"A group of five people who write gospel music walk into a bar..." Minneapolis group Gospel Machine takes what sounds like the beginning of a joke, but turn it into neo-soul and gospel music that's reworked into a whole new sound.
The band — consisting of Jayanthi Kyle on vocals, Wes Burdine on guitar and backing vocals, Scott Munson on keys, David Osborn on drums, and Jimmy Osterholt on bass — almost didn't exist because making new friends can often be an awkward thing.
The majority of the band, save Jayanthi, also played in the indie-rock group the Small Cities. When Burdine left to focus on writing a different genre of music, he knew he wanted Kyle to take the lead on vocals, but the two took a while to connect.
"Jayanthi and I knew each other, but we would talk to each other about making music through friends. We both sent signals and said it would be fun to collaborate, but it was a while before it eventually took off," Burdine shares. "I was done with indie-rock music at that point. It wasn't doing it for me anymore; I was listening to a lot of Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, and Otis Redding, and it influenced me to change my sound."
Once he figured out how to sever his writing voice from his singing voice, Burdine found he could easily move around in his new musical skin. Not constrained to what he could do with music, he wrote through the eyes of Jayanthi, and the lead singer knew what it took to bring the stories to life.
Because of their busy schedules in other projects and life outside of Gospel Machine, the group never really had a set rehearsal schedule. Their first show at the 331 found them feeling it out and seeking the fun in the heat of the moment. In the spirit of gospel, Jayanthi held communion and dubbed it "balls-out Jesus."
"They were kinda pissed about that," Osterholt laughs. "But we got such good feedback from the energy of the show, we thought, 'Oh, maybe this is a band now.'"
Gospel Machine's debut album, Your Holy Ghost, which will be celebrated Friday at the Cedar, was a lot more work than originally anticipated. The group encountered many logistical hurdles; it even took two years into being a band before they decided to record.
"At first, because of time constraints, it was largely me coming to everyone and trying to work on songs," Burdine says. "That's slowly changing; for this record, I had horn parts ready, and I know everyone's instincts. We all can live in our own parts. Jayanthi is a performer in a way that I'm not a performer."
Your Holy Ghost not only pierces the fabric of today's divisive culture, but also gets to the heart of what’s wrong with it. The record is an odd, compelling hybrid of teeth-rattling roots and blues: vast, dense, complicated, and rustic. It’s not uncommon for bands to try and blend genres, but to actually pull it off and make the result sound coherent is another matter.
To get into the narrative, Kyle would spend weeks listening to Burdine's demos after her kids had gone to sleep to try and get her head around the story. She would come back to rehearsals with her own take, leaving everyone in awe with her performances. Outside of communion at the 331, Kyle has towed the line at Palmers, sometimes getting up on the bar and asking patrons to check into their spiritual side.
The quintet had some concerns that, with a name like Gospel Machine, they would be viewed as a Christian rock band, but those fears were quickly brushed aside.
"I recognize that my connotations to what gospel music is is different that from the rest of the world," Burdine elaborates. "Some people can see gospel music as pretty evangelical. Gospel music is, first of all sound, but it's also using that sound to speak on larger issues. To me, it's not praise music; it's about using these ideas to hit pretty deep notes about civil rights and internal pain."
"There's a lot of stuff that goes with it — it's the dilemma of a band name," Munson expands. "You don't control where people go with the music. The amazing thing about the gospel music that inspires us is that it's about longing and exile."
To which Osborn adds: "This kind of music has always touched me deeply. It's soulful and the grooves are soulful, so it was easy to hop into what Wes was doing."
"I would joke that Wes was my Quincy Jones. He was writing the music that I needed and that I don't have the time and capacity to write," Kyle expresses. "I appreciate that there's a story. As a singer, it's my job to pull someone out of time and space when I sing. I like it when I'm watching someone perform and they can take me somewhere else. Wes always has beautiful words. I don't like singing about love gone wrong, because they're not uplifting, but if Wes is writing it, I'll sing it. There's elements of confidence and power. It's not just one simple agenda; there will always be a story."
Gospel Machine album-release show for Your Holy Ghost
With: Pornonono, Sarah White.
When: 7 p.m. Friday, October 2.
Where: Cedar Cultural Center.
Tickets: $12-$15; more info here.