After graduating from Liberty University, Cuomo began working for Frontline, a Gen-X ministry of McLean Bible Church in northern Virginia. Now she's Frontline's creative arts director, leading worship regularly for 2,000 adults. She's also been performing on the side over the years, originally with a band called Urthgirl. Awaken Me,her first solo album, is exceptionally well produced by her studio wizard husband Dan Cuomo, who was the drummer for short-lived worship band Circadian Rhythm. In fact, "In You I Trust," with its huge pop/rock sound, is one of several tracks on Cuomo's CD written by Circadian frontman (and fellow Frontline worship leader) Will Pavone. In contrast is the stirring worship anthem "In Your Hands," featuring Cuomo singing to sparse piano accompaniment. "The One" displays Cuomo's interesting turn of phrase in an interestingly worded love letter from the Lord: "Come and let me in sometime/I can give you déjàvu." Unfortunately, that song is the only example of Cuomo's songwriting skills on thie album, but overall, Awaken Me is as hook-laden and enjoyable as anything you'll hear on Christian Hit Radio.

Mark J

City of Pain
Hip-hop
www.dasouth.com/markj/

On City of Pain, the track "My Peoples" is like a sonic resumé of prominent Christian hip-hop/R&B recording artists, featuring the voices of Coffee of GRITS, KJ-52, Lisa McClendon, Verbs, Phanatik of The Cross Movement, DJ Maj, and several more. Those names offer some insight to Mark J's music, which includes qualities of GRITS, The Cross Movement, L.A. Symphony, and Tonéx. Mark Johnson was born in Queens, New York, where he grew up on a steady diet of hip-hop. He later moved to Atlanta and became born again at a youth service, seeking ways to bring hip-hop and faith together. He went on to record three independent albums (prior to City of Pain), and collaborated with Soul Heir (Mars ILL), Elle R.O.C., and Red Letta (I Do). I was immediately hooked by City of Pain's rhythmic opener, "Beat of My Soul"—live percussion in hip-hop, imagine that. The rest features programmed beats, but a good mix of melodic hooks, both R&B and rock, in conjunction with the hip-hop vibe. The rhymes are thoughtful and clever, overtly spiritual and evangelical without sounding clichéd. Mark J has a lot to say with this eclectic and lengthy disc (25 tracks and just short of 80 minutes!), but he also cuts to the chase in every song with his passionate point of view.

David Paul Strom

All the Way
Pop/rock
www.davidpaulstrom.com

David Paul Strom's story is pretty typical—creating Christian pop/rock while performing in churches and coffeehouses throughout the southwestern U.S. since 2001. The quality of his music, however, is anything but typical. His new eight-song disc boasts an impressive pop/rock sound recalling The Wallflowers and John Mayer, the vocal similarities almost uncanny. Most of Strom's songs are Psalm-like, offering praise to the Lord and pleading for his love. The stream-of-consciousness rocker "Your Spirit" has an especially cool progressive pop sound akin to some of the great underground Christian acts from the early '90s, such as The Call and The Choir, without sounding dated. "Praise You Lord," meanwhile, sounds like classic upbeat Rich Mullins with its melody, worshipful lyrics, and simple pop/rock instrumentation. The songs would be all the more impressive if they weren't occasionally bogged down in praise clichés ("There is none like you," "Jesus, Lord I live for you"), but Strom's musical talents and passion for ministry shine through on this excellent disc.

Christian City Church Atlanta

Radiate
Contemporary worship
www.c3worship.com

This "independent artist" is really meant to call attention to an "independent label." C3Worship is based out of Christian City Church (C3) Atlanta, a rapidly growing church born out of C3 Sydney. The Australian tie remains strong, particularly with worship director Steve Deal, who originally hails from Sydney. Deal writes all the songs and performs on every track, which helps explain why Radiate closely resembles a certain best-selling worship series from Australia. While C3Worship hasn't offered anything particularly revolutionary, the quality is almost on par with albums from Hillsong Australia or Vineyard Music Group. C3Worship also offers projects from satellite congregations in New York and Dallas, as well as The C3USA Project, which samples from all three churches. What draws me to these albums—Radiate and C3 Manhattan's Peace (worship team pictured above) in particular—is that they are truly focused on glorifying God, like Hillsong and Vineyard. There are no familiar names or overused songs from scores of other worship albums to be found. Just original expressions of worship performed by talented praise teams, people that may be glorifying God in your own community.

Poor Man's Riches

Poor Man's Riches
Post-grunge rock
www.poormansriches.com

Poor Man's Riches' single "Motions" has received national Christian radio airplay, charting as high as No. 16 on the Radio & Records Christian rock chart. The five-member band formed in 1999 in their hometown of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. After a few years of touring and building an audience, they were named the Gospel Music Association's Nashville Spotlight band of 2003 and placed 2nd in GMA's national talent search. The greatest criticism of Poor Man's Riches is also their greatest strength. Stylistically, they're just like Kutless, Jeremy Camp, Seventh Day Slumber, and Jonah33—but Poor Man's Riches sounds as good as any of those artists who have enthusiastically jumped on the Creed post-grunge bandwagon. Their success will depend largely on the duration of the public's fascination with that genre, but considering the success of Three Doors Down and Nickelback, there is indeed an audience for Poor Man's Riches.

Nonfiction

Bittersweet
Folk-tinged pop
www.nonfictionmusic.com

While studying poetry as an English major at University of Virginia, Julia Pirritano developed an appreciation for songwriting. She now lives in New York, working on a master's degree in creative nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College while teaching literature. It's also where she met Dan Cho, a talented graduate from Boston's Berklee College of Music. Together they make the unique pairing of Nonfiction, a folk-tinged pop duo featuring Pirritano's lilting vocals and acoustic guitar over Cho's production sense and skills as a cellist and keyboardist. Both contributing to the songwriting table, they strive to be equally poetic and honest in their words—hence their moniker. The songs are somewhat similar to each other, offering familiar Christian AC pop reminiscent of Jill Phillips, Ginny Owens, and Nichole Nordeman. Still, Nonfiction has a fresh approach to songwriting that is clearly faith-based without resorting to overused wording. Pirritano's vocals are especially engaging and Cho has a keen sense of musicianship, all overlaying tasteful drum programming. This new duo has a lot of potential.

Through the Veil

You Wanted Time
Worshipful rock
www.throughtheveil.com

Three independent worship leaders from West Virginia came together one evening for a prayer meeting, where a mutual friend prayed that God would "take the group through the veil to a new place of intimate worship." From that, Randy Sutherland (vocals, guitars), David Myers (vocals, bass, keyboards), and Chris Turley (drums)—who all grew up in a traditional church environment—came together hoping that God would use them to revitalize the church with "a new breed of worship." Don't replace your hymnals with TTV's music just yet, however. Although vertical in intent and originally worded, the songs don't lend themselves to corporate worship very well—certainly not as well as other worship bands, at least. But they've got a tight rock sound that might be described as PFR modernized with elements of Sonicflood, King's X, and By the Tree. The title track in particular is a catchy song of praise, thanking Christ for his sacrifice and his desire to spend eternity with us. While the low-budget production could be better, the rawness belies the strong talents of this band. This album sounds like the start of something big.

Leiahdorus

Ashes Ashes …
Synth-pop
www.leiahdorus.com

It's pronounced "lee-ah-DOR-iss," and the website claims that it means, "Combining a rusty piano, electronics, drums, and acoustics to create songs and sounds unheard." The "group" is really just Jason Smith, who started by simply recording and performing electronic music as a hobby in 1998. Things got more serious when Joey Belville of The Echoing Green responded to a demo tape. He took Smith under his wing to produce a three-song demo, which got him signed to A Different Drum, the independent synth-pop record label and home of The Echoing Green. Leiahdorus is in essence the combination of Smith's songwriting, vocals, and piano emphasis with Belville's programming and production talents. It's creatively produced synth-pop akin to The Echoing Green, New Order, Yaz, Erasure, and other great '80s acts. The poetic songs alternate between expressions of romantic longing ("Wake" ) and faith ("Dissection of Man," "Crowded People"). Smith is currently working on a second Leiahdorus project. Listen to this one in the meantime and then you'll be ready for it.

Josh Byrd

Beautiful
Worshipful modern folk-pop
www.joshbyrd.com

This 23-year-old from Jackson, Mississippi got his start leading worship in his high school youth group, and later for a variety of groups and events while attending Mississippi State University to study marketing. After graduation, Byrd made the leap-of-faith decision to pursue leading worship full time. He's joined a ministry called Artists in Christian Testimony, which works to raise up new arts ministers for the church. Byrd's very understated and mellow alternative folk-pop sound is pleasant and creative, reminiscent of The Violet Burning, David Gray, Travis, Delirious, and Andrew Peterson. A number of the songs would be right at home with college worship ministries, Vineyard congregations, and Passion conferences. But what truly sets the album apart is the impressive production by Paul Moak, whose outstanding guitar skills are currently on display on Over the Rhine's tour. He's personally credited with close to 20 different instruments on this disc, which helps tremendously by coloring the album with a wide and diverse palette of sounds—some predictably acoustic and some surprisingly electric. In a sense, Beautiful showcases the talents of two artists, both with bright futures ahead of them in worship and production.

Check out our past lists of independent artists:
Spring 2005, Fall 2004, Spring 2004, Fall 2003, Spring 2003, Fall 2002, Spring 2002

If you are an independent artist who would like to be considered for review on our site, please send your CD(s) and any related press materials to editor of independent artist coverage:

Christa Banister
Attn: Independent Christian Artists
300 E. 4th St. Suite 406
St. Paul, MN 55101

Due to the number of projects we receive, we are unable to cover or correspond with every artist that contributes. But we do give all submissions a fair listen for coverage consideration.

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