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Ten Independent Artists You Should Know (Spring 2004)

  • Russ Breimeier with LaTonya Taylor Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 Jan
Ten Independent Artists You Should Know (Spring 2004)

Welcome to our fifth semi-annual independent artist spotlight. The music industry continues to come to grips with technological advances like digital file sharing and cost-effective recording gear. In some ways, it makes it harder to find longevity as an artist with a recording contract. In other ways, it's easier than ever for an indie artist to make a start and get music into the hands of a willing audience. The following ten examples, gathered over the last six months or so, prove that point. Some could well be on their way to greater success, and others will remain more effective at sharing their music locally. What they all have in common is a level of excellence that rivals what is heard by other artists on the radio and sold in stores. Click on the links to the artists' websites for sound clips, ordering CDs, and booking information.

1000 GenerationsPrayersWorshipful and eclectic pop

You might recall an album from Vineyard Music Group called 1000 Generations, involving a modern worship team from Atlanta. This is not the same group, though it is a worship team bearing the same name from a Vineyard church in Indianapolis. Led by multi-instrumentalist Steven Potaczek and his wife Amanda, it's an exemplary and eclectic pop album. Except for the opening track—the world-music influenced "He Is Yahweh" from Vineayrd's All I Need—1000 Generations relies on vertically focused pop originals that most resemble the music of Paul Simon, Michael W. Smith, and Bruce Hornsby (who has personally complimented the band's musical talents, especially Potaczek's stunning piano proficiency). "Eyes" is a wonderful and celebratory fusion of Latin, jazz, and South African pop. You can't help but think of early Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant on "Do You Know This Man?"—a piano-driven ballad that tells the Passion story. And that's just three of the album's eleven highlights, which all outshine the usual clichéd modern worship. It has everything you could ever want in a worship album: original songwriting, a relatively unique sound, breathtaking musicianship, and a passion for encouraging others to walk closer with the Lord. Trust me: Check out this album.

Ava WilliamsCalled to WorshipGospel/Praise and Worship

Philadelphia native Ava L. Williams grew up singing in her hometown, and her music ministry has taken her to places as diverse as the Cayman Islands and Carnegie Hall. She's also shared the stage with artists like Byron Cage and Percy Bady. Williams' first solo project, recorded live at her church in Philadelphia, is a collection of gospel-infused praise and worship songs. Her full, throaty soprano ranges from light and feathery with lots of vibrato to a rich, earthy growl. Styles include upbeat praise and worship, old-school gospel, slower, more contemplative numbers and even a lullaby. Musical and production quality on this album are more than comparable to that of major-label counterparts. Though nearly every song on this album is exceptional, outstanding cuts include the reflective title track; "In His Temple," which describes the atmosphere of worship in God's temple; "I Will Bless the Lord," tinged with Caribbean flavor; "How Could They Not Know Him," sweet and emotive; and the loving tribute, "I Love the Way You Treat Me." (by LaTonya Taylor)

Questions in DialectAs You May KnowInstrumental art-rock

Mississippi-based Questions in Dialect describe themselves as a combination of art rock and film score moods. They do in fact sound much like the movie soundtrack that Pink Floyd and early Radiohead never wrote: ambient, instrumental progressive rock ala Unwed Sailor and Sigur Rós with a smattering of free-form jazz. With eight tracks averaging six minutes each of excellent background music that grows more meaningful with each listen, this is the type of album you expect from a seasoned band of middle-aged musicians looking to make music on the side from their day jobs—not from a young quartet on their first recording. Let that be testimony as to how good QID sounds. As for the "faith angle," well, it's tough to express faith in instrumental music, and the band doesn't claim to have an agenda behind making music. But the members are Christians who state their influences as "God, life, love, and the wild west"—that order. Their beliefs are also reflected in such titles as "The God of Green Hope," "Walking on Water," and "The Resurrection of the Dead." QID played a well-received show at Cornerstone in 2003, and will be hitting Cornerstone again in '04. Definitely an alternative listening experience.

Chip HoustonChasing the DarkAcoustic pop/rock

With a sound reminiscent of Kenny Loggins, Edwin McCain, Warren Barfield, and Wayne Kirkpatrick, Chip Houston's debut album is nothing more than straight-up acoustic pop/rock—done extremely well. It ought to be, since it reflects five years of songwriting recorded over two years. While only 10 songs (totaling 41 minutes), the quality and effort shows. Houston has been toying with the acoustic guitar since college, where he was soon performing at campus coffeehouses. He quit his job as a history teacher in 2001 to pursue a full-time music career, beginning with the local Atlanta music scene and expanding into the Southeastern states. Let's hope quitting his day job pays off—this guy can write and sing. Houston's infectious melodies make many of these songs radio-friendly, the strong backing band make the sound more credible, and his thoughtful lyrics (which explore themes beyond faith) keep his songs from succumbing to Christian pop formula. One minor complaint: There are painfully long fifteen-second pauses of silence between tracks. No matter—hit the skip button if you have to. Chip Houston's enjoyable brand of acoustic pop/rock is well worth the wait.

GenieWildflowersEthereal piano pop

Genie is probably the most successful independent artist you've never heard of, if not one of the more generous. She's recorded with Sony/Epic, BMG, and Warner Brothers, writing and producing twenty-six CDs over her career. According to her site, more than 3 million recordings of her songs have been sold so far. She's since become an independent artist because of health issues, to retain ownership and control of her copyrights, and consequently, to be more charitable in her giving. Through her own nonprofit charity, she's given away more than $2 million! Likewise, all profits to Wildflowers go to helping the needy of the world. She looks a bit like Helen Hunt's sister, but Genie (Nilsson) has more in common with Kate Bush and Michelle Tumes—singer/songwriters with delicate, almost childlike voices who play piano (an antique Steinway, in Genie's case). Additionally, the breathy arrangements by her husband Troy give Genie's music an Enya-like quality. It's all very tranquil and soothing, balancing sentimental songs for her grandmother ("Wildflowers"), parents ("Undying Love"), and husband ("You Steal My Heart Away") with spiritually themed tracks ("Quiet Place," "Streams in the Desert," "Someday"). On top of that, the album's 12 songs appear twice—those who want instrumentals or backing tracks to sing to need only skip to the corresponding tracks beginning with 13. Talk about thoughtfulness!

Ryan Daniel & The Spirit of DavidLife in GeneralWorshipful dancehall reggae

Ryan Daniel describes himself as a cross between the contemporary worship of Ron Kenoly and the dancehall reggae of Sean Paul. (Dancehall is reggae mixed with programmed beats and hip-hop.) I'd also add Kirk Franklin's aggressive gospel/hip-hop approach to the mix. Originally from Trinidad, where he was a major influence on the Christian dancehall scene, he has been leading worship for more than 10 years. While attending college in Minneapolis, he started a worship band called The Spirit of David, to which Daniel has gradually incorporated the dancehall element. Pretty impressive, considering that his backing vocalists—Anita DeJong and his new bride Sarah—are from Holland and northern Minnesota, respectively. Their motto? "Jesus in our heart is not enough; we need Jesus in our world." Their sound is polished, the production thoroughly modern and bold, and the cross-pollination of styles so fun, it almost makes this as irresistible as dc Talk and Souljahz when they both first hit the scene. (Note: Track 9, "Rasta Bismol," included as a fun song, is pretty funny, but it's being removed for the album's second pressing to avoid controversy. Too bad—it's no worse than the comedic interludes dc Talk used to insert on their albums.)

Mick RoweSummertimeRock and modern worship

Remember a short-lived Christian metal band in the '80s by the name of Tempest? It helped launch the career of lead singer Jamie Rowe, who went on to front Guardian. Mick, Jamie's brother, was the lead guitarist for Tempest, which disbanded in 1990. He's since dabbled in a variety of projects, amassing a collection of songs written for his wife as well as some attempts at modern worship. The result is Summertime, which bears a strong rock sound that hearkens back to classic '80s pop-metal without sounding dated; in fact, it's modern enough to work with some of today's neo-grunge acts. Hence why Rowe is appropriately likened to a mixture of Jeremy Camp, Chris Tomlin, and Petra. Both "Please Save Me" and "Long Red Hair" are examples of aggressive, powerhouse rock, yet melodic and accessible. There are also softer-edged ballads like "Stay" and "Pray," and "Control" is enjoying some sporadic airplay across the country. Rowe recorded Summertime with members of GS Megaphone, for whom he opened on tour in 2003. Look for him to hit the road again in 2004 now that his project is available.

Betsy WalkerSimple OfferingsFolk pop

Indy's indie scene is clearly thriving. This is the second artist from Indianapolis on the list (1000 Generations is the other)—and at least the third in the last year. Betsy Walker, 21, is studying Music Business and Church Music at Anderson University, where her folk pop songs are rapidly earning her a following. Stylistically similar to Jewel and Jill Paquette, I absolutely love Walker's voice, which is as alluring and pristine as Ginny Owens and Kendall Payne. Walker's songwriting is also nearly the same caliber as all those artists, though she probably wouldn't have been selected on the basis of her 2003 debut, Little Lamb; the potential is there, but it's a sparsely recorded, repetitive demo. Her new EP Simple Offerings, however, is better recorded and demonstrates considerable growth as a songwriter in both spiritual and social subjects. "Play Fair" is one of the most heart-rending break-up songs I've heard, and the wry sarcasm that underlies "You Don't Fool Me" jabs the prideful tactics of guys and girls in dating. The title track is beautiful and prayerful, "Comparison Game" is soul-baring in determining our purpose in life, and "Dear Afterthought" is marvelously insightful in how we don't make God enough of a priority in life. Best remember her name now, because I think you're going to hear more of it in time.

Always SundayBeautiful DisgraceMelodic indie rock

Our second band from Mississippi to make the list, Always Sunday recorded Beautiful Disgrace in late 2002. The album combines re-recorded versions of songs from Powerwalking, their acclaimed debut EP, as well as newer material. Their bio indicates that they dislike the term "indie rock," except that's just what it is, but with strong melodic sensibilities and thoughtful lyricism. It'll be right at home with fans of Duvall (formerly Smoking Popes) and the now-defunct Normals, also touching on the modern Brit rock of Travis and Coldplay. Lead vocalist Trent Dabbs even has a soft croon similar to that of Duvall's Josh Caterer. Catchy rock abounds on this album, though standouts include "Love Divide," "Reason 365," and the dark majesty of "Take a Shot." The lyrics are smart and relatively subtle in spirituality, but it's pretty clear that Always Sunday is coming from the same place as Switchfoot on a song like "Beautiful Disgrace." This band would be perfect for a label like Tooth & Nail, but they also seem capable of reaching an even greater audience under the right conditions.

Todd Carter KoeppenNo LadderWorshipful acoustic pop/rock

This is Todd Carter Koeppen's third album as a music minister, and as he puts it, it was recorded on faith. There was no budget, no solid arrangements, and only half the songs were written at the time. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to put out a project whose proceeds go to purchasing land and funding the construction of a large-scale Protestant church in the predominantly Buddhist country of Thailand (visit Koeppen's website for the latest details). He's somehow come up with a relatively brief, nine-song album of wonderfully made worship music. It combines folk and acoustic pop with world music elements, much in the same way that Caedmon's Call is expected to with their 2004 release, Third World Symphony. Fans of Shane & Shane, Andrew Peterson, James Taylor, and Vineyard worship albums will find plenty to enjoy here. The songs are simple, but also varied and extremely catchy. The musicians are strong all around, and this is simply one of the best-produced indie projects I've heard in the last year—amazingly clear and crisp. It would seem that God has indeed blessed this album and the mission for which it was created.

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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