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The name evokes an appeal to above, a spiritual call, a joyful noise – which is why singer/songwriters Erica and Tina Atkins chose "Mary Mary" as their performance moniker. Mary Mary's music - sometimes co-written and all produced by hot R&B/hip-hop producer Warryn Campbell (whose work has appeared on albums by Brandy, Boyz II Men, Shanice, Dru Hill, and others) - is contemporary and caring, funky and faithful, surprising, soulful and deeply spiritual.
"We were thinking about the Marys in the Bible, and there are two specifically: Mary Magdalene, who was delivered from evil spirits and of course Mary, Mother of Jesus, both of whom were very instrumental in His ministries," explains Erica, the slightly older and more laid-back of the 20something siblings. "It's all about Jesus and telling people who He is and of His love. That's the whole purpose behind Mary Mary."
With voices steeped in soulful intensity, melodies that soar engagingly above the beats, and affirming lyrics that combine traditional gospel concepts with rhythmic immediacy, these young women create the straightforward message of God's love consistently through every bumping track.
Mary Mary celebrate spiritual redemption and unshakable faith so powerfully that sitting still is not an option.
At a time when other gospel artists have already made strides into secular arenas with ever-more contemporary R&B tracks, Mary Mary have carried the art of creating modern praise music into a new category of creativity, honesty, originality, and soulfulness. It's these qualities that have made the sisters sought after as songwriters by such other artists as Yolanda Adams, Woody of Dru Hill, and 702.
"I think one of the misconceptions about gospel music is that it's dreary or sad, or 'Oh Lord, help me' – something that brings you down," says the outgoing, animated Tina. "That's not me. I'm living in a natural world – first natural, then spiritual, my heart is still the same. It's just my relationship with God is always there. Being thankful or talking about joy just goes to the music that I hear and that's how I write these songs."
In 1995 they were recruited as part of the cast of the Michael Matthews traveling gospel show "Mama I'm Sorry," doing up to eight performances a week in a variety of U.S. cities in an extremely competitive atmosphere among the singers. Their talents earned them slots in a second Matthews play, "Sneaky," and they toured for more than a year, honing their stage presentation as well as strengthening their voices.
Through attempts to complete college, hold down jobs (Erica was a courtesy clerk at local Boyd's Market while Tina was a makeup artist at Nordstrom's), and pay rent on their apartment, music kept calling. Individually, they went on tour singing backup for major recording artists: Erica for Brian McKnight, Brandy, Terry Ellis, and Ray J; Tina for Kenny Lattimore, Eric Benet, and even the pilot for a Kirk Franklin TV show. But some of the secular songs they performed made the sisters uneasy. All along, the two had been writing their own songs, separately and together, enlisting each other and family members to put the tunes on cassette tape.
A chance meeting with producer Warryn Campbell around 1996 was the key event that brought Mary Mary into existence. A "church boy" himself who was impressed with the women's songwriting skills, Campbell collaborated on tunes with them and brought the new material, as well as the sisters' own originals, to his publisher, EMI Music. Executives were so enthused that Erica and Tina landed their own publishing contracts, and a tune they wrote and performed on with Robin S., "Dance," was quickly added to the best-selling "Dr. Dolittle" soundtrack.
Producers of the inspirational soundtrack to "The Prince Of Egypt" clamored for their work, and their "Let Go, Let God," was included on the album. Another composition, "What More Can He Do," was recorded by Las Vegas femme trio 702. Mary Mary felt they had truly been blessed when one of their idols, Yolanda Adams, recorded two of their songs, "Time To Change" and "Yeah," for an album.
The circulation of Mary Mary's songs throughout the recording industry brought offers of record deals from several labels. With a clear conception of how they wanted to be marketed to a broad audience, Mary Mary chose to sign with Columbia Records. As such, the pair is the first gospel duo to be signed to the label. A major part of their self-concept is dictated by their religious beliefs, which means they define themselves as strictly gospel – and not just inspirational – artists.
"Inspirational music makes me feel good, like I can go on, I can make it, I can do whatever I put my mind to. But the gospel tells you about what God can do, it tells you the good news of Jesus," explains Erica. "Because our music is so hip-hop and has an urban feel, a lot of people think, 'Oh it's inspirational, it's contemporary.' It can be. But listen to what I'm saying [in the song]. The songs that we write tell the message of Christ specifically."
This devotion to the core mission of their startling song-craft is what makes Mary Mary's music and personal presence so continually refreshing, a devotion sometimes lacking in the sounds and lifestyles of other artists. It's a devotion that informs the uplifting, upbeat spirit of Thankful. So clap your hands and be prepared for a transformation to joy.
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