Ten Independent Artists You Should Know (Spring 2003)
- Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2003 1 Jan
It's time again to call attention to "the little guys," the up-and-coming Christian artists most people have yet to hear about. I'm especially proud of this list of independent artists (presented in no particular order). The quality of these musicians and songwriters is so top-notch, it made the selection process especially competitive—to the point where I've had to carry over a number of semi-finalists for consideration in our October 2003 edition. Though not quite as polished as most major Christian releases, all of these projects can hold their own against what you'll find on the shelves in Christian bookstores. There's something for everybody in this impressively diverse list, so do check out the websites to hear examples of their work.
So Many Reasons
Soulful, mellow blues-inflected pop
An Indiana native from a musical family, Sarah Scharbrough later pursued her own music ministry while attending Anderson University near Indianapolis. Combining her experience as a worship leader with the introspective songwriting of a coffeehouse artist, Sarah usually tours with her husband, drummer Jeff McLaughlin, and brother, bassist Steven Scharbrough. What immediately grabs the ear when listening to her music is Sarah's surprisingly soulful voice—imagine a bluesy and jazzy version of Cindy Morgan, Nichole Nordeman, or Sara Groves with Mariah Carey's alto range. Many of her songs focus on the goodness of God's love and grace in smartly written ways, such as "What You've Made Me" and the title track. Other highlights include the sweet wedding anthem "Made for You" and the public transportation evangelism of "The Only One." It's refreshing that Sarah allows her songs to breathe beyond the restrictions of the simple three-minute pop song, allowing room for thoughtful verses, instrumental solos, and vocal improvisation. She'd be that much better if she stretched herself by adding a few upbeat songs to her mellow repertoire, but this is an incredibly well made indie debut no matter how you slice it. The best kept secret in Christian songwriting since Sara Groves, I'd be amazed if Sarah Scharbrough wasn't signed to a major Christian label someday soon.
Commas Come First
This 26-year-old New York native began his music ministry at Boston University, jamming to praise songs with friends at church. That led to the founding of Broken for Good, the band that Koo fronted for two independent albums before going solo. Koo's second solo release, Commas Come First, boasts an impressive lineup of Christian talent. Jars of Clay's Steve Mason plays guitar on several tracks, and longtime Jars bassist Aaron Sands plays throughout the album. Andrew Peterson (one of Koo's favorites) makes a brief guest appearance, and his long-time friend, multi-instrumentalist Gabe Scott, plays all manner of stringed instruments. There's even a couple appearances by Sixpence None the Richer's Matt Slocum on cello. The fact that Koo is surrounded by so much talent says a lot about his own skills as a songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist. Switching effortlessly between upbeat, radio-friendly, acoustic pop and quieter folk ballads for the coffee shops, Koo thoughtfully explores spiritually inspired subjects ranging from God's providence ("No Mistake"), struggles with stubborn obsessions ("Blue"), and the message of the Cross ("For Me"). Special points are awarded for the brilliant illustration of "Don't Let Go," the delightfully catchy "Walking My Way," and the Memento reference in "Mercy's Door." If you like the plainspoken folk pop of the aforementioned artists, as well as Bebo Norman and Rich Mullins, you'll love this terrific album.
Run to You
Worshipful modern rock
The biography for Goodbye Audio reads like an episode of VH-1's "Where Are They Now?" with its collection of musicians from now defunct Christian bands. Both vocalist/guitarist Chris Shandrow and Jimmy Wise got their start playing with Miss Angie's touring band (Chris also fronted The Frantics) and have since become youth worship leaders in central Illinois. The same is true for husband and wife team Lewis and Stacy Lux, who now oversee a Generation X worship service after Stereo Deluxx disbanded. These alternative rock refugees have come together to form their own independent modern worship band, combining all the elements of their past bands (Lewis's programmed loops, Chris's guitars, Stacy's ethereal vocals, and Jimmy's groovin' bass lines) with the sounds of Sonicflood and Rock 'n' Roll Worship Circus. They're kind of like Glassbyrd on caffeine, especially with Chris and Stacy trading vocals like Marc Byrd and Christine Glass—listen to the two of them blend on the gentle duet "All That I Need Is You." The catchy modern pop ballad "Run to You" has an especially singable melody, while "This Is Your House" catches the ear like a worshipful version of Plumb. "Above the Earth" is ambient and experimental enough to sound like classic alternative rock by The Choir. There are a few spots where Goodbye Audio sounds a bit rough around the edges, and they certainly don't reinvent this genre, but Run to You is nevertheless enjoyable and intelligent, able to hold its own with the better modern worship albums of the last few years. They'd be right at home alongside All Star United and Everyone on Delirious' Furious? Records.
The Colour of Silence
Fusion guitar with classical and world music
There's a reason why Jason Carter's skills often recall those of guitar master Phil Keaggy—the two have played together on a number of occasions. Phil's unmistakable style does in fact appear on The Colour of Silence during the evocative guitar duet "When Heaven Smiles," but it does not overshadow Jason's considerable skill. In fact, the fancy fingerwork of this British born guitarist (now a resident of Holland) is immediately evident on the opening track, "Alabama," and runs the gamut over the album—from fusion jazz to classical to Flamenco. As an instrumentalist, Jason's faith in Christ does not leap into your ear the way a pop song would, but, behind the scenes, Jason's ministry is pretty incredible. He regularly tours the Middle East, Pakistan, and China, reaching out to the unchurched in secular venues and often ministering to Muslims after concerts in their homeland. Now that's living faith out loud! Because of his unique music ministry, Jason incorporates world music elements into a unique Hindu and Arabic fusion style on a couple of tracks—"India" is in fact a stunning seventeen-minute ethnic jam session that was amazingly recorded in one take. Most incredible of all, Jason is mostly self-taught, though he has taken classes under guitar greats John Williams and Paco Pena. I don't say this lightly—if you like listening to Phil Keaggy's instrumental recordings, or simply enjoy stunning guitar music, you have got to hear this guy.
Soft, worshipful acoustic pop
Originally from St. Louis, the concerts of this 21-year-old artist are described as a worship experience, utilizing video, lighting, Scripture, and teachings in addition to Matt's music, which is a soft acoustic pop blend underscored by gentle keyboards and percussion. Produced by Greg Worzel, who also lends
a slew of instrumental skills throughout,
Thanks to a musical family, 21-year-old Christin Cook grew up in a recording studio environment, naturally fostering an interest in singing, songwriting, and instruments like the guitar and the piano. Graduating high-school early at the age of 16, she attended a community college for two years to study music, still
making the dean's list while developing her musical career. One look at her photo and you might peg her as Christian music's
answer to Pink or Avril Lavigne. Her guitar-driven pop/rock style is more mature sounding than that, reminiscent of Michelle Branch and Jennifer Knapp. Her range shifts from the rock shuffle of "I Need Your Love" to the more pop sounding "Keep Breathing." The Sheryl Crow-styled ballad "Beyond Me" declares that God is in control of Christin's life, and "Thank You" shows off more of a folksy acoustic side in an expression of gratitude to the Divine. There are a few times where Christin tries too hard to make her voice sound cool—she's actually best at singing beautiful, breathy, jazz-inflected tracks like the romantic "If I Had the Time" and the song of surrender, "Sweet Nothings." Produced by Paul Moak, who has played guitar for such artists as Plumb and dc Talk,
Just for the record, I didn't learn that Matt Wertz hails from my alma mater of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Go Illini!) until after I selected him for our Indie Artist spotlight. Once again we have a new talent fresh out of college,releasing his first album after four years of songwriting at college events and Young Life retreats. With an infectious acoustic pop/rock sound similar to Caedmon's Call, Bebo Norman, Counting Crows, and Goo Goo Dolls, Matt's songwriting on
Fusion jazz gospel with R&B
Hailing from New Orleans, Bobby Wilson has been singing since the age of four, when he joined his five older siblings in The Wilson Singers. The group regularly performed throughout the area while growing up, especially at Mount Everest Baptist Church where Bobby's father served as pastor. In the last fifteen years, Bobby has made a name for himself as a backing vocalist for the likes of Yolanda Adams, Oleta Adams, Milton Brunson, and the late
Thomas Whitfield. Bobby only co-wrote two of the songs on his debut,
Gentle "new age" piano
A solo piano carries a simple melody, padded with ethereal keyboard sounds to evoke serenity and beauty. I may as well be talking about Jim Brickman or George Winston, but this is the music of Stanton Lanier, a financial advisor from Marietta,Georgia, who has played piano for most of his 30-something years,beginning lessons at age 6. Though a number of Christians still struggle with the concept of a musical genre called "new age," it's come to refer to a mood and style rather than a belief (hence why it's not capitalized in this context). Stanton prefers to call his work Music to Light the World, solo piano pieces
inspired by Scripture. As such, "Joyful" draws upon Psalm 100:1 for its buoyant sound, and "Behold" from the annunciation in
Matthew 1:23. Especially effective is "Silence," inspired by Habakkuk 2:20, which makes just as effective use of the spaces between the musical passages as the notes themselves. There are a number of Brickman/Winston wannabes out in the music market, but Stanton's music is apparently striking a chord with a number of people—both "How Beautiful" and the title track have recently been used as background music for The Weather Channel's Local Forecasts ("on the 8's"), which must be the equivalent of Top 40 for peaceful instrumental music. Some may interpret that as confirmation that this is simplistic classical pop, but, as far as its genre goes,
Road to Anywhere
Sittser began life at Whitworth College (Spokane, WA) in the fall of 2000 when lead vocalist Tyler Kumakura and lead guitarist Travis Stolcis sat down with their guitars to jam together. The two became fast friends and collaborators, gradually finding performance opportunities and adding to their band: percussionist Joel Werdell, drummer Kyle Gilliam, bassist Ben Bunfill, and keyboardist/violinist Paul Ranheim. Taking their name from a popular professor on campus, Sittser evolved into an acoustic rock band strikingly similar to early Jars of Clay and Five O'Clock People. Tyler's voice is a wonderful blend of Dan Haseltine (Jars of Clay), Jeromy Deibler (FFH), and Rob Thomas (Matchbox Twenty), and the combination of the harmonies and the folk-rock sound on tracks like "Price of a Past" and "Anthem" are spot-on Jars of Clay. "Sober" is soft and melodic enough to pass for Shane Barnard, and Sittser adds a saxophone for "Man in the Marble" to capture the Dave Matthews Band sound—and I absolutely love Kyle's beatbox on "One More Stop." The band tackles subjects such as the kingdom come ("One More Stop"), putting our sinful nature to death ("You Wreck Me"), and the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit ("Color in Your Gray") without resorting to tired lyrics. Tyler's subtle poetry is again reminiscent of Jars of Clay in this way, and yet Sittser performs it with their own flair, similar to the hugely popular acoustic rock band without overly mimicking. Growing their audience in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, Sittser is looking forward to finishing their college degrees and taking their music career to the next level.
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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.