2020 initially held out great promise for the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers (theeaglerockgospelsingers.org). The eclectic ensemble had a new Matt Wignall-produced album in the can; ESPN licensed the title track, “I Will Rise,” for use in a commercial; and they were happily anticipating a promotional tour. Then the coronavirus pandemic exploded and everyone scrambled to adjust to an unpredictable climate of mask wearing, stay-at-home restrictions, Zoom meetings and living (and hopefully working) in isolation. Unable to share their new music in their favorite setting — live onstage — they released video singles online, and unexpectedly found themselves with a bigger, broadened fan base.
“I’m alright, I don’t hurt no more I will rise, I will rise, I will rise again”
“When we were making ‘I Will Rise’ and anticipating it coming out, we were definitely thinking of it as individuals going through something and you’re trying to get out of it,” singer Lashon Halley explains. “But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protests, it’s taken on a new life. We had no clue [that song] would have the traction it did, and it’s gaining more and more traction now because of the collective feeling of wanting to rise from the ashes.”
As of this writing, in mid-June, the group intends to release “I Will Rise” in the fall. But the world that will receive it now is irrevocably changed from the one in which the album was created, transforming the context in which those 13 songs are heard and understood. Songs such as “Go On,” the hard-times rocker “Quietly” and the anthemic title track are resonating in unexpected ways with listeners — and the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers themselves.
With its lines about yearning to “go home,” “Leave Town” can understandably be interpreted as a response to the pandemic despite being composed before the lockdown. In April, the band released a video with bandleader Will Wadsworth, Halley, singers Ashley Adler and Christina Wilson, and guitarist Jeremy Horton, each singing along with the song from home — socially distanced yet unified onscreen via video conferencing. The picturesque Antelope Valley setting of the video for “In the Well,” with Halley singing amid wildflowers and desert grasses in late April, underscores the lonely lyric’s search for peace — feelings intensified by the pandemic.
“‘Leave Town’ is literally about wanting to escape, even knowing that escape is not going to solve anything. ‘In the Well’ is about meditating and contemplating the future and having hope that it will be a good future,” Wadsworth observes. “From going deep inside ourselves when we were writing and working on [the album], maybe without knowing it we were saying something about the climate of the world we’re living in.”
For Halley, the stirring gospel call “Muddy Water,” in particular, has helped ease anxiety and assumed deeper meaning.
“I’ve had to lean on God more than ever in this time,” she says. “That song reminds me everyone has their own path to religion or to spirituality, everyone has their own trials and tribulations they go through.”
“The last few months have been really oppressive-feeling for a lot of people,” Wadsworth adds. “I think a lot of people want a new beginning, want to escape, want to start over, want to have something to look forward to. They really want to hope and to move forward, to just keep faith, keep going in an upward trajectory. I think songs like ‘I Will Rise,’ ‘Leave Town’ and ‘Muddy Water’ all have that spirit. There’s something universal that can be taken from those in that respect.”
Cathartic release is built into the songs, lyrically and rhythmically, boosted by the power of vibrant group harmonies in varied tonal colors — husky, sweet, impassioned, earthy — mostly performed horseshoe-style around a single studio microphone. Wadsworth makes a point of highlighting Wilson’s importance: “Christina Wilson played a huge role in arranging the vocal parts and harmonies whenever they needed calibrating.”
Those vocals help define the band’s hybridized sound — inspired by early 20th century Appalachian folk and blues, African American gospel and indie rock — which attracts a diverse audience that includes many listeners who identify as agnostic. You don’t have to know your Bible to appreciate spiritual messages, or be a regular churchgoer to be pulled into the swampy cadence of “Altar Call” as electric guitar and fiddle notes commiserate in the background:
“Put your hands up now/ This is an altar call/ Say a prayer for us/ We need it after all.”
The phenomenon of nonbelievers drawn to the bared emotion of gospel music is one both Halley and Wadsworth recognize from personal experience. The nature of that music also opens doors to conversation about its dualistic heritage.
“I was agnostic up until five years ago,” Halley says. “I had to have huge trauma rock my world in order for me to want to find solace in something other than myself. When people that claim to be agnostic come to our shows, when we start our set, I can look in people’s faces and see that they’re like, ‘OK, I can grieve, I can just feel comfortable in being washed over by this sound.’ Our music is not divisive in a way that traditional Christian music is. There’s a collective consciousness at our shows, and it allows people to feel freedom, even for only a 45-minute set.”
Asked if recent events have moved the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers to re-examine their purpose and identity, Halley and Wadsworth agree it has caused them all to reinforce the band’s message while checking in with each other more.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it has made everyone wonder maybe what we can do — what actions are there for us as a band to participate in that can help support the movement for justice that’s going on now,” Wadsworth says. “I hope that we never stop trying to figure that out.”
Top Image: Eagle Rock Gospel Singers | Grant Westhoff