Chatted with MY DUDE, JJ Hairston. Not only does he lead the dynamic choir, Youthful Praise, he’s a man who simply adores God and wants to serve Him through his gifts and calling.
Although I kinda wanted to cut up with him during the Unique Teapots interview, we managed to keep it professional. The result is a great interview in which JJ shares his heart for this current album, talks about how Youthful Praise has evolved, and tells us what’s next for him.
Without further delay, here’s JJ Hairston…
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JJ: What’s up, dude?!
EJ: *laughs* How are you?
JJ: I’m good. How are you doing?
EJ: Good, good, good. Let’s jump to it– you’ve got your fifth album coming out on September 1st, entitled Resting On His Promise. Tell me about the vision of this particular project.
JJ: Well, we usually praise and worship the Lord, which is what we’re called to do. But for this album, we wanted to do something a little different– not only did we want to worship God, but we wanted to encourage His people. So, we used some more thematic songs… songs that kind of speak for the day. Normally, we sing all of our songs UP… this time, we’re singing to the people, encouraging them that, even in these times, God is still able to take them through anything.
EJ: That’s needed, man. Do you have a favorite track on the project?
JJ: Umm… “Close To You” is my favorite track. It’s a worship track, it’s intimate. Everyone knows that I just love to worship Him– that’s just me. I’m not saying it’s gonna be everybody’s favorite, but that’s mine.
EJ: Talk to me about some of the collaborations you’ve got on this album–guest spots from Shirley Caesar, Dorinda Clark-Cole, Deon Kipping, Myron Butler, Bishop McDaniel… how did those come about?
JJ: Well, the first one I knew I was doing was with Dorinda. That was just something… I knew, for this record, I wanted to get my favorite female vocalist and she is still, by far, my favorite. So that was something I knew I was doing.
Everything else kinda happened in the process. Pastor Shirley Caesar, of course, is on the label. That was something I really wanted to do. The song was kinda traditional to me and I wanted to the “queen”of traditional gospel to sing it.
EJ: That’s wise.
JJ: Myron, that was something that James Robinson [of Evidence Gospel] and I were just talking through… it was like, “which one of your friends would you love to do a song with?” Me and Myron are so cool, but we never really got to work together in that aspect, so we did that and it turned out great.
We actually weren’t in the same room– he was in a studio in Dallas, I was in a studio here, but we kinda compliment each other very well.
EJ: Wow. You’d never have known it.
JJ: Yeah. William Murphy was supposed to sing the song “Lord, You’re Mighty.” The night before the recording, he wasn’t able to make it because of some vocal issues. I called Deon [Kipping] and said “look, I need you to sing this song tomorrow!” He was like “are you serious?” *laughs*
EJ: For real? Did he know it before that, or did he just learn it?
JJ: No, we rehearsed it the night before, and then an hour before the recording. And that song, we actually sang on the stage together. It worked out very well. Bishop McDaniel— he’s just a great singer and I just feel like he delivers a song so well, so I wanted to include him. That’s pretty much how it all happened.
EJ: That’s great stuff. Talk with me about how Youthful Praise has evolved over the years. You all started out a long time ago as a youth choir and, as you got older, your sound was similar to other New York-area choirs at the time– a heavy vibrato (like on “Awesome God,” for example) and a killer band.
You’ve still got a killer band, but less vibrato. And the style of music is a bit different. Why the shift?
JJ: I think that as I changed, and as the music I was drawn to changed, the music I wrote changed as well.
JJ: When we did Thank You For The Change, everybody doesn’t know it, but Shawn Brown and I were both directing during that record. But in the midst of production on that record, Shawn went on to pastor. So, though I’m the only one on the cover, we did that record together.
Live… The Praise, The Worship was the first record that I had done by myself and it was what was in my heart as opposed to being two different aspects of music.
JJ: Of course, Shawn and I are both church choir dudes and we were doing that type of music, but when it came time for me to do my own type of record, I had to do what was closest and dearest to my heart. And that’s why that change kinda happened.
Now, because we grew up singing that way, we still have the vibrato. It’s not as heavily accented by the style of song, but it’s still there. I heard one guy say that we worship with a squall. *laughing*
EJ: *laughs* I think that’s accurate!
JJ: Yeah! But that’s how it evolved. Then, the Exalted record really went ALL the way worship. So what I did with this album, Resting On His Promise, was tried to bring it back to the middle where the live praise and worship was, where everyone that likes church choirs will be able to enjoy it, but people who like praise & worship will also be able to enjoy it.
EJ: Sure. And I think you did that well– it’s got variety, but it’s clearly ONE project. While we’re talking about choirs, I’ve got a more philosophical question for you.
EJ: It seems like fewer choirs are getting recognition these days in the gospel industry… almost as if there aren’t as many mainstay choirs. Do you feel like the choir scene in gospel is changing? If so, how are you working to remain relevant?
JJ: Wow. I think the choir scene has changed because the industry has changed. And I don’t mean “industry” as far as what people want, I mean “industry” as far as money. Just to keep it real.
JJ: It’s harder to move a choir because you can only move up to a certain number of people. So, if you have a concert, you can have someone like J Moss— you have his honorarium, plus one ticket for him and travel for his background singers. Or, you can bring in Ricky Dillard, who has 50 people. Even though the honorarium may be different, the cost to move the group is just so much higher.
JJ: So, what has happened now is that people are scaling down everywhere they can. One of those areas is travel. And choirs are taking the brunt of that because we have the most people.
What I’ve been doing to compensate for that is that I travel with less people, but still maintain the choir sound. So as opposed to carrying 20 to 30 people, we travel with between 9 and 12 singers and a band. We still give you the choir sound that you’re accustomed to from us, but you won’t have to pay as much for travel. Still, 9 to 12 is a lot sometimes, but we move as many as we can. It’s just a strain financially.
EJ: Absolutely. Just getting to the gig.
JJ: Yeah. I remember hearing that one choir took a bus all the way from California to New York. People aren’t doing that anymore. So, it’s just different, financially, in this industry than it was 15 years ago.
EJ: Sure. You mention traveling with fewer members, but you have a large choir. How do you choose who’s going where and how do you deal with choir members who say “Well, he didn’t pick ME to go, why should I still do it?”
JJ: Even to this day, we still have the same issue. There’s a certain sound that has to be produced, regardless of how many people we bring. And what we try to do is rotate as much as possible because I’ve been blessed with a large group of singers that can really represent the choir well.
Of course, at the same time, we have certain lead singers that people look for when we go places and I can’t leave them home.
JJ: So, it’s always a hard balance, but we try to move them around as much as we can. You know, I explain to the choir what the issues are and they seem to understand. We just try to be as fair as possible when we move people around.
EJ: That’s a good approach. You mentioned some of those lead singers we expect to see and I’ve gotta tell you– at GMWA, I nearly lost my mind about David McClure. I think everybody was like “who?! WHAT?!” *laughs*
JJ: *laughing* You know, honestly, I’ve been blessed over the last year or year and a half with some GREAT lead singers– of course, David McClure… we have a lead singer from New Jersey named Melissa Bell, and another singer named Jennifer Johnson out of New Haven, CT. I didn’t go out to search for singers, we just happened to go places and we ministered with them there.
David is actually a member of our church and it just felt so right at that point… the timing was right for him to start traveling with us. He’s great and he’s really a humble guy. It’s just been a blessing.
EJ: That’s great to hear. Now, you’re a husband, a father, an artist. How do you manage it all? We hear stories about artists falling prey to different situations– how are balancing your commitment to family and your commitment to ministry?
JJ: Well, one of the blessings is that my wife sings in the group, so where the choir goes, she goes. But even if I’m doing a workshop or make certain appearances by myself, I take her with me. Not because I think I’m going to go out and make a mess if I’m not with her, but because there are so many things that happen today– I wanna make sure I’m covered and SHE covers me.
And with our kids, we try to be there for them as much as we can. When we’re home, we are HOME. And when time allows, we do bring them on the road with us, so we’re not away from them every weekend. Otherwise, we’d never seem them on weekends.
JJ: It’s worked out well so far. I was just looking at the schedule for the rest of the year and it’s crazy. When we go to Italy, I’m taking my kids with me.
EJ: Are you?
JJ: I told the promoter, if you want us, you’ve gotta bring my kids. It’s Christmas and they’re coming with me.
EJ: You’re a good dad. So, what’s next for you? Of course, you’re about to be working this album, but down the line, what do you have in mind?
JJ: Well, one thing that’s been a blessing is that some people have heard the record and they’ve started asking me to help them with their records. So what I’m trying to do is– my musical director and I– we’re looking into starting to produce a little bit.
EJ: That’s awesome, man!
JJ: We praise God that people enjoy our sound and we wanna be able to place that sound in some other places, maybe even where it’s not a choir– groups and soloists… I’ve gotten a lot of flack from people who say “you turned the choir into a praise & worship group.” Well, that’s what I enjoy. But now, I may be able to deal with other groups and soloists that are geared more toward praise and worship, and help to accentuate that sound for them.
EJ: Very good. I think that’ll be hot and, of course, I’m looking forward to it! I really appreciate you for taking a minute to chat, man.
JJ: This is so funny… you’re sounding so professional!
EJ: *laughs* I’m trying to put on my professional voice! It’s all I can do to be like “Hi there, JJ Hairston, how are you?”
JJ: *laughing* Well, I’ll be professional and say “thank you very much.”
EJ: Yes. You do that! *laughing* And may God continue to bless your many ministry endeavors. *laughs*
JJ: *laughs* Alright, thanks man.
EJ: Bye man.
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That’s it, folks! What did you think???
One thing that stood out to me is that, no matter how large or successful, the issues that are real for smaller choirs are the same issues that are real for major choirs.
Don’t forget that Resting On His Promise, the new album, is due in stores THIS TUESDAY. Click here to read my review of the album.
And lemme know what you think!