American history will forever be marked by its atrocities committed during the era of slavery. That wound remains at the forefront of our world today, even as the nation has made “progress.” Today we continue to see acts of racist violence in both outrageous and more subtle ways.
Given this context, the need for conversation is at its utmost and there is no greater way to dialogue than a deeper understanding of those hurt and injured by the mistakes of the past.
This was just one of many aims Lester Lynch had when he set about recording “On My Journey Now,” an album filled with black spirituals and hymns from the past. Featuring 25 tracks ranging from famed spirituals including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Amazing Grace” and “Deep River” among others, this album is an immersive journey into the past with an impact that lingers long after initial and repeat listens.
The baritone, who has made an extensive career performing with the best singers and conductors at the greatest opera houses in the world, recently spoke to OperaWire about his new album, which was released this past February.
OperaWire: Where did the inspiration for the album come from? You do not often find record companies giving the green light to albums that are not made up of the mainstream opera repertoire. How did you secure the opportunity to record this particular set of works?
Lester Lynch: I have wanted to record these songs for many years now. Since I had a good working relationship with Pentatone, they were on board as soon as I pitched them the album concept. Some of the songs I heard sung during my childhood by my grandmother and mother and some during my time in church. I love how many people are familiar with the songs and enjoy singing them and are touched by the music whether live or on recording.
One of the main reasons I began to think more seriously about recording these songs is because of the violence against minorities that has been coming more blatant over the past few years as more of us have smartphones to recording these terrible events in real time while they unfold. I am from the Greater Cleveland area in Ohio and having grown up in a small town called, Elyria, just 25 minutes from downtown Cleveland. I felt deeply disturbed by the story of little 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was shot down by police for playing with a toy gun. I played with toy guns when I was a child in that same part of the country; that could have been me. We need these songs to be sung now more than ever to empower us and help us to understand we have a need for justice, freedom, liberty and peace in this world.
OW: What was the selection process for regarding the spirituals and hymns included? Was any particular one an inspiration for the album?
LL: It was fairly simple; I chose the songs that are nearest to me. Most of these songs I have been singing for most of my life such as “Deep River.” “Deep River” was one of the first songs I learned to sing and it has appeared on many of my recitals. I chose to accompany myself for “Give Me Jesus“ because when I sat down and played it the first time it felt like I wrote the song and piano part myself. It seemed to flow out of me. My other selections “Stand Still Jordan,” “Ride On King Jesus,” “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless child,” and “On my Journey Now” were all part of a Paul Robeson night that I performed many times throughout the USA some years ago. “My Tribute” is a song I sang at my sister, Cindy’s funeral way back in 1996. I put that song on the CD to be a “tribute” to her.
OW: You arranged each piece in the album. Tell me about the process.
LL: It took forever and a gigantic amount of energy! I had no idea how difficult doing these arrangements would be. However, it has also been extremely satisfying to perform my own arrangements when doing a concert of the spirituals. I, along with my team, spent many hours making edit after edit and in the end, we were all happy with the outcome, but there were some tough moments.
OW: What was the greatest challenge of arranging them?
LL: I cannot speak for the other arrangers but for the pieces that I arranged it was getting what was in my brain down on paper or in the computer before it went away. I composed some of the instrumental lines while walking down the street, while on an airplane or was woken out of a dead sleep with a new phrase in my head. Once it started to flow the music began pouring out. On one of the songs, I was using paper and a piano application for cell phones to write out the parts because I was in the midst of traveling.
OW: But did you ever establish a rigid daily structure of schedule dedicated solely for the arrangements?
LL: My days were spent full of coffee and not much sleep! Fairway Market in NY at 74th Broadway has about 30 different types of coffee beans and some different flavors and during the busiest months of the recording, I think I tried every single type of bean, Jamaican, Kona, Guatemalan, Ecuador. I have had them all!!
OW: Obviously you had other professional obligations during this time. How did you manage to find a balance that did not disrupt the rhythm of either task?
LL: I had help! I had a lot of help! Nicolle Foland, Clayton G Williams assisted me with paperwork and ideas. Brian Farrell, a great friend, and collaborator, was one of the arrangers for the album and organist as well. He was my sounding board for musical issues and the great team at Pentatone in the Netherlands in particular, Job Maarse and Jean Marie Geijsen!!!
OW: Of all the pieces on this album which is your favorite?
LL: Name one…. that’s impossible. I think I can narrow it down to 3.
First. “Joshua Fought the Battle.” I absolutely love this arrangement. Also, the way the ideas occurred almost never happens. Victor Simonson and I were at the end of a 3-hour rehearsal and he said “I have this idea for Joshua, but I just have this outline” He began to play and I started singing and it kind of just happen within 10 minutes [and] we had this unique version of Joshua. It was almost purely improvisation and it has turned out to be one of the main hits on the recording. It was just one of those special moments.
Secondly, I’m very pleased with the work we did on “My Tribute.” This song brought me to tears during the recording session it was as if the spirit of my dearly departed sister was there in the studio. I had to stop singing and run to the bathroom to gather myself. I startled the producers and the chorus and other musicians. But the feeling was too overwhelming, I couldn’t contain it at that moment. But on the next takes, I took all of those emotions and put them into the song.
Third, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. My father grew up in a super sleepy town of about 400 people (800 live there now) called Demopolis, Alabama in a shack about one mile from the main paved road. We used to visit my grandparents down there when I was a kid. Job Maarse had the genius idea of using different instrumentation for many of the songs. I chose harmonica and guitar for this song. I asked the instrumentalist to imagine being on a porch in the deep woods of Alabama during tough economic times feeling down and depressed like we all do at times. We went there mentally and I think it shows in the song.
OW: What do you hope that audiences take away when they listen to this album?
LL: I hope it brings them some joy. I hope it helps them remember the things that are important in their lives, remember love, family, and passion. I ultimately hope these incredible songs; beautiful melodies and important texts help people to have the courage to stand up for equal rights for all. The strength to stand up for liberty and justice and stand together with those that are less fortunate.
OW: Have you spoken to people about how the album has made them feel?
LL: Almost everyone I have conversed with about the album has said “they wanted to sing along with the recording” because they knew many of the songs. These songs are very much a part of our American history and part of what we are known for. I’m writing from Germany and even here the opera house in Dresden is excited about these American spirituals, so much so that the gift shop is selling my CD! The people here in Saxony, which is a rather conservative part of Germany are enthusiastic about spirituals and the beauty of these songs. I believe there is a universal appeal to these songs.
OW: Given the socio-political world we live in, what kind of messages or ideas do you think this album transmits?
LL: I’d rather not dive further into politics and social matters. I am shattered at what is happening in our White House right now. I cannot even speak on those issues. I’ll let the album be the message!
OW: Speaking more generally about your career at large, how did you first know that you wanted to be an opera singer?
LL: I actually wanted to be a pianist first. But, I always had this voice and people kept encouraging me to explore the possibility of a career. I never dreamed I would ever get to this point in my career. I’m very grateful and will continue to strive to be a better artist and singer as the years continue.
OW: What are the greatest challenges that you have experienced on your road to success and how did you overcome them?
LL: Balance is the greatest challenge. Finding time for loved ones and friends and love is tough. I tend to fully throw myself into my work and this can be problematic for the people that care about me the most. Over the last 5 years, I was the health care advocate for my elderly cousin Helen Hill. I was taking care of her responsibilities while balancing my career and it was extremely challenging. But I learned so much during the time I was caring for her. She recently died due to complications from dementia. How do you open your heart and sing after you lose someone?
OW: What are your future album projects?
American Songs such as “Without a Song” “When You Walk through a Storm” “Dichterliebe,” “Macbeth,” “Porgy [and Bess]” and another recording of spirituals.