There’re a lot of paths up the mountain of gospel singing and hand in hand we have walked, the atheist, the humanist and the devout. We have immersed ourselves in the sonics, in the histrionics, in the militancy, in the sincerity of American gospel music, for nearly 20 years.
Starting out we embraced the stance, the romance, the harmonies and the forms. We were wry, a little defensive, we were ‘The God Botherers’ and we hacked out a space for ourselves at the Woodford Festival in 1997. For myself and Pearly Black it was an experiment. We were looking for who we could be as singers, and gospel set us a puzzle: we were too respectful of the tradition to be a quirky cabaret band, too pluralist to fit a folkloric niche and far too serious to hang loose. Pearly, the devoted Buddhist, and me, the humanist, were seeking the same goal, to find that letting go of self that defines the best performances of religious music. There’s a lot we could both say about the meaning and purpose of altered states in singing (both from the mystical and the psychological viewpoint) but together we believed the best of all foundations for our own attempts would be discovered in the Classic gospel songs performed by Mahalia Jackson, the searing harmonies of the Louvin Brothers, the haunted interpretations of Johnny Cash and the perfection of the Staples Singers.
And we had the great good fortune to have musical friends who shared this desire, who were ready for anything: Jamie Clark, Helen Russell, John Rodgers and Kym Ambrose generating groove, harmony vocals, bowing, picking, plucking and bringing in the repertoire that they loved in to play. And we played on, usually twice a year. For a long time we were trying out new names and new spaces. The Zoo were great friends and we played at the Brisbane City Council lunchtime concerts many times. Once we put on our own double bill with a community choir at St Andrew’s Church Hall. That year we called the event ‘Passionflower’… It sort of sounds a bit silly now, but we were still trying to figure out what we were. Gospel repertoire is such strong medicine and we have such respect for the original artists and their work that it was completely natural for us to be wrestling with innate tensions.
Then we made two decisions that seemed to resolve many issues. We re-christened the band ‘Tell Heaven’, a quote from the Staples’ ‘I’m Coming Home’ and we asked Coojee Timms to join the group. What Coojee brought with him was simple, his voice, steeped in vintage musical traditions, embracing all that is funny and fresh and full of feel. Coojee balanced us and made us better. Since then we’ve produced some shows at the Judith Wright centre that were recorded (see the link below) and we did a long run of Easter Sundays at the Brisbane Jazz Club, each year catching up with each other, where we’ve been, where we’re going…even as we all moved on with family, jobs and our various musical adventures.
Next year it will be 20 years since the gospel band began and we’ll be looking to celebrate with as many people as we can. Hope to see you at a show and hoping we can put together a few more than two... I really wish I had a stop motion recording of every show we’ve ever done, 'cause I reckon I’d see us growing into this venerable repertoire, building our own interpretations of the music, contributing our own songs, improvising and finding our own way with this great tradition.
(Photo - Tell Heaven at the Brisbane Jazz Club 2012)
Purchase ‘Tell Heaven - Live At The Judy '06’ http://recordstore.blackcherry.com.au/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=66_70