Growing up in the church is a common backstory for black R&B and soul musicians. The choir director is often their first vocal coach, and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" is often the one of the first songs they learn, second only to the ABCs. For Chicago soul artist Christian JaLon, the church is a house of worship, a springboard into musicianship, and something greater than both—it's the home of love.
In 2017 she released the album Vinyled Love
, more than a year in the making. She hopes it expresses what exactly love means to her. "I didn't want to finish it," she says. "It was me—raw, naked, and organic."
JaLon, 20, explains that this organic quality was key to the recording of the album. Her undoctored vocals are primarily accompanied by live instrumentation arranged and produced by Wax Roof, a friend of hers in the Bay Area. "There was no digital recording console for Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Sarah Vaughan," she says.
She also wanted the arrangements to embody the stories she told, so that the songs would feel right even without the vocal track. "These songs came from very real situations," JaLon says. "If my voice had nothing to do with it, I want to know that people still feel it. That's important to me."
JaLon uploaded the album's eight tracks to SoundCloud late last year, but she wasn't finished with the work of making people feel its message. She plans a vinyl release for the record (naturally), and last month she released the short documentary "Getting to Know Vinyled Love
." The film cuts carefully between shots of JaLon explaining the inspiration for each track and clips of her (with bandmates Melvyn Knight, Christopher Hogan, Sam Glover, Ryan Alexander, Brother Jeff, and Tony Fitten Jr.) playing songs from the album just in front of the gallery of a softly lit church.
The idea to explain the album through a documentary came from another of her artistic inspirations, soul singer PJ Morton (who's also a latter-day member of Maroon 5). On his latest solo album, 2017's Gumbo
, Morton ends tracks with a comment about the song's meaning. "The meanings can change along the way," JaLon says. "Throughout the creation of this album, I sought God, and that changed things."
JaLon is pretty overt about incorporating her influences into her compositions. In the documentary, she outlines the reason for having Vinyled Love
begin and end with "Wax's Intro" and "Wax's Outro," both instrumental tracks. "I got the concept from Kendrick Lamar, who had 'Ab-Soul's Outro' on his debut album," she says. "I just felt like Wax's work deserved a spotlight, without my vocals."
Here and there on the album she breaks out into scat singing to match the rhythms of the arrangements. JaLon cites jazz as a passion of hers, and lists John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Jordan among the artists she grew up hearing at home. "My mother studied music at Dillard University and was the choir director at our former church home," she says. "She helped mold my music taste in older music. If I could spend my entire career as a jazz vocalist, I would be so happy."
She specifically points to Pharoah Sanders's "The Creator Has a Master Plan" as inspiring her to include her spirituality in her music. Spirituality was the key to successfully completing Vinyled Love
"More than anything, I wanted Vinyled Love
to convey what love means to me using songs—hence the name," she explains. "And to me, God is love." She drives this message home on the track "Love Is . . . ," a song she describes as an ode to God: "Lord, had it not been for you," she croons, "tell me where would I be."
Understanding Christian JaLon's music means understanding her relationship with God. For her, "Getting to Know Vinyled Love
" is just as important as the album itself, because it allows her to speak to the listener directly about the music's significance.
"I think it's important that the audience has their perspective of the artist's work," she says. "But I think it is just as important that I get the chance to explain what it meant to me while making it."
Christian JaLon performs Saturday, July 21, at Casa Calle 20 (1538 W. Cullerton) at a listening party for the new HarmonicSapien album,
Beauty, sharing the bill with Lil Kydd and HarmonicSapien. Music starts at 7 PM, and the gallery suggests a $5 donation.