WHEN Rachel John performed her debut album From My Lips To Your Ear at New Testament Assembly in Tooting, in south London, the Olivier-nominated Hamilton performer felt that she had come full circle. The church’s south-London headquarters had been where she attended summer socials and choir competitions as a child. It was also where her mother, Patsy, found a spiritual home when she came from Trinidad in the early 1970s to train as a midwife. New Testament Assembly (NTA) began life as a house church, and offered a warmer welcome to new arrivals than the traditional denominations.
Ms John still leads services at NTA in Leyton, and says that visitors to their worship would feel the warmth of the Caribbean. “That warmth is definitely in our tambourine-playing and hand-clapping. You will see people dance unto the Lord in the front and people singing with their hands in the air. It is free expression. We take the Psalms to heart, as David would say: ‘Shout unto the Lord and sing a new song and make your boast about him.’ Hymns are at the heart of our expression of worship.”
In childhood, Ms John did not have a choice about singing, as women at NTA advised that she had a gift. “They just kept saying, ‘Keep trying. This is alto, use your ears, listen and then repeat. Where can you fit in?’ So I had the best masterclass. It was allowing the Lord to teach you as well as allowing really good musicians to teach you.” Tapping into that joy of music sustains Ms John when the demands of her West End career could turn performing into just another job. “In my professional career, because it’s about perfectionism and fitting a brief, so it can become work.”
After a degree in English with Drama and Theatre Studies, Ms John expected to become a teacher, but, while temping, post-graduation, she spotted an advert in The Voice for open auditions for The Lion King. “Rough and ready” was the verdict on her first attempt; so she returned to her office job. But, the following year, an audition for a new production in Disneyland, Paris, succeeded. “Then, four weeks later, I had quit my job and moved to Paris and started working for Disney. That was in 2004, and I’ve been working in theatre ever since. That’s how the transition happened.”
Being on stage is no bar to evangelising. “I am sharing the gospel in my conversations. I’m sharing the gospel at the stage door, when people want to say hello, and ask ‘How do you sing like that?’ It really is bringing glory to God, because your gift does have people asking questions. If they enjoy what you’re doing, then you get to say, ‘This is because of God’s grace. This is because of God’s gifts.’”
Ms John praises Christians Against Poverty’s Money Course for helping her navigate showbusiness’s “prayer-and-potatoes” precariousness, in which well-paid contracts are interspersed with spells of auditioning for new roles.
Her mother’s red-covered Redemption Hymnal was instrumental in choosing the hymns for From My Lips To God’s Ear. “Mum’s still got her original, purchased when she came here in the ’70s. There’s no spine, pages are dog-eared, with highlighter on her favourites.” Combining her mother’s top ten with the choices of the other musicians produced a hymn core that everybody agreed on. With influences from the gospel singer Shirley Caesar to Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin, Ms John infuses “How great thou art” with soulful intimacy, while adding jazz and blues to “Blessed Redeemer”.
“I love that hymns are cross-generational. If we think about being British, it is seeped into our cultural fibre to have hymns. If you’ve watched football live, which I love to do, the crowds are chanting ‘You’re not singing any more!” to the tune of “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah”. It’s in us: hymns are everywhere.”
From My Lips to God’s Ear is out now.