By Shelby Livingston | September 15, 2015 | People
Chicago's Jonathan McReynolds discusses his new album, his hip-hop influences (like Kanye West), and the goal of his music career.
Gospel artist and Chicago native Jonathan McReynolds is no stranger to the spotlight. The Dove award-nominated singer/songwriter's 2012 debut album Life Music reached No. 1 on the iTunes Christian charts and No. 3 on Billboard’s Gospel charts. Since then, he's collected legions of fans (including Nicki Minaj) and performed with Grammy award-winning artist India.Arie at BET's Celebration of Gospel in 2014.
Now at just 25, McReynolds is set to release his sophomore album, Life Music: Stage Two, this Friday, September 18. “These songs are all straight out of my life. These are thoughts that I have. These are the conversations that I have with my friends,” he says of the album. “I really hope it sounds like a journal.” Before Life Music: Stage Two drops, we caught up with McReynolds to talk about making music with a message, how he balances his Christian beliefs with the real world, and which Chicago artists influence him:
Tell us how you came to be a singer/songwriter.
JONATHAN MCREYNOLDS: I grew up as a musician in the church. I always did love music, I never really wanted to be a front man. I was kind of the side, geeky nerd in the back. But after going through high school and college, and realizing girls liked it, I got a little more confident as a singer. [When] I got to college, I really started writing about my feelings, writing about my conversations, my thoughts—me trying to figure out what it took to be a Christian in real life, outside of church. I really believe that God made me a better writer; he developed me as a writer and now here I am.
You have a very R&B voice, and you’ve said that you’re influenced by that genre. Why go into Christian music when you might get more attention singing R&B?
JM: I went to a media and arts college where a lot of people around me were talented. A lot of them were doing R&B and I really thought very highly of them, they were doing great music. I said in a prayer... I want to make music that actually does something, music that makes a difference, and music that has a message—something behind it other than just good music that has its time in the spotlight and then it's gone and people forget about it. At that time I really feel like He started helping me write music that even though the message is Christian, the creativity and the realness that I was looking for and I did like in other styles of music, He showed me that I could do it with Christian.
Let's talk about Life Music: Stage Two. How does making this album differ from the first, and how have you evolved as a musician since releasing Life Music in 2012?
JM: I honestly think that would be what people hear first, hopefully. Anybody that has been 25 before knows the difference between 20 or 21 and 25 is huge. I'm a better songwriter, better singer, more confident, better producer, and a better musician. [People] are going to hear the upgrade in the quality of the music and production and the recording quality. But other than that, I hope people see all the things that actually stayed the same... God has really blessed me with some level of success and opportunity, but my message, my approach to music, the way I feel about God and life, the way I feel about the importance of having a good message and expressing it is all the same.
You’ve said your single "Pressure" is about finding a balance between being a young Christian and living in a society that makes it hard to stay true to your values. Can you elaborate?
JM: Growing up in church, Christianity seems kind of easy. It's definitely celebrated, it definitely seems to be what everybody does. But as you get older you realize that's not the case at all. It's a narrow road... There is a lot of help and instruction for how to do church well, but not a lot of how-tos on going Monday through Saturday. So the music I wrote was for me and my friends, and we decided to self-evangelize ourselves and figure out how the Sunday stuff we learned links up with a real God and real lifestyle.
How did your collaboration with Grammy-winning artist India.Arie on your song “Whole” come about?
JM: We did a duet on the BET Celebration of Gospel in 2014, and it was incredible singing. We forged a friendship. I think we think a lot alike musically and we respect each other's music. I love her... What she did in the '90s and 2000s for R&B is kind of similar to what I'm doing, or people give me credit for doing in gospel music today, which is just talking about different stuff. Approaching it with a different genuineness and different authenticity—a different type of songwriting and instrumentation. It's really cool to actually have that friendship and work together on this album, it's a dream come true.
What's the most meaningful song to you on this album?
JM: We were thinking about making it the title track because it was truly indicative of where I am in life, career, and everything, and it’s called "Maintain." It's about so many things when it comes to Christianity, being a Christian, being human, that we don't need one good dose of. We need to maintain it, we don't need one dose of strength or joy, we need it to last. We don't need one little jolt of good career opportunity. We need that thing to last... and [collaborator] Chantae Cann has the most angelic voice ever.
Do you ever get writer's block? How do you get over that?
JM: Go to sleep, live another day. Sometimes you open a Bible, sometimes you read a book, sometimes you want to ask a friend what does he think to get a different perspective... Some of my best songs are mash-ups of my experience and my friends' experiences, and my imagined experience all put together. “Pressure” started with me looking at my friend and how she was always thinking about other people's expectations... I started it with her and I kind of ended with myself and the pressures that I go through being a guy from church, being the Gospel Guy, being the Not-So-Gospel Guy. Whatever it is, I just want to live for God.
Speaking of the pressure to be the Gospel Guy, as attention on you grows, do you have any concerns about having to act a certain way as a Christian musician?
JM: It's not a concern. It's honestly a privilege, an honor to represent Christ. I think if you think of it like that as opposed to an obligation or weight or pressure, it becomes not so bad. I'm deemed a representation of Jesus Christ on earth—the stuff that he does and the way he thinks and how he loves and how he cares and the standards that he holds us. He wants us as representatives of his body to do the same thing. I'm honored to do it on a big scale. The more notoriety I get, the more I'll pay attention to how well I'm representing Christ because somebody's life might really depend on it.
So who are you listening to right now?
JM: I listen to a bunch of music... Delta Rae. I have Anthony Brown, an incredible gospel artist in my CD player in the car. I definitely still listen to old John Mayer stuff, that's my guy. And then I'm always going to be listening to Rascal Flatts as well. Gary LeVox is amazing, he's one of my favorite singers.
How did growing up in Chicago shape you as a musician?
JM: Being a part of the Pentecostal gospel tradition here [has really] affected the way I thought about music. It definitely gave me a sudden swag, a sudden understanding of crowds and congregations... But honestly, just the Chicago tradition period. Even hip-hop—Common, Kanye [West], and Lupe [Fiasco]—that came out of Chicago and Columbia College, which was my alma mater. It's really cool to have that pride growing up and listen to the way they had such conscious and clever lyrics. And I think even the hip-hop community kind of affected the way I wanted to write with the intentional, clever lyrics that I really wanted to express [and] represent my music in.
What are your go-to Chicago spots?
JM: I go through my phases. First of all, shopping on the Magnificent Mile. As I've gotten to be more artist-y, I've had to shop a lot more, and that's become one of my favorite places to be. I like Zara, Water Tower Place, Top Man, and Burberry. Definitely Giordano's, Lou Malnati's, Uno's—all the pizza places. They're the reason why I have acid reflux now.
Lastly, what can fans expect at your album release/birthday party September 18?
JM: It's going to be a fun night. I have amazing artists coming through to hang with me and sing with me: India.Arie, Israel Houghton, and Chantae Cann. Travis Greene is going to do a great set. And Jermaine Dolly’s an incredible artist but just a funny dude anyway. He's going to be hosting... We're going to do a lot of tracks from the new album and also throw in some throwbacks. It's the album release, but it's also my birthday, so I hope people will laugh, worship, cry, and of course, buy the music.
The Jonathan McReynolds Birthday Bash + Album Release will begin at 7 pm on Friday at Fellowship Chicago (4543 S. Princeton Ave.). Purchase tickets here.
photography by Royce DeGrie (header)
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