From British Pop to Roman Rock

Drake: How did you get started in music?

Solo: When I was 12 years old I thought I would be completely happy if I was a rock star. At age 21, I wrote to my older sister in Canada telling her that I was disappointed that I wasn’t a rock star yet. She told me not to put limits on myself.

“But Michael Jackson is only 12!” I said. I had my first record contract before I was 22.

Not long after that I started in a band called The News, which later became Classix. An Italian rock band I sang in, called the Rockets, sold over a million and a half albums in Italy. From 1981 to 1987, I was the lead singer for the British rock group Classix Nouveaux. We recorded our first album in 1981, toured in 30 countries and earned gold and silver discs.

In 1983 you had a conversion experience which led you out of rock music and into Christian music. What happened?

I thought I had become famous. This was always my dream, yet I wasn’t happy. I knew Boy George, Duran Duran and George Michael and they were not particularly happy either. I had been brought up in Catholic schools and knew all the Catholic prayers, but it was while I was in a motel room that I uttered perhaps the first spontaneous prayer of my life. I said, “God, if you are there, I want to know.”

Within six months my prayer was answered. I knew, in myself, that God was really there. I had been living a very evil, rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, and now I felt as if I had to put on sackcloth and ashes and go live in a monastery. I planned to give up my music, and went on a pilgrimage. While there, a fellow pilgrim told me that the young people of the world were looking for answers and that I could use my music to tell them.

You made a pilgrimage to San Damiano. What was significant about it?

When I went to Italy I'm not sure that I expected anything. In a way, how can you? If you don’t know God, you can’t quite know what it is to know God. The most essential thing of all gets lost ... that God is real, that Jesus is alive and that he wants to affect our life today. That was what I had to learn. My conversion didn’t happen immediately. I opened the door only a little at first. When I saw that Jesus didn’t look too bad, then I opened it wider. Eventually the door was open enough for him to come in.

What was the crossover like?

It was quite a transformation. All of the British newspapers and radio and television stations interviewed me, and I was able to talk about God. I told myself, “This is what I am going to do for the rest of my life.” I found that the message became the all, more than the music. However, by the time my next album came out, the novelty of my conversion had worn off and the media wasn’t interested.

When I had nothing to say, I was asked my opinion on everything under the sun, but when I had everything to say, the platform was taken away.

My parting with the commercial world of rock music began with a pro-life recording I made in 1987 titled “How Was I to Know?” It was the song of an unborn baby. Because of that record I was blacklisted throughout Britain. Stores refused to sell it, saying that the subject was not suitable for a family audience. Rock ’n’ roll, sex and drugs were suitable, but the life of an unborn baby was not. It was a rude awakening. After that experience I didn’t want anything more to do with making records.

I had no expectation of doing any more music, but between 1987-90 when I gave up music, I realized that nothing gets through to young people like the universal language of music. I felt that that had become my new calling. I recorded my first Christian album, Look at Christ, in 1991. The song “San Damiano” became a hit.

What do you hope to do with your music?

The music is only part of what I do. My mission is to preach the Gospel and I use every form of modern technology to do that, especially video. My concerts employ a high level of audience participation and the focus is upon Jesus, not on me. The music, the videos, and participation disarms them. It makes them feel comfortable so that Jesus can enter in. On my passport and visa it says that I am a Catholic youth evangelist. That's what I want to do.

You relocated to Chicago from London last fall. What precipitated your move?

I came to the U.S. because I felt I could reach more people here. While I am quite well known in Britain, only 8% of the population there is churchgoing. I estimate that I am able to reach 2,000% more people here than in Great Britain.

I am here for three years as a Catholic youth evangelist. The youth can’t normally be reached at the parish, because many of them don’t go. I want, primarily, to minister at major youth rallies around the country because that is the best way that I can reach the most young people in the time that I have.

How have you found Catholics in America, as compared to those in Britain?

For one, the Catholic Church in America, as compared to Britain, is incredibly well resourced. In America every parish is likely to have a music minister, a religious education director and a youth minister. You don’t know how lucky you are. Those positions do not exist in Britain.

More than 50% of American Catholics attend Church. More people means more resources, and that means that more is possible. In America, you can find a family bookstore in any mall in practically any town you live. In London, a city of 11 million people, I know of only one place where I could go and buy anything Christian.

We also don’t have Catholic radio or TV. In the U.S. you have students coming out of schools, such as the Franciscan University of Steubenville, on fire with the faith. We don’t have Catholic universities in Britain. In Britain all schools are free, including Catholic schools. Because families have to pay for Catholic education in this country I think it means much more.

Tell us about being selected to perform as part of the World Youth Day in Rome this summer?

There is definitely something symbolic about being at the heart of the Catholic Church at the start of the new millennium. I had applied to perform for the World Youth Days in Denver and Paris, but God's timing is now. The message, and my music, are international. I am particularly pleased that so many young people from America plan to go. When I am performing in Rome I will be able to speak to the Italians in Italian, to the French in French, and to the British and Americans in English.

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.