In the song, "You Gotta Have Heart," the motivational and pivotal moment from the Broadway musical Damn Yankees, one particular lyric stands out: "All you really need is heart, when the odds are sayin' you will never win." Yes, these lyrics applied to a struggling baseball team trying to win the pennant. Yet, when it comes down to those thought-provoking lyrics of the spiritual heart, Lisa McClendon simply tells like it is, often singing about surviving the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Surviving tragedy is a story line McClendon is extremely familiar with. Though her candid songwriting packs many punches and gets in listeners' faces from time to time, McClendon's musical tone is usually not abrasive. In fact, when she first launched her recording career in the early millennium, she was considered one of the few highly recognized artists in gospel music to mesh her transparent, scriptural based songs with new and classic sweet soul grooves. On all of her four discs, including her latest Reality, McClendon always wears her heart on both sleeves, all stemming from the lessons she learned from pressing circumstances throughout childhood and adulthood.
Since early childhood, McClendon was always seeking others' approval and failing, whether through various teenage loves or competing with her sister for affirmations of beauty. Writing proved a particular solace for the Florida native. She documented those discouraging times by writing down all her intimate feelings in a poetic journal. In fact, capturing thoughts on paper as opposed to being a stage performer was her heart's number one desire: "I've always wanted to be a writer," she told GospelFlava.com. "I concentrated on just writing."
As a teenage vocalist, she was the runner-up of a regional, gospel music version of Star Search, and hooked up with vocal group 3N1 after graduating from college. 3N1 did try to sign with the independent label Shabach Entertainment, headed up by Maurice Henderson, a well-respected music producer who worked with several jazz and gospel artists like Out of Eden and Allen & Allen. Unfortunately, 3N1 was not signed, but Henderson did continue to seek out McClendon. Eventually, her big break finally came while she was leading worship at The Potter's House in Jacksonville, Florida. It turned out her husband brought her song portfolio to Henderson, who also attended The Potter's House.
Once she got her foot in the door, it was only fitting that McClendon started writing for other artists on Shabach Entertainment before she teamed with Henderson for her 2002 debut. When McClendon first broke on the national scene with My Diary Your Life, she was compared to fellow soul sisters Macy Gray, Mary J. Blige and Jill Scott, though much of McClendon's music was inspirationally drawn from classic soul and contemporary gospel artists like Al Green, Aretha Franklin and The Winans. The immense commercial success behind My Diary Your Life was already leading McClendon into exciting territory with her second project, yet the initial transition was no bed of roses.
When Integrity Music, the internationally-known worship conglomerate, offered McClendon the chance to be the soul/gospel artist to compliment their roster of urban worshippers like Alvin Slaughter and Ron Kenoly, McClendon could not pass up the opportunity. The release of Soul Music with Integrity marked a major transition for McClendon from the secure, safer haven of the independent scene to the more pressure-cooker major label environment.
It turned out the move to Integrity was not exactly the fairy tale transition McClendon thought it might be. While signed to Shabach, McClendon and Henderson had enjoyed the shear freedom to present their material without having to wait on the corporate level politics for final approval. One of McClendon's biggest stresses while recording Soul Music was trying not to compromise her music while working to please Integrity, a tension which occasionally flabbergasted McClendon. In the end, she was able to pull off her trademark classic soul with a jazz twist, including two worship classics - "Breathe" and "You Are Holy." She also added more than a few of those hard-hitting scriptural lyrical pieces she is best known for.
During this transition period, McClendon was also pushed by Henderson to stretch her talents beyond her role as an artist and her sound past that of a singer/songwriter. With this encouragement, McClendon learned how to better balance her business decisions with her goal of treating her music and management teams with respect, earning the moniker "Boss Lady."
In the meantime, the music-making challenges continued on her follow-up for Integrity with a live concert performance - a risky move considering McClendon only had two discs to her credit. Live from the House of Blues was a fulfilling, yet challenging project to perform. McClendon had to adjust to singing in front of a full band after years of recording to the more minimized musical instrumentation in the studio for My Diary Your Life and Soul Music. Additionally, McClendon was seven months pregnant when she recorded the concert from the New Orleans venue.
Yet, even the pregnancy could not supersede the challenge of Hurricane Katrina, which occurred shortly after the recording's completion. In addition to being concerned for her New Orleans band mates, McClendon also had personal issues to contend with including her unstable marriage. In McClendon's effort to tackle these trials, her fans would have to wait quite some time before she returned to the studio.
A four-year absence has not altered McClendon's scriptural views on faith and communicating the frailties behind human nature. At the same time, there has been a personal growth spurt since her recent divorce, as evidenced on her latest disc Reality. Her latest effort also marks McClendon's triumphant return to independent music circles. Released on her own DG Music imprint, Reality is McClendon's attitude checklist regarding her failed marriage and other life struggles, and how she applied her faith in God throughout these challenges. Besides her own checklist, McClendon shares anecdotes about issues that hit home for Christians and for anyone that chooses to listen. The classic soul overtones still dominate her musical palette, though there are a few more sonic touches and lush orchestrations.
Lyrically the songs shooting straight from the hip provide many of Reality's finest moments. The retro-soul-kissed "Who I Am" discreetly dismisses the reality shows and other media that dictate how people should they feel inside: "I don't need a TV screen or a magazine to remind me of how my life is supposed to be." "Let It Go" is an elegant samba about the joy of letting go and letting God take control. With a knack of turning worship songs into a laid-back funky experience, "Thank You" is a personal thank you to God for spiritual renewal: "Thank you for my enemy/Thank you for my friend/â€˜cause it made me the woman I am today." "Lust Or Love" breaks down the down the obvious difference between the two stages of love relationships. "Makeover" is an affecting ballad tackling the played out, but serious subject of inner beauty versus outer beauty: "I take my time to make sure I'm fly/â€˜cause I'm concerned how the world views me." In probably one of McClendon's fiery performances to date, "Heaven" channels Blige, Scott, and Aretha in a song about an eternity made possible by Jesus dying on the cross: "Peace for eternity/Prepared for you me/Love took care of it long time ago." Finally, the mini-soap opera entitled "Pause" stresses the continuous battle of balancing family priorities: "Everybody wants a piece of me/but I just need a moment to breathe." Enhancing the drama of "Heaven" are samples of children crying, the phone ringing, the door knocking and McClendon's soft-spoken plea to get away from the madness.
Reality totally proves McClendon has not lost her spiritual, lyrical muscle or her soulful heart, even after a major family adjustment change. She also flexes her maturing management skills by entrusting two producers that successfully match McClendon's soulful jazz vocal sweeps. Herb Middleton (SWV, Blige, Glenn Jones) knows how to craft some drop dead gorgeous R&B/hip-hop beats, while David Stevens lends a sweeter jazz vibe with his experience as a contemporary jazz guitarist/producer. Those complimentary production soundscapes and McClendon's no-holds barred thoughts on Reality are a soulful marriage made in recording heaven. In other words, a long absence from the recording industry can make the heart grow fonder and stronger, especially in McClendon's case. Highly Recommended.
By Peggy Oliver