Keeping it natural
George Luke meets top acapella act Naturally 7 and finds out how their faith fuels their music
Seeing Naturally 7 (the so-called “band without a band”) in concert is an uplifting, joyous experience.
And they’re just as much fun to chat with – as I found when I caught up with Dwight Stewart (the ‘trombone’ of the group), Roger ‘N’glish’ Thomas (their music director) and Kelvin ‘Kelz’ Mitchell (their bass voice).
The group was on a brief visit to the UK to promote their latest album, Both Sides Now. It’s their seventh album, and it showcases a more choral side to the group, with less of the vocal trickery they’ve become noted for.
“We call what we normally do ‘vocal play’, and it involves a lot of imitating of instruments,” Dwight explains. “But on this new album, we were specifically asked to give a piece of our choral side.”
The concept for the album came out of a meeting the group had with one of the executives at BMG, their label. “It started off as a winter project,” says Kelz. “I remember us explaining to this executive that we had a spiritual base,” says Roger.
“We asked if he minded if the songs were uplifting or religious, and he said, ‘Actually, I would like that!’ And then he suggested ‘Jerusalem’ – which we being Americans had never heard before! But we fell in love with it as we began to work with it; it’s a beautiful piece. That was the first song done.”
Roger started Naturally 7 in New York in 1999 with his brother Warren and five other singers. Britain holds a special place in the group’s hearts; Roger and Warren were born here, and so too was a third group member, Garfield Buckley (in concerts, this is their cue to start singing Sting’s Englishman in New York).
And it was after playing a gig in London in January 2009 that their international career really took off. Brian Eno and Coldplay’s Chris Martin were both in the audience, and invited them to come and do some studio work with them the next day. They’ve since toured the world three times with Michael Bublé and presented a TED talk introducing ‘vocal play’ to the masses. Not bad for seven New York church boys ...
“I think our faith keeps us grounded,” says Dwight. “Being born and raised in the church, you’re never going to forget the values that are instilled in you. We always remember where we came from and what our goals are.
“We often have conversations when we’re travelling on the road. One time, I asked the others, ‘Are we giving our audience enough ministry?’ And then one day, I was in a club. I’m usually one of the first to leave, but this particular night, I was one of the last to leave. They had already closed down. I walked into the venue, and there’s this lady. She looks at me and she says, ‘I’m an atheist. But if there is a god, he exists in you’. Right there, I was like, ‘Wow! God, you just answered it for me!’ Now I know that we are giving these people something.”
“Even though our music is very inspirational in nature,” says Kelz, “we know that people in every walk of life are dealing with something. And even though they may come to the show having a good time and a smile on their face, we know they are going to leave and go back to the cold, crazy world that they came into the concert hall from.
“So when we take a bow at the end of each show, I just say a quick prayer: ‘Lord, I hope that somebody was blessed tonight’. That’s one way I apply my faith to what it is that we do night after night.”
“Our ministry is more the ‘Paul’ ministry,” says Roger. “There’s a place for the ‘John the Baptist’ ministry – ‘I’m going to hit you over the head because you need hitting over the head’ – but the Paul ministry is where I become all things to all men and I’ve got to get on your level to talk to you.
“We’ve found that that’s what Naturally 7 is.”