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Ten Independent Artists You Should Know (Fall 2004)

  • Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 Jan
Ten Independent Artists You Should Know (Fall 2004)
Many Christian record labels have struggled in 2004, downsizing their staffs, outsourcing publicity work, and cutting their artist rosters—all making it more difficult to break new talent to Christian radio stations and stores.Yet it also sets up a perfect opportunity for independent artists. Record labels are always searching for established talents that are successful in their own local area. The key is to be effective locally and grow from there. That's how artists like MercyMe, Sanctus Real, Sara Groves, and Building 429 got their starts. Still, some choose to remain independent, preferring the extra freedom and lower expectations—to them success is defined by the people they closely connect with, not the thousands of albums sold.The myth that independent artists are somehow inferior to signed artists is rapidly becoming debunked. In fact, more than half of the submissions in this semi-annual indie roundup came with quality press kits and packaging. They're recording good albums faster and cheaper than most signed artists. Not that we're judging a book by its cover. Check out these 10 artists to hear some of the excellent music that's going largely unnoticed … for now, at least.Jaylene JohnsonFinding BeautifulProgressive AC pop

This singer/songwriter from Winnipeg, Canada left her job as a flight attendant in 2000 to pursue a lifelong dream as a full-time musician. I'm glad she did—Jaylene Johnson could well be Canada's answer to the smart AC pop of Nichole Nordeman and Cindy Morgan. She's gradually developed her craft these last four years, sharing the stage with fellow Canadian artists Steve Bell, Carolyn Arends, and Jill Paquette. Her sophomore effort features the work of producers Eldon Winter and Stephen J. Rendall, the team responsible for albums by Paquette, Matt Brouwer, Jake, and Starfield. Like the music of Vanessa Carlton, Jewel, Chantal Kreviazuk, and Sarah Masen, this features progressive pop sprinkled with folk, jazz, and ethereal ambience. But it's Johnson's songwriting that deserves special attention. Too many songwriters today rely on rehashed Scripture and ideas in their songwriting. Johnson instead offers a personalized musical journal of freshly worded perspectives that are more devotional than introspective, with thoughtful takes on contentment ("Here and Now"), creation ("Wonder"), and an amazingly insightful and indicting response to worship music ("Only Have My Love"). Don't just hear these songs; listen to the words and music for a rewarding experience.

GlistenLooking Back on All of ThisAlternative pop/rock

Glisten is not a new band, but they're probably unknown to most. Formed in 1994, they started out by playing their hometown of Dallas/Fort Worth. After a few years, Glisten recorded a demo produced by Steve Hindalong (The Choir, City on a Hill), which subsequently caught the attention of Terry Taylor (Daniel Amos, Lost Dogs), who then signed the band to KMG records. Unfortunately, Glisten's 1999 debut Starlight Wishlist went ignored, and the band became independent again when KMG folded in 2000. Since then, Glisten has invested in their own recording studio and released a long overdue sophomore effort that's entirely self-created and produced. This one's for everyone who loves the place where Pink Floyd and Radiohead intersect—the arty and imaginative sonic smorgasbord of such indie rock bands as Cool Hand Luke, Lovedrug, and Elbow. I can see why this band would have a hard time signing with a Christian record label these days, since their sound is so experimental. Fortunately, Glisten doesn't need a record label to create and distribute their music, and thanks to the Internet, you don't need a record label to check out their creative soundscapes.

LeCraeReal TalkHip-hop

It makes sense that hip-hop would grow and improve among independent artists as it continues to gain overdue credibility in the Christian music scene overall. Here's one that's about as good as recent releases from GRITS and The Cross Movement. LeCrae hails from the south side of Houston, but spent most of his life in Denver and San Diego. At 19, he gave his life to Christ, and his newfound spiritual fire inspired him to express the gospel through rapping—a hobby for him at the time. LeCrae is now in Dallas, where he ministers to the inner-city populace, college ministries, and the club scene. The young artist simply wants to point people to the cross—evident from the opening "Souled Out"—but the quality of Real Life shows aptitude for more than ministry set to music. The songs are varied and hook-laden, repetitive but catchy. Some of the synth effects are dated, though most of the time it works. Nothing sounds more clichéd than badly done hip-hop, but fortunately LeCrae delivers his outspoken and evangelistic message with authenticity.

The Crimson ElementThe Crimson ElementAlternative rock

Fans of Southern California bands like Switchfoot and Lifehouse will find a lot to love in The Crimson Element. The trio consisting of Michael Stanley (vocals, guitar), Sterlen Smith (bass), and Nathaniel Robinson (drums) has been playing together for five years, opening for several notable Christian acts and recording four independent albums in that time. Word is they put on an impressive live show—they've even got a fourth member listed in their press kit who runs sound and lights. Produced by Audio Adrenaline's Barry Blair, the band's self-titled effort sounds like a cross between Switchfoot's melodic alternative rock ("Rock My World," "Not Alone") and the quasi-metal of Pillar, Skillet, and Hoobastank ("Words," "My Everything"). Songs are generally vertical in scope, with "All I Am" and "In You" straddling the modern worship fence. Though they've been courted by a number of record labels in the last couple years—most recently Reunion—The Crimson Element currently remains independent by choice. Something tells me they'll be getting national attention soon enough; it's a pretty strong sound and production for an unsigned band.

Danielle RoseMysteriesAC acoustic pop

Danielle Rose Skorich comes from Minnesota, raised in a Catholic family that believes strongly in a life of service. So at the age of 17, Skorich went to India to volunteer with Mother Teresa's Missionary Sisters of Charity. Mother Teresa herself gave Skorich a rose as a reminder that "her great gift will unfold in God's time." Hence Danielle's modified stage name to remember that blessing. A 2002 graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in music and theology, Rose quickly gained a following as an independent Catholic artist with a pretty voice and pleasant folk pop songs reminiscent of Jewel, Amy Grant, Ginny Owens, and Jill Phillips. The double disc Mysteries is her sophomore effort, presenting 23 songs based on Pope John Paul II's proclamation of the new set of Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. Don't let this intimidate you if you're not Catholic. The album may be inspired by Rose's devout beliefs and the Prayer of the Rosary, but the actual songs are completely rooted in Scripture and Christian pop lyricism. Indeed, Mysteries surprisingly transcends denominational barriers and measures up to similar sounding acoustic pop albums in Christian music.

David BushIn TransitPop/rock

David Bush is not your typical "new artist." Married for 17 years with 4 young boys, he's run his own business and now regularly leads worship at Third Reformed Church near Des Moines, Iowa. In Transit, his second album, is produced by John Andrew Schreiner (Fernando Ortega), which might partly explain why it sounds so good—and that's not to take away from Bush's abilities. He's got a strong lead vocal, the songwriting is driven by memorable melodies, and if the lyrics aren't the most innovative, they're at least par for the course when it comes to Christian pop/rock. "All the Way," "Lay It Down," and "All About You (Not About Me)" all sound like they could have been written or recorded by Steven Curtis Chapman, Warren Barfield, and FFH. And while "Wild at Heart" is another song obviously inspired by John Eldredge's best-selling book, this one's good enough to be the official theme song. Record labels often shy away from signing older talent because they're interested in "long-term investments." Here's proof that artists don't need to be young or signed to make quality music and affect the world around them.

Brother DownTo the Black LandAcoustic pop/rock

This Santa Cruz, California foursome (at the core) originally took its name from the book of Genesis when Joseph requested his brothers to come to Egypt as proof of their authenticity. But feel free to apply your own additional spiritual take on the band's name: the fall of mankind, Jesus coming to earth, an obscure monk, etc. With this debut, Brother Down musically recalls the progressive acoustic pop of early Jars of Clay and over-looked Christian band Five O'Clock People. It's probably the soothing combination of acoustic guitars and violin with the soft-timbered vocals and rhythm section. "Freedom" is particularly reminiscent of Jars' 1995 debut, and the opening track "Emancipation" (written as God's love letter to each of us) resembles Nouveaux and Kansas. Songs average five minutes in length (and often run longer), giving them a weightier, epic feel with the poetic lyrics and the guitar solos. A beautiful and interesting acoustic pop album to say the least, it's refreshing to hear this band write for the sake of creating, not to fit their songs to radio.

Knowledge MCThe Book of KnowledgeHip-hop

Knowledge MC (aka Alfonzo Marcello Greene) was raised on the streets of Minneapolis/St. Paul without the benefit of responsible parents. Knowledge turned to gang membership in his teens, but he also began to hone his hip-hop chops. Life's hard times eventually took their toll and led the young rapper to surrender his life to God. So naturally, Knowledge is now using his music to share his testimony, as heard in "Baptized in Flames." In "Heart of a Thug," he attempts to relate to other gang members from the hood, and "Bring It In" serves as an open invitation to "Players, pimps, hustlers, thugs/Shorties that strip for a living and cats that slang drugs/Bring it in, come as you are/Don't change nothing at all." According to publicity, The Book of Knowledge picks up where Kanye West's debut album leaves off. Knowledge's music is much more underground and subtle sounding, like The Tunnel Rats, LPG, and Propaganda. But there's nothing subtle about Knowledge MC's strong and outspoken way with words, clearly pointing the way to the cross and salvation.

Plain JaneAnything but PlainModern pop/rock

Like most who are serious about becoming Christian artists, the four musicians in Plain Jane moved from mid-Atlantic USA to Nashville in 1999. In 2003, they finally released their debut Anything but Plain. Produced by Tony Palacios (Guardian, By the Tree), the album has a modern pop/rock sound reminiscent of Plumb, Superchic[k], Alanis Morrisette, and Garbage that seems primarily geared to teens and young adults, especially with their message of self-worth in the eyes of the Lord. The band has been offered several record deals, but don't yet feel that it's God's plan. Perhaps in time, because this is a proven sound that could make Plain Jane a big deal with a little bit of tweaking, especially in the absence of The Benjamin Gate. It should be noted that Jozi Allen, the vocalist on Anything but Plain, has since left the band. She has been replaced with Antoinette Cardenas, and if the new single "The Door" is an indicator, nothing has changed too dramatically. Look for a new EP or full-length CD from this band in early 2005.

ChronosDownpourAcoustic rock

It's downright impossible for Springfield, Missouri sextet Chronos to escape comparisons with the Dave Matthews Band. Like the forerunner's concert lineup, Chronos consists of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, sax, and violin. Also, well-known riffs from DMB classics like "Warehouse," "So Much to Say," "Crash," and "Don't Drink the Water" can be heard in a number of songs throughout Chronos' debut. But the obvious influences don't overshadow this band's quality, or the fact that they sound a lot older and more experienced than they really are—most of them are still in or barely out of their teens. Chronos is committed to glorifying God with thoughtfully spiritual lyrics and excellence in music, which definitely shows in their songs and their impressive mastery over the instruments. A strong lead vocalist, Doug Ray's soft tenor sounds less like Matthews and more like Bruce Hornsby or Gary Chapman. Besides, artists like Todd Agnew, Big Daddy Weave, and All Together Separate have emulated the DMB sound in Christian music and only come so close. Chronos does it so well, I look forward to hearing how they grow in years to come.

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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