Musical Religion: Corey Strong reflects on the spiritual power of songs
Corey Strong is a classically trained adult contemporary/pop singer and songwriter with a rich baritone voice. He has released two albums so far -- Believer and It’s Christmas -- but Strong recently underwent a musical transition, from singing inspirational music to transferring over to the pop market.
Strong, who's a longtime friend, performs at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library on May 30 at 7 pm. I sat down for an interview with the multiple times nominated Detroit Music Award artist and we talked about many things, including his new single, Moments, which features the songs "Bring Him Home" and "Baby Mine."
Q: You and I have been friends now for a while now as well as collaborators and we both have similar paths. Do you believe your past in music has shaped who you are today?
A: Yes, we have been friends for quite a while. When it comes to that question, I can’t help but say yes. And the reason why I say that is because of all the things that I’ve gone through professionally and musically, some things you know of, and your past shapes you no matter what walk of life you come from. For example, I got my start in church and I can recall [feeling] tied down to a religion or a church ... that would misuse my gift as far as playing goes. It was one thing that made me say that I don’t want to be a musician, but luckily I was able to redirect that negative energy that comes from those types of things.
A lot of times people have this misconception that musicians or artists are just these people who go out and come up with ideas just to make people sing and be happy, and part of that is true, but my music can change over time because it’s reflective of who I am. I’ve said in past interviews that this upcoming album release is reflective of where I am right now. Everything that has happened in the past has shaped who I’ve become because now as an artist, I know what I won’t tolerate from people as well as [from] myself.
Like I mentioned earlier, I got my start in church, but just because it was a church doesn’t mean it was a great start. Of course, I was grateful for the gifts of playing piano, but I was a part of a congregation that misused my gift and part of a religion that tried to break my natural free spirit. I’m not a very religious person today, but I am very spiritual and I believe that music is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. I’m tougher and stronger and I’m a lot more open because of music. Also, in high school I was considered a late bloomer and got a chance to showcase my skills in productions at Southfield High School -- they were an arts-driven school. They had The Wiz and The Sound of Music. I enjoyed having a [high school] career and it gave me a sense of normalcy because I was a shy kid and I’d gone through some bullying. Music was a form of escape for me; it could take me to a place where I wanted to be, it changed my mood, that’s pretty much my start.
Q: Your catalog has previously been filled with inspirational music along with your holiday album, It's Christmas. Now you're heading into pop music. What inspired you to come to this point and have you found the transition a difficult process? Are you finding any differences in the inspirational music market vs. the pop music sphere?
A: I discovered my musical abilities in church, so I grew to love inspirational music and the message behind it, so my first album was more reflective of where I was at in my career. One of my biggest inspirations during my time then was one of the most celebrated voices of all time, Sandi Patty. She was never ashamed to bridge the gap between a Christian and pop sound. When I met her, which was awesome to me, we discussed music and she gave me some really great advice, which I’ve held onto. She told me to be myself in any situation. I love theater and musicals, I’m that guy; I love that type of music.
Transitioning into pop, it hasn’t been easy. At first thought, it’s like how are my fans going to receive me since they’re used to seeing me standing before them in church but now I’m outside of those safety zones. You almost think you have to rebuild your fan base and promote yourself, but now it’s a positive thing because now I’m meeting so many more people and now they’re digging up the old music and they’re like, “Oh, you did this kind of music, too” and it’s cool. ... I’m looking forward to what’s coming out of “Moments,” my new single. Make sure to download that.
Q: Many artists have difficulties expressing their creativity in a way that can appeal to various crowds. What is your method for dealing with this issue?
A: My method for dealing with this is to not allow myself to care enough to force myself to be fearful. My mom is extra religious and she feels that music should only be about God. I use her as an example because she doesn’t understand that you can find Him in anything. However, she’s not a musician so she doesn’t understand this and I have to look at that, too. ... The track “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables is an extraordinary track. It’s from a phenomenal stage play, and when I let her hear it she was nervous but she had to say that it was a beautiful song.
For me, I have to be in a place where I’m not judging myself. There are certain restrictions and restraints that we place on ourselves based on what other people say because we want to be accepted. Everyone wants that, but you do have to stand your ground. I love all types of music as long as the message behind it is positive. For my fans, I feel that anyone that has love in their heart will easily adapt to this new music that I’m doing because at the end of the day it’s all about love. Thankfully with social media, I have access to thousands of people who are waiting to hear these messages because not everyone wants to find their peace from inside a church or religion; they might want to find that from their soul or in their car. At the end of the day, my primary goal is to make people feel good from what I’m singing and delivering to them.
Q: When you are singing, it’s always a special experience for the listener. What is going on in your mind and spirit that helps provide such excellent execution?
A: Thank you very much for recognizing that. Honestly, it just depends on the song. With my song “All I Need,” it’s a happy and free song so I think I feed off of the energy of my audience. If I see people smiling and rocking back and forth and just looking excited to be there I, in turn, give that back to them because number one I am happy to be singing and I feel so lucky to be doing what I’m doing. It’s like a big party when you’re performing. When I perform other more solemn songs like "Bring Him Home," I’m feeling the power of those words myself, I’m standing there giving the performance but I feel like I’m witnessing the greatness of the lyrics myself and so it moves me by the tones and the music itself. The music is what gives me the excellent performance. I can accredit that to being a people person. My mom told me that when I was younger that I talked too much (laughs) but you have to communicate; it’s a love language in itself. I like to meet people and to see what we have in common. To me, anyone that comes out to my concert I want them to feel like I’m there for them directly. I get fan mail all the time and even though I can’t respond directly to everyone I do want each person to know that they are special to me and I just try to give them the energy that I receive from them.
Q: How do you think social media has benefitted your career and what is your favorite platform?
A: Social media is a huge part of my whole brand. Without it, I definitely wouldn’t have the closeness with my fans, supporters, and followers. It also gives people the opportunity to look into the life of a celebrity or musician that they like or love. I know earlier in my day, people that we loved like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Josh Groban, you had to write to these people and wonder if they got the fan mail. Now you can go on social media and look and see what Mimi is up to, to see what she has going. But I think it’s a wonderful platform to connect with people and it inspires people to maybe do what I’m doing. It’s taught me a lot about my artistry as well.
My favorite platform is Instagram. I love it because it’s such a classy place, I hope they keep it like that. I love looking at pictures and photography. I’m also an artist myself and I love to search various mediums of art like paintings; it’s great. My following has picked up wonderfully because I think it’s putting the word out to people that they can access me. If you’re looking for me, you can follow me @coreystrongmusic.
Q: What are some of the challenges that you face as an indie artist and what advice do you have to those following the same path?
A: Well, as an indie artist there will be many challenges, number one being financial backing. I do realize that in this time, not everyone is doing well financially so not only do you have to focus on having a good product but you have to focus on how you’re going to get that product out. As we know it takes money in order to make money, and for me, it took a lot of investing and believing in my product enough to try to make it to where I was able to afford to pay for publishing and studio time. It’s a huge investment. That’s why a lot of times people see us as indie artists and they don’t pay us too much attention right away because they figure that you need that label that’s backing you, but the funny part is that nowadays labels are looking for artists like myself that already have a following, that have already invested in themselves, and then they will pick up the slack.
I’ve already been with a label, but I didn’t care for some of the aspects with it, like the control and not being able to have my own ideas of how my own project should have been. My first project, Believer, was with a label and it was not the best experience. It had its high points, such as the promotions and things of that nature, but just from the creative standpoint, as a real working artist you want to have control of your own thoughts and ideas and you want to see them through. I would tell anyone who’s working as an indie artist to just hang on and try to make as much money as you can and build a following so you can have people that want to contribute to what you’re making musically. That’s one reason why I don’t believe in giving out free projects and albums. It’s crazy because people that know you and know your struggle, they’re so ready to have their hand out to get a free album, but it costs money to produce the work that we’re doing as artists. I do give to various charities and I will give my music out from time to time, but if you know someone that’s an indie artist, just try to support them because they are actually working really hard.
Q: You are a multifaceted artist. You paint, act, and are pretty good at graphic design. Tell us more about your art and what your plans are for that.
A: With painting and my visual art, I love it because it allows me to let out those frustrations because ... when you get that blank canvas there are so many thoughts that race through your head at one time. I’ve sat for hours upon hours until 4 am just painting and trying to get things out visually. I don’t know if I will be the next Picasso or Van Gogh, I mean I certainly wouldn’t mind, hopefully, before I die, but I just like people to see things. Just like my music, I like them to see themselves in it and to be able to reflect. I’ve successfully been able to sell some of my pieces so I don’t know, but right now music is my main thing, but you can see my art, too. I think we are a diverse people and you have to have all of these different layers to support each other.
Q: What can people take with them when they hear the singles "Bring Him Home" and "Baby Mine"? What made you choose these songs as singles?
A: Well, number one, Les Miserables was always one of my favorite works. It rings true in my life. Now I haven’t stolen any silverware from anyone [laughs], but it's still the idea that you’re running and on this journey. That you need the grace of life to escort you on your way as you try to find out who and what you are and what you’ll be. Just the beginning of that song -- “God on high, hear my prayer” -- you’re at your wit's end. Personally, I’ve been there on several occasions and you’re just looking for direction. Many people will listen to the song because they love musical theater, but others will hear it and love it because it’s a message of guidance, it’s kind of like a prayer for the song.
With "Baby Mine," I’ve always been a big Disney fan, even as a kid Dumbo was so good to me. I chose that song because I’ve always wanted to do a lullaby for my son, Justin. He’s eight years old now, but he still loves the song and, hopefully, people will love it for their kids and loved ones. It was also a favorite song of my sister Anna who unexpectedly passed last year. We were planning to do that song as a duet but we never got a chance to do it. I also recorded that song as a tribute to her and wherever she is she’s listening to that song and loving it.
Q: What is your vision for your career five years from now and your life in general?
A: I want to still be creating, moving, and shaking with the best of 'em. My main goal is to create and I believe we all were intended to create from that higher source, that’s just what it is. I want to see my music reaching more, it’s already gone international, but I want to get to some of those countries that have shown me so much support like England and France where I’ve gained a new following. I want to go and see those places, I want to go and meet those people. Anyone that has loved or rocked with me, I want to reach them and touch them. So, hopefully, things will work out like that and I believe it will as long as we love music in this world. There are endless possibilities for artists like myself.
Q: What can people expect from the concert at AADL?
A: I think what people can expect is a performance filled with songs that move them to think, to love and inspire them to celebrate. I love playing smaller venues because there is a greater sense of intimacy between me and the audience. It's my hope that people leave humming a tune they have heard me sing and feel happier than when they first arrived. I believe it will be a magical evening!
Sean Copeland is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library.
Corey Strong performs a free concert at AADL's downtown branch, 343 S. Fifth Ave., at 7 pm on Wednesday, May 30. For more information, visit coreystrong.com.