House Gospel Choir
Photo: Dan Reid
Meet House Gospel Choir: The London Vocal Group Bringing Faith To The Dance Floor
Anyone who's ever spent time at a club or festival has experienced the divine power of the dance floor: the rolling bass, the pumping rhythms, the vibrant atmosphere. While the blinding lights of the stage can often look like the gates of heaven opening, it's the communal feeling shared among fellow ravers and concertgoers that truly defines a proper dance floor.
House Gospel Choir (HGC) know this better than anyone. Uniting the uplifting force of spirituality with the kinetic energy of dance music, HGC is a London-based vocal group bringing faith to the dance floor. Their unique style pairs two very distinct sounds—house music meets gospel—many would never think to combine, but that actually share a musical lineage. While house music is rooted in disco, the genre's pioneers and early tracks sampled gospel singers and hymns and featured spiritual lyrics: See trailblazing house classics like Joe Smooth's "Promised Land" and Underground Ministries' "I Shall Not Be Moved."
HGC now continue this musical legacy on their debut album RE//CHOIRED, released this month (Oct. 23), which sees the group completely reimagining house classics, like "Gypsy Woman" by Crystal Waters, as well as current dance anthems, including "Latch" by Disclosure featuring Sam Smith. The album also features original tracks from HGC, including collaborations with house legend Todd Terry, and contributions from leading dance producers like DJ Spen, GRAMMY winner Alex Metric, Wookie and Toddla T.
GRAMMY.com caught up with House Gospel Choir creative director and founder Natalie Maddix and member Laura Leon to discuss their debut album, RE//CHOIRED, the group's creative process, and how the band's multicultural and multifaith composition creates a welcoming space on the dance floor for both its members and audiences.
The concept of House Gospel Choir is very interesting and unique. I'm curious to learn more about how you came up with the idea of a gospel choir that sings house music.
Natalie Maddix: I came up with the idea because I love to sing and I love to rave. I love house music and I love singing. I think there's a really strong tradition of gospel vocalists singing all the house tunes I love. Gospel house as a genre, it exists and it's been around for a long time, but I wasn't aware of any other choirs singing [house music] … So yeah, it's mainly just because I like to party, and it's that feeling of being on the dance floor and getting to sing with everyone …
Beyond that, I'm a massive fan of vocalists, and I was always a bit confused as to why I never knew the singers' names on some of my favorite house tunes. So I just started digging and I just found all these other great songs with gospel vocalists on them or vocalists that started off in church, I suppose.
And it just kind of clicked. It actually clicked because I saw there was a Frankie Knuckles quote I read when I was doing some research just about gospel house, and it was, "House music is church for people that have fallen from grace." You know when you read something and it just hits you in your chest? And I was like, "Yeah, that's what that feeling is."
That's what I love about raving, that community, that communion. I've had some nights out that do feel very spiritual and transcendent in some ways. I think Frankie Knuckles, being the godfather of house, just summed it up perfectly.
Your debut album, RE//CHOIRED—a very clever, fantastic title, by the way—features covers and reimaginations of house classics like "Gypsy Woman" by Crystal Waters as well as newer classics like "Latch" by Disclosure featuring Sam Smith. Can you tell me more about how you approach your song selections when it comes to your covers?
Maddix: The main thing is [House Gospel Choir] started off with the live show. The intention was to have it feel like a DJ set. So the songs were seamlessly all mixed together, but you had live vocalists with it and you had a blooming gospel choir with the DJ. Through just practice and doing vocal arrangements and trying things out, it's like I come to the table with all of my favorite house tunes, and some of them should [be] left alone, should not make gospel versions of some of them.
Then there [are] other songs that really lent themselves to this way of reimagining what the song is. I think the vocal arrangement, the ability to make it into a House Gospel Choir sound, is one side. But the other bit is actually the message ... "Beautiful People" was the first song that we ever learned, and that was the first song I brought to the choir. I just think I needed that message at the time ... the messaging behind that [song] really was one of the big reasons we decided to do that one.
[For] "Gypsy Woman," we listened to it for so many years, and it's just like one of the biggest party records ever made ... and I don't think I'd ever really listened to the words. And then I sat down and I was like, "Wow, she's actually singing about someone being homeless." I found an interview where Crystal Walters was talking about the lady this song's about, and it just really struck me that there [are] so many people that don't have a home.
Like in a really basic way, we're talking about displaced people across all walks of life, not just homelessness. We started thinking about refugees. So the song just took on a totally different meaning and we felt it was a great way to just remind people, encourage people to look around when you're out on the streets. As much as you hear this song all the time and as much as you might walk down the same street every day, there are other things going on inside of that.
The album also features original tracks from the group, like "My Zulu," a collaboration with Todd Terry. Tell me about the creative process behind your original tracks.
Maddix: Our intention behind those originals was most definitely "future classics," because we were like, "We have to be able to make tracks to stand up against these absolute massive hits." Obviously, it's a huge task, but we just thought, "Let's try, let's just do it." We started off with a bit of a wishlist of who we wanted to collaborate with. And we've kind of crossed everyone off that list. It's been an amazing journey ... We just really wanted to pay homage and make sure that those original creators [of the songs] really gave this project the stamp of approval that it deserves. We've taken all the time to make sure that everyone is fully aware and supportive of what we do.
Laura Leon: With the originals, creatively, there's been quite a few different processes; it's not always been the same ... But I think, all the time, the intention is there; we go into the session, we say, "What is our intention?"
There are several tracks on RE//CHOIRED that reference religion and God. It reminds me of conversations I've had with ravers and dance music fans who've said they found religion and salvation on the dance floor. There are a lot of songs and artists who've talked about this "God on the dance floor" concept as well. Could you speak on this house-meets-religion concept? What is the theory there? And how does it relate to what HGC is doing?
Maddix: I grew up in church. So I went to church before I could speak, I suppose. And I did Sunday school religiously for years. I got to a point where, as a teenager, I was probably a little bit confused about the Christian faith I'd, in a way, been given, been born into as more of a birthright than a discovery of that faith. I went to Pentecostal Sunday school, I went to Anglican primary school and a Catholic secondary school. And they were all very different explorations of Christianity and the Bible; I think I was just a bit confused.
I still go to church, but I snuck into my first rave when I was about 13. It was an under-18 [event], so don't worry. Immediately, the feeling of being on the dance floor and singing songs ... I immediately felt the same way I felt like [in] my favorite days in Sunday school when we were all singing and just being together and that sense of community. I found it instantly on the dance floor in a way, but with less restrictions ... So that connection between the two things, having that community and togetherness feeling, is there.
Beyond that, the originators of the sound would have come out of a gospel tradition or a religious tradition, and that is reflected in the music, especially in the early house tracks; I'd say to a certain extent even in current house [as well], but the link is just not directly there. For me, it's the same experience, it's the same expression.
I think House Gospel Choir's project is really important because there doesn't seem to be any conversation about faith in mainstream culture at the moment. So it's just to have that conversation. I consider myself to be a spiritual person. There are loads of different types of faiths within the choir … We have people from all walks of life within the choir. We have people that came [who] have no faith and are figuring it out. My only thing is, there is definitely something, and I'm all right with people not being able to describe it or explain it.
But when we sing a gospel song and you look into the audience of people that maybe have just come for a rave and they're crying or they're having those moments, I think it's just worth a conversation, and House Gospel Choir is here to facilitate that conversation rather than pretend it doesn't exist. Because there's just so much we can't explain. As clever as human beings are, there's a lot going on that we don't have access to. So why not look and share experiences and ideas and faith?
The idea and practice of religion can often be a dividing topic, particularly here in the U.S. where you have the so-called "religious right" and dedicated faith communities heavily involved in politics as well as a rising atheist population. Seeing how your music discusses religion so openly, how have fans been reacting to your music and your approach to religion? Are fans accepting of the religious themes in your music? Are you seeing any backlash or negative reactions?
Maddix: I think for people that love dance music, house music, electronic music, there's a real acceptance of this style of music and the message has been there for a long time, so there's almost no problem there ... These are songs that are explicitly about faith and gods and the Bible that maybe people aren't even aware of, but they accept them because they move them in some way. When you encourage conversation about the meaning behind songs or the message behind songs, people are quite open to it. That's how I feel about it, and that's what I found most dance music fans have felt.
We actually do have a lot more religious followers or Christian followers, I think, especially since lockdown when we started doing our a cappella videos. We did a cover of "Optimistic" by [vocal group] Sounds Of Blackness, and I think that resonated with people at a time where they just needed to feel optimistic … So I think it just brought more people into the space.
If you go through our followers on Instagram, it's really surprising. Some of [their handles] are like "prayedup97" and someone else might be "danceallnight81." And they're all there, they're all in the same room. And that is essentially what House Gospel Choir is. It's us with all of our different beliefs, all of our own issues, all of our own struggles—being in the same room. I think that's what is reflected in our fan base.
There's definitely been some questions from our more religious followers, once or twice, about the length of our skirts and such and such. But I don't think it's possible to rave in a long skirt, personally. [Laughs.]
I'm glad you brought up the composition of the group itself. I read that it's composed of more than 150 members from all religions, all backgrounds, all ethnicities. Tell me why that was a deliberate choice.
Maddix: We live in London, man. I think it's similar to New York. If you are able to share what you have with the biggest audience possible, it's just good. I think because we came at it [from] an angle from two things: singing, which anyone of any race of any religious belief can do; and raving and being together. I think those two things are real good levelers or nice entry points for a lot of people.
Being in London, having such a diverse population, it just happened naturally … Our members are from all over the U.K., actually. There [are] Scottish people in there, there [are] people from outside of London. In the same way that New York has that kind of migratory aspect to it—someone might not have family members in that town or that city—London's a similar thing. I think it also brings together people that want to belong somewhere ... It's just a home for anyone that wants that experience.
Leon: It provides like a second family, like you said, because there are a lot of people from outside of London ... To be able to come together in a safe space where you can just be yourself—even from personal experience, from a mental health perspective, it really helps being together with like-minded people that just want the same thing and to just let your hair down ...
But no matter what, everyone's got each others' backs ... I think we're all just aiming for the same thing, so [we're] all on the same page. Essentially, Nat is the driving force behind this movement. So it is her final word, and everyone respects that. Everyone just wants to work for the greater good and provide a space to fully be yourself [with] no judgment at all.
What is House Gospel Choir's mission statement? What is your ultimate goal for the group?
Maddix: My main thing was always to remind people that we are one. It's my mantra. I've noticed that so many people are using it now ... So many people are waking up to the idea that there's more that unites us than separates us. All these things that are supposed to make us so different, when you really get down to it and sit in a room or share space with people that feel very different to you, you realize there's not a lot of difference between who you are as human beings.
That is the message at the top and the end of our live show. That's how we always wanted people to leave feeling. I think during the pandemic, that's expanded a little bit more as well. It's about joy and it's about finding those moments and pockets to enjoy life and really witness and experience beautiful moments and beautiful things with anyone that's near you. It's just to remind people that joy is still required. With everything going on, just remember that you can feel two things at once. You can be sad and still find something joyful in your day or in your week. And singing is a good way to feel joyful.