The Woman Impacting The Nation With the Gospel Choir Sound

Juliet Fletcher spoke to leading gospel director Audrey Lawrence-Mattis about her work, impact, and the changing role of gospel choirs in the Church and the wider community

The enchanting sounds of Christmas, marked by the melodious echoes of traditional classics, like ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, and ‘O Holy Night’, are a hallmark of the festive season. Yet, the role of choirs extends beyond Christmas, transcending time and tradition. In recent times, there has been a lamentation over the fate of church gospel choirs, prompting questions about their evolution.

The shift to ‘worship teams’ in local churches has altered the landscape, raising inquiries about the authenticity and representation of gospel music by choirs – particularly those showcased on platforms like BBC’s Songs of Praise and other high-profile events. To unravel this transformation, an exploration led to an interview with Audrey Lawrence-Mattis, a choir director, academic lecturer, and international vocal coach with deep roots in the gospel music scene.

Audrey’s Musical Heritage
A product of the Windrush era, Audrey hails from Birmingham as the third of four girls born to Jamaican parents. Her musical journey began at home, influenced by her father – an impassioned non-professional singer, enchanted by hymns and the soulful sounds of Sam Cooke. However, it was her involvement in church choirs that ignited a fervent pursuit of excellence in the realm of the human voice.

Passion for Choirs
In a conversation with Audrey, the genesis of her choir involvement unfolds. Recognised as a musical prodigy from the age of eight or nine, Audrey’s affinity for assembling schoolmates to sing became a testament to her natural talent. “My pivotal shift towards church singing occurred under the influence of three key female figures – Urcel Thompson, Winsome Thomas, and Pamela McIntyre – in my local church at Mount Street, Small Heath, Birmingham. Urcel fostered my love for harmonies; Winsome guided me through the formative stages of choir directing; and Pamela, the founder of the Highgate Gospel Choir, inspired me – she was the first female to become the New Testament Church of God’s National Choir Director, and I followed in her footsteps.” Truly the Church gave Audrey a foundation she has smartly built upon.

Educational Pursuits
To refine her passion, Audrey delved into the serious study of music, leaving behind an initial career in finance. Despite lacking formal qualifications, she secured admission to the world-class Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, based on her audition alone, thus embarking on a transformative four-year journey. “This was a complete time of joy for me. Challenging, but in the best sense, balancing full-time study with family life. However, I have never had a moment to regret but always to pursue and explore musicality.”

Audrey gained a degree in music and PGCE in Adult & Continuing Education Teaching, and has taught in various educational institutions throughout the UK. “The wider creativity of Black music and gospel music remains at the heart of what I teach through workshops and training individuals.”

The Birth of AMC Choir
Audrey’s foray into non church-based choirs materialised when she was asked to assemble singers for a project to be led by Howard McCrary, a former member of Andraé Crouch & The Disciples. The resulting choral group (she was initially resistant to the name), ‘The Audrey Mattis Chorale’, became a lesson in legacy formation and sustaining excellence. “Naming a group after yourself at that particular point in time, I felt, looked like egotism. But I soon learned that it allowed me to embody my fundamental principles and practices – just like Howard McCrary explained to me. It provided a method of sustaining my standards and imprinting my musical DNA into the sound and practices of the Chorale.” Audrey aimed to set a standard that maintained professionalism and upheld the authenticity of their gospel roots. “For me, I have always engaged the AMC as a gospel outfit. All our work is from this premise.”

Evolution of AMC Choir
The transition from ‘The Audrey Mattis Chorale’ to ‘AMC Choir’ signifies an important evolution in the choir’s structure: Audrey’s focus on empowering members to take on increased responsibilities during performances underscores the choir’s commitment to professionalism and authenticity. It has meant she is able to send the Choir out with confidence, without her physical leadership. The way AMC is fashioned with designer outfits is part of that too. “I have a member of our Choir called Danielle Sterling. She designs our clothes. I choose the material and then we work out the outfits together. We have red and black outfits for this Christmas. However, we will be changing it for next year. We use a creative director for our photos – another choir member. The platforms the Choir has attained demands it. We operate in an environment where how you look is important. It adds to the quality of what we sound like.” I had heard that some TV companies often want choirs to look young and hip, so I asked if this was a challenge. “I like to have members from every decade. For example, a member started out with us in her late teens. She is now in her 30s. I’d say the average age of choir members is over 40. So, on the books, I have a pool of members, but there are often more than 20 of us when we go out.”

Community and Authenticity
According to Audrey, “AMC Choir is not merely a vocal ensemble but a community of singers who function as a family.” Their diverse backgrounds, many from church communities, contribute to the authentic quality that permeates their singing. Audrey emphasizes: “Having a great voice is crucial, but it shouldn’t overshadow one’s personality and character – critical elements for our ensemble’s continuous success.”

Success and Recognition
Audrey’s beliefs are manifest in the success of AMC Choir, which is evident in their frequent bookings. Outside of London, they have become a choir of choice for professionals, TV companies, and tour managers – a testament to the clarity and boundaries they establish. With an average of 1-2 bookings per week, their repeat custom reflects the impact of their authentic and boundary-defining approach. “We have a lot of repeat bookings, often among private customers. Invariably, family clients will choose us for another family-related event, and the relationships continue from there.

“Two-thirds of my work is with my Choir and the other is my own private work with workshops, teaching and training.” Audrey sees the choir travelling to more places – with bookings due in Switzerland as well as in Dubai. “I really am looking at giving my Choir members these opportunities to take their qualitative experience around the world.”

So what of local churches and choirs? “I’m very happy to bring my workshops to local churches and to provide training to those who attend church. Apart from the Bethel Convention, it seems that a lot of our church music relates more to CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) than to gospel.” Organised under her own steam, Audrey runs a series of workshops – based on learning a selection of (Edwin and Walter) Hawkins’ songs – which have culminated in hugely successful sell-out concerts in Manchester.

CONCLUSION
Audrey Lawrence-Mattis’s journey encapsulates the evolution of gospel choirs, emphasising the enduring importance of authenticity, community and excellence. However, Audrey simply sees herself as a proud mum of two, who hails from the Birmingham area.

As she leads AMC Choir, Audrey continues to embody those principles that leave an indelible mark on the gospel music landscape. I think it’s a model that church-based choirs can work to attain and so create a better bridge between choirs in and choirs out (of church) by being open to utilising experienced individuals like Audrey Lawrence-Mattis.

The AMC Choir will perform at the Manchester Camerata, Albert Hall, 27 Peter Street, Manchester M2 5QR on December 10. Visit www.amcgospel.co.uk or email info@amc-chorale.com for booking details.


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