[INTERVIEW] Jonathan McReynolds Keeps Making Room for His Music and His Ministry

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Gospel Singer Jonathan McReynolds Opens Up About Breaking into the Industry as a Contemporary Artist, Life Lessons, and His Latest Album, Make Room

You may have heard his angelic vocals permeating through the speakers of your radio, or maybe even seen him plastered across the sky-high billboards around town. Singer-songwriter Jonathan McReynolds is certainly one to make room for. The 28-year-old Chicago-bred musician has unconventionally sculpted his own lane in the world of Gospel, authentically delivering innovative lyrics and melodies that we just can’t seem to get enough of.

Officially breaking through the music scene in 2012, with the unveiling of his chart-topping album, Life Music, it wasn’t long before McReynolds’ one-of-a-kind, contemporary sound earned him worldwide notoriety among the Gospel community. Three years later came a follow-up, his sophomore project, Life Music 2, which instantly gained a great deal of commercial success. Award-winning producer Warryn Campbell, along with Israel Haughton, India Arie, Aaron Lindsey, amid others served as the production team behind the celebrated LP.

Now, here we are, three more years later, and Jonathan McReynolds is back at it again, doing what he does best… providing good music for the spirit. On March 9th, the Grammy-nominated soloist revealed his first-ever live album, Make Room, which was exclusively recorded last May in his hometown, Chicago, Illinois. Prior to the release, McReynolds shared two energy-driven singles, “Not Lucky, I’m Loved” and “Cycles,” featuring DOE. Each track broadly showcased not only McReynolds’ stellar wordplay but his versatility as an artist and a man of God who uses his music to convey his ministry.

This past Sunday, TV One re-aired an hour-long special that held behind-the-scenes footage of the prolific ‘Windy City’ native’s recording process from his live album, Make Room. Currently, McReynolds is touring the world and prepping for the next phase of his career.

A wondrous songmaker, guitarist, college professor, devoted Christian, and philanthropist, Jonathan McReynolds has many gifts to give, talents to share, and souls to bless… and it’s safe to say that he isn’t done yet.

We recently sat down with him to discuss that and more. Check it out below!

Parlé Mag: So, the last time we spoke with you, you were just coming off of the release of your second album, Life Music: Stage Two. I know you always have so many things going on, including being a professor and your involvement in the church. What have you been up to since that last project?
Jonathan McReynolds: Well, pretty much the same stuff. I’m just making a little more of it. Not only am I still teaching at Columbia [College], I am running my non-profit, Elihu Nation, which is a non-profit that is all geared towards making godly wisdom more valuable amongst people in this generation. By the end of this year, we’re giving about thirty thousand dollars in college scholarships to other Christians who are in college and are working to be a better asset to the kingdom of God. So, we just want to celebrate and encourage the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of wisdom a little bit more amongst millennials and stuff, in this generation and in church. I got that going on, touring. Of course, I was also creating the new record [Make Room]. We recorded it last May, and I was putting it all together… all the way up until the fall. Writing a book to go with it and everything! [laughs]

Parlé Mag: Wow, you’ve been pretty busy!
Jonathan McReynolds: Yeah! It’s just pretty been crazy. All the while, just trying to grow up, be an adult. I’ve had to do my twenties in front of the public, so it’s definitely been an uphill climb sometimes.

Parlé Mag: How would you say you’ve grown, musically and creatively, since the release of Life Music: Stage Two?
Jonathan McReynolds: Well, I mean, I think I’m just older. That means a lot. The first CD I ever did, I was twenty-one. The second one, twenty-five. Now, I’m twenty-eight. I feel like I’m a better writer, I’m a better singer. I feel like I’m more sure of myself and what I’m here to do. I have a better perspective, more humble when it comes to grace and living this Christian life out. I think that’s mostly it. My influences haven’t changed too much, and the way I approach music hasn’t changed too much. I try to not change it much. I wanted to approach it with the same innocence that I approached it with in the first place. I didn’t want to get too knowledgeable of what this song would mean, what this song would do, how this particular album would perform. I just wanted to write from my heart, and I think I accomplished that, for the most part.

Parlé Mag: Your latest album, Make Room, which landed at #1 on Billboard’s Gospel Albums Chart, released in early March. What was the reason behind you actually deciding to do it LIVE this time around?
Jonathan McReynolds: I think it was just a natural progression. First of all, people have been asking for it so much! [laughs] And, I understand why. My live set and the feel is kind of free-flowing sometimes, and I make up stuff on the spot. There’s just a certain energy, and tension even, that you get when it’s a live recording. I think Gospel, in general, is normally recorded best live. Even though my music is not always considered “Gospel,” I still feel like we have a unique type of atmosphere that happens during our live set. We literally hear people mull over the song, mull over the lyrics. You know, we can hear them think, we can hear them reflect, and I wanted to capture that. I thought it was just time to do it, and I was down for a challenge. It was definitely a challenge, but quite rewarding at the end.

Jonathan McReynolds

Parlé Mag: So, where did the inspiration for the title come from
Jonathan McReynolds: Well, just like all of my music, it’s always a snapshot of my life at that point. My first record was all about being delivered from something. The second album was about maintaining that deliverance, maintaining that identity. This one is just really about all of those things. The first question you asked me was, “What have you been doing?” I rattled off a couple of things that I’ve been working on. How much time they consume, it’s kind of crazy. The attention and the energy that they consume, a good social life, and just trying to be a normal person anyway, it’s a lot. Sometimes, you forget to “make room” for the one who actually matters the most. We get tied up in our career, relationships, and everything else. We neglect to make room for God. So, I just wanted to kind of right some of those wrongs. As I was writing my song, it seemed that’s where it was going. You know, creating more space for God. Even as a musician, as an artist who does music that’s not necessarily traditional Gospel, I’ve been endeavoring to make more room for artists like me. I’ve been doing my best to try to give Gospel as an art form, as opposed to a liturgical tune box just for church. I’ve been trying to give that like a little more traction and some space.

We have some incredible writers, incredible artistic people who sometimes feel like there’s a lid over what they can do because it’s Gospel, or because it has to have some sort of value in church. So, in addition to making room for God, I wanted to make room for this music. I wanted to make room for art, for a different approach to it, and all of those things just kind of came flooding together. Make Room is the perfect way to put it all together.

Parlé Mag: Which song would you say pulled the most out of you, spiritually and emotionally, and why?
Jonathan McReynolds: Hmmm, you know, I think the title track, Make Room, did. It’s definitely a simpler song. A lot of times, I’m able to put a lot of words and lyrics, and folks flesh out what I’m trying to say. Make Room leaves a lot of room for you to kind of inject your own evolving issues, all of the things that take up your space, all of the things that take up God’s space. I think that’s probably the song that even singing it, it still drives to the point where I really got to open my mouth and adlib and consider all of the things this week that I’ve probably let crowd my day, my schedule, and even my physical space. That’s the song that makes me do what I don’t always do, particularly in the live performance and just as a singer and songwriter.

Parlé Mag: Your lead single, “Not Lucky, I’m Loved.” What prompted you to make it your first single?
Jonathan McReynolds: It captured the live feel, the excitement of the room. It was catchy. We were looking for an uptempo song. We knew that how it went that night [that we recorded it live], it would be something in itself. A phenomenon, I guess. [laughs] So, we wanted to find what would be that complementary uptempo piece that could have its own life on radio and everything like that. The way it went that night, it surprised me. Every song surprises me, to be honest. You start realizing, ‘Oh, wait! That is kind of catchy.’ So, that’s why I decided to make it the single.

Parlé Mag: You’ve been in this industry for a few years now. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve taken from it?
Jonathan McReynolds: Wow. Man, it’s so many. I would say, the most important one is you have to have your own fire. You can’t rely on people to fuel it. You can’t rely on people to affirm it. I walk into places where, sometimes, they treat me like Michael Jackson, and other times, they treat me like Tito.

Parlé Mag: [laughs]
Jonathan McReynolds: You have to be able to normalize the high points and the low points, the loud applause and the not-so-loud ones. You have to be able to normalize that all in your mind. Normalizes the executives who are high on you, and the executives who don’t think it’s going to work. You always have to make sure that you have your own motive, your own sense of validation, your own sense of purpose. Root in God… to make sure that as you move throughout this uneven terrain, you can kind of stay level and motivated to go on to the next thing. It’s tough. It’s tougher than people think.

Parlé Mag: As a contemporary Gospel artist, would you say that it was it harder for you to break into the industry?
Jonathan McReynolds: Well, I had an interesting story. I wasn’t really trying to break into it; I was just making music. Through a few ways, my music just kind of got out, and God started making room for it. But, there are definitely some challenges that come along with it. I had to realize that everybody is not a trailblazer, everybody is not a pioneer, everybody is not an upstream swimmer. Everybody is not like that. So, even though you are, you can’t expect everybody to do that. They’re waiting to see how people respond, they’re waiting to see how good it works. You would love for them to help you, the first round, but they normally don’t. Most people just don’t. Normally, the first time, you do everything by yourself. I think that it’s a level of self-motivation; it’s a level of boldness and audacity that you just have to have when you’re kind of going against the grain a little bit. It’s definitely been interesting, and it’s been different, but it’s been very rewarding.

Sticking out like a sore thumb, being kind of the “different” person everywhere you go is kind of exhausting, but it is also rewarding. You can see your effect, clearly. [My team] can even see how the industry has changed because of how people have responded to my music. So, I think most artists and executives would agree with that. It’s tough, and it’s weird. A lot of times, it’s deflating. Sometimes, you wish you could just walk in and be status quo, be immediately embraced and feel like you’re at home, but nah. I have to kind of make room. [laughs] Even with the music, it’s all about saying, ‘Alright! Here, guys. Check this out. This is different, but you’re going to like it.’ So, it’s just about being able to do that effectively and without patting yourself on the back too much, because you know it’s God handling all of this stuff for you anyway.

Parlé Mag: In such a cutthroat and competitive business, as an artist who’s dedicated to his craft, do you feel that you’ve gotten the recognition you truly deserve?
Jonathan McReynolds: That’s a tough question. In so many ways, every piece of recognition that I’ve gotten, I didn’t expect it. You know? Whatever awards, nominations I’ve gotten, the number of people who are following me, appreciating, and embracing my music. I just never would’ve expected this particular life, in general. Do I sometimes get a little cynical when it comes to kind of the normal, repetitive songs that Gospel is kind of rolling out at times? Like, ‘Oh, you could be a little more creative.’ Yeah! Sometimes, I kind of wish that thoughtful lyrics and more riffs and art were a little more immediately appreciated by this particular culture, this particular community. But, again, that’s been a part of my mission, understanding that they’re going to judge the quality of Gospel song by how well everybody can sing it at church, normally.

While I do believe that that’s incredible, I do believe that sometimes discourages very artistic, very creative people from staying in this industry, in order to do their music, because they feel like some of the things that make them eccentric would no be valued in here. So, I sometimes, of course, feel like that as well, but, at the end of the day, I’ve seen more sunshine than rain. God has been very good and very gracious with the accolades and just everything. So, ultimately, I’m humbled and just blessed to have this life.

Parlé Mag: What are your thoughts on the current state of the Gospel industry?
Jonathan McReynolds: I’m really excited about this generation. I feel like this generation is poised for high-impact throughout the world. I feel like we’re necessary. I feel like we can look at each other and say, “Okay, I see what Tasha [Cobbs-Leonard] is doing over there. I see the artistic revolution that Anthony Brown is doing over there. I see what Travis Greene has been able to accomplish.” We already know what Kierra Sheard, Todd Dulaney, Lecrae, Dee-1, and other people are accomplishing. So, I think it’s really cool to see everybody line up, and I mean, sometimes, we operate in our own world, and we don’t even run into each other that much. But, I think that’s where the church is becoming kind of fragmented. You have people who go to church every Sunday, still, and you have people who just have a different way of consuming and expressing their faith, and they’re trying to find another way. I think we all meet them at different points in that process, we meet them at different points in their preference, and I think that’s so necessary for impact.

When it comes to the actual industry, I have no clue. [laughs] Nobody has a clue, almost in any part of the music industry, period. Particularly the smaller genre, like Gospel. Nobody has a clue, because people don’t buy [physical albums] like that. They stream. They do this, but they don’t do that. They do this all of the time, and they’ve never done that, but, now, they don’t do much of this at all. All of the formulas that were once there, all of the guaranteed machines and equations are just gone. So, this is actually a very cool time because there is just really no rules to do something. Chance [The Rapper] just did something. Childish Gambino just did something. I mean, are they really going by the standards that have had them for a long time? Same with me, I just did something. The reason why I’m here is not even because I went by the proper channels.

So, I just think that it’s a time where, honestly, Gospel artists could really have the edge, have the benefit because we do have a connection to the only person who knows what’s going on. Nobody else on earth actually does. So, it’s really a cool era right now.

Jonathan McReynolds

Parlé Mag: Looking back, what has been your greatest accomplishment thus far?
Jonathan McReynolds: The greatest accomplishment is all of the DMs, all of the inboxes, all of the letters, all of the mysterious gifts that I get in all of the mailboxes, including my professor mailbox that I did not know even existed. I found like five years’ worth of mail in it!

Parlé Mag: Oh, goodness!
Jonathan McReynolds: [laughs] Yeah, so, just having an impact on people, having a real impact. At the end of the day, being a church boy, I know how music can rock the house, and I know how Gospel music can rock the house. I was an organist. I knew how to move services along, I knew how to speed up the preaching, I knew how to make the service more lively. I knew all of those things, and it wasn’t like a deceptive, manipulative thing, but I just knew how to flow the services, knew all of that. I think what happens is, sometimes, when all of Christianity is put in that service, when we leave, there is no idea of how to continue. There’s no organ, so how am I Christian now? Or, there’s no pastor and choir, how do I let this out? So, when I’m getting messages–and it’s not just them telling me they love my voice or my music, it’s them saying, “Hi!” You know? Emojis all over the place and stuff. [laughs] This stuff changed me. It made me look at this differently, and it made me want to literally make room. I’ve moved this room, changed this closet, and I’ve made it a prayer closet. I turned the TV off, and I’ve spent more time praying.

You know what I’m saying? Just stuff like that changed, life changed. The immediate response that we get as artists, on stage, is cool, but I’ve never been enamored with that feeling. I was always hoping that after everybody left here would really be when the music hit them and would really be when the music became the soundtrack for their progress, and that’s now happening. That’s what I hang my hat on.

Parlé Mag: If you could offer advice to yourself when you were first starting out, what would you say?
Jonathan McReynolds: If I had to say something to my old self, I would say, be conscious of you… as a human. It’s really easy to start living for the people, living for the purpose, living for the movement, living for the genre. None of those are bad; all of those are noble, but, man, you got to remember yourself. You can kind of do what you want to do when you’re twenty-one, and your body and your mind will be fine, but I’m only twenty-eight, and I’m already feeling the effects of seven years of just not worrying about myself. Not doing some soul maintenance, not doing body maintenance, not doing some of those things that keep you being able to do this and doing it whole, doing it with intentionality. Not just on the road because that’s your job. So, I would’ve just said, ‘It’s okay to take a week off.’ That’s probably what I would’ve told myself. It’s okay to rest! It’s okay to just be human. This industry, particularly fans–and even people around you with expectations and entitlements, they’ll squeeze the humanity out of you, real quick.

Parlé Mag: When it’s all said and done, what do you want people to take from Jonathan McReynolds, his music, and his message?
Jonathan McReynolds: Well, I think that one of the things people appreciate about my music is that it’s very clear what I want them to understand. I put it in there, and I didn’t say these words and hope that you got a separate experience. Nah. I want people to make room for God. I want this generation to be an amazing one. They’re afraid that this would be the worse one when it comes to the kingdom of God, and I really just don’t want us to be wack like that. I really want us to be full Christians and be powerful ones, be potent ones, be smart ones, be wise ones, be strong ones.

Parlé Mag: Absolutely.
Jonathan McReynolds: At the end of the day, that’s mostly because I want to be that, and I know that I’m not that all of the time. I don’t know if I’m like that half of the time. I think that I’ve become extremely aware of my own challenges, weaknesses, and to imagine anybody else going through it makes me want to write a song about it. Maybe it’ll help us come out of this thing together. I guess another thing that I want people to understand is that we’re human. We address it with Christianity, we solve it with Christianity, but we are human first, and that’s by design. That’s an important element of who you are to take into consideration. The more humanity you realize is in you, the more you need Christianity. Superheros don’t need it, but us weak links do.

Parlé Mag: What’s next for you?
Jonathan McReynolds: Well, the rest of the year, we have the tours happening. We’re going to have a book that comes out; that’s also called “Make Room.” I’m really excited about that because that’s kind of a new territory for me. My non-profit, Elihu Nation is still going to be on and popping. We got applications that are going to come out for the scholarships this summer. There’s a lot. I might even go back to school because I’m “Captain Do Too Much,” but there’s a lot that’s going to happen in 2018. I’m just really ecstatic about it. We’ve already accomplished a lot, the TV special and things like that, which recently re-aired. Got a deluxe album coming out in September, too. It’s just a lot of stuff, but that’s just who I am. I try to do five million things at the same time.

Be sure to keep up with Jonathan McReynolds on social media!

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