KIM LAWTON, correspondent: Ten-time Grammy-award winning artist Bobby McFerrin believes music has a transcendent spiritual power.
BOBBY MCFERRIN: It elicits so many emotions. Have you ever listened to a piece of music and for some reason that you don’t, you just can’t understand, you simply burst into tears? Music has a way of communicating in a way that language does not. It can go past language.
LAWTON: In his concerts, the genre-blending artist is known for his unique style of wordless improvisations, using his voice and his body as accompanying instruments.
MCFERRIN: I’m not so much into people being wowed over my technique or what I can do, stuff like that. That’s just a vehicle for me. That’s just a vehicle for my spirit.
LAWTON: McFerrin says his Christian faith permeates everything he does. But it’s particularly evident in his new album, “spirityouall,” which includes his interpretation of classic African-American spirituals and several devotional songs that he wrote. The project honors the legacy of his father, Robert McFerrin, Sr., the first African American to sing a title role at the Metropolitan Opera. The senior McFerrin also released an album of spirituals, Deep River, in 1957.
MCFERRIN: I never heard my father pray. I know that he got on his knees many times before he went to bed at night and prayed, but I always heard him pray whenever he sang these spirituals.
LAWTON: McFerrin says songs like “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” still resonate today.
MCFERRIN: I certainly try to pray them as I’m singing them. That’s important. And the hope is that when people hear these pieces that they’ll carry them home with them and then they’ll inspire them to begin a spiritual journey or to continue on it.
LAWTON: McFerrin, whose grandfather was a Baptist minister, grew up in the Episcopal Church.
MCFERRIN: When I was 16, I wanted to become a monk.
LAWTON: A Catholic monk?
MCFERRIN: An Anglican monk. Anglican Church, Episcopal Church. I was very attracted to the life of quiet, structure.
LAWTON: He says he gave up on the idea in his early 20s when he realized he was meant to be a singer, but the religious impulses remain.
MCFERRIN: I’m still a very quiet guy, and I love the Scriptures. I still read the Bible through, you know, over and over and over again. Because you always find things there, you know, that you hadn’t seen before. I could read the same verse 1,000 times, but the 1,001st time I read it I’ll find something in it that I hadn’t seen before.
LAWTON: McFerrin says when he’s not traveling, he attends an Episcopal church. But he doesn’t like narrow labels.
MCFERRIN: I don’t really think of myself as a religious person per se, but more a spiritual person who follows Christ, who follows Jesus as my spiritual master.
LAWTON: The 63-year-old musician is perhaps best known for his 1988 acappella hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” In subsequent years, he has conducted classical orchestras and released albums featuring styles from across the musical spectrum. He frequently works with young people, trying to help them see the power of music as well. It’s a lesson he says he learned at an early age.
MCFERRIN: My mother knew all about this when I was very young. She knew how music was a healing balm, because whenever I was sick she’d give me two things, she’d give me medicine for my aches and pains and she’d give me music for my spirit. There have been times when I’ve walked on stage ill, not thinking that I could actually go on and do my performance, and 90 minutes later walk off-stage well. Music does have incredible power to rearrange your insides, rearrange your thoughts, heal your body.
LAWTON: McFerrin says he sees the spiritual all around him.
MCFERRIN: Just being is a religious experience. It’s a spiritual experience. Just being is holy.
LAWTON: McFerrin’s favorite book in the Bible is the Psalms. Several years ago, he wrote a song based on Psalm 23, but in his version, the love of God takes on a feminine form. The song has been adopted by choirs across the country, including this one called “Singing Quaker Women Plus Other Faithful Friends.” McFerrin says the song was inspired after he and his choir were rehearsing in a church and began discussing the many male images in the Bible.
MCFERRIN: It just seemed to make sense. People forget, you know: a father’s love and then there’s a mother’s love, which complements the father’s love and they fit together, you know, nicely. So that’s why I wrote it.
LAWTON: The new album has a song he wrote based on Psalm 25:15. “spirityouall” also includes another feminine reference to God. In his concerts, such as this one at St. Louis’s Sheldon Concert Hall, McFerrin always encourages the audience to sing along, often pulling people up on the stage to join him.
MCFERRIN: I like to think that regardless of how you come into the concert hall at the beginning you’ll leave differently. You know, I think that’s part of my job description as an artist is moving people to make important changes in their lives.
LAWTON: Another part of his job description, he says, is moving people to joy.
MCFERRIN: If there’s any one thing I want it’s for people to feel that sense of joy, the joy that I feel just being able to sing and getting a roomful of strangers to sing together—what a joyful experience that is for me. I love it.
LAWTON: McFerrin says he believes God speaks through his music. But he says that doesn’t make him unique.
MCFERRIN: God doesn’t speak through me and not through you for some reason. He speaks to everyone, and we in turn can open up our mouths, or open up our hands, or our minds or whatever, our professions, and let God speak through us to other people. My father used to say, “The Lord has entrusted me with a talent. It’s not my gift. The Lord has entrusted me with a talent,” and I absolutely feel that way, that He’s given me this gift to share with other people to uplift hearts.
LAWTON: He says while his new album comes out of his Christian faith, he hopes those of other faiths, and no faiths, will indeed be uplifted by its spirit.
I’m Kim Lawton in St. Louis.