Teaching diploma I AM 25. I am so not 25, you can add a couple of decades to that number. However, this month I celebrate 25 years of teaching music. At the end of August 1995, I went for a job interview for a teaching assistant post at primary school in Torquay. The headteacher told me that she didn’t really need another teaching assistant, but she had noticed from my CV that I sang and played the piano. None of her staff were musical, so would I mind taking on a teaching assistant role with responsibility for music? Well that was my “year out” job and the rest as they say, is history.

Nothing about my journey into music education has been normal. In fact everything about my journey is backwards from the traditional route. I went down the route of singing and piano grades as a child but due to various problems at my school, I didn’t take GCSE or A Level music, I went on to do a Theology degree, graduated and thought “I think I might do a music degree, I want to be in music”. I didn’t actually believe that I would get onto a music degree course, but 3 years later I started studying at Middlesex University and I did graduate! Traditionally, you need grade 8 on a instrument to go on to study music at degree level. I didn’t have that, I had grade 6 singing, grade 5 piano and grade 5 music theory, I’d been performing since I was 3 years old and teaching since I was 18. Sometimes experience opens more doors than qualifications. I often share this story with my students to encourage them; life can be messy and far from perfect but we somehow find a route through to where we are supposed to be.

It seems to be an odd time to be celebrating a musical milestone when the performing arts industry is in chaos, however, this milestone only happens once in a lifetime. The pandemic has changed the landscape of music teaching, but it hasn’t stopped teaching taking place. I am lucky that I have managed to keep teaching online and yes, it is different from teaching face to face, but I still get to help people develop their skills and find joy in making music. It seems pertinent to mark this anniversary as one era ends and a new era starts.

One of the challenges I have faced is the ability to keep going when life is broken. Resilience needs to be at the heart of any business, and on top of that, I have needed a high amount of personal resilience through the difficulties I’ve faced. One reason I feel that I am beginning a new era, is that I wanted to put right some of the things that had failed or not materialised in the past. Some of you know that I survived long term domestic abuse, and the devastating effect that it had on my life. To be fair, this blog isn’t the place to discuss the abuse that I suffered for years, however, one area of my life that was deeply affected was music. It was constantly taken away from me in attempt to hurt and control. I should have undertaken my teaching diploma 15 years ago, but I was never able to and it grieved me for years. Every time I tried to apply for the course, I was stopped and the opportunity was deliberately taken away. The more I fought back, the harder life would become. The pandemic really pushed me to look at how I wanted to end this year. Did I want to leave this chapter of my life having not completed something that affirms and consolidates the experience and skills of the job I have undertaken for 25 years? The short answer is no, I just couldn’t leave this season with unfinished business, so this month I have finally started my teaching diploma!

I really want to encourage you to mark the anniversaries in your life, however small, and celebrate your achievements, resilience and persistence. You showed up, did the work, learnt from the mistakes, gained experience and eventually reached the goal. Just because other people have the same achievements doesn’t mean you shouldn’t celebrate them; your own personal journey is special and precious. It doesn’t matter how many years you have been plodding away at something, long or short. My teaching journey has lead me to meet hundreds of amazing people through individual tuition, arts centres, further education colleges, churches, theatre schools, adult and children’s choirs, and music therapy with community groups. So this month I AM 25. Here’s to the next 25 years…

Well here’s the song I didn’t expect to release: Tomorrow’s Brighter. During the last four months of lockdown, we’ve all needed some hope to get through this very strange and unexpected season. I think the lyrics of this song sum up that everyday we are indeed moving forward to the end of lockdown and a day nearer to the end of the virus. Something to think about as we slowly press ahead…

Three years ago I wrote this song quickly one evening so that I could try out a new piece of software. It seemed quite catchy and lent itself to harmonies, so I landed up using it for a singing workshop I was leading a few months later. I didn’t imagine relasing it as a single. However at the beginning of the lockdown, I found a an a cappella recording of the song and started playing around with it and voilà, a new song!

Welcome to the cartoon version of me! I wanted to do something different for the video, something with a lighter tone than I had used before. A cartoon seemed the obvious way forward and I even got to create a cartoon version of me. An official date will be set soon, but as usual, you are the first to hear the song and see the video!

The song is available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music and many other places! Download the single here.

We all go through times when we feel as though we’re not achieving very much.  We continually show up, put in the hours, the effort, the thought, and yet nothing seems to grow or change. In my own life, I’ve been through a long period of working very hard and seeing very little in terms of results or progression. If anything, a lot of my work has been met with opposition and setbacks, however, after a lot of reflection I’ve always come to the conclusion that it is better to keep going. If it makes me happy then it is worth it!

Earlier this year, I was given a prophetic word from a woman I don’t know. She told me that she could see that my artistic work had grown in a way that I couldn’t see, despite the setbacks and problems she could see growth and life. She described seeing plants that became “tall trees” and was encouraging me to understand that even though I couldn’t see the influence my artistic output was having, it was indeed having an effect far wider than I can see. And that’s what this new song Tall Trees is all about…

We have an idea, a plan, a vision, but the daily grind of bringing that idea to pass can make us lose sight of the vision at large. Sometimes people don’t support the vision we have or don’t see it as necessary for helping others. They cannot understand that God might want to work in a way that is outside of their understanding or world view. It’s in these times that we need to focus on what God has said to us and keep going. 

I’ve found over the years that I have questioned whether I understood God’s plan correctly. Did I get it wrong or mishear what he said? However, it’s the gentle encouragements that the input is making a difference that have kept me going.  The unexpected emails or social media comments that take me by surprise; little hidden gems that remind me that I am doing the right thing. It’s important to keep chipping away at the task, as small things add up to make a big difference. We often think we know how God will bring a vision or idea to pass, but in reality God does things outside of our own understanding and perspective. That doesn’t mean that it will be less than we expect, the Lord always gives more than we hope for, but he is also interested in the journey to the destination as it helps us become more like him. 

Strong, tall trees don’t grow overnight and deep roots grow in the dark soil. It’s the same when we’re building with God, it can take years of toiling away before we see fruit of what he showed us years before. Although the process can be disheartening and gruelling, the end result is worth it. The difficult and challenging seasons are designed to give a us a great story to share with others. I wrote Tall Trees as a reminder to myself to keep moving with the word that God gave me many years ago. It’s a challenge to myself to keep being creative and faithful to God. So don’t be afraid to keep moving forward and make the next chapter of your story…

Listen and buy the song here

Sometimes you look back at a song and realise that you have been trying to tell yourself something for a long time. A situation you need to put right, something that you need to do, someone or something that is doing you no good that you need to let go of or even congratulating yourself because you have done really well. Little fragments of our inner thoughts seep into our work and ferment while we are unaware. 

As a songwriter, I always want to write music that moves people with lyrics that make them think. That’s always been my goal, to give people a song that is valuable to them and that they can hold onto. Lyrics and music can be so intrinsically linked that they can move us on a spiritual level. Every artist wants to connect with their audience, but if you can share something in common from experience you have a much deeper connection. 

Recently I found this video clip of comedy actor Jim Carrey talking about his other passion in life, art. I was really intrigued by something he says about the path of creative discovery:

“You really don’t know what a sculpture or a painting totally means, you think you do. Most of the time I start out with a plan and then in like a year later I’ll realise that the painting what I needed to know about myself before.

Sometimes when we create, we start by giving our audience a message but more often than not, we we find out something about ourselves. Six years ago I wrote the song Close That Door, I was actually writing about two different situations that two of my friends were finding themselves in. None of it was pretty and they both had come to the end of themselves and needed to close the door on those situations. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was actually prophesying to myself about something that needed to happen in my own life. I need to close a door, a chapter, a lifestyle and move on into new things. As I was going through the season of transition and change, one of my closest friends pointed out that I had already told myself that this new season was coming and to let go of the old so that I could embrace the new things ahead of me. That was a bit of a shocker at the time! But now I understand it was coming from a place of being led by God into a new season. He likes to prepare us before he makes changes, it’s part of his promise to always be with us. 

“What I needed to know about myself before…” Life is a constant journey of growing, reflecting, making mistakes, celebrating victories but we learn so much about ourselves by contemplating on where we are and how we are dealing with our current moment. Jim acknowledges that his art is therapeutic and helps him process his emotions and experiences, but also that each piece of work contains part of him and his life journey. There are so many different ways that God can speak to us and this really is just scratching the surface of what artists, musicians, and writers channel through their creations. What I’m trying to say is that art isn’t just for an audience, it helps the artist hear what they need to know…

This a short devotion I wrote for a local church on the subject of Mary’s promise for Jesus’ life…

When we are called to God’s service, we have an expectation of how it will look and pan out. In Luke 1, the angel gives Mary a message that her son “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High”. How shocked she must have been when she laid her newborn son in a cattle trough! God’s message to Mary was of greater things to come, a promise to hold onto when life seemed to be going in the opposite way.

Often we have an idea of how God wants us to serve him, but the reality doesn’t always match our expectations. We become disillusioned and thoughts of quitting roam our minds. It is in these seasons that God reminds us to hold on to the vision he has given us; food for the journey for when the road seems long. God’s plans look different to our own, but we can be sure that his promises always come to pass. If you are following God’s dream for your life, the Lord will see you through the desert to the promised land. As for Mary, her baby may have had a rocky start, but he went on to a glorious ending.

So why would a hardcore, best-selling rapper announce that he has found God? There’s been a lot of sensational reports about Kanye West’s conversion to Christianity recently. The press have had a field day on his new found faith: some think it’s a press stunt while others are dumbfounded by his sincerity. Everyone is lining up to interview him, and even James Corden made a beeline to film a segment for Airpool Karaoke with the Gold Digger rap star. His latest album release, Jesus Is King has shocked both music industry and the general public. It seems some people don’t know what to make of the situation. 

Some of the controversy is over whether his faith is genuine or a passing phase, and to be fair we have to ask this question of our own faith and belief before pointing the finger at others. There are some Christian believers who are dubious and unconvinced, yet how would they feel if someone questioned their own faith? We should be rejoicing over the one who has come to God, not asking whether God’s miracle of new faith is good enough to satisfy our own curiosity. When the prodigal son returned, his brother was less than pleased about it. People have found Kanye’s sudden conversion difficult, however there are many Christians who came to faith overnight. Whether we come to God slowly or quickly, the important part is that we accepted God in his timing. 

Some time ago, a revival in Hollywood was prophesied and many have been eagerly waiting to see it. A revival starts with one person; that’s all it takes to bring to good news to people. Kanye is a high profile rapper with a huge following. His example, no matter how different to our own, shines out to his colleagues, fan base and the entertainment industry. His first album The College Dropout indicated his rebellious nature against his middle class, well educated background. Who better to rebel against an industry that has seen religion as a unfashionable and a waste of time? God always chooses unexpected people to fulfil his will. 

This is the time for people to support Kanye in his journey with God. There will be plenty of naysayers who want him to steer off course. It is our responsibility to look after new believers. It is not our place to test whether his faith is genuine, that test belongs to God. Kanye’s walk with God started some time ago, and his Jesus Walks single in 2004 was indication of the journey we are seeing today. The artistic journey often ruffles feathers as the artist represents the world as they see it. Audiences often react quickly when the finished article isn’t what they expect, explicit or not in line with church culture. There needs to be graciousness and a willingness to try and understand a different point of view. Growing in faith takes time and encouragement; no one becomes a saint overnight. 

Whatever your feelings about Kanye’s realisation of faith, his dedication is admirable. If anything it has made me re-evaluate my own circumstances and reflect on how I represent my faith to the world. Kanye’s courage to announce his conversion reminds us that following Jesus isn’t for wimps. Those who cling to God’s call need support and unity, and as Christians that’s what we’re called to provide. Maybe it is time to stop freaking out, and show a bit of love…

A few weeks ago I went to see the Amazing Grace film about the recording of the famous Aretha Franklin gospel album. Filmed and recorded in 1972, it is the only gospel recording that Aretha made after becoming a Grammy Award winner. Granted there are recordings of her leading worship as a teenager at her father’s Baptist church, but this is the only album she made with a Christian emphasis in her professional singing career. As a star she often talked her of faith in God and how it underpinned her life, let alone her career.

One of the issues that has distressed me over the years, is the constant criticism from some Christians who declare that she turned her back on God and the church in order to follow a musical path. My own experience is that the church often tries to keep musicians and artists within its walls should they try and do something that would lead them astray and destroy the reputation of the faith. Yet musicians and artists are visionaries who hear and see what God has placed within them. Aretha’s journey wasn’t so much about walking out of the church, but more about being sent by God into an industry that needed him. She was often described as shy and quiet, yet when she opened her mouth the passion and conviction poured out through her singing, a talent and drive that come from the strength of something much greater than her.  

This album celebrates Aretha’s personal testimony of her journey through a difficult life. A single mother by the time she was 13 years old, divorces, an abusive home life and the back drop of slavery and the civil rights movement all led her into a deeper relationship with God. However, while some Christians decry her fame and status as ungodly, there’s also the possibility that God put her into that position so that he could use her to help others. Aretha’s Amazing Grace album is the best selling gospel album of all time, beating her gospel rivals. Not bad for someone who made their name as a soul singer. 

What is also interesting about this album is the rawness of the occasion compared to other recordings of that era. It is reported that Aretha wanted to capture live worship as she knew it in her own church and present it to a wider audience who had no church background. The album allows us to hear Christians worshipping openly in a Baptist church in Los Angeles with a small congregation of both believers and non-believers. This album wasn’t about creating a studio atmosphere with great musical prowess, but about opening a window on praise and adoration of the Lord for those who had never experienced it. Aretha displays a dedication to take the church and God’s love out to the world rather than to wait for people broach the church door tentatively. As Christians, we are asked to take the message of God to our mission field, Aretha just does on a much grander scale using her status and platform to spread the gospel of Jesus. What is notable is that on the second night of the recording, the congregation doubled in size as word spread about the “free” Aretha concert. Even Mick Jagger makes an appearance in the crowd.

However, it isn’t just this album which makes Aretha’s legacy so unique. She was known for singing about women’s rights and independence, performing strong and powerful lyrics that women across the world identified with. Many of her songs became anthems for change and breakthrough; we’re all familiar with Respect and Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves and the powerful message that pervades these performances. 

While the some factions of the church may be mourning the loss of musicians who follow a different path, others are valuing the mission work that they are doing. The music business is one of the most uncharted industries when it comes to Christian missionaries. Aretha’s entry into this world meant the gospel was spread further. I’m not suggesting that all church musicians and artists should up and leave, more that the church should recognise their call and prophethood into an area that needs light and hope. Artists and musicians are called to carry the very heart of God into a world that needs help and this includes the entertainment industries. 

I know the church feels the need to protect creatives from sex, drugs and rock n roll, however in doing so, sometimes it stops people from fully fulfilling their calling. There needs to be an element of trust that God knows what he is doing. I’ve often been criticised for writing secular songs, however I do believe that this is what God has called me to do. One wonders if the church lets down artists, such as Aretha Franklin, by not supporting them more. Perhaps less stars would go off the rails if the church walked with them through their musical careers. I think what we can glean from Aretha’s life is that God used her powerfully and that her music touches the lives listeners around the world. Music is more than worship, some songs heal by the fact that we identify with the pain, others uplift when we feel down, or build community when we all sing together. Music has more than one role in life. 

Perhaps it is time for the church to let more creative people go and do what they do best and reap the harvest of music and art that comes from it. We’re not walking out of church, but walking into what God has called us to do.

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The journey to becoming you is a lifetime process, and the same can be said about becoming a musician or artist. It’s an amble through trial and error, followed by readjustment and acceptance. If you can navigate through the pitfalls well and learn from them, then you can become more resilient and focused on what you are supposed to be doing. You have to learn not be to discouraged at each hurdle but to pick up the pieces and get going with your vision. And there’s the crux of being an artist… VISION. It gives us a reason to create, a message to deliver and a community to focus on. 

Very few creatives reach the pinnacle of their career with their first project; if they do reach the heady heights quickly, the harder they fall. If you gain access to a public platform, you need to be prepared to have a good message for your audience. You also need to have the character to bear the weight of the responsibility of speaking into situations that need wisdom, to give hope and not despair, to be positive when others are negative. Character develops under pressure, through perseverance, by overcoming obstacles and be willing to admit that we aren’t always right. If your character is weak, you will struggle to carry greatness and influence a world that is easily swayed. People are looking for a consistent, strong message that brings light into darkness; that type of maturity doesn’t develop overnight, it is born out of adversity and longevity. 

Often it’s in the seasons of “no” and “not yet” that we find out who we are. Like a seed planted under the soil, we grow in the dark seasons of our lives. The disappointments become fertiliser for our creative outlook. Even though the soil buries us, fresh green shoots spring up and bloom in the sunlight: something new is born. The tender shoots push the dirt away and reach out of the light. Those difficult seasons may seem to have no purpose but ultimately our personhood gets chiseled away by our experiences, and walking through fire helps refine and define our character. We are more than the sum of our experiences though, we are divinely created with a unique spirit, mind and purpose. We have a reason to be and a reason to do. 

Being an artist requires the gift of prophecy, to see what could be and call it into being. Most of us have been inspired by a song, book, or painting at some point in our lives, something that gives us vision and inspires us to be more, to push the boundaries. Each artist has spent time thinking about how to convey something new to their audience, using the opportunity to impart wisdom and infuse hope as part of their legacy to the world. It can be a lonely role, to move forward with a vision that others don’t yet see. It requires tenacity, perseverance and a willingness to sacrifice comforts to make the vision come to pass. You have to grow the vision and then give birth to it. 

So be encouraged wherever you are on your artistic journey, that the highs and lows are all part of the process of becoming who you are. You are becoming the artist that you want to be. A diversion doesn’t mean that you won’t reach your destination, it means you have something to learn along the way. The journey is often more important than the destination. Don’t be impressed with everything you see and hear, but work on being unique and find your own voice. No-one can be who you are. Rejoice in your uniqueness and work on your weaknesses. Surround yourself with people who support you but don’t pander you. Find your message and be the voice crying out in the wilderness. Speak change into a dying world and watch as your art makes a difference: a difference that only you can make. 

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Sometimes God likes to remind us how powerful He is. We think that we are too far gone, and that we have missed His plan for our lives. The situation seems impossible and we believe that nothing can change. Sometimes the vision He has given us for us lives seems so outlandish that we believe that it can never happen. We’re in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, we don’t know anyone who has the contacts to help us. Our perception of God becomes limited to what we can see. 

And that’s when God likes to remind us that He hasn’t forgot us, that He can do anything and bring the most unlikely of people together. On Saturday night, the doorbell rang and on the other side of the door was the much expected Tesco delivery man. What wasn’t expected, was the conversation that ensued whilst he unpacked my food order. After apologising for being half an hour early, and me saying “oh that’s fine, I needed a break from editing a song”, we discovered that we both had something in common: MUSIC. Turns out that he’s a sound engineer and mixes and masters a lot of projects for the BBC and local radio. Somewhat downcast, he then said “I expect you’re wondering why I’m working for Tesco”, I replied, “not really, lots of people in the music industry have several jobs. Helps to pay the bills”. And at the point, he relaxed and his story came tumbling out… 

Turns out he needed some encouragement and to hear that it’s ok to have multiple, different streams of income. He needed someone to say that they understood how hard the music industry can be and that he’s not alone. We talked about the seasonal nature of life and that low points can often to be a blessing as they lead us to make changes that create new seasons and creativity in our lives. I was rather surprised to be having this conversation on my doorstep; I hadn’t thought I’d be discussing this in my slippers whilst checking if my favourite crisps had been delivered but evidently it was a divine appointment which was beneficial for both of us. 

What God was reminding me, is that He isn’t limited by our location or condition. He can bring two people together and make His will happen. Divine connections can happen in the strangest of places, and when we least expect it. He doesn’t need us to try and engineer these meetings, He’s got it all under control. Some of these encounters are short lived and serve to encourage us, while others have a lasting effect and are to bring us into opportunities and seasons of life. The important thing is to be prepared for the unexpected, we never know when God will want us to help someone or to be available to make something happen. Whilst He doesn’t need our help, He loves to partner with us so that we can see how powerful and great He is. It’s often in the smallest of details that we realise that God loves us and has a plan for our lives. Often what keeps life exciting, is the encounters that makes us say “I wasn’t expecting that…”

I’ve waited a long time to write this blog; seven years to be precise! Seven long years. We all have a dreams of things that we would like to do and sometimes we get the opportunity to do them. The saddest thing is when one of those dreams is struggling and no matter what we do, it doesn’t survive and eventually dies. It can be a game changer; it affects your perspective on life and can make you retreat from other opportunities for fear of getting hurt.

In 2012, I was offered the opportunity to perform my songs with a jazz orchestra. It was a dream gig, I’d waited all my life for it and I was going to make it happen! The early discussions went well, and I was ever hopeful that the concert would take place within six months. However, over time the project began to disappear, no matter what I did I couldn’t make it work. The dream concert was long gone, and my music career seemed to be dead. I asked God to put it right and bring the project to fruition, but nothing happened. Things went from bad to worse, my business collapsed, my marriage failed and my living arrangements were insecure again. I never knew that life could go so low so fast. It all changed in an instant.

Last year, my colleague and long standing friend, Rachael Forsyth, contacted me and asked if she could pitch the project to an orchestra again and also do the jazz arrangements of my songs. My initial reaction was that it wasn’t sure that I wanted to go through all the disappointment again, however, that thought of “if I don’t try, I’ll never know” crept in and I decided to be brave and give it a go. Over a period of six months we plodded through arrangements and emails, and we wondered if it would ever come together. At one point it actually looked as though the whole thing would fall apart again and Rachael and I prepared ourselves that it might not happen.

But that’s not the way God works. He specialises in bringing dead things back to life. After seven years of waiting, wondering, praying and hoping, I will be performing with the English Jazz Orchestra on Thursday 14 March. I can’t believe it’s taken this long, but those prayers that I prayed seven years ago are finally being answered. Just because something looks dead doesn’t mean that it is. Sometimes God waits so things are better, the timing is right and our character has developed enough for us to deal with it. Sometimes he removes things that are in the way or that will destroy the dream, so that when the dream buds, it can flourish and grow without being choked. Although this seems strange, all those things happened for my good. That part of my life died so that better, greater things could come. Sometimes God allows these things to happen so that he can realign us with his plan for our lives and also his timing (which is never our timing!).

In another strange twist of events, I received an email today saying that a song I sent to a DJ three years ago, is now being played on his podcast this month. I’d actually forgotten that I sent it off to the radio show! It’s like the song was waiting for right moment.

So I hope you can join me for this amazing evening St Lukes Church in Enfield with the English Jazz Orchestra (ENJO)! Tickets are available here