Few artists can boast a career trajectory that encompasses Southern church music, the Ibiza club scene, a Sharon Osbourne-mentored stint on TV's The X Factor, and beyond. Christopher Peyton can, though, and his new album, Sinners Got Soul Too, manages to both fuse and transcend the various elements of his musical background to create an affirmative, grown-up soul- and gospel-influenced pop album. Produced by James Reynolds (known for his work with Emeli Sandé, Years & Years, Tinie Tempah, Snoop Dogg and others), the record is at once timeless and contemporary-sounding, and marks a significant change of direction for the artist. Alex Ramon caught up with Peyton to discuss the album's inspirations, his White Isle and X Factor experiences, the Internet's influence, performing live, and "going high".
Tell us a little bit about your background, when you started singing, and what some of your earliest musical influences were.
I was born and raised in the south of the US. My father is a Pentecostal preacher, so the church played a very big part in my life and gospel music was by far the biggest influence on my musical journey. I listened to a lot of gospel music growing up, and I still do. I wouldn't consider myself religious anymore, but I still find this music uplifting. I started singing in the church when I was just a little boy and even worked as the minister of music for my father's church when I was a young man. My musical references are probably a bit obscure for anyone who wasn't spoon-fed gospel music like I was growing up, but in our house we listened to a real variety of gospel music from black gospel artists like Mahalia Jackson, the Winans and Dottie Peoples, to more contemporary artists like Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris and Amy Grant, and even a lot of Southern gospel. Secular music only started to creep in around the time of Michael Jackson's Off the Wall album came out.
When did you first come to the UK? What were your impressions?
I first came to the UK for a two month study abroad program while I was at a small conservative Christian college in Tennessee. A group of about 16 of us came to live and study in Cambridge and travel around the country. It was exactly the kind of eye-opening cultural experience I desperately needed. I completely fell in love with the UK, so much so that when I graduated from college, I applied to do a post-graduate degree at the University of Leeds and returned to live here for a year while I completed a Masters in English Literature. That was the beginning of my love affair with the north of England. (I'm a big fan of northerners.) A few years after that I returned to live in London where I'm now based and have considered to be home for nearly 20 years. When people ask me where I'm from, I now say I'm American-British. It feels incomplete to only identify myself as an American after so many years here.
What led you to Ibiza? Tell us about some of your experiences there.
I first visited Ibiza in 2004 around the time my single "A Higher Place" had become a popular anthem on Hed Kandi Records. They had their own weekly events there at El Divino (now called Lio) in the summer, and I flew over to perform at their parties quite a few times that summer. As I had grown up in the US, I wasn't at all familiar with Ibiza, so it was quite a revelation. The Hed Kandi parties were considered some of the best on the island at that time, and the house music from that era was pure, uplifting, vocal house which translated into the most incredible energy on the dance floor. It was like I had found an alternative to the inspirational church services I used to love. This was church, but on a completely different level and without having to subscribe to anyone's beliefs but your own, and of course to the music!
As my career in dance music carried on, so did my connection with Ibiza and over the years I've worked and performed across the island for loads of events, record labels, and private parties, including a residency at Blue Marlin for a few years. I started basing myself between London and Ibiza about five summers ago when I met my now husband, as he's Spanish and was already living there. It's a very different experience living there rather than just going on holiday to party. You have a chance to really discover what a magical and spiritual place it is. These days I'm more likely to be enjoying a sunset at Es Vedra or taking a long walk through Sa Caleta than dancing the night away in one of the super-clubs.
How was the whole X Factor experience for you?
It was a very positive experience and one that I'm sincerely grateful for. I made the decision to do it only after a great deal of consideration (and coaxing from my manager) because initially, I had huge reservations about it. However, we had a very specific objective in mind for doing it which was to give me exposure to a wider audience so that when the time came to release this album (which was already nearly halfway finished at that time) I would have increased my profile and hopefully acquired some new fans along the way. After a full month of being on TV, and getting such an amazing reaction from the public, I can say without a doubt that our mission was accomplished. I know a lot of people were very upset with the unexpected way things turned out at Sharon Osbourne's house, but I honesty felt like it was for the best and it gave me the chance to get back to work on the album and carry on completing the next phase of the mission! I really do subscribe to the belief that everything happens for a reason.
The new record, Sinners Got Soul Too, has been in the works for some time. Could you tell us a little about how the album has developed over the years, and about your collaboration with the producer, James F. Reynolds?
The album really began about three years ago when a very big fan of my music in California contacted my manager and booked me to sing as a surprise for his wife's birthday party, and then decided that he would also like to commission me to write a song for her which would be about their relationship and his love for her, and a very unique and exclusive gift. I accepted the challenge, knowing of course that music is so personal and there was no guarantee I would create exactly what he had in mind but I asked him to send me as much info as he could about how they met, and details about their love story. I asked him to send me a list of twenty words that for him described his wife. From there, I started writing a song that felt more like a sculpture. For weeks I obsessed over this song, chipping away at it a little more each day until finally, I had completed what for me felt like the masterpiece this incredible woman I had never met before deserved.
It was because of this song that I reconnected with James Reynolds. I had known James and worked with him many times over the years when he was literally everyone's go-to producer for creating dance records. However, James' career had evolved a great deal from those days and he was now working with high profile artists like Tinie Tempah and Emeli Sandé, so I wasn't sure if he'd be available but I needed the very best producer on this record, and I knew he was the best. Thankfully he said yes to helping me out with the track, the outcome of which is "The Way I Love You" (track 7 on the album) . . . which I eventually flew to LA and performed as a total surprise for the lady it was written for. Writing that song and the whole personal experience around it set in motion the impetus to keep on writing songs without any particular genre in mind. For so many years I've written songs with the intention of creating a dance record. It was the first time I liberated myself from this notion that I needed to create music with a specific style or genre in mind, and I didn't stop until the album was finished.
The new album works as a cohesive set of songs: carefully structured and without filler. Was it important for you to make a record that would take the listener on a journey in this way?
It was imperative that I take the listener on a journey in exactly this way. Once I committed to the idea of making this record, I knew that what I really had to do was make an album that someone could sit down and listen to from the very beginning until the end, and never once feel like they want to forward to the next track. I know this isn't how people listen to albums anymore, and with digital releases, it's just so easy to pick and choose a couple of songs from an album but never really bother to hear the whole body of work. However, I made a commitment to myself that I would only stop once I had what I felt was an album with no fillers... no tracks that I felt even the tiniest apprehension about. Every single track had to fully deserve its place on this album, and the whole body of work had to feel like a cohesive journey that could keep even a listener with the tiniest attention span listening for the whole ride. Once I was satisfied that I had achieved this, I started sharing the album privately across a wide demographic of people whose opinions matter to me, and requesting that they listen from beginning to end without stopping. This was my one requirement of everyone, and the feedback I received confirmed what I already felt strongly in my own heart.
So let's talk about some of the individual tracks. On the first single, "When They Go Low", you take the title from Michelle Obama's famed National Democratic Convention speech, and even incorporate a little bit of her speech into the song. Tell us a bit how the speech inspired the song. And do you think that music can still be a vehicle for social change?
Michelle Obama's speech at the National Democratic Convention came at a time when so many of us were appalled by the ugly tone that the American presidential election had taken. At one point she admitted how difficult it was for her as a mother to explain to her girls what was going on, and it was during this part of her speech that she said "how we explain that when someone is cruel or acts like a bully you don't stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low we go high." These words really resonated with me because they communicated something that for me was so much bigger than just this presidential election. Having been bullied myself when I was younger, I know how painful and terrifying it is, and her words jumped out at me and made me want to sing them. So, I wrote a song around them so that I could do just that. I believe without a doubt that music can be a vehicle for social change. It's one of the most powerful forces we have because music doesn't need a passport to travel, and it penetrates people's hearts and minds in a way that almost nothing else can. I think it's unfortunate that there aren't more songs being written specifically with this in mind.
"Be My Enough" is the album's centerpiece love song, and it shows your gospel roots. Could you tell us about the background to this one?
A couple years ago I got married. In the months leading up to the big event which we had in Ibiza, I repeatedly said that I would by no means be singing at my own wedding because I had performed at so many over the years, and it was time for all my talented friends to sing for mine and give me the day off. However, at some point I was inspired to write the song "Be My Enough". Once I got in the studio and recorded it, I realised that what I needed was a big gospel choir to do the 'stand by me' choruses that come in halfway through the song. It was then that I got the idea to ask all my friends around the world who are professional singers (and a few who aren't) to record these parts for me, and send the files back to the engineer. I explained that this would be the best wedding gift ever, to have so many of my friends and the biggest divas in dance music all making up a huge choir singing on a record that I already knew I would have to perform as a surprise at my wedding. Almost everyone I asked agreed to do it, and so that choir you hear is made up of colleagues and friends, many of whom are famous artists themselves, who gave of their time to be on that special record which was in the end, the only song I performed at the wedding. Needless to say, it went down rather well, especially with the special guy it was written for!
"Jericho" feels like the album's most combative song. What was the inspiration for this one, lyrically and musically?
"Jericho" is perhaps the most overtly political song on the album, although I prefer to think of it as an anthem about the triumph of love over hate. Even the word 'political' immediately conjures up images of all those things that divide us, the way a wall does. I prefer to sing about the things which connect us, and by us, I really do mean all of us. What I really love about the biblical story of the walls of Jericho is that according to the book of Joshua the Israelites managed to pull them down just by blowing their trumpets. No weapons, no fighting, just trumpets. If that isn't one of the best metaphors for the power of music to tear down barriers between people, I don't know what is. Musically we were very much inspired by Rag'n'Bone Man's album, and we wanted the song to have a similar kind of crunch, but set to the methodical rhythm of the old railroad workers songs to give it gravitas and depth.
How did you come to choose the covers for the album: "True Colors" and Ben Harper's setting of Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise"?
"True Colors" is one of those songs that has always had a place in my heart. It's a song that has meant a lot to a lot of people I know. The original Cyndi Lauper version is wonderful, of course, but for a long time I've wanted to have a go at taking this record in a slightly different direction and making it my own. When I mentioned this to James, he was immediately up for it and we were both in complete harmony on how it should sound. "I'll Rise" is a song which has been a part of my career now from the very beginning. I first covered Ben Harper's original in 2004 when I was signed to Hed Kandi, and created a dance version which was my second-ever release. It's a song that has been closely associated with me and my career and I have performed it literally all over the world for the past sixteen years. I then decided to create an acoustic version of it to use for my X Factor audition, and the public reaction to the song was so positive that I decided to include this version on the new album. As far as I'm concerned, the world can never ever have enough Maya Angelou so I plan to be singing it over and over again for the next sixteen years!
"My Song 4 U" provides the record with an epic, cinematic closer. How did this track evolve?
I first wrote "My Song 4 U" for my now-husband as a dance track about five years ago, with my dear friend the Spanish producer and DJ Carlos Gallardo. The original version is a pumping dance floor anthem that we signed to Matinee Records, and even created a music video which was all shot in Ibiza. On the day of my wedding, Carlos arrived a little late because as it turned out he had been working for days on creating a special reworking of this song right up to the last minute to present to us as a gift on our wedding day. He had even hired an orchestra to record some of the parts and so, at some point during the proceedings, our MC announced that Carlos had something special he wanted to present to us, and this version of "My Song 4 U" was played while my husband and I and all our 250 guests sat there listening to it in floods of tears. It was just one of those moments and feelings I will never ever forget for the rest of my life. Carlos was not only a creative partner in music for me, but we had a connection which we always referred to as a brotherhood. Sadly, he passed away two days before Christmas two years ago, leaving his family, friends and fans completely devastated. So, this record of course had to be on the album, and it just happens to be the perfect way to finish because it's way too epic to be followed by anything. This whole album is dedicated to Carlos in my heart.
What are your thoughts about the internet's impact on music: whether that's social media or the way people tend to consume music these days through streaming services. Do you feel that the internet is a positive or a negative force overall?
To be honest I think like most things, there are positive and negative ways of looking at it. It's not going away so I don't really think there's much point in focusing on the negatives, but rather trying to identify the positives and then making the most of them. I think the internet has certainly played a key role in my own career by allowing me to establish an international fan base which I've been able to stay in touch with, and that has provided me with opportunities to travel and perform live which is how I've been making my living at music since 2003. Without the internet, it would have been much harder to do that. Of course it's frustrating as an artist when you go to such great lengths to write and record a song, and then nobody can be bothered to pay 99p for it, but they're quite happy to splash out five times that amount for a latte that takes ten minutes to drink. But hey, I do exactly the same so I don't go around cursing the state of the music business, in the same way I don't go around cursing The X Factor. If you're lucky enough to have a talent and a passion that you want to share with the world, you'll find a way. It's really down to you how you use the platforms that are available to you.
What do you enjoy most about performing live?
I've done a lot of performing over the years, in all kinds of venues, to all kinds of crowds, countries, across hundreds of cities. Sometimes the gigs I've most dreaded have turned out to be my favourites, and the ones I most looked forward to my least favourites. I remember singing for 23,000 people in Prague, at a White Sensation event, and hating every minute of it because I couldn't' see anyone's eyes. And once I did a gig in Melbourne which hadn't been properly promoted, and if I recall correctly there might have been twenty people to show up and yet, I can still remember how special that day was because the people who were there loved every minute of it. I learned a long time ago it's not about numbers, or flashy venues, or big production. What makes a gig is the people who are there and the way you connect with them. When it's bad, it's bad... there's nothing much worse than the feeling that you are not connecting. But sometimes you only need to find a few in the crowd who you connect with, and then slowly work your way to a few more and then a few more until you've got the whole place in the palm of your hand. When that magic happens, it feels like it makes up for every bad gig you've ever had in your life.
Overall, what are your hopes for the album, and how people will respond?
My hopes for this album are what you might call high. I want it to reach the people who need to hear what it has to say. I want it to minister to the downtrodden and the weary. I want it to confirm the hopes of the hopeful and the optimistic. I want it to shine a little light in the darkness, and spread the message that where there is love, there is hope... and where there is hope, there is life! And as long as we have life, we must keep on climbing our fears as if they're nothing but a mountain with a view. Like there's never been a dream we can't pursue.
Sinners Got Soul Too is available from 9 February on Peyton Music.