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Kiss of Light

Something to say

Music | Joel Willoughby faces the uphill climb of the independent musician

Issue: "2008 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 13, 2008

Little illustrates the economic slump in which the music industry finds itself like the "positive" announcement in late October that the Pretenders album Break Up the Concrete had "sold over 16,000 [copies] in its first week, doubling the number of copies of the band's previous album Loose Screw."

The irony that such low sales from a once-platinum band constitutes good news is not lost on Joel Willoughby, who came of musical age during the mid-'80s and remembers the Pretenders' heyday well. "That's when I first heard bands like Duran Duran, Wham!, and Pet Shop Boys," he said in an interview. "A lot of people tell me they can hear in my music that I'm into the Brit-pop."

Those wishing to assess the Brit-pop influence on Willoughby's music for themselves should check out Do You Have Something to Say?, Willoughby's second release and the first on Eyes & Ears Productions, the company he recently launched despite the music industry's financial doldrums. Eloquently introspective and infectiously melodic, the album's 10 songs are hardly what one would expect from a married, 33-year-old youth pastor at a theologically orthodox Anglican church in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

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For one thing, to quote Willoughby, his songs aren't "overly preachy." For another they're at least as good as the latest by the Pretenders. That Do You Have Something to Say? has yet to reach 16,000 in sales does not surprise Willoughby. Aware of the uphill climb faced by independent musicians nowadays, he only pressed 500 copies. But he also ordered 500 additional covers and jewel boxes, should his efforts at self-promotion-like making his music available on iTunes-pay off.

"I've realized that you've got to play music just because you love it," he says. "When I first started 10 years ago, I think my hope was, 'Oh, man, I hope somebody sees us tonight! I hope we get signed!' But after you've been playing for a while, you see what happens in the music industry. A lot of things happened to people I know who were signed to certain labels that got them really jaded."

Not that being wronged by music labels would strike Willoughby as a big deal. The son of Pentecostal missionaries, he spent his formative years in post-Idi Amin Uganda and in Kenya, where he attended boarding school. By the time war forced his family back to Canada, he'd seen more of the world than many aspiring singer-songwriters see in a lifetime.

He'd also seen (and heard) far less Contemporary Christian Music than his new North American peers. (The only remotely CCM connection on Do You Have Something to Say? is a cover of "Strawberry Koolaid Smile" by the Throes-offshoot band Poole.) It wasn't until Willoughby discovered early-'90s alternative-CCM that he discovered the compatibility of Christian faith and cutting-edge pop. "I went to the [1992] Cornerstone Festival," he recalls. "It changed my life."

According to Willoughby, his epiphany occurred during a performance by the Prayer Chain. "It wasn't anything they said. It was the spirit of the music. I just felt God kind of wash over me. At one point I stage-dived, and I remember falling backwards into the crowd and really feeling like I'd let go of this burden. It was almost like being baptized."

Sixteen years later, the fruits of that moment continue to ripen. "I almost came to the point where I was going to give it up," he admits. "But I really feel that God has been pushing me to continue. I finally realized, 'Man, I just love playing music. And I've got these songs in my head. So why should I stop?'"


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