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Meet House Gospel Choir: The London Vocal Group Bringing Faith To The Dance Floor

House Gospel Choir

Photo: Dan Reid

 

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Meet House Gospel Choir: The London Vocal Group Bringing Faith To The Dance Floor

GRAMMY.com caught up with House Gospel Choir to discuss their debut album, 'RE//CHOIRED,' their creative process, and how the band's multicultural and multifaith composition creates a welcoming space for both its members and audiences

GRAMMYs/Oct 31, 2020 - 05:49 am

Anyone who's ever spent time at a club or festival has experienced the divine power of the dance floor: the rolling bass, the pumping rhythms, the vibrant atmosphere. While the blinding lights of the stage can often look like the gates of heaven opening, it's the communal feeling shared among fellow ravers and concertgoers that truly defines a proper dance floor. 

House Gospel Choir (HGC) know this better than anyone. Uniting the uplifting force of spirituality with the kinetic energy of dance music, HGC is a London-based vocal group bringing faith to the dance floor. Their unique style pairs two very distinct sounds—house music meets gospel—many would never think to combine, but that actually share a musical lineage. While house music is rooted in disco, the genre's pioneers and early tracks sampled gospel singers and hymns and featured spiritual lyrics: See trailblazing house classics like Joe Smooth's "Promised Land" and Underground Ministries' "I Shall Not Be Moved."

HGC now continue this musical legacy on their debut album RE//CHOIRED, released this month (Oct. 23), which sees the group completely reimagining house classics, like "Gypsy Woman" by Crystal Waters, as well as current dance anthems, including "Latch" by Disclosure featuring Sam Smith. The album also features original tracks from HGC, including collaborations with house legend Todd Terry, and contributions from leading dance producers like DJ Spen, GRAMMY winner Alex Metric, Wookie and Toddla T.

GRAMMY.com caught up with House Gospel Choir creative director and founder Natalie Maddix and member Laura Leon to discuss their debut album, RE//CHOIRED, the group's creative process, and how the band's multicultural and multifaith composition creates a welcoming space on the dance floor for both its members and audiences.

The concept of House Gospel Choir is very interesting and unique. I'm curious to learn more about how you came up with the idea of a gospel choir that sings house music.

Natalie Maddix: I came up with the idea because I love to sing and I love to rave. I love house music and I love singing. I think there's a really strong tradition of gospel vocalists singing all the house tunes I love. Gospel house as a genre, it exists and it's been around for a long time, but I wasn't aware of any other choirs singing [house music] … So yeah, it's mainly just because I like to party, and it's that feeling of being on the dance floor and getting to sing with everyone …

Beyond that, I'm a massive fan of vocalists, and I was always a bit confused as to why I never knew the singers' names on some of my favorite house tunes. So I just started digging and I just found all these other great songs with gospel vocalists on them or vocalists that started off in church, I suppose.

And it just kind of clicked. It actually clicked because I saw there was a Frankie Knuckles quote I read when I was doing some research just about gospel house, and it was, "House music is church for people that have fallen from grace." You know when you read something and it just hits you in your chest? And I was like, "Yeah, that's what that feeling is." 

That's what I love about raving, that community, that communion. I've had some nights out that do feel very spiritual and transcendent in some ways. I think Frankie Knuckles, being the godfather of house, just summed it up perfectly.

Your debut album, RE//CHOIRED—a very clever, fantastic title, by the way—features covers and reimaginations of house classics like "Gypsy Woman" by Crystal Waters as well as newer classics like "Latch" by Disclosure featuring Sam Smith. Can you tell me more about how you approach your song selections when it comes to your covers?

Maddix: The main thing is [House Gospel Choir] started off with the live show. The intention was to have it feel like a DJ set. So the songs were seamlessly all mixed together, but you had live vocalists with it and you had a blooming gospel choir with the DJ. Through just practice and doing vocal arrangements and trying things out, it's like I come to the table with all of my favorite house tunes, and some of them should [be] left alone, should not make gospel versions of some of them.

Then there [are] other songs that really lent themselves to this way of reimagining what the song is. I think the vocal arrangement, the ability to make it into a House Gospel Choir sound, is one side. But the other bit is actually the message ... "Beautiful People" was the first song that we ever learned, and that was the first song I brought to the choir. I just think I needed that message at the time ... the messaging behind that [song] really was one of the big reasons we decided to do that one.

[For] "Gypsy Woman," we listened to it for so many years, and it's just like one of the biggest party records ever made ... and I don't think I'd ever really listened to the words. And then I sat down and I was like, "Wow, she's actually singing about someone being homeless." I found an interview where Crystal Walters was talking about the lady this song's about, and it just really struck me that there [are] so many people that don't have a home.

Like in a really basic way, we're talking about displaced people across all walks of life, not just homelessness. We started thinking about refugees. So the song just took on a totally different meaning and we felt it was a great way to just remind people, encourage people to look around when you're out on the streets. As much as you hear this song all the time and as much as you might walk down the same street every day, there are other things going on inside of that.

The album also features original tracks from the group, like "My Zulu," a collaboration with Todd Terry. Tell me about the creative process behind your original tracks.

Maddix: Our intention behind those originals was most definitely "future classics," because we were like, "We have to be able to make tracks to stand up against these absolute massive hits." Obviously, it's a huge task, but we just thought, "Let's try, let's just do it." We started off with a bit of a wishlist of who we wanted to collaborate with. And we've kind of crossed everyone off that list. It's been an amazing journey ... We just really wanted to pay homage and make sure that those original creators [of the songs] really gave this project the stamp of approval that it deserves. We've taken all the time to make sure that everyone is fully aware and supportive of what we do.

Laura Leon: With the originals, creatively, there's been quite a few different processes; it's not always been the same ... But I think, all the time, the intention is there; we go into the session, we say, "What is our intention?"

There are several tracks on RE//CHOIRED that reference religion and God. It reminds me of conversations I've had with ravers and dance music fans who've said they found religion and salvation on the dance floor. There are a lot of songs and artists who've talked about this "God on the dance floor" concept as well. Could you speak on this house-meets-religion concept? What is the theory there? And how does it relate to what HGC is doing?

Maddix: I grew up in church. So I went to church before I could speak, I suppose. And I did Sunday school religiously for years. I got to a point where, as a teenager, I was probably a little bit confused about the Christian faith I'd, in a way, been given, been born into as more of a birthright than a discovery of that faith. I went to Pentecostal Sunday school, I went to Anglican primary school and a Catholic secondary school. And they were all very different explorations of Christianity and the Bible; I think I was just a bit confused.

I still go to church, but I snuck into my first rave when I was about 13. It was an under-18 [event], so don't worry. Immediately, the feeling of being on the dance floor and singing songs ... I immediately felt the same way I felt like [in] my favorite days in Sunday school when we were all singing and just being together and that sense of community. I found it instantly on the dance floor in a way, but with less restrictions ... So that connection between the two things, having that community and togetherness feeling, is there.

Beyond that, the originators of the sound would have come out of a gospel tradition or a religious tradition, and that is reflected in the music, especially in the early house tracks; I'd say to a certain extent even in current house [as well], but the link is just not directly there. For me, it's the same experience, it's the same expression.

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I think House Gospel Choir's project is really important because there doesn't seem to be any conversation about faith in mainstream culture at the moment. So it's just to have that conversation. I consider myself to be a spiritual person. There are loads of different types of faiths within the choir … We have people from all walks of life within the choir. We have people that came [who] have no faith and are figuring it out. My only thing is, there is definitely something, and I'm all right with people not being able to describe it or explain it.

But when we sing a gospel song and you look into the audience of people that maybe have just come for a rave and they're crying or they're having those moments, I think it's just worth a conversation, and House Gospel Choir is here to facilitate that conversation rather than pretend it doesn't exist. Because there's just so much we can't explain. As clever as human beings are, there's a lot going on that we don't have access to. So why not look and share experiences and ideas and faith?

The idea and practice of religion can often be a dividing topic, particularly here in the U.S. where you have the so-called "religious right" and dedicated faith communities heavily involved in politics as well as a rising atheist population. Seeing how your music discusses religion so openly, how have fans been reacting to your music and your approach to religion? Are fans accepting of the religious themes in your music? Are you seeing any backlash or negative reactions?

Maddix: I think for people that love dance music, house music, electronic music, there's a real acceptance of this style of music and the message has been there for a long time, so there's almost no problem there ... These are songs that are explicitly about faith and gods and the Bible that maybe people aren't even aware of, but they accept them because they move them in some way. When you encourage conversation about the meaning behind songs or the message behind songs, people are quite open to it. That's how I feel about it, and that's what I found most dance music fans have felt.

We actually do have a lot more religious followers or Christian followers, I think, especially since lockdown when we started doing our a cappella videos. We did a cover of "Optimistic" by [vocal group] Sounds Of Blackness, and I think that resonated with people at a time where they just needed to feel optimistic … So I think it just brought more people into the space.

If you go through our followers on Instagram, it's really surprising. Some of [their handles] are like "prayedup97" and someone else might be "danceallnight81." And they're all there, they're all in the same room. And that is essentially what House Gospel Choir is. It's us with all of our different beliefs, all of our own issues, all of our own struggles—being in the same room. I think that's what is reflected in our fan base.

There's definitely been some questions from our more religious followers, once or twice, about the length of our skirts and such and such. But I don't think it's possible to rave in a long skirt, personally. [Laughs.]

I'm glad you brought up the composition of the group itself. I read that it's composed of more than 150 members from all religions, all backgrounds, all ethnicities. Tell me why that was a deliberate choice.

Maddix: We live in London, man. I think it's similar to New York. If you are able to share what you have with the biggest audience possible, it's just good. I think because we came at it [from] an angle from two things: singing, which anyone of any race of any religious belief can do; and raving and being together. I think those two things are real good levelers or nice entry points for a lot of people.

Being in London, having such a diverse population, it just happened naturally … Our members are from all over the U.K., actually. There [are] Scottish people in there, there [are] people from outside of London. In the same way that New York has that kind of migratory aspect to it—someone might not have family members in that town or that city—London's a similar thing. I think it also brings together people that want to belong somewhere ... It's just a home for anyone that wants that experience.

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Leon: It provides like a second family, like you said, because there are a lot of people from outside of London ... To be able to come together in a safe space where you can just be yourself—even from personal experience, from a mental health perspective, it really helps being together with like-minded people that just want the same thing and to just let your hair down ...

But no matter what, everyone's got each others' backs ... I think we're all just aiming for the same thing, so [we're] all on the same page. Essentially, Nat is the driving force behind this movement. So it is her final word, and everyone respects that. Everyone just wants to work for the greater good and provide a space to fully be yourself [with] no judgment at all.

What is House Gospel Choir's mission statement? What is your ultimate goal for the group?

Maddix: My main thing was always to remind people that we are one. It's my mantra. I've noticed that so many people are using it now ... So many people are waking up to the idea that there's more that unites us than separates us. All these things that are supposed to make us so different, when you really get down to it and sit in a room or share space with people that feel very different to you, you realize there's not a lot of difference between who you are as human beings.

That is the message at the top and the end of our live show. That's how we always wanted people to leave feeling. I think during the pandemic, that's expanded a little bit more as well. It's about joy and it's about finding those moments and pockets to enjoy life and really witness and experience beautiful moments and beautiful things with anyone that's near you. It's just to remind people that joy is still required. With everything going on, just remember that you can feel two things at once. You can be sad and still find something joyful in your day or in your week. And singing is a good way to feel joyful.

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Pearl Jam Named Record Store Day 2019 Ambassadors

Pearl Jam

Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com

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Pearl Jam Named Record Store Day 2019 Ambassadors

Pearl Jam's Mike McCready says "if you love music," record stores are the place to find it

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2019 - 04:05 am

Record Store Day 2019 will arrive on April 13 and this year's RSD Ambassadors are Pearl Jam. Past ambassadors include Dave Grohl, Metallica, Run The Jewels (Killer Mike and El-P), and 61st GRAMMY Awards winner for Best Rock Song St. Vincent.

McCready was also the 2018 recipient of MusiCares' Stevie Ray Vaughan Award

The band was formed in 1990 by McCready, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Eddie Vedder, and they have played with drummer Matt Cameron since 2002. They have had five albums reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and four albums reach No. 2.

"Pearl Jam is honored to be Record Store Day's Ambassador for 2019. Independent record stores are hugely important to me," Pearl Jam's Mike McCready said in a statement publicizing the peak-vinyl event. "Support every independent record store that you can. They're really a good part of society. Know if you love music, this is the place to find it."

With a dozen GRAMMY nominations to date, Pearl Jam's sole win so far was at the 38th GRAMMY Awards for "Spin The Black Circle" for Best Hard Rock Performance.

Pearl Jam will be performing on March 3 in Tempe, Ariz. at the Innings festival, on June 15 in Florence, Italy at the Firenze Rocks Festival and at another festival in Barolo, Italy on June 17. On July 6 Pearl Jam will headline London's Wembley Stadium.

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Original Misfits Unleash One Night Only L.A. Reunion Show

Glenn Danzig

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Original Misfits Unleash One Night Only L.A. Reunion Show

Dark punk legends to play first show with Glenn Danzig and Jerry Only since last year's Riot Fest reunion

GRAMMYs/Aug 22, 2017 - 05:28 am

There's big news today for punk-rock fans aware that the Misfits made much more than just T-shirts.

The massively influential punk band announced a special show touted as the "only 2017 performance in this world… or any world" and billed as "The Original Misfits" in Los Angeles at the Forum on Dec. 30.

This will be the first Misfits show featuring original singer Glenn Danzig and original bassist Jerry Only with long-time guitarist Doyle Wolfgang von Frankenstein since the band reunited for a pair of Riot Fest appearances in Chicago and Denver in 2016. Last year's Riot Fest gigs, which featured drummer Dave Lombardo, marked the first time in 33 years the original Misfits members played together.

"OK Los Angeles, you've waited almost 35 years for this, here's your chance to see the "Original Misfits" in this Exclusive L.A. only performance." said Glenn Danzig. "No Tour, No BS, just one night of dark metal-punk hardcore brutality that will go down in the history books. See you there."

Tickets for this "one night only" show go on sale Friday, August 25.

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Lady Gaga Steps In To Support Youth Impacted By Hurricanes

Lady Gaga

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Lady Gaga Steps In To Support Youth Impacted By Hurricanes

GRAMMY winner pledges support for those impacted by hurricanes this year through Save the Children’s Journey of Hope program

GRAMMYs/Oct 12, 2017 - 11:03 pm

On Oct. 10 Lady Gaga announced she is devoting her $1 million donation in support of those impacted by the recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and the earthquakes in Mexico, to a specific cause — the mental and emotional well being of children and youth.

Gaga announced on her Born This Way Foundation website she will support Save the Children’s Journey of Hope program, which uses a variety of tools to help young people deal with trauma in the wake of natural disasters.

"Through a curriculum that includes cooperative play, discussion, art, meditation, and mindfulness practices, young people learn to recognize and understand their emotions and develop healthy coping skills," Gaga wrote. "Tens of thousands of youth have benefited from the program since it’s development in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Save the Children is working to bring it to hundreds of thousands more in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico."

The announcement came on World Mental Health Day, and the Fame Monster has invited all of us to step up and consider making a contribution to the Journey of Hope program to support to mental and emotional needs of children.

"Mental health is just as vital to our wellbeing as physical health. That’s true for each of us, everyday, but it’s especially important for those coping with disaster and recovering from trauma," wrote Lady Gaga. "We must do everything within our power to support the full, vibrant recovery of these communities, from meeting their immediate needs to helping them to rebuild sustainably."

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