East Croydon Cool talks…Gospel Music

East Croydon Cool talks…is a blog series that explores topics of cultural interest via local area experts.

Despite declining church attendance over recent years, interest in Christian Music (including Contemporary Christian Music and Gospel Music) seems to have gone from strength to strength. From Stormzy bringing a Gospel choir on stage at Glastonbury and Harry and Meghan having The Kingdom Choir perform at their wedding to Kanye West writing an award-winning Gospel album and House Gospel Choir running bottomless brunches and duetting with big name artists…Gospel has gone a bit mainstream.

So, to learn more about the Gospel Music scene, we caught up with the one and only John Fisher. John is a well-known and respected face in both the British gospel and secular music industry, who leads IDMC Gospel Soul Choir, one of the UK’s leading Gospel choirs who are based right here in Croydon.

John, we understand you’ve been on the Gospel music scene a fair while now…how did IDMC get started and what keeps you going?
I really have! I’ve been creating music for nearly 30 years and have been involved in many aspects of the industry – I’ve been a songwriter, music producer, radio DJ, TV presenter, vocal arranger, music director and also a mentor and youth leader. As a choir we’ve been going over 27 years now. It all started back in 1994 when a group of people from churches across South London came together at New Testament Church of God in Brixton for a mass choir celebration that was recorded. We knew immediately we had something really special and I was keen to make it a longer term project by forming an official choir. To begin with, there were 80 singers but whilst they were all happy to take part in a one-off event, they weren’t keen on regular rehearsals, performances, tours (or any of the other big visions I had for us all!). So choir numbers soon reduced to around 40 people (which to be fair, was much more manageable!) and since then we have gone through several transitions to arrive at where we are today; a twenty-five member choir from various backgrounds who share a common Christian faith and belief. We’ve honed our sound and today the music is both infectious and inspirational, with a global message of love, hope, joy and peace.

In terms of what keeps me going, well, there’s multiple answers to that but what strongly comes to mind is something that happened quite early on and that continues to happen today. After one of our early performances, I heard from a lady who was very broken and who had been planning to commit suicide that week. She attended our show and was so moved by the words we sung that she had a change of heart. I know it sounds shocking but it’s surprising how many times I have heard similar stories of how our music has brought comfort and strength to people. If that’s not motivation to keep me running the choir, then I don’t know what is!

Where do you rehearse and perform?
Tuesdays have been our official rehearsal day since we started in the 90s…but our rehearsal and performance spaces have changed a lot since then! Whilst myself and my wife (an integral choir member) have been in Croydon for around 40 years, our singers are based all around London and the surrounding areas. Our key rehearsal spaces include The Front Room in Croydon (a brilliant space headed up by Sam and Dave who are doing great things to champion diverse live music performances and provide a platform for emerging talent). We also have a central London space – an office on Shaftesbury Avenue and a Studio in Hackney. Our church community has always been very welcoming with their spaces and we often go back to our roots in Brixton.

In terms of performances, you name it, there’s been huge variety! From the Rah Rah rooms in Soho, The Jazz Café in Camden and Tinderbox Festival in Denmark to The Royal Albert Hall, Blenheim Palace and a Bermondsey Brewery…we’re as adaptable as our vocal ranges 😉

What have been some of the highlights over the years?
You’re going to have to put a cap on this as I could honestly talk for hours about how many times I’ve gone “Wow, I can’t believe this is happening!”. But to kick off, I have to include the award I received from the Queen! {Last year, John was awarded the British Empire Medal Award for his services to Education}. This was such incredible recognition, and I was so happy my dad was around to see me get this as he often said {John puts on a strong Jamaican accent} “Yuh really shud bi gi an award fi all yuh duh.”!

Another massive highlight from our early days, and one which really helped move us forward as a professional choir, was when we sang at Pavarotti’s wedding in 2003. This incredible experience was also an excellent lesson in saying yes to opportunities! It all started in 2001 when we were invited to Italy by a friend of mine who was keen to show Italians that not all Gospel choirs were from America! She explained it wasn’t a paid gig and she could only cover our expenses but I was so excited at the idea of taking IDMC overseas that I jumped at the chance. The gig turned out to be to a 20,000 strong audience in Bologna…a big step up from our previous gigs! We sang our socks off…so much so, the team had a whip round and ended up paying us which was totally unexpected! Anyway, we kept in touch and a few years later, this same lady called me up and asked if we’d like to do a celebrity wedding. Lured in by another trip to Italy, we said yes but it wasn’t until 2 weeks prior that we found out who it was for. We didn’t say anything to anyone, as none of us really believed it was happening and it wasn’t til after we got off the stage in Modena that it really hit us quite what we’d done! But as I say, there have been countless other highlights over the years including touring with Michael Bublé, performing with Jason Mraz at the Royal Albert Hall and attending the 2013 MOBOS (where we were the first choir to ever be nominated for one of their awards!) 

How have you managed the choir during lockdown?
I honestly think the choir has helped all of us keep our sanity intact over the past year! Whilst live gigs were obviously off the agenda, we did as much as we could to keep everyone connected, give us all some purpose and structure to the days and provide a creative outlet for what we were all going through. We initially gave Zoom rehearsals a go but soon realised that with everyone working off different connection speeds, the smallest delay for one singer quickly messed it up for everyone else! So we scrapped that, and instead focused on sending music to individual choir members and asked them to record their part. We then stitched these all together to create some great tracks. We actually managed to release four singles like this during the pandemic – Believe, When We Praise, My Joy and I leave with You. As regulations loosened a little, we ran our first ever online gig (where we got the choir to perform at The Hideaway in Streatham and live streamed it to a paying audience). We were also able to do a socially distanced performance at Blenheim Palace for Songs of Praise. Having fans contact us to say they’d just seen us on BBC was another great way of feeling connected to our audience during lockdown. 

How important is faith within the choir?
In short, its crucial. IDMC stands for ‘Individuals Dedicated to the Ministry of Christ’ and whilst our choir members come from a range of churches including Baptist, Pentecostal and Catholic, what unites them is their Christian faith and belief in God. We are singers but we also have a duty (and a desire!) to share our belief with others.

But of course, faith is often tested! It was interesting to see the response of some of our members to the pandemic. I’ve learnt over recent years that you can often tell where someone’s head is at by the type of content they’re posting on Facebook. As a choir leader, I had to call a few people up over the year to check in with them and remind them of scripture. As Christians, the bible is our guide to faith. It’s easy to believe in God when all is good and going well in life but the bible teaches us that we have to live around disappointment and sadness too. The words we sing are a testament to our faith and I had to remind our members that you either believe them or you don’t. A little word from Uncle John soon had them on the right track again 😉 It’s been an incredibly hard time, but faith has got us through. 

What do you think of the ‘trend’ for Gospel music and Gospel choirs?
Well, first of all I’d say that this is not the first time we’ve seen Gospel music “trending” in the mainstream! There have been many big singers who have taken influence from Gospel including Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill and even Bob Dylan. And Gospel singers have been used as backing singers for big name acts for decades…but I see where you’re coming from! Overall, I think it’s a wonderful thing. To see the likes of Stormzy not just perform with a Gospel choir but put them front and centre by closing his Glastonbury set with them, is brilliant exposure for the genre.

But it’s important that the religious element of the music does not get lost – as Gospel singers, we open the door to faith. We want to encourage others in (and not just make great music!) In a similar way, we need to ensure those who are getting mainstream attention, become positive gatekeepers who open doors for others. This has not always happened. The USA has done incredible things for Gospel music and they are great at knowing their worth and marketing it well. But the Europeans I met when touring, were often shocked when they realised the scale of Gospel music scene in the UK (having assumed Gospel choirs only came out of the States!)

What do you think of the music scene in Croydon?
There is some serious music talent in Croydon. I love the mix of talent, from professionally trained pop music artists (like Adele, Amy Winehouse and Jessie J) coming out of The Brit School to the rawer Grime sounds from the likes of Krept and Konan and Stormzy. I love what Croydon FM are doing and am keen to get myself a Gospel radio slot on there (so if you’re reading this Clive, give me a shout!) and last week I found out the UK’s number one {Body by Tion Wayne and Russ Millions} was produced by a Croydon based producer, Gotcha, who is working out of Finesse Foreva, a Croydon record label. Who knew we had our very own record label producing UK Chart talent?! It was great to see The Ends festival in Croydon in 2019 attract such big name artists and I do hope that returns to the Borough when events are allowed again. I’m also very excited about Croydon’s ‘London Borough of Culture’ status and keen to get involved in the team delivering that. My other big passion is We Sing You Sing, an in-school singing programme that brings joy to primary and secondary schools across London and I would love to get more Croydon children involved in that project.  

What plans have IDMC got lined up for the coming months?
Well we’ve just been doing some re-jigging {Boris Johnson announced the delay of the 21st June ‘opening’ yesterday} but I’m still excited and confident about the remainder of the year. Our first big live gig is on Saturday 3rd July here on home turf at Stanley Arts in South Norwood. We were aiming for a full capacity audience of 300 people but the new rules mean we’ll have to cap at 150. However, the enthusiasm in the air for live events is palpable and I’ve no doubt the energy on stage that night will make up for the reduced crowd! We’re also working on our tenth album. Today’s streaming world is great to bringing wider, international exposure to IDMC but it’s not a money maker! Typically, we make 0.00052p for every track streamed on the likes of Spotify.  I read an article recently where an emerging artist was saying he was excited to find out his track had been streamed over 10k times but this was shortlived when he realised this equated to a fiver! At IDMC, we’re pretty lucky as our large choir membership and live gigs give us the opportunity to sell to our fans direct.

What is your next goal for the choir: is there a certain place you’d like to perform, certain award you’d like to win, certain person/act you’d like to perform with?
I’m 55 now and blessed to have been able to do so many great things…many of which were totally unexpected and things I could never have dreamed or planned for! So overall, I will leave it up to God! But for a more precise answer, I should probably go back to why I started the choir in the first place. From the outset, I was keen to play an active role in the UK Gospel scene and be an ambassador for Gospel music.  So anything that helps me further fulfil that role, is on my goals list! Equally, I am big on legacy and working with the future generation, so projects that incorporate my youth work would be really interesting. But if you want to tie me down to one specific goal, it would be to take the choir on tour of the US. Nothing would give me more pleasure than taking Gospel back to the Motherland!

Who would you be without Gospel?
In short, I’d be 30% of myself because I always say, 70% of what you see today is because of Gospel music. My dad was a singer and so I grew up driving to gigs with him. Like most kids brought up with loving parents, all I wanted to do when I was older was be like him. But the music industry wasn’t lucrative and so my dad was desperate that I didn’t follow his footsteps! So I studied and worked and I guess if I had continued down that path, I’d probably be a data technician working in the city. I’d be earning a nice steady wage but wouldn’t have had half the life experience or wow moments!

For more information on IDMC, see www.idmcgospel.com or follow @IDMCGospelUK on socials.

For more information on We Sing, You Sing, see www.wesingusing.org.uk or follow @we_sing_u_sing_uk_official on socials.

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