Bucking the early 21st century trend in African-American gospel music, Florida songstress Lisa McClendon drew her style not from the big beats of hip-hop and contemporary R&B but from classic soul music and jazz. McClendon's songs, many of them composed by the singer herself, are thoughtful and distinctive, with a laid-back vibe concealing an honest approach to the relationship between faith and everyday life. In the words of Tracy E. Hopkins of Essence, "McClendon's jazzy, honey-glazed vocals and poetic lyrics make her spiritual message more accessible to the masses." And DeAnne M. Bradley of the Norfolk, Virginia Virginian Pilot had a simpler reaction: "That's right: Neosoul is not just a secular thing."
McClendon was born around 1975 in the small town of Palatka in northern Florida. She later told Gerald Bonner of the GospelFlava Web site that "I could never write about street life…. I grew up in a sheltered environment. My mom was a missionary and my dad was a preacher, so I was never exposed to that." After several years of singing in a children's choir and practicing with a hairbrush that served as an imaginary microphone, McClendon accompanied her church choir to a neighboring church one day when she was 12. The host church's choir was decimated by no-shows, and McClendon went to her mother and announced that she was going to sing a solo. Holding the microphone in a brutal grip as a result of extreme nervousness, she finished her solo and boosted her confidence in the process.
As a teenager McClendon continued to sing in church and also entered a gospel version of the national Star Search television program. She was named runner-up in the finals. At age 15 McClendon made a commitment to Christianity, a commitment that deepened when, at 19, she "got serious" about her faith (according to her profile on the Integrity label website). "I was battling with self-esteem during that time, and Christ placed people in my life to show me who I was in Him," she said. She joined an Orlando-based female gospel trio called 3N1, which engaged in street ministry as well as musical activities.
It was a start, but it wasn't a creatively satisfying situation for McClendon. "It's hard to work with other women!" she recalled in conversation with Britain's Cross Rhythms Web site. "It was drama. Everyone wanted to be the leader…. I did acquire a great work ethic, though; we practiced all the time!" After McClendon married and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, her ties with the group gradually dissolved. She and her husband, L.T., have two children, Diamond Cherise and Joshua.
Becoming involved with the Potter's House Pentecostal congregation in Jacksonville, McClendon rose to the position of praise and worship leader. Always modest about her own talents, McClendon was quoted on Integrity's Web site as saying that "I wasn't looking to be a worship leader. Someone else saw it in me." For several years, McClendon's musical life was centered on the Potter's House and its Bishop, Vaughn McLaughlin, whom she has cited as a major influence. She wrote music for the congregation but did not perform much outside of her own church.
There were other influences as well: the jazz vocals of Ella Fitzgerald and the classic soul sounds of Curtis Mayfield and the other singers of the 1970s. Younger vocalists such as Jill Scott had begun to revive those sounds and to combine them with modern production, but no one had yet extended the trend into gospel music. That changed after McClendon's husband showed her songwriting notebooks to Maurice "Mo" Henderson, a veteran gospel producer who attended services at the Potter's House. Henderson and McClendon clicked creatively, and she began writing songs for other artists on Henderson's independent label, Shabach Entertainment. Soon McClendon signed as an artist with Shabach, and in 2002 she released her debut album, My Diary, Your Life.
The album, McClendon told the GospelCity Web site, was a journey of self-discovery. "The first album was a season in my life when I found out who Lisa was," she explained. "A lot of times when we find out who we are, it involves God and you're just like, ‘Oh my God! I didn't know that was in me.’ In My Diary, Your Life, God was shedding light to sing and said, ‘You need to share it so other people will know that they're not alone.’" In general, McClendon's songwriting was notable for its honesty and for its effort to inject a Christian message into real-life situations and temptations. "I'm bold enough to tell people they're not the only ones dealing with problems," McClendon observed to Hopkins.
The album made enough of a splash on the gospel scene that when her publicist, Kia Jones, brought a copy to her friend Jackie Patillo, general manager of the Mobile, Alabama-based Integrity label, Integrity jumped at the chance to add McClendon and her unique neosoul sound to its roster. The result was McClendon's second album, Soul Music, which appeared in 2003. The move to Integrity was a major step toward national fame for McClendon, for the label was distributed through the networks of the giant Sony conglomerate. Yet McClendon initially felt reluctant to make the change and to encounter the need for artistic compromises. Any fame she might accrue, she believed, was subordinate to the gospel message. After she became a nationally known recording star, she explained in the interview appearing on Integrity's Web site. "One day I asked God, ‘Why me?’ and He said as plain as day, ‘Not you, Me.’"
Soul Music marked the arrival of a major new talent on the gospel scene as fans took to McClendon's smooth sound. Henderson again served as producer, with an assist from McClendon herself. McClendon's songwriting could be realistic ("Stuck (Love's Anthem)" was an honest look at the ups and downs of marriage), unusually philosophical ("No religious system can substitute a repentive heart," she sang in "The Truth Is"), or humorous ("Old School" satirized the ways and manners of old-fashioned African-American churches). The album was rewarded with three nominations for Stellar Awards (including one for New Artist of the Year) and for two Dove Awards, the top honors in the gospel and Contemporary Christian music industries.
McClendon followed up Soul Music with a live album, Live from the House of Blues—New Orleans. It was recorded live in New Orleans just days before the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. The Virginian Pilot's Bradley praised the album's "Christian juke-joint vibe" and raved at the way "McClendon's molasses alto snuggles warmly against each sizzling jazz chord to deliver a hot message," concluding that "[t]his is a must for contemporary gospel music fans." After recording the album McClendon appeared on the Trinity Broadcasting Network's Praise the Lord program, hosted by gospel powerhouse Yolanda Adams. By 2007 McClendon's list of recorded compositions numbered more than 40, and she was among the most closely watched young artists in the growing gospel music recording industry.
At a Glance …
Born 1975(?) in Palatka, FL; father a preacher; married L.T.; children: Diamond Cherise, Joshua. Education: High school graduate. Religion: Pentecostal.
3N1, female vocal trio, member, 1990s; Potter's House, Jacksonville, FL, praise and worship leader, late 1990s-; Shabach label, songwriter, 1990s-(?); Shabach label, recording artist, 2000s-2003; Integrity label, recording artist, 2003-.
Three Stellar and two Dove award nominations, for Soul Music album.
Label—Integrity Music, 1000 Cody Rd. S, Mobile, AL 36695. Web—www.lisamcclendon.com.
My Diary, Your Life, Shabach, 2002.
Soul Music, Integrity, 2003.
Live from the House of Blues—New Orleans, Integrity, 2006.
Ebony, April 2005, p. 76.
Essence, December 2004, p. 130.
Virginian Pilot (Norfolk, VA), February 3, 2006, p. E8.
"Bio," Lisa McClendon's Official Website, www.lisamcclendon.com (April 21, 2007).
"Interview with Lisa McClendon," GospelFlava,www.gospelflava.com/articles/lisamcclendon2.html (April 21, 2007).
"Lisa McClendon: A Child of Soul," VirtualFrequency, www.virtualfrequency.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=62 (April 21, 2007).
"Lisa McClendon," Cross Rhythms,www.crossrhythms.co.uk/articles/music/Lisa_McClendon_Classic_Soul_Not_NeoSoul/23069/p1 (April 21, 2007).
"Lisa McClendon," GospelCity,www.gospelcity.com/dynamic/artist-articles/interviews/64 (April 21, 2007).
"Lisa McClendon," Integrity Gospel,www.integrity-gospel.com (April 21, 2007).
"Lisa McClendon: Soul Music," Christian Music Today, www.christianitytoday.com/music/reviews/2003.soulmusic.html (April 21, 2007).
"Lisa McClendon: Soul Music," GospelFlava,www.gospelflava.com/reviews/lisamcclendonsoulmusic.html (April 21, 2007).
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