travelling into the Christian market
by Lorena Kelly
July 31, 2009
This is a girl who certainly has been down a few roads. Literally. Denise was born in Charlottetown, PEI, grew up in North Battleford, later moved to Saskatoon (where she obtained her degrees in Education, and then Law), and currently resides in Regina. In between she also resided in Ottawa, Vancouver, and Japan. Upon moving to Regina in 2001, Denise chose to cut her job in the legal profession to part time in order to concentrate on her musical career. And she credits SRIA as being a part of it. "I started going to things like workshops, which build the excitement...I learned so much. Also, working on the album got me so motivated."
She's sung since she was a little girl - in school, musicals and choirs. She had experience performing in several university bands, competed in vocal shows, and even sang in a Linda Ronstadt tribute, which got her into clubs to develop her live performance skills. But it wasn't until 1999, when she starting taking formal voice lessons with the encouragement of her husband Tony, that she really began to consider music as something more than a hobby. Her vocal instructor, Jessica Robinson, is a performer/songwriter who introduced Denise to country music, as well as planted the seed to begin songwriting.
Denise is quite clear about the difference songwriting made to her plans. After writing her first gospel song - which became the title track of her just-released album, Who I Am - and performing her own songs live, she decided she could, and should, do more with her music. "I really enjoyed it. (The tribute) was acting, performance, and a lot of fun. But once I started doing gospel music there was a real difference. The performance aspect is still there, but the music is a lot more meaningful. It reaches people in a different way. When you're doing pop music, you're bringing people joy, but when you do gospel music I think it's just deeper. Or you hope that it is. You're not going out to 'be the show' - you're going out to share a message with people. It's not so much about what you're wearing and how you look, but what you want to say to people, how you want to relate your music to them, the stories you tell about your songs."
Many of the songs on the album were inspired by external sources. I comment on several that are written in first person, and so intimately stated that you believe she's truly walked in the shoes she sings from. "I practiced family law for so many years, and saw instances where people were going through divorces, fighting over children, and so on...and when you represent these cases you become very close to the people. It was easy to write because I'd seen it all. I've had to hold many hands and help them through it."
So how does one make the switch from mainstream pop/country artist to Christian artist? "After I wrote that first Christian song, I still wrote a few more country songs, and was doing both for a while. At one point I competed in a country radio vocal contest, and about the same time was working with the ALPHA Group (an interdenominational Christian course dealing with faith building). It's almost as if that comparison made me realize which path I wanted to take. Although I had a great time in the country genre, the Christian genre just felt so much more powerful."
Audiences who heard the results responded enthusiastically to Denise's new choice of direction. But she didn't rush into the studio to begin her first album. "I wanted to see if I would be able to write more songs. I let the creative process have its way, and when I had several songs completed I knew that eventually there would be something released. I did a few demos with Bart McKay in both Christian and country genres, and we established a good working relationship." Bart, who came on board as producer for the album, lined up some of the province's best musicians. "Because I'm not a musician - I have ideas and a melody - we talked about the sound we were going for and the instrumentation; Bart had lots of great ideas, and put together the arrangements for the songs."
How does one market a Christian album? In Denise's case, it's to start with four CD release parties (Regina, Saskatoon, and two planned for Alberta). "I've got a working relationship with the Blessings chain, which has stores across Canada. I'm also going to do a lot of performances, and sell the CD directly at those. I'm going to market to radio as well; although there isn't a lot of gospel radio in this area, there are specialty shows that do include it. Right now I'm doing it all on my own. I've joined the gospel music associations of Canada and the U.S., and I hope to start networking more through them and other avenues." While a Christian artist may be slightly more limited in their venues - bars and nightclubs generally not being an option - there are many alternatives for performances, and Denise will be appearing at music festivals that are inclusive of Christian music, at churches and for faith groups, and for community group events.
The burning question on my mind was to settle an issue of confusion. There's a huge range of Christian music styles available to listeners now - traditional gospel, rock, alternative, or even blues sounding, and a growing market for it all. And then there is a lot of secular music that's dealing with "moral issues". So what's the real difference between being a Christian artist, and being a secular artist who's just preaching good values? Is there a difference?
"There's a lot of secular music that is what I call 'spiritual'. But it's not necessarily just about 'being good to people'. That is one of the rules, of course. But it has to be about God. And, as a Christian, it's about Christ." So that's the defining line as Denise sees it.
For Christian artists, there's a different purpose to being in the music industry. "I've come to see, since I've started working with church groups including the ALPHA program where I've been providing the music ministry (in other words, the music program), that my role has been to help people through times of struggle, through their faith journey. Everyone's faith is different, everyone's at a different point in their life; we all go through times when we're really strong in our faith, and other times when we think 'What am I doing, I don't know where to go, or who to turn to.' What I've learned from people coming up and talking to me, emailing me, that my music touches them. It helps them through these times, and gives them hope and joy. I think that is my purpose."
Success, for Denise, is getting her message out to more people. But it's not about making a boatload of money, or garnering an album deal. "I'm more focused on the local market, and slowly working out from there. If someone heard my CD and something bigger happened as a result, great, because that means I could reach more people. It (a label deal) is not my number one goal. It would be nice, though, to eventually 'do this for a living.' "
With a supportive family behind her, and songs for the next album already being written, Denise's decision to "make something more of it" is definitely a prophecy that's being fulfilled.