We live in troubled, divided times, but thankfully some folks are still spreading a house music ethos of unity and love…
Formed in London six or seven years ago, House Gospel Choir are on a mission to take house music back to its roots. At a time when the erasure of people of colour's voices and stories within our culture is high on the agenda, they're here to remind us all that house music has deep roots in gospel – many of the leading divas in house, after all, first stood up to sing publicly in church.
But while gospel music lies at the heart of what the Choir do musically, and though the Choir is in many ways a celebration of blackness, the Choir's founder and creative director Natalie Maddix is keen to point out that its ethos is all about inclusivity, not about excluding anyone – simply ensuring that people who appreciate the music, also appreciate where it came from. The Choir has members of every colour, and of every faith and none – which, as anyone to whom the name Chuck Roberts means anything will tell you, is precisely what house music was supposed to be about in the first place!
Having witnessed them in action at Sheffield's Tramlines festival a couple of years ago, we already knew what a joyous, life-affirming experience a House Gospel Choir show really is. Since then, they've gone on to work with the likes of Todd Terry, Barbara Tucker, Wookie, DJ Spen and Beverly Night – many of which collaborations feature on their debut album RE/CHOIRED, which has just been released.
Which gave us the perfect opportunity to find out more…
I don't know much about the Choir's history, so tell me how it all started…
“Well, very simply, I love singing with people and I love raving! So put those two together and you've got your answer right there. I wasn't brave enough to ask anyone to do that with me until about 2010, 2011, but once I did, straight away quite a lot of my friends were up for it. I know a lot of singers and musicians and DJs, from working in the music industry as a tour manager, so it all went from there really.
“But there was one night in particular… I was in South Africa doing a tour and I went to a club called Pretoria House 22 in Johannesburg, and it just felt really uplifting… you know the best nights out, when everyone's got their hands in the air, singing along? But it struck me that everyone was singing in tune, and it sounded like a choir. I mean, it probably didn't, I was probably just a bit drunk at the time! But that was the feeling that I wanted more of.”
So how did the Choir form from there?
“That took me till about 2013, 2014. I got 12 friends into a studio on an industrial estate in Stratford, and we literally went in and said, 'Okay, let's figure out how to sing these songs – let's figure out the harmonies, sing it in a gospel style and just see how we feel'. And it felt great, so we went from there. We brought in Funk Butcher as a DJ, because I knew him from uni days, and we went through a load of records that we loved and set about learning them.
“At the time, I was doing some work on the Olympic Park, which was just around the corner, and I heard that Glastonbury were looking for a choir for a Sunday slot on the acoustic stage. And because he knew I'd worked with choirs in the past, the director asked me if I could suggest anyone, and I was like, 'Yeah, I know a choir… but they do house music, are you up for that?'. And he said yes.”
“At that point we hadn't really done many rehearsals, but we worked our arses off for 12 weeks to get the show together, and we've been going since then, basically.”
So you say there were 12 of you at that stage… did everyone have previous choral experience?
“No, some people hadn't sung for years, it was just mates. Well, a couple were professional singers anyway, but really it was just people I knew that enjoyed singing and raving. And then people started saying 'Can I bring my friend?' or 'There's a lady at my workplace who'd really like to come', and within a month or two we had about 40 members, and had to move into a bigger space. And right now, we've got about 125 members.”
And how many of those will be at any given performance?
“Well at the moment, because of covid, six! But the most we've ever put on stage was about 30, and our touring party for festivals and stuff is about nine or 12.”
So you've got quite a big pool of talent you can draw on for any given gig?
“Well, some of our members aren't professional singers, they're not performers, they're just part of our community and we all get together and sing. But then there's the professional element of it, the people that sing full time and that's their job, and we train really hard so that we're ready for the show because 60 minutes of singing and dancing is actually pretty heavy going! So that's a smaller team of about 25 people.”
So there's almost two House Gospel Choirs – the professional, perform-at-festivals one, and then the weekly, participatory, turn-up-and-sing one?
And is that all in London?
“It is, but the people come from all over the UK… and what's been really great about the community element is, if people don't necessarily come from London, we've built them this little community of singers and friends. But now, because of the covid restrictions, we've had to take it all online, so we do our weekly sessions through Instagram Live. It's been great because, thanks to our social media following, we've now got members in the US and Canada and a few European cities as well. So it's not quiteall in London any more, which is good.”
How have you found the singing online? Because my partner's choir in a choir and they started doing Zoom rehearsals, but she found it frustrating that you can't actually hear the other singers…
“Yeah, she's absolutely right! There's scientific proof that there's something inherently beneficial about singing in a group of people, whether it's professionally or just for the joy of it – music therapy is increasingly used in mental healthcare settings, for instance. So that's a big part of it, and your partner's quite right – on Zoom, it doesn't work! But our choir director has quite a sophisticated set-up where you can actually hear each other, so it still feels like you're singing with other people, not just on your own in your living room.
“And now we're doing it through Instagram Live, and my flat is just big enough to fit three vocalists and our choir director at a safe social distance, so when you watch it, it still feels like you're watching a choir. And I know that some people just sit at home and watch it and sing along with their families, which is great, because it's all about getting people involved and engaged as much as possible.”
And now you've made the move onto record…
“Yeah, the first single from the album Salvation came out last October, and before that we did a song with Riton & MNEK called Deeper in 2017. And this year we've released a single pretty much every month since April, and the album came out on 23 October.”
So is the plan to go further down that route and establish yourself as a recording act, as much as live one?
“Well, to be honest, the main reason we did so much recording this year is because we can't get out and perform but still wanted people to experience the music – I think, first and foremost, we're still about live performance.
“But the recording has been fun and I'm really excited about the album: it's a nice challenge to go in and record these songs, and the album's got a nice mix of covers and original songs so yeah, it's good!”
Okay, so that's what the Choir is and how it came into being… let's talk a little bit about why. Because a lot of it is about reclaiming house music's black roots, isn't it? So tell us about that…
“Well… we know that house and techno came from black and other marginalised communities. But they're such uplifting songs with such a positive message that anyone can get into them, and I think that's what happened here in the UK. There's an interesting narrative about how house music came to be so big here in and in Ibiza, but I think it does sometimes leave out the origins and the history of it.
“Obviously, when people go out, they're going out to rave, they're not looking for a history lesson! But I think it's important to have that understanding, and there was a quote from Frankie Knuckles that I read – 'House music is church for people that have fallen from grace'. I thought that was a great way to look at the experience of being on a dancefloor with other people and that sense of community, and for me that's how it links to my upbringing within a church background.
“I'm not necessarily very religious – I'd say 'spiritual' rather than 'religious'. But I do feel that all these experiences are linked, that you can have those transcendent moments on a dancefloor and you can have them in church as well, and I think house music comes out of that. It comes out of that struggle, and that's something that lots more people could engage in. And with everything that's going on with Black Lives Matter and so on, it's an important conversation to have, to make sure those voices are still being heard.”
It is – and as a white guy writing about black music, it's something that's been on my mind a lot this year. I do this job because I watched acid house and rave bring people together and break down barriers, and I genuinely believe house music is an incredibly positive force in the world – and for me, I always go back to 'You may be black, you may be white, you may be Jew, you may be Gentile'. But lately I've questioned whether I should even be in this space at all, because some people seem to think I shouldn't… and maybe they're right?
“I don't think that's the dominant narrative, though. Yes, you do get people saying all sorts of silly things online! But I think really, it's just about acknowledging the history of house music and where it came from, which did get overlooked for a long time. For me that's where the conversation begins and ends – in terms of being on the dancefloor and having that experience, yes, house music is for everybody!
“Everybody can make house music, everybody can make techno music, everybody can have a great time… I just think it's important for people to understand the roots of the story. If you look at the Choir, we've got black people, white people, Asian people, gay people, straight people… it's house music just as you just described it! There's just maybe been an omission when it comes to that part of the story. You know, if you love the sound of Barbara Tucker's voice, or Martha Wash's voice… that came from church, and that's the conversation we're trying to have. It's not about silencing anyone, it's just about making sure that part of the story doesn't get overlooked.
“I think we're actually on the same page when it comes to what we want, which is to keep on experiencing that togetherness. The motto for the Choir is 'we are one' and I think we exemplify the possibility that we can all keep working together to keep that legacy alive.”
Absolutely! Don't get me wrong, I wasn't grumbling – I just wanted to give you a chance to say that in print…
“No, that's good – these are the conversations we should all be having! And that's all it is, it's about having that conversation and making sure the story's told correctly. And then we can all have fun together, which is what we're all missing right now.”
Agreed! What about the other side of that equation, though – the Jew/Gentile part. Is being of the Christian faith a prerequisite for joining the Choir?
“No, it's not. For me, the conversation about faith is a valid one that gets left out of the debate these days, and that can make certain groups feel alienated, especially religious groups. I started raving when I was 13, 14, going to a Catholic school, and for me, I think Christianity is useful. I wouldn't necessarily say I'm a Christian right now, but I definitely have faith and I definitely believe in God, and I think the House Gospel Choir is about exploring your faith and exploring your spirituality, and linking that to the rave experience.
“Because there's so much we can't explain, right? Bottom line, there's so much we can't explain about humanity and our existence and why we're here. We're not trying to explain it, we're just saying it's there, so let's tap into that energy, let's try and come to an understanding so we can move forward together. And that means people with all kinds of faith or no faith can all be in the same space. That's what we've found: it's not a Christian choir, we use the gospel sound and that originates from black churches, and that's important to recognise. But I don't think that necessarily needs to be… reconciled, if that makes any sense?”
I think so! What I'm getting at here is that, I've seen you in action, there were people of every colour onstage, and it was a joyous, life-affirming experience. Now, for me, there's something deep-rooted and spiritual that's inherent in house music, just in terms of its tempo and its relation to the human heartbeat –
“Yep, I'd agree with that!”
– and for me, house music is about unity and joy. That's what I got from seeing you perform, and what I want iDJ readers to understand – that it's about unity and joy, not about your skin tone or what God you worship…
“Yeah, you've hit the nail on the head! It's not about excluding anyone, it's the opposite of that: it's about all coming together and finding those moments of joy. We need that as human beings, especially with everything that's going on in the world right now. We need these little pockets and moments where we're uplifted and we feel connected to other people. And that can happen on a dancefloor, it can happen in church, it can happen at a football match, it can happen on a rush-hour Tube!
“So we actually have a little slogan on our website that says 'joy required', only it's a bit of double-meaning because we spell it 're-choired', like the album title, because we do cover versions! That's definitely the intention, but yeah, I want people to understand that, too. Because we've had moments where… like, some people who have strong religious-based faiths have questioned our using the world 'gospel'. But again, these ideas are there to be discussed and explored. That's what life's about.”
There's a mental health and wellness/wellbeing aspect to all this as well, isn't there?
“There is. As I said, there's evidence that singing with other people – whatever type of music it is – is beneficial to your wellbeing, and for me personally, I lost my Mum a year after I started the Choir, and the way I managed to keep myself together was singing with these people. When you feel like you're detached from everything, singing in a group can help you find a way to fit in somewhere and be part of something, and that helped me keep going.
“So I know, just anecdotally from my own experience and from talking to other members of the Choir, that it can help people. We have members who are battling their own mental health issues, but they keep coming back and it becomes part of their healing process.”
Is that the singing per se, though, or is it just being part of a community?
“Both, I think. The act of singing and dancing is good for you in itself – it releases serotonin and helps lift your mood, so there's that biological aspect. But also having that community – especially, as I said, for our members who maybe don't come from London and don't have their families nearby right now – having that feeling of being part of a community, of being at home somewhere, that's important too.”
Finally, what else is coming up for you that iDJ readers need to know about?
“Well, the album's out now as you know, and then after that we've got our annual Christmas show, which always goes down really well. Well, hopefully we are! Obviously the coronavirus pandemic has messed up our schedule completely, but we're looking at various things we can do, and there should hopefully be some TV appearances soon too.”
And once we finally get coronavirus out of the way – in 2037 or whenever it might be! – do you have any plans to expand? To set up regional choirs across the UK, or choirs overseas, or anything like that?
“We'd absolutely love to. It's funny, we actually got the opportunity to set up a choir in Perth, Australia. Kind of weird that we went all the way to way to Australia before doing something here, I guess! But we played at an international arts festival there, and it worked really well: we auditioned a whole brand new choir via YouTube and stuff, and we had just one week to rehearse when we got there, but it worked. So we have a model for that, and it's scalable, and yes, we'd like to keep on sharing it!
“And we also have a songbook coming up, so that other choirs can learn our arrangements of these songs.”
That's it for questions from me, but is there anything else you'd like to say to iDJ readers before we sign off?
“Just… have faith over fear, and keep exploring that. And I'd love people to read this and tap into that joy that's available to all of us – even if it doesn't feel like it right now. Even in a pandemic, joy is still required!”
Words: Russell Deeks