GORDON CHAMBERS: SURRENDER
Life by its very definition entails evolution. To fully evolve, one must be transformed through various trials and tribulations. However, these experiences often inspire resiliency of the human spirit and make for great artistry. It is this very lesson that is the essence of Surrender, the soul-baring fourth solo album by Grammy-winning songwriter Gordon Chambers. A soul-searching musical sojourn from heartbreak and hope, Surrender is an inspirational odyssey of Chambers’ personal testimonies and heartfelt vocals. Supported by a notable cast of featured artists–such as three-time Grammy-winning recording artist Lalah Hathaway and two-time Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Eric Roberson–Surrender is a melodious offering of faith, optimism and perseverance set to the tempos of timeless R&B, pop and gospel.
After accruing two decades worth of accolades penning chart-topping hits for icons and legends such as Anita Baker (“I Apologize”), Angie Stone (“No More Rain”), Brandy, Tamia, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight (“Missing You”), Beyonce (“After All Is Said And Done”)–along with three successful solo albums under his belt (featuring Grammy-nominated guests Ledisi and Carl Thomas)–Chambers found himself at a fork in the road. His third solo album, 2011’s Sincere, yielded the much buzzed-about Darien Dorsey-produced track “I Can’t Love You (If You Don’t Love You).” The single was added to radio play lists across the country while the accompanying music video (featuring Emmy-nominated singer-actress Sy Smith) went into heavy rotation on outlets such as VH1 Soul. Yet amidst the success of Sincere, the landscape of the music industry had been undergoing some major restructuring. R&B as a genre had also begun to shift gears. “Wie are in such a phase of the industry where everything just feels mechanical and disposable,” says Chambers; simultaneously, several members of Chambers’ close circle begun to leave his radius.
“During the last five years of my life, I’ve been truly, truly tested,” discloses Chambers. Weathering the passing of five family members and his friend and collaborator Whitney Houston, he found himself in the throes of a sea of sadness and change. “I was still doing everything that I was expected to: touring, speaking in schools, vocal coaching, mentoring songwriters, spreading the good news, reflecting light to the world,” he says. “But inside, I was crying and struggling with my relevance. After Sincere, I wondered had I expressed all I needed to say or all that folks wanted to hear from me as a solo artist.” Though he’d learned to perfect the art of the charade, Chambers learned that a healing was on its way. Ironically, the sole inspirational track from Sincere “Lead Me (The Ocean)” continued getting airplay on gospel stations—including Kirk Franklin’s XM satellite station. “I took that a sign from the heavens about a direction for the next album.”
While Chambers has earned an unparalleled reputation as a successful songwriter across various genres, the impetus for Surrender actually came from new songwriters inspired by his own work. “Younger songwriters started to reach out to me to let me hear songs that they had written,” he says. “Those songs were incredible. I just started recording them for fun, just to see how it felt. KenPen’s song ‘Love and Help Somebody’ about a child who was senselessly murdered hit home. I lived that story as a teenager. Steff Reed’s ‘I Made It’–with it’s powerful hook ‘Coulda Been Dead and Gone/But I Made It’–is so deeply emotional that I cried while cutting vocals. That had never happened to me before.” After fine-tuning the lyrics to offer a more personal appeal, Chambers began the recording Surrender and his own healing began. He later filmed the video of “I Made It” in the shell of his Brooklyn brownstone that had an unfortunate four-alarm fire on Valentines Day of 2016.
“When I say surrender, I’m not implying to give up hope,” explains Chambers. “It’s about surrendering to a Higher Power for power and clarity on whatever is happening. I did that after the funerals and after the fire.” Surrender takes listeners on an inspiring journey with peaks and valleys starting with the lead single “I Made It,” a mid-tempo tune about perseverance featuring guest vocals from Eric Roberson and artist-activist Steff Reed, the song’s co-writer and producer. “This song is about struggle, vulnerability, and finding the courage within. We’re not used to hearing men deliver that type of message together. Men can be the best ones to support each other. Eric and Steff have been great friends to me over the years. I’ve always been able to share my struggles with them and they have been kind. Eric inspired me to transition to recording in 2003 after years as a writer. Steff also produced the title track of Sincere, and came back to work on ‘I Made It’ but ending doing A&R for Surrender. He helped me choose songs, mixes and studios. I am grateful.”
Chambers croons about dissension between lovers and friends on “Back To Love,” a passionate duet with the lauded Lalah Hathaway, produced by Darien Dorsey. At the song’s core is an all-too-familiar miscommunication that leads to further misunderstanding. “As human beings, a lot of times we speak to protect our identity or our ego,” he says. “So when people have disagreements, we often don’t know how to speak in a way that can heal conflicts, and we create more harm. I wanted to write something that would inspire people to heal relationships, just like Anita Baker’s ‘I Apologize’ has done for millions. When you’re disconnected from loved ones, it hurts. I’m also living that now.”
In keeping in step with tradition on his previous solo albums, Chambers also recorded a new rendition of a song from his award-winning catalog for Surrender. The torch ballad “One Voice,” written with Grammy-nominated songwriter Phil Galdston (“Save The Best For Last”) and previously recorded by R&B star Brandy on her multiplatinum 1998 Grammy-nominated sophomore album Never Say Never, is a quintessential Chambers song: highly emotional, incomparably melodic. “The chorus reads: If I’ve got one chance, one choice… I’ll sing it from the heart…with one song, one voice,” he says, resolutely. “It’s everything that I believe in a song. That is my mantra, my message, and my vision statement. It is who I am. It is why I make music.”
Coming to terms with mistakes and successes alike, “My Way” paints a rich and textured portrait of a man with a wealth of life experience. Taking the good, the bad, the bitter, and the sweet, Chambers accompanies himself on piano and shares his regrets and victories as a melodic teaching moment. “It’s my life at this time in a song,” he says. “If you were to slice my life right now, this song explains the entirety of where I am and of where I’ve been. I’m not perfect, but through the things I’ve done well, and the things I’ve done badly, hopefully I’ve been a teacher. This song is also my personal dedication to Whitney Houston, who always inspired the world, no matter what she was going through.”
In addition to functioning as a spiritual balm, Chambers realized his newest creation served another transformative purpose. For his previous three solo albums, he’d relied largely on the stewardship of established producer friends such as Troy Taylor, Prince Charles Alexander and Barry Eastmond. After completing half of Surrender with Troy Taylor, Steff Reed, Darien Dorsey and newcomers KenPen and Jamal Brookins, Chambers stepped into the captain’s seat in an unprecedented fashion. “I’ve always produced one song on each of my albums,” he says. “This time I realized that all I needed was to get the best musicians in town, go to the studio and produce the rest of the album. My friend keyboardist Shedrick Mitchell has toured with everybody from Maxwell to Whitney Houston to Aretha Franklin, so he knows all the players. He did amazing arrangements for me and put together an all-star New York band and we cut six songs in eight hours. For me, ‘One Voice’ and ‘Imaginary Lover’–which features Philly soul crooner Carol Riddick–are standouts. The sessions felt like I was working with the Funk Brothers back in the Motown days!”
Taking Steff Reed’s suggestion, Chambers mixed and mastered Surrender with in-demand engineer Mikaelin “Blue” BlueSpruce at the youthful Lounge Studios in New York City—where ‘Blue‘ has recently mixed “The Hamilton Mixtape” and Solange’s Grammy-nominated #1 album “A Seat At The Table.” It was during these sessions where and when Chambers learned the true lesson of Surrender. “Before I started recording this album, I was at a time in my life where I was trying to figure out where I fit in and what my legacy is,” reflects Chambers. “I was also determining if legacy even matters anymore in today’s music business. Whitney and I would have these conversations all the time.” With the unexpected release of Interscope recording artist Tory Lanez’ 2015 #1 single “Say It”—which samples Chambers inaugural hit song Brownstone’s 1994 smash “If You Love Me’”–the question answered itself. “The energy of that song hitting #1 again pushed me through this album. It was evidence that my music has reached and touched another generation in a big way.”
In a time where society is in dire need for music to reflect our current social climate and talk to hearts and minds in a deeper way, Surrender boldly fills a void and positions itself as a beacon of light and inspiration for others to follow. “We’ve all been put on earth to make a difference for other human beings,” says Chambers. “So now when I sing, I do so from a deeper place and for a deeper purpose. My music now has a different profundity. It has a deeper meaning. It’s fortified with more wisdom and a sharpened sense of faith. On this album, I thought a lot about 70’s Stevie Wonder—especially ‘Songs In The Key of Life.’ Those records were socially conscious, spiritual and, of course, had beautiful love songs. But this album is my healing for myself, more so than any projects prior to it. But I know the messages of these songs will surely heal all who surrender to it. ”