FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
In the 1990s, a new crop of young music directors changed gospel music as we know it. Thet fused the traditional, large-choir sound with elements of hip-hop and R&B. Donald Lawrence came out of that period. His work with the Tri-City Singers made him one of the biggest names in gospel, and he's done solo work, as well.
NPR's Tony Cox found him in a new role, hosting "How Sweet The Sound," a showcase for gospel choirs around the country.
COX: Now, is this sort of an "American Idol" for gospel choirs? Is that what it is?
Mr. DONALD LAWRENCE (Gospel Music Director; Host, "How Sweet The Sound"): For a lack of a better term, I would say yeah. But you know, the difference, I think, would be it's more about recognizing and saluting the church choir, as opposed to a competition of who's going to be the best.
When you really get to the show and you see and you feel the energy and you feel the emotion of it, it's really all about just saying thank you for being in the choirs and really sacrificing your time and keeping great gospel music going on Sunday mornings across the country. So really, everybody was a winner. And I know that's a cliche, but really, honestly, they were. Everybody that was in it got some type of financial compensation, whether they won or not.
COX: Really? Now, what's the biggest choir you've ever been involved with or heard or seen or had to judge?
Mr. LAWRENCE: When it comes to the biggest choir I've seen or worked with, it would be when I was really a kid, and I did - presented one of my first songs to the national public at the Gospel Music Workshop of America. It was the Mass Choir, and the Mass Choir was literally about 2,000 people. So many people that they could only put half of the choir on the stage to do half of the concert, and that choir would exit and then the other half of the choir would come and back and do the other side of the concert.
COX: Two thousand people in one choir?
Mr. LAWRENCE: One choir. Yes, I was petrified. I was really a little kid, and I was petrified.
(Soundbite of laughter)
COX: You know, you've long been associated with the Tri-City Singers, going back to the early '90s, and you've had great success with them, even when the group finally retired some years ago with a monster live recording. Was that bittersweet good music, but the end of a...
Mr. LAWRENCE: You know what? It was bittersweet but I think it's wisdom. And I think you have to know when you need to transition because I think sometimes when you don't transition at the right time you end up dying in a season or just kind of becoming stagnant in a season. So I felt like this was the time for all of us to transition.
I'm doing so many things to really, really, kind of maintenance the choir right now. At this particular point in my career was really hard.
COX: You know, you went solo yourself some years - a few years back. You knock it out of the park with your very first recording, "I Speak Life."
Mr. LAWRENCE: Yeah.
COX: I think it won six out of seven Stellar Awards...
Mr. LAWRENCE: Yeah, it did. Yeah.
COX: That it was nominated for. Congratulations on that, first of all.
Mr. LAWRENCE: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
COX: You had some great talent with you, but what's it like to go solo like that after having been associated with a group like Tri-City for so long?
Mr. LAWRENCE: You know what? It's a little - it's a little scary at first, you know. I've kind of been doing it now for about four years so I'm kind of used to it. But the one thing is, you look back, and you don't see the same faces behind you, you know, because I have nine session singers that I kind of call The Company that go out and do vocals with me when I'm out on the road. But when you're used to seeing 35 people wrapped in all this eclectic garb and wear and you don't see them in there anymore, and it's people that you've known for years because they're singers and Tri-City singers that I grew up with. So they're people that I've known since I was probably 10, you know, so when you don't see them anymore, and you just got this certain kind of chemistry, you have to redevelop that chemistry with new people. And luckily, I've been able to get that going now. It was a little frightening. I see you're smiling.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of song "Let The Word Do The Work")
DONALD LAWRENCE & CO.: (Singing) When you're working When you work When you're working When you work Listen when you When you work Say it...
COX: Let's talk about this for a moment because people like you, Kirk Franklin, I'll throw in, let's say, you know, Fred Hammond, John P. Keith, for example, are contemporary artists who sometimes will use a variation of what we'll call the old call-and-response in gospel music, and in some of your songs you'll say something or talk, and then the choir will back you up lyrically.
Mr. LAWRENCE: Right.
COX: What does that do for a song, though? Does it give you more opportunity for expression when you do it that way?
Mr. LAWRENCE: It's a takeoff of what James Cleveland used to do back in the day. I really, really, do feel like that. We just do a contemporary - we have a contemporary way of doing it, but when I first started doing it I didn't do it because I didn't want to sing. I did it because I wanted to stress the lyric that the choir was doing.
(Soundbite of music)
DONALD LAWRENCE & CO.: (Singing) You gotta come down You gotta come, yeah. You gotta come down
Mr. LAWRENCE: I wanted everybody to hear there's a great lyric that we're singing, and sometimes they lose it when it's melodic, and if someone would say it before they sing it melodic, you kind of get a double hit of what the lyric is. So for me, I might even not say what they're saying, but I'll say something that really ignites the line or the phrase even more. So it just hits home with everybody.
(Soundbite of music)
DONALD LAWRENCE & CO.: (Singing) They've got to come down Yeah, they got to come They gotta come down...
COX: You talked about contemporary. One of the things - you have had music on the dance charts, and you've had music on the gospel charts. I would think - and I want to get your response to this - that nowadays, it's not as difficult to balance music between secular and non-secular as it used to be.
Mr. LAWRENCE: See, one think I've always felt is a great song is just a great song. You know, sometimes there've been a lot of great songs that people just weren't exposed to. They would have done the same thing then if they had been exposed to it. So me, I don't think it's really hard to balance it one way or the other. I just think that if it's a great song, it just goes there and people enjoy it, you know.
COX: Well, your music, some of it is - I would call it - it's danceable.
Mr. LAWRENCE: It's a feeling. It's uplifting. It's empowering. And I think, who doesn't want to be uplifted in a world, in a society that we live in now? So, you know.
COX: What about this new music? So you're just coming out of the studio?
Mr. LAWRENCE: Yeah. Yeah. We did a live record, and I did it with my nine session singers, and it was done live in my church. It's the first time I've done a live record, myself, without Tri-City. So this, to me, even more than "I Speak Life," is very groundbreaking or really sets the tone for where I go next. I think it's a great idea. It's called, "The Law Of Confession," and it's built around a book that my pastor, Pastor Bill Winston, is doing. So it's kind of like the soundtrack to the book.
The new single is called "Back-2- Eden," and it's still from this series, and it's the same kind of concept thing. It's the thing that - a quick definition would be when God made us, He deemed us to live in a life of abundance and a life of great family. When we fail, we lost that right, but Jesus came and he redeemed us. That's where you get the word "redeemed." So I'm telling everybody, let's get back to Eden and live on top of the world.
(Soundbite of song "Back-2- Eden")
DONALD LAWRENCE & CO.: (Singing) Yeah, sing it to somebody Let's get back to Eden, And live on top of the world. Tell somebody, I said Let's get back to Eden And live on top of the world Say it again then Let's get back to Eden OK, tell'em how it is, ya'll And live on top of the world Our family's blessed Our family's blessed Finance is blessed Our finance is blessed Our mind is free Our mind is free.
COX: This has been a great conversation. I'm going to end it with this question. When you graduated from the prestigious Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where did you see yourself, Donald Lawrence, going at that time, and how close have you come to it?
Mr. LAWRENCE: That's a great question. I saw myself being on Broadway. I did not see myself on records. I had no idea about the record business, doing records. I knew I always wanted to do a gospel album at some point, but my main focus was to be on Broadway singing and dancing and doing musical theater. That was my goal. How close am I to it now? I don't know because records and theater is something else. However, I am in negotiations with taking a show to New York. So, we'll see. We'll see what the future holds.
CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox talking with gospel artist and producer Donald Lawrence. His upcoming CD is called, "The Law of Confession." He joined us here at NPR West. And that's our show for today.
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