Mention the words "Christian pop," and most people become as wary as a vampire around a crucifix. Some might immediately picture tan, pompadoured crooner Carman, who integrates Tom Jones dance steps with good-versus-evil theatrics. Others might visualize a clean-cut boy band like the Newsboys (basically, a holy roller 'N Sync).
But Christian music, like mainstream pop, has a variety of faces. Among those is Houston's Brandon Stanley. In fact, watching the 20-year-old singer-songwriter at work in a rehearsal space off Bunker Hill, one wouldn't immediately think of the guy as a "God rocker." Tuning up his acoustic guitar, he looks no different from any other artist practicing in the studio. He sports an old baseball cap, T-shirt, baggy jeans and sandals. He jokes around with his band and sips on a soda while getting ready for the evening's practice.
As he runs up and down a few guitar scales, he gives direction to the rest of his group, all of whom are at least five years his senior. Despite the age difference, Stanley carries himself with a seriousness of purpose that belies his youth. You sense a maturity beyond his years. Once everyone's done tuning up, Stanley eases the band into the first number. He breaks into a driving, folky riff while giving instructions to the bassist, who begins to play a complementary rhythm line. Then enters the electric guitarist, playing the same rhythm as Stanley's, only louder and slightly more rock-edged. The dingy practice room is filled with music, and despite the lackluster acoustics, the quintet sounds pretty tight.
The cohesion is somewhat surprising given the hour and the circumstances: It's just after 10 p.m. on a weekday, and Stanley has spent the better part of the day instructing guitar students at a Mars Music store. Then again, perhaps Stanley is feeling loose because, unlike so many other regional and local acts, he doesn't have to worry as much about scratching together the cash from odd jobs to pay for his studio time, or for his CD project, Something for Nothing.
This is where Stanley's faith has really paid off, so to speak. Call it what you want, but Stanley's prayers were answered at the end of 1999. He was in dire financial straits, certainly in no position to pay for studio time or the production of compact discs.
"It was the last week of December, and I was broke as a joke," he says. "I was at the point where I was almost ready to give up on making a CD if I couldn't get anything together. So I prayed. I said, 'God, if you want me to do a record, you're going to have to pay for it.' I told him that if I didn't have the money by Friday, I was going to give up on the dream.
"Friday, I had a man give me my first thousand dollars to start recording. It was out of nowhere. I hadn't told anyone about making a record. Throughout the whole record, I kept having people come up to me and hand me money. I had some of the best engineers in the city give me price breaks. I think I paid for a hundred dollars of the whole thing. The rest was just given to me. It was incredible."
In this light, the title Something for Nothing takes on even more meaning. In all, Stanley got himself a full-blown CD -- a project valued at $3,500 -- for about the price of a low-end guitar pedal. The way Stanley tells the story, some of these well-wishers handing out cash were mere acquaintances happy to help out a young man making a Christian CD.
But the fact is, Something for Nothing combines Christian and secular elements, although to the average listener it can be a fine line between the two. So what's the difference? According to Stanley, the former seeks to glorify God, while the latter concentrates on positive lyrical imagery that has Christian values.
Stanley feels that the time is right for this puritanical pop to make waves on the radio and perhaps even attract major labels. With the recent crossover success of Christian-themed pop acts such as Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer -- not to mention heavy-metal outfit P.O.D. -- there seem to be more mainstream opportunities for inspirational musicians.
"Christian music is a multibillion-dollar industry," Stanley says. "Christian acts sometimes make as much or more than other bands. What you're starting to see now are Christian bands making it in the rock market. That's essentially what I hope to do. I'm getting airplay on Christian stations, and I have some songs that would be appropriate for rock stations. Christian music is starting to evolve to being yet another part of the mainstream scene."
Stanley has a long road ahead of him to reach the status of the aforementioned acts. But should he get to the position where he could make the jump from gospel radio to MTV, he says, he wouldn't sacrifice his spiritual messages to appeal to mass audiences.
"A lot of the songs these crossover acts are releasing aren't so much Christian songs as they are songs on life," he says. "Sixpence had that song 'Kiss Me,' and they approached that from a godly perspective. Then you have a band like Creed where none of its members claim to be Christian, but whose songs are pointedly addressing salvation through the Christian faith.
"What I think is really happening is that there's a spiritual undercurrent in America. For a long time, anything spiritual has been labeled taboo by pop culture. If you have anything moral to say, you won't get played, and the press won't touch you."
Stanley has been devout since his teenage years, but he does not profess to have followed a completely straight path. He says that, like most teens, he experimented with drinking and sex, but unlike most teens (and adults, for that matter), he did not derive much satisfaction from such actions. He grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the son of musician Clifton Stanley. The elder Stanley played the rock circuit and was affiliated with members of the band Kansas. As a kid, the younger Stanley would play his grandfather's old guitar or at least make noises on it. After pestering his father, he finally obtained a new acoustic model when he was 11.
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At the time, Nirvana was all over the radio and MTV, so Stanley started learning the band's music and, in the process, became more proficient on the guitar. Christian music didn't enter his worldview until he was 15. That's when his family converted to Christianity -- a nondenominational church -- and faith became a primary part of his life.
These days the collection plate seems to be working as much in Stanley's favor as in the church's. Aside from receiving financial assistance for his CD, he is also being sponsored by a couple of Christian backers for a spring college tour. Although he was unable to divulge the exact logistics, Stanley says he and his band plan to hit a few Texas universities, including A&M, as well as schools on both coasts.
As one would expect, Stanley says he owes his opportunities to his strict belief in the man upstairs. He knows the next steps in his rise to stardom will only be more difficult, but he figures if prayers have gotten him this far, they may take him all the way.
"I think people are hungry for spirituality," he says. "Truth is truth, and they want to find out what's real and what's not. My faith is who I am. When I started writing music, I couldn't escape that. I couldn't escape that part of myself, and now more than ever, that's a good thing."