Chronicles of a Worshipper
After soaring to new heights, the "Prince of Praise" is back with a new project, An Invitation to Worship, which is already getting major play in radio stations throughout the country. Cage sat down with GOSPELflava.com to share his insight on the project, his past, and his future within the industry.
"I don't try to beat 'The Presence of the Lord is Here', but hopefully this is the next level that the people really want," states Cage. "I thank God for the first record, I really do. But I like this one more because it is so incredibly Sunday morning church service. It's Wednesday night Bible Study. It's revival. I did this record, really, for the church. I love praise and worship and I think there are more songs that will be sung from this album than the last one."
After finding such widespread success with his self-titled release, it could be very easy to fear the dreaded 'sophomore jinx'. However, Cage found a way to pursue this latest effort without the potential of a sophomoric trip-up.
"I had to take the pressure off of myself," admits Cage. "God has called me to the ministry of praise and worship. I thank God for the success of the last record but God is a God who takes us from glory to glory. I just kept using that scripture, remembering that is what He did then and this next level is what He's going to do now. If the reaction to the first single 'I Will Bless The Lord' is any indication, my thoughts and prayers are that the industry will love this project as well because it is so singable. Praise teams and choirs across America can sing literally every single song on this record. My focus was to serve them and to give them songs for Sunday morning service."
Cage's love for praise and worship is continually evidenced by his ability to find balance in life. He has music ministries at New Birth in Atlanta, Georgia and Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in the Washington, D.C. area.
"God has given me grace to do it. It's a lot of work involved. My wife and I live in Atlanta and I work at the church in Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Maryland. It has its challenges but I don't complain. I'm very thankful and I know how to do my schedule. The time that I have for my wife is her time. The time that I spend with Bishop Eddie Long at New Birth is his time. When I do my concerts, that's their time. Then there's the time that I spend with Ebenezer. I've kind of mastered it now in how to do my schedule. It is tiring though."
With current ties to both the Atlanta and Washington D.C. areas, Cage cites obvious musical differences between the two cities and yet finds a way to merge the differences in his style.
"DC, because it is so huge in politics, is more of a conservative type of place. When I first came to Ebenezer A.M.E. church, they were more traditional in their music style. I came from more of a praise and worship style. Of course, it was met with great opposition, as change always is at first. As they began to see the worth of praising and worshipping God through music at the level that I was doing it, God began to bless and people understood."
As one could imagine, exposure to the sounds and musical heritage of the two cities have richly influenced Cage's musical repertoire. With roots in the Atlanta area, adding the Washington, DC experience has been a major move in his musical career. In fact, Washington, D.C. native Isaiah Thomas pens Cage's lead single "I Will Bless the Lord" on his new album An Invitation to Worship.
"When I went to DC, I almost felt like 'How can I sing when I'm in a strange land?'", admits Cage. "I had no friends or family there. I was there on assignment by God to help the Ebenezer AME church get to a new place. It was the challenge of understanding the DC vibe, if I can call it that. It was also hearing the different writers and talent in DC that were not on a national level like Richard Smallwood was."
"I'll never forget when I first heard the song 'I Will Bless the Lord'. Isaiah's words were different and I changed all of his words. Of course, it is his song but I wanted to make the song more of a praise and worship song. His original words were, 'You don't have to praise for me, I know what He's done for me.' Then he said 'In the good times, in the bad times'. Then I came in and just changed it all. I needed to format it in a praise and worship style with verses that would make musical sense for whoever would teach it to their praise team or to their choir. So I actually wrote 'Magnify the Lord with me / whom the Son He hath redeemed / Clap your hands rejoice and sing / For You are Lord of everything'. Then 'For the Lord our God is great / Perfect Lord in all your ways / God of mercy Lord of grace / Holy One Ancient of Days'. Both of those verses were mine because I needed to format it in a way that was commercially acceptable but at the same time, it makes sense for praise and worship people. For me, lyrics have to line up scripturally and have to make sense so when you're teaching your songs; you definitely have solid verses and concrete lyrics. It was a great song. It just needed some words that would really pull it into the place where it is."
"Alex Williams wrote two of the songs as well. He wrote "Rain On Me" and "Invitation". He's a person that no one has heard of and he's a phenomenal writer. I love DC. They have impacted me tremendously and I'm honored to work with them."
Speaking of writing, Cage does his fair share on this new project, penning five songs.
"My writing style has always been praise and worship. My very first album [with backing group Purpose] on AIR Gospel was titled 'Dwell Among Us'. My second album [on AIR} was 'Transparent In Your Presence'. So I've always been known as a praise and worship leader. The song 'Shabach' that I did with Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship Mass Choir was the song that pretty much engrained in people's mind that I was a praise and worship person. That's what my style has always been. I like it to be able to be sung in church. At the same time, all of my songs are geared towards leading people into the presence of the Lord."
While his current recording career has met widespread success, he had not forgotten his days with Purpose or the significance that it has yielded. "Our life's experiences mature us and build character in us. My old days with the first Purpose, I was about 32 when that record first came out. During that time, I was developing my writing skills and the gifting that God had placed in me for background singing that I got from my mentor, the late Minister Thomas Whitfield. That was a big harmony-blended sound that's just really strong and powerful. Then for my second record, I changed my singers and made a larger group in the Purpose stage but all the while staying on the track of praise and worship. I was also trying to increase my writing skills and make songs that made good musical sense. On 'Transparent in Your Presence', I wrote a song called 'I Want to Say Thank You' and that was a really popular song for me. That album was nominated for three Stellars. Though I didn't win anything, the nod and acknowledgement that people enjoyed the music meant so much to me and let me know that I was on the right track."
In his move from AIR Gospel to Gospo Centric, Cage discovered directional changes that would serve to grow him as a writer and as an artist. "My label wanted me to focus on the artistry of who I was. That made me dig in deeper, even as a writer. Personally, it made me feel that perhaps the label didn't feel that my songs were strong enough to be on my record. So they sought out a Kurt Carr to produce it and sought various other persons. Honestly, it ticked me off and I was mad. But I listened to [label head] Vicki Latillade. She's perhaps one of the smartest women, in my view, in the industry. She's had great success, of course, with Gospo Centric and with Kirk Franklin and Kurt Carr and some of the other ones. I listened to her mad and upset. But it drove me to go and be a better writer. It drove me to go back to the drawing board and say 'simplify this, make this great.' So that's what I did."
"So when the last record came out, sold all the units that it sold and garnered the awards for Soul Train and all that stuff, she then came back to the table and said 'OK. We want to do your next record. Where are your songs?' and I had songs to give her. You know, she punched me in the arm and said 'Boy, this is what I'm talking about!!'. She gave me the opportunity. I really do credit a whole lot to her because she's such a smart and fair lady. She really wants her artists to do well. So sometimes, she has to give you the medicine and you don't want to take it but you know it's going to make you better."
"She was the one who said 'Byron, I want you to do a praise and worship record.' I was trying to do a record to bring Purpose back. She said, 'I'm not signing Purpose. I signed Byron Cage. I'm not signing another group. I signed you and I want you to do praise and worship.' I said, 'Vicki, is the black gospel market ready for a praise and worship album?' She said, 'I believe they are.' And I said, 'Vicki, are you sure?' And Lord have mercy, was she not a prophetic voice for doing that? There was not another record that had that level of success and it was a praise and worship album. You may have had individuals who did a praise and worship song but the whole album wasn't centered around praise and worship."
On the last project, production duties were in the capable hands of Cage's labelmate Kurt Carr. Cage enlisted another popular labelmate for this effort: J.Moss and PAJAM. This unlikely combination worked like a hand in a glove.
"I don't know if I have an adjective in my vocabulary that I can give to describe PAJAM. They probably are some of the greatest people in the history of people that have come across my life. J.Moss, of course, has been a great vocalist, writer, and performer. Paul Allen is more of the producer who is in the background and who will be in the studio. J has such great character. He knew that I was a background vocalist and vocals were his strength but he backed away and let me follow my vision and stay on the track. It was important to me that my new record sounded like Byron Cage and didn't sound like PAJAM from the urban standpoint. Usually when you hear albums from Karen Clark, Dorinda, or Kiki, you can tell the influence of the background vocals of J. You can hear it. It's strong and I did not want that for my record. I wanted the sounds of what I had on my last record and my other two records prior. J really gave me the freedom to make sure that the background stuff was done by myself and DeWayne Woods, who is another jewel to me and one of the greatest people in the industry. He came in and really helped me to get that background situation together."
"Now, Paul Allen was the person who really came and held my arms up when I was exhausted, tired, and didn't understand certain things. He became not just a producer but he became a friend and brother. He really helped me through a lot of the process. I trusted him in the studio. He drove me and worked me. When I heard the finished product, the orchestra and live horns that he brought in, I was blown away. I called him and I said, 'Man, I just can't believe it.' I think that the industry is going to be so surprised to know that when they see PAJAM produced it, they're going to automatically think that it's going to sound urban. It's not. It's a completely, straight-up church record. The only song that we can say sounds like PAJAM is the song that Paul, J, and I wrote called 'We Love You'. J and I are singing the duet to that one. Now THAT sounds like PAJAM. You can tell."
"The rest of the record is not like that. Paul captured my vision. When Kurt [Carr] produced my record, Kurt was hired by the record label to give me a good record. My vision wasn't necessarily followed. We were doing something to get a great record out. This time, Paul and J listened to me and found out what it was that I wanted to do. When I talked to them, they followed my vision from A to Z completely and never disrespected it. They never crossed the line to say, 'This ain't good,' or 'Don't do this'. It was always 'Can we consider this to make this better?'. It just made my experience so very comfortable. This album was drama free and stress free for me because I didn't have to prove anything. The last record proved that God was on it. This record, I came in with a complete peace and I just recorded."
The stress-free element of An Invitation To Worship was directly related to the stress-filled experience of Cage's self-titled release in 2003. Cage attributes the stressful nature of that project to the unusual amount of pressure surrounding his Gospo Centric debut.
"I don't want to say that Gospo Centric was taking a calculated business risk. I don't know that they thought that record was going to sell as many units as it did and that it was going to have the kind of success that it did," acknowledges the 'Prince of Praise.'"
"I worked really hard on that record. Kurt Carr worked really hard on that record. Consequently, the Lord blessed. He received the Producer of the Year and Song of the Year awards for my record. It was great but even he'll tell you we were stressed. We were stressed out even on the night of the recording. When people look at the DVD, they are like 'Wow, you look like you were really disturbed and troubled.' I was. I'm just being upfront and honest. But on this new record, when you look at the DVD, not only is the DVD better, the quality is better. The label really got behind it and they said, 'We have to do another DVD on you.' Afterwards, Vicki said, 'Byron, I am so glad we did it.' They brought in nine cameras. It is shot so beautifully. Not just because it's my DVD but it has to be one of the prettiest videos I've ever seen for a concert video. I'm just excited that the industry is going to get an opportunity to see Byron Cage at another level now, even on the DVD. The backdrop and the lighting were excellent. The singers were flawless. I used Mark Hubbard and the United Voices out of Chicago, along with Maurice Culpepper, who used to direct the choir that sang 'He's Worthy' in Atlanta. The camaraderie was just incredible. I'm just grateful that Paul and J. Moss were able to capture it."
One of the defining songs on Cage's new release is titled "Breathe". This track has been featured in varying forms on releases from Michael W. Smith and Lisa McClendon, and it holds special meaning to Cage.
"It is such an incredible worship song," states Cage. "I heard it and taught it to my choir at Ebenezer. When I first sang it, the power of God came and the people received. Now when I sang it a few Sundays later at Ebenezer, the power of God came in so strong, we had a Levitical priesthood experience, where the minister could not stand to minister because the glory of the Lord had filled the house so much. So the church began to like to hear that song. I began singing it in May for my co-pastor's women's convention in DC, which carries about 4,000 women. When I sang it, the same thing happened. The power of God was so strong that people were slain in the Spirit and no one touched them. The co-pastor asked me if the song was going to be on my new CD. I told her that I wasn't planning on it. She said that the song has my anointing when I do it. So I told her that I was going to record it. When I did it that night, the power of God was so strong through that medley. The song makes you go crazy with the longing to be in God's presence. It's the air I breathe. It's what I want, like David wanted when he said as the deer pants for water, my soul long after you. 'Your holy presence living in me / this is my daily bread / your very word spoken to me / I'm lost without you'. It's the very truth of God's Word. Could we exist without Him? Yes. We could exist without Him. But would life be the same? No. If God were to take the air away from us, we couldn't be here anymore. That's how my longing is for Him. I breathe Him in and I exhale Him out. That's what I long to do in every aspect. I can't say enough about that song. My church, to this day, they can't take it. They cannot take it. They just go into this worship times ten million. They go right there because they love being in the presence of the Lord. As a worship leader, my job is to usher people into the presence of the Lord."
As a worship leader, Cage has gained inspiration from worship leaders throughout his travels. Yet, he credits one leader who isn't exactly known in most circles as a worship leader. That worship leader, you ask? Pastor Benny Hinn.
"I watch him lead people into the presence of the Lord and I'm like 'Wow.' I have been doing it and I have not been maximizing corporate worship," acknowledges Cage. "He's teaching me so much about corporate worship leading. It is not about people sitting there listening to me sing a song. It is about people literally singing with me into the presence of the Lord that God maximizes a corporate situation. Then He individually, because of our obedience to worship, He comes down and individually supplies all of our needs according to His riches in glory because of our connection to the moment of worship."
Cage's musical history runs deep within the annals of gospel music's great names and great cities. With current influences from Atlanta and Washington, D.C., Cage's musical roots can be traced all the way back to one of gospel's greatest historical cities, Detroit, Michigan.
"I grew up in the golden era, growing up in Detroit," states Cage. "That's where there was Donald Vails, Thomas Whitfield, Mattie Moss Clark, The Winans, and The Clark Sisters. We had so many people who were great teachers for me as a teenager growing up. I came to Greater Grace when I was 12. I joined with my mom and my brother and sister the exact same night that Donald Vails joined and he was already the Minister of Music there at the church. I sat under his tutelage for many years watching him. I'm the choir director I am because of him. Donald would be able to do a rehearsal in an hour and teach ten songs. He was a master teacher of musicians. I sat there and I gleaned and gleaned. He deposited so much into me."
"But it was Thomas Whitfield who deposited a spirit of worship and the strong blended harmony singing and stuff like that. I had the best of both worlds. I had the traditional church music and the directing from Rev. Vails and I had the praise and worship and harmony-blended singing from Minister Thomas Whitfield. That's how I was able to bring everything together. Consequently, I always said that I will always do a Thomas Whitfield song on all of my albums. On my first one, I did 'Lord Take Me Higher'. On my second one, I did 'Just Knowing Jesus'. On my last one, I did 'Still Say Yes'. On this one, I did a piece of 'Just In Case You've Forgotten My Name'. I've lived in church all my life. Praise and worship, in the past 15 years, has revolutionized my thinking about church worship services and what can happen when we praise and worship God."
Not only was Cage influenced by the greats of that era, he was linked to many of the gospel greats of today, all in their formative years.
"My ministry has taught me the importance of serving God's people. My first priority, of course, is honoring and serving God. Then it's serving God's people. He's taught me how to serve His people with humility, love, understanding, and compassion. Without those things, you rule almost as a dictator that does not have the ability to effect people personally. You can have a lot of people that are successful when they get out in the big crowd. You need to have personal relationships where people can trust you and say good things about you. I'm not talking about the people who don't know you and say things about you. I understand that a lot of things that I deal with at this level are not about a personality but it's a principality. It's the enemy trying to attack my credibility and he can't do it. My mother told me before that God will never believe a lie. God's taught me how to love people even when it's hard. That's the lesson that I've learned. People come up to you and sometimes God quickens back in me and says, 'Calm down a bit. Don't get ahead of me. Don't be mad.' They ask for something and you sign the autographs and take the pictures. But then sometimes people can cross the line. The other side of you will want to rise up. That lets me know that I have not arrived. I may think about saying something and I stop. It quickens me because I know what God has placed in me, as I have the greater One on the inside of me. God helps me to get victory. It makes Galatians 2:20 come alive, that I'm crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live."
As Cage anticipates the industry impact of An Invitation To Worship, he has sincere hopes of its impact on consumers and believers at large.
"My prayer is that as listeners get this CD, that this will be the next level that they want for worship in their personal time. What we do personally in worship, we'll be comfortable to do corporately. I want this CD to be a practice for them. Listen to this CD and practice what you're going to do in heaven, and that's worship."
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