By Bob Marovich
“I always did love music,” Jonathan McReynolds told the Journal of Gospel Music, “but I don’t think I ever envisioned a music career to come out of it.”
Nevertheless, McReynolds, a rising star on the gospel music circuit, is poised to release his sophomore album, Life Music: Stage Two (eOne, Tehillah Music Group), on September 18, 2015.
Raised on Chicago’s South Side, McReynolds attended the New Original Church of God in Christ on East 78th Street, where Thomas Jackson Jr. is Pastor. Coming from a musical family, McReynolds began playing drums, keyboards, and organ around the age of five or six.
McReynolds’ music palette has always been a jukebox of disparate influences—from India.Arie, Stevie Wonder, and Sam Cooke to Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and the Beatles. “I had an eclectic listening family,” McReynolds explained. “We grew up singing Jim Croce, Boyz II Men, and Larnell Harris and Commissioned. I don’t think I realized the genre breakdown. To me, it was just music.”
McReynolds joined the senior choir while at Whitney Young Magnet High School, admitting that his maturation as a musician and songwriter was influenced in part by “the praise of high school girls.” He spent most of his time in the school’s in-house studio when he wasn’t in class, and as an upperclassman, experimented with songwriting by penning love songs for the ladies.
While the first inspirational song McReynolds wrote was “I’m Headed for Greatness,” he cited “Loving Me” as the first faith-based song he wrote that convinced him that “I might be kind of decent at [songwriting]. It had a certain comfortable aspect to it.”
Despite his church background, McReynolds crafts his distinctive brand of gospel music from that same galaxy of stylistic influences. He explained: “I was at church every Sunday. I played for the State Youth Choir for the Church of God in Christ, but I wasn’t thinking about singing and writing at that time. By the time I started singing and writing, I had a clean slate that wasn’t as affected by the Pentecostal tradition. Even though Pentecostalism is an amazing tradition, and I love it, it is strophic. It is established and defined. I was more affected by my friends at Columbia and the artists I listened to while in college.”
Although McReynolds is most associated with the acoustic guitar, he insists it is “the instrument I’m least experienced at.” He leveraged his knowledge of piano to teach himself guitar while attending Columbia College Chicago. He also wrote his first album, Life Music, while a Columbia undergrad. The album introduced his gentler, more introspective style of sacred music to a wider audience of gospel music fans.
Now a college instructor at Columbia, teaching music theory through the conduit of gospel band, McReynolds wrote his latest effort, Life Music: Stage Two.
“I write straight out of my life,” McReynolds said. “As my life changes, and I have questions and conversations inwardly and with friends, that is what I write about. It’s like a journal. I also tried [on the album] to keep the same innocent approach, not thinking about who was going to like or not going to like it, and just write based on how I feel, and how I believe God has given it to me.”
Life Music: Stage Two provided McReynolds the opportunity to work with one of his major influences, India.Arie. They collaborate on “Whole,” the latest single from the new album. “It was incredible working with someone I’ve admired since high school,” he reflected. “I remember trying to learn to play her songs for some of the school talent shows.”
McReynolds believes that the changes he is making in gospel music in the 2010s evoke, to some extent, the changes India.Arie made in R&B music in the 1990s—“music made in an authentic, relatable fashion.”
The album also features a collaboration with another out-of-the-box talent, Dominique Jones of foreverJONES. They co-wrote “Oh!” “Dominique is an amazing writer,” McReynolds said. “I absolutely love the way she writes, the way she sings. We are friends. I’m blessed that everybody on the album are just friends.”
That includes Israel Houghton, one of the album’s producers and featured guest on “All Things Well.” “Israel is like a big brother,” McReynolds said. “He recognized something in me and wanted to make sure I didn’t make some of the same mistakes that he did. I know there’s not too many black people in gospel playing acoustic guitar, so it has been really cool to forge a friendship with him. He’s an amazing guitar player. I’ve tried to learn some of his chords.”
What does McReynolds wish for the new album? “I hope my music reminds people of the humanity—the conviction, the struggles, the joys—that fueled the beginning of gospel music and that made it so amazing, so powerful, so mind-blowing. It is the authenticity and the humanity in gospel that makes it amazing. Not the musical virtuosity. I hope that this album gets back to that. Even though it’s a different sound, it comes from the same heart.”
For more information on Jonathan McReynolds, visit: www.JonathanMcReynolds.com.