Since undertaking this blog series around 2 and a half years ago, I’ve since had the privilege of exploring artists in such a way that I may have not had done so; if I wasn’t as bold as I was in delving deep into the blog series for this site. I had been musing and thinking about it for quite some time before February 2019, but little did I know that since that introductory post in early February, my appreciation of music, and my ability to enjoy music not necessarily within the realms and confines of CCM, was all going to change. I was challenged by music artists and genres that I didn’t think I could like, let alone enjoy. Artists like Lifehouse, Avril Lavigne, Pentatonix, John Mayer, SEAL, Jackie Evancho, Sara Bareilles, U2, OneRepublic, Rascal Flatts, Lady A, Sugarland, Little Big Town, Martina McBride, The Corrs, and Carly Rae Jepsen, are just some of the many artists I enjoyed during my time blogging about, in my opinion (and it’s just my opinion), some of the most influential music artists in music history and society. I wrote blog after blog for about just over two years, and finally made the switch after blog post #80 to alter my approach a bit. My brother Josh took over from me and is now writing about blogs #81 – #100 and further discussing influential artists in modern music history- artists like Tim McGraw, Leona Lewis, J. Lo., Gwen Stefani and Spice Girls have been written since I actively left the blog series I was undertaking, and artists like Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Robbie Williams, Beyonce and Kylie Minogue are still to come.
I, on the other hand, decided to try my hand and relay my own ‘expertise’ in exploring artists who are much more ‘current’ in a way- artists who may not necessarily be influential now as of this moment (but nevertheless, still popular), but will probably be in the upcoming few years ahead. Artists like Tori Kelly, Maddie & Tae, Lindsay Ell, Echosmith, Thomas Rhett, Chris Stapleton, Dami Im, Mandy Harvey, Hunter Hayes, Little Mix, NF and The New Respects, are just some of the 40 artists Josh wrote about…and then everything changed at the end of April. Mutually agreed by both my brother and me, we swapped- Josh is now continuing the blog series about influential artists of all time, and I am trying to at least get my head around influential artists of both now and into the future. While for me it hasn’t really been as easy-going compared to the blog post series that I was a part of for 2-and-a-bit years; I’ve still relished in the challenge of listening to music that stretches me and encourages me to see beyond my own preconceived ideas of music that is produced currently right now. Since writing about John Legend (blog #80 of ‘Influential Artists of All Time’), I’ve delved into ‘new’ and upcoming artists The Shires (who I reckon is one of the most underrated country duo’s ever) and Lucy Thomas (The Voice Kids U.K. finalist, who is arguably one of the most promising voices out there right now, considering she’s only 17 years old now, and 13 when she was competing on the singing competition). Now, I’ve decided to take the plunge again into the depths of the unknown…this time, it’s CCM artist and hopeful mainstream-crossover artist, Riley Clemmons.
But…it’s not really the unknown though. Riley Clemmons and her music has been covered extensively on this site- reviews of her debut self-titled album, her two debut singles ‘Broken Prayers’ and ‘Better For It’, ‘Fighting For Me’, her underrated single ‘Free’, her song ‘Over and Over’- both solo and her Lauren Alaina duet, alongside her two most recent singles ‘Healing’ and ‘Keep on Hoping’, not to mention her Christmas EP, were all covered by this site, as we’ve all been thorough in revealing our own thoughts about this up and coming artist who is taking CCM (and maybe even mainstream) by storm. And so why would I even write a blog post about Riley and her music, when frankly, a lot of the information and writing has been done for me already? And maybe that’s true through. And maybe I’ll keep this blog post as short as I can, but what I will say is this- there is a point where we need to make the distinction between what is popular and what is influential, and what is both, and what is neither. Because too often in life, we make the incorrect assumption that if an artist is popular, they are in turn influential for the community, and impacting people’s lives on a soul-to-soul level. Which is not always the case. A lot of times during this blog post series, whether it’s the series that I’ve been posting about, or what Josh has been uploading for quite some time, there’s been a handful of artists that aren’t necessarily as popular in today’s music climate and today’s criteria, and maybe that’s ok. Artists like Andrew Peterson, The McClymonts, Five For Fighting, Jason Gray, Missy Higgins, Hoobastank, Jon Foreman, Cimorelli, Lucy Thomas, The Shires, Marie Miller, Colony House, The New Respects, Philippa Hanna, Dami Im, and Mandy Harvey; would all be considered as being ‘not popular enough’ to be in any list, because of the fact that there is an unfair equivalation that popular means influential, and it doesn’t.
Popularity may often lead to someone having less of an influence; because popularity comes with some kind of erosion of values, and what is produced at the end of the day, for someone to stay popular or relevant, are songs that don’t necessarily scratch below the surface, songs that are vapid and don’t necessarily mean much to anyone anymore. That being said, an artist like Riley comes along, and reminds us all that influence is not the same as popularity- because in a nutshell, she may never get to the stardom that someone like Lauren Daigle is achieving right now. She may never reach the heights of the crossover success that CCM artists for KING AND COUNTRY and needtobreathe are attaining right now. But that isn’t necessarily a reflection on her music. Rather, it is nevertheless a testament for someone as young as Riley is (she’s only 21) to have released one successful album (her self-titled in 2018) and now another (her second album Godsend was unveiled to us a few days ago), all with such a powerful voice and rich lyrical depth that can hopefully garner crossover success in the future, but it wouldn’t even matter if crossover success didn’t come to fruition. Because I’ve realised throughout this 2-year period of listening to artists of varying degrees of success, popularity, and influence level, this very thing which is this- that because there is such utter confusion between popularity and influence, many artists, great ones, get overlooked, in place of the ‘relevant’ artists right now, that may not always be long-lasting in hindsight. Riley’s music, however, tries its hardest to blend in the two- produce music that is very current, edgy and what is popular of the day, but still deliver hard truths, and impactful, compelling tracks that delve deep into the soul. And it is because of the current music styles that Riley has embraced- a lot more so in her second album Godsend as opposed to her debut album, that potential mainstream crossover success could be an option in the future if the Lord leads down that path. But even if that doesn’t occur, the songs will still stand tall and be impactful regardless.
As I’ve heard a lot of Riley’s debut album, and more recently her second album a few times through, I’ve come to say that within and around the CCM community at large, Riley has been one such artist that has made an impact on Christian music within the last few years. Sure there have been a large conglomerate of new artists that have been popping up in CCM circles for quite some time, from Austin French, Mack Brock (though he was part of Elevation Worship for ages before he departed and is now a solo artist), the young escape, For All Seasons, Pat Barrett, Jasmine Murray and Aaron Cole, to CAIN, We the Kingdom, Chris Renzema, Leanna Crawford, Cochren & Co., Hope Darst, Mosaic MSC, Jillian Edwards and Lydia Laird; I still reckon that it is Riley’s songs, especially tracks like ‘Broken Prayers’ and ‘Better For It’; that have taken the world by storm. With 8 million (‘Broken Prayers’) and 3 million (‘Better For It’) streams on Spotify alone, Riley’s impact on people has reminded us that you don’t have to be the next Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry, to make an impact in the community. I’ve come to realise that more often than not, it is the artists that aren’t as popular as these aforementioned three, that more than likely will become as influential (and even more so) as popular artists of today. With a splash into the CCM market and a highly publicised music video in ‘Broken Prayers’ (that was unveiled in late 2017, and now currently has 6.3 million views), Riley basically became an overnight success. Even now looking back, her introduction to music, and CCM in particular, came in such a whirlwind, and as it stands now, her music has become so popular in both Christian and mainstream music markets that her songs have been slotted into many Apple Music Playlists, inclusive of Positive Pop, Today’s Christian, Christian Summer Hits, WOW Hits, Christian Pop Essentials and Country Faith. Maybe that’s just a hint of what an impact she’ll make on music, period, in the upcoming years ahead? But where it stands right now, Riley’s one of the most enjoyable and compelling up-and-coming artists within CCM right now, and maybe for me, as impactful and heartfelt as artists like Lauren Daigle and Zach Williams (who’ve debuted to great success in CCM prior to her).
Riley’s debut album, aptly titled Riley Clemmons, released in August 2018, and though I reckon the breakout song by a new artist in 2018 is and always will be ‘Reckless Love’ by Cory Asbury (I will be discussing Cory’s music at length in a blog post in the future, primarily about the song ‘Reckless Love’ and its impact, at times being divisive!), breakout artist, I reckon, is Riley Clemmons, not just because most, if not all of whatever she has released has been well-received by lovers of mainstream music, as well as CCM (she has been featured in the 2021 People Magazine’s ‘Emerging Artists of the Summer’), but rather, of her personality and heart to create music that influences, and resonates with the soul. Signing to Capitol CMG in late 2017, she released her debut song ‘Broken Prayers’ to unprecedented crossover success, and followed-up with singles ‘Broke’, ‘Hold On’ and ‘Better For It’ before her debut album released in August. Produced by award-winning producers Tommee Profitt and Tedd T.; I’ve been replaying this album in full recently, and I’ve since been very pleased about how this debut project has turned out- I’d say it’s the most complete and cohesive debut project by anyone in CCM, since Lauren Daigle’s How Can It Be in 2015. Riley’s debut album in particular is for anyone who loves great pop that can be applicable for both lovers of CCM and mainstream music- fans of similar-styled CCM artists like Britt Nicole or Hollyn, or even mainstream artists like Selena Gomez or Demi Lovato, will appreciate Riley Clemmons, and maybe even Godsend as well. Basically, if you enjoy great, productionally powerful pop music akin to much of what mainstream media is delivering at the moment, yet still want the songs to have an inspirational edge to them, then Riley Clemmons the album, and to a greater extent, Riley herself, ought to be something to listen to, if only once.
‘Broken Prayers’ was the first song Riley released in December 2017- and for me personally, would have to be one of my favourites, alongside a more-recent song, ‘Over and Over’. With the song being very much similar in theme to that of The Afters’s ‘Broken Hallelujah’ (again, another song by another great CCM artist/band that has become one of my favourite songs of the 2010s decade!), ‘Broken Prayers’ is a reminder that we can take our prayers to God, however put together they are, or even however messed up they are: we don’t have to put on a front and say the perfect prayer before a perfect Father- because truth is- if we believe that we have to have an all-together prayer for God, like we have to have the most put-together pieces of ‘eloquence’ so that God can even notice us, then we really believe in our heart of hearts, that God may not handle our brokenness and messy states we’re in, no matter how much we can say that we believe in God’s sovereignty and ability to handle whatever we experience. Because we can say a lot of things, but it is through our actions that really speak to what we believe. And to put things bluntly, we may have a warped sense of God in the first place. The fact of the matter is this- God can handle what we throw at Him, no matter how messy or broken. We are called to be vulnerable and honest, for it is out of being broken, that we can realise that God often uses the broken places to shine His light through, that when we’re in such states, there’s no choice but to rely on God for whatever it is we’re dealing with. We realise our own limitations and become humbler in our approach to life. We understand that we aren’t the Saviour of our own lives, and that brokenness can often be used by God to show us the things in our lives that we may need to fix, the things that He is teaching us about, along the journey. ‘Broken Prayers’ is therapeutic, and hopefully, it can provide a lot of healing for those who have heard it in the months ahead.
‘…the song “Broken Prayers” came truly from a place of brokenness and that feeling of having to get yourself together and bring the best most picture-perfect version of yourself to God, basically feeling like the broken pieces aren’t good enough for God. The song came from a place of truly finding peace in the fact that God takes you at your most broken, at your lowest place and at your roughest. And not only does He take you there, but He delights in it. And He genuinely loves you in that place…’
With such a powerful and strong, successful and radio charting hit in ‘Broken Prayers’, it can be hard for the next single after that to live up to the first one, because frankly, you can’t beat your first breakout song, right? Yes, I do think that whenever an artist releases their first song on the radio, it is something special. That is definitely the case with ‘Broken Prayers’, the song will always be special for Riley herself, for sentimental reasons at least. Yet a song like ‘Better for It’, though maybe not as ‘successful’ as ‘Broken Prayers’, is equally as emotive and compelling- Riley invites us to partake in a message of how we are ‘better for it’ when we are in difficulties and trials, because we know during such times, Christ comes alongside us, journeying with us during moments of uncertainty, as we rely on Him in such circumstances. Riley’s passion and heart is far beyond her 18 years (the age she was when she recorded the song) as she provides this understanding and belief that God will use whatever is thrown our way, to shape us into people that can be more resilient and reliant on Him, knowing full well that we will be ‘better for it’, whatever ‘it’ is. ‘Better For It’ reminds us of how God uses the broken and difficult times in our lives to shape and refine us, to bring us to a place where all we rely on is Him for everything we need. It is when difficulties come that our egos and pride dies, because when we’re in that moment of need, we don’t have time to shift the blame, or say that it wasn’t our fault. We are to fix whatever has happened, and more often than not, we realise ourselves that we alone cannot make things better- God alongside us is the better way to go. The song allows us to look at our own lives and figure out if we truly believe that we will be better for it if we still go through these trials, or if our lives will become ‘better’ if we never really had any trials in our lives in the first place knowing full well that God our Father and friend, is using whatever we experience for His glory and our good.
‘…I specifically remember walking into the songwriting session for this song [Better For It] with a feeling of heaviness. I had recently gone through a transitional time in my life. I was starting school online, and there were relationships that were changing. I had gone through a period where I was really struggling with all of those issues and having a hard time finding my steady ground. I was questioning why God had put me in such a difficult place when I was trying to do His work. I was trying to share light and hope and felt so heavy. In writing this song I was able to see that time of challenge and transition made me stronger and I was better for it. Those challenges forced me to look for light and look for Jesus in a time when I was really down. That’s the heart behind this song…Romans 8:28 is my favorite Bible verse. It has so much to do with the message of this song. That verse brings peace to me and it such a huge truth and a token of peace for my soul. The hard times we go through make us so much more equipped and make us stronger and force us to look for the source of all goodness and life and hope, which is God. I wanted to be honest and wanted these songs to speak the truth and really reveal where I was. The beautiful thing about faith in Jesus is that He takes us at our worst and He also takes us at our best. It gives me a lot of peace to know that the One who created us takes delight in us even in our weakness. I want to bring as much glory to God as I could, and I have a huge heart for young women and know the challenges we are going through and want people to know that they are not alone. It’s so important that people know that we have light and hope in Jesus. What matters to me is that these songs are unifying and when we fall short and feel weak, we serve a God who takes us that way. I don’t think there’s anything more unifying than that. My encouragement is to know that you are never alone and you have a God who loves you when you don’t feel your best…’ [BETTER FOR IT – NRT]
With both ‘Broken Prayers’ and ‘Better For It’ anchoring the album Riley Clemmons thematically, lyrically and musically, other standout songs start to become highlights, not just on the album, but throughout Riley’s whole music career too. ‘Broke’, a song released prior to August 2018, employs a soul-gospel atmosphere, as the message of the song finds us being reminded that vulnerability is a sign of strength rather than weakness, that ‘…with You, I don’t need to hide that I’m a little broke inside, You love me when I’m broke inside, cause You see my light, even in my darkest times, You love me when I’m broke inside…’ Heartfelt and poignant, we are reminded through a lot of these songs on her debut, that to be broken is to be whole- as when we show our scars and the things we deal with, God can fill them up with His peace, love, hope and worth, things we have been craving for so long, never knowing how to fill whatever we have missing. ‘Hold On’, an anthemic power-workout ballad, presents itself as being a unique track- it debuted exclusively in 2018 in the form of a colourful music video on A Plus (Ashton Kutcher’s website, whose goal it is to deliver positive journalism material to be a source of communication of social issues around the world). As Riley puts it, ‘…I think it’s fascinating and beautiful that we often find our greatest strength in our weakest moments. ‘Hold On’ is something that I tell myself when it seems impossible to find the light, and it’s what I want every listener to remember on their hardest day. Everyone has something within them that’s worth fighting for. Whatever you’re walking through right now, no matter how impossible and challenging it seems, it’s worth it to keep holding on… I constantly have to remind myself that perfection isn’t the goal. I find a lot of motivation rooted in the idea that I’m a work in progress, and that’s OK. In the hard moments, I try to pause and ask myself why I wanted to chase this dream in the first place…’ It is certainly pleasing and impressive for a CCM/pop artist like Riley to have their music debut on a site like Ashton Kutcher’s, so a song like ‘Hold On’ that has such a universal appeal- let’s just say that whomever hears the album, needs to stop and take notice at track #1 (which is ‘Hold On’). As Christians, God’s love and grace is what we hold onto during such difficult moments. The visual and uniquely choreographed video is also an added bonus to ‘Hold On’- so here’s hoping that whomever hears the song and watches the video is as encouraged by it as I was when I heard it the first time!
As the album continues to roll along, we see that there’s virtually no ‘bad’ track- nothing is skippable, and each song, though not as thematically-anchoring as songs like ‘Broke’ or ‘Hold On’, still have something to say. ‘Saving Me’ employs string instruments as we see Riley powerfully declaring that we always have a Saviour saving us, often on a continual basis. We don’t always have to put up a front- God wants us to be vulnerable and ask Him for help, that in the moment of realising that we can’t do things ourselves, we can be free to just be and struggle, rather than just struggling. ‘Remember’, presented through a liturgy of EDM-inspired undertones, allows Riley to embody a vocal and style resembling of mainstream acts like Ellie Goulding or Dua Lipa, to remind us that God doesn’t make mistakes when He created us, that we ought to remember who we are and what we are to Christ- sons and daughters of the most High King, that we are heirs to the throne and anyone else who tells us less than that, is a thought we must not hold captive to our hearts. ‘Honest’, at 3:00, is indeed, just what the song title suggests- about honesty. Riley divulges to us that we as humans (and even Christians) have to be honest in what we portray, and to unveil what we believe to be honest for us can be daunting and worrisome. Yet to be fully transparent is to allow God to break through and to alter our own preconceived ideas about love, life, God, relationships, and everything else, as to be honest is to allow God to invade our space and rearrange the parts of ourselves that can seem the most dark and hurtful in our own lives. Honesty begets respect and a courage from others to also admit their own faults. Riley also delivers others standout tracks, and tracks that have been underrated in what I reckon is one of the most underrated debut albums I’ve heard since One Sonic Society’s Forever Reign.
‘Running After You’ was a song I heard quite a lot- it was playing a lot in the background as I was wandering through Myer’s shopping centre in Bankstown years ago- every time I was there, I heard it, and so for me, I always felt like this song could’ve gained some traction or even appeal on mainstream radio…didn’t happen though. Maybe the Myer’s manager really liked that song? Whatever the case, I heard it numerous times, and each time I heard it, I enjoyed it all the more. The song itself is pure EDM with strings, about a realisation that we as Christians were running after God all the time prior to us even being one (we just don’t even know it), while a song like ‘Drop Everything’ paints vulnerability in a new light- this orchestral track invites Riley to impart to us a hopeful and encouraging prayer, asking the Lord to help her to ‘…drop everything, shut the door, I got to hear myself think, there’s a peace You can give to me, what I need, I’ve been talking too much but now I’m listening…’ Riley Clemmons the album then ends with the songs ‘You First’ and ‘I’ll Stay’, the former being a pop EDM melody about how we as Christians pledge our love and affection for Jesus, running to Him first, before anything else in the world, while the latter is a reflective ballad where we see the persona sing to their friend, reminding them that in their time of difficulty and plight, they will stay with them and hang around, because even though ‘…I can’t make a rainbow out of rain, I can’t write a song to heal the pain, but I’ll be standing here why the world turns away, I won’t pretend like I can save the day, say the words to make it all okay, but while the world turns away, I’ll stay…’ Heartfelt and honest, ‘I’ll Stay’ is perhaps one of the most emotive and vulnerable songs on the album (yet with the song being the last track on the album, it may be dismissed by many as being just ‘fodder’ for the end- rarely people often think that the last track of any album is by far one of the album’s standouts, let alone a song that is any good!
‘…I wrote most of my first record [Riley Clemmons] when I was 17 [years-old]. So there’s a big difference between being 17 and 21 – a lot happens in those pivotal years. Especially being a new artist in the music industry, and putting out a record when you are 18 [years-old]. I would say looking back, I leaned super heavily into the creatives around me who are experts. I really leaned heavily into watching what everybody was doing because I needed to. I was trying to be a sponge and soak it up. But for this record [Godsend], I’ve been so much more involved in the details because I’ve experienced them before and know how much they matter. I’ve been a big part of sitting with my producers and telling them the sounds I want to hear, and how I wanted the vocal stacks, and which hooks to add. Even down to what the album looks like – the packaging and the color scheme. I just have been in every single detail and have loved every single second of it…starting out day one in my career, I held on to some really good advice. “If you set your mindset when you play a show, release music, or do anything else, open to the public or a consumer, it is hard to go wrong and feel like you’ve failed if your goal is simply to impact somebody’s life for the better – just one person.” If one song deeply helps one person get through a hard time, then I really feel the music has been successful…’
After such a whirlwind response to Riley Clemmons ever since it debuted in 2018, Riley Clemmons has been giving us hit after hit after hit- in 2019 Riley unveiled the chart-topping single ‘Fighting For Me’ alongside the up-and-coming emotive and poignant song ‘Free’ later on during that same year. She also gave to us a Christmas EP that was released late 2019, that featured songs like ‘Last Christmas’, ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and ‘Silent Night’, to name a few. 2020 came, and with the unfortunate and devastating COVID-19, Riley unveiled ‘Over and Over’, a crossover hit, that she recorded initially by herself, and then once again with country up-and-comer Lauren Alaina. The song itself has been a great blessing for myself throughout 2020; and was a song that I often turned to for inspiration. The song could’ve done well at country radio if it was promoted that way, but it wasn’t, and; thus, ‘Over And Over’ was a lost opportunity for country radio. Now in 2021 upon the backs of Riley’s powerful and compelling single ‘Healing’, we saw another song come to light in the form of ‘Keep on Hoping’, a song that encourages us to never give up hope, hope in God, in ourselves, in the people around us, to never lose sight of what we are fighting for, especially during moments of uncertainty and trials. Now fast-forward to June 2021, and a few days ago; Riley unveiled her sophomore album Godsend– follow-up to Riley Clemmons and containing the songs like ‘Fighting For Me’, ‘Over And Over’ and ‘Healing’. Riley has been an up-and-coming artist I’ve enjoyed for quite some time now, and I’ve always felt that with the level of lyrical maturity, enthusiasm, and passion on not only Godsend but on Riley Clemmons as well, you’d be forgiven to think that Riley’s age is older than what she really is. Only 21 (she was 18 when she released her debut album, and 17 when she recorded it) at the time of Godsend’s release, Riley’s ability to craft music with a vocal that is virtually unparalleled in the realms of female artists in CCM today (maybe artists like Hollyn, Hannah Kerr, Lauren Daigle and Leanna Crawford can give Riley a run for her money, vocally), makes Godsend an album that is equally as emotive and compelling as Riley Clemmons, but also makes the album one of 2021’s best. Featuring songs like ‘Healing’, ‘Fighting for Me’ and ‘Over and Over’ (the crossover radio hit featuring Lauren Alania), this is by far Riley’s most accomplished, refined, passionate and meaningful album to date. Not to say that Riley Clemmons the album isn’t good- songs like ‘Broken Prayers’, ‘Better for It’, ‘Running After You’, ‘Honest’ and ‘Broke’ are some of pop music’s most emotive songs of that particular year, out of both CCM and mainstream. It’s just that it’s rare to currently find an artist grounded in the faith that they have, delivering pop music, which is similar and akin to that of Selena Gomez, Kelly Clarkson, Demi Lovato, Avril Lavigne and Cimorelli, and for it to be good as well. Riley’s trajectory in both CCM and mainstream (because let’s face it, through both Godsend and Riley Clemmons, we can see that there’s almost a certainty that her next album, whenever that is, will be much more mainstream-music accessible) has reached a new height with her new album, and as I’ve continued to assert Riley’s relevance and influence, not only in CCM but maybe, just maybe, in modern music right now; I’ve come to state this one thing- that God can still use us for our good and His glory, no matter what age we are, or what we believe our limitations on ourselves can be. Riley may be 21, but her music is so much wiser beyond her years; and is a music artist I currently admire…maybe that can be good criteria point for classifying which artist is influential and which artist isn’t?
‘…I have been writing for this project for years now. As soon as I released my first record three years ago, I was immediately back in the studio because I wanted to figure out what I was doing next – what it sounded like, what it felt like, what it looked like. And I wanted to be intentional and take my time figuring it out. So, I started writing and over the course of the past two years, I would collect songs and want to put them on the record; and keep them on a board of cuts that I wanted to put on Godsend. And it was really a natural process – as I was combing through these songs, I would see so much of my experience and story from the past couple of years. And as I looked back on them, I realized how human they were. Everybody has been in a lot of these similar situations of humanity and feeling broken, and healing and learning and growing. And so, I knew that was an album that I wanted to put out into the world, and especially in 2021…’
‘…I’m biased because these songs are all my babies, and everything I need to hear and remind myself of. But the first that comes to mind is a song called “When Nothing Hurts.” I think coming out of a painful season in life and stepping into something that feels more normal, for me personally, back in the heat of everything, I was constantly going to God and asking for help. And that was all I could do, and in the past little bit as things get better and busy again, I tend to check in less and less with God when nothing hurts. So there’s a track on the album called “When Nothing Hurts” and it explores that idea. I’ve never heard a song about that before, so I’m excited for the whole world to hear it. There’s another track called “Headspace” that I’m so excited about! Heading into summer and the world feeling somewhat more normal again, I’ve had to remind myself not to stay stuck in the weight of the world from the past months. So “Headspace” is about choosing what you’re going to give your headspace too…’
‘Fighting For Me’ released in 2019; and was the first glimpse from Riley into new music other than her debut album, and while at that time I initially thought it was going to be a one-time single from her, I am pleased that this song is attached to Godsend as track #5. Recorded around 2 years ago, this is a track full of life and stirring emotion, over keys and looping percussion, that God will fight our battles for us, fighting with us, behind us, and in front of us. While the concept of the song can seem a little ‘been there done that’ in terms of other CCM artists delivering songs with similar themes (‘Fighting For You’ by Adam Agee, ‘The God Who Stays’ by Matthew West, ‘God’s Not Done With You’ by Tauren Wells), I find myself coming back to Riley’s song again and again. Her hopeful lyrics are stirring, and the song itself can hopefully have crossover and mainstream success in the future (Why not? ‘Over And Over’ has crossed over to hopefully ‘win’ some country music fans with the collaboration with Lauren Alaina). And thus, ‘Fighting For Me’ is a reminder to all of us, that Jesus is close on the days where we feel far from Him, fighting for us, even especially on the days where we actually want to be far from Him, for whatever reason. Happy and infectiously joyous, we can’t stop but declare the heartfelt lyrics of the chorus, and be reminded, sometimes on a daily basis, that ‘…You will never stop fighting for me, when I can’t fight for myself, every word is a promise You keep, cause You love me like nobody else, You stand up for me in the darkest night, when my faith is weak, You’re still by my side…’ ‘Over and Over’, ‘Keep on Hoping’ and ‘Healing’ are the three other songs (not inclusive of ‘Free’ which is unfortunately not on Godsend) released throughout 2020/21 that are included here on Godsend, and together with ‘Fighting For Me’, make up some of my standouts on the album as a whole. As I’ve listened to the song ‘Over and Over’ from whence it released in February 2020 till now, I can say that together with ‘Broken Prayers’, it’s my favourite song from Riley, ever. With the collaboration with country superstar Lauren Alaina being featured on Godsend, this duet with one of country music’s rising stars is what I believe will become a catalyst for Riley to maybe even crossover musically and sonically into the country music landscape in the future.
But on a serious note, ‘Over and Over’ the song has one killer message- God shows us that we are His, that we’re blessed, that we have everything we need, over and over again, often on a daily basis. ‘Over and Over’ is a song not only showing us that God shows us things over and over, but we as children of God have to make the decision, conscious one at that, if we want to follow Jesus- over and over again each day. God presents us this case- Jesus; and we have to respond. He gives the gift of grace, and we have to choose. Over and over, each day, knowing full well that what we do or say is no determinant on how we are loved or accepted. God cares for us in spite of what we do or don’t do. ‘Over and Over’ just hopefully gives us all a little push in the right decision as we see whether this Jesus-thing is good enough for us to keep choosing it everyday. ‘Healing’ released in late 2020, and upon first listen, sounds like a mainstream song that someone like Hailee Steinfeld, Demi Lovato, Little Mix or Camilla Cabello would record, undertake, and even excel at- because to be honest, ‘Healing’ isn’t necessarily a song that people can pick out from a lineup and notice the Christian influences…because from first listen, you’d be almost forgiven to think that it wasn’t a Christian song, let alone a song even sung by Riley Clemmons. And despite all of this, I still firmly believe that ‘Healing’ can provide healing in weeks, months, even years to come, as a song coming out during COVID-19 titled ‘Healing’, without it being super-preachy…I mean, God uses Balaam’s donkey to speak to him in the Old Testament, so I’m sure that Riley’s song can encourage and impact people. And the song has. Comforted people during such a horrid year of 2020. And is perhaps still comforting people throughout 2021 as well. ‘Keep on Hoping’, the current radio single from Godsend, is the last song released prior to the release of the album in full, and is a great and timely melody to be unveiled, especially in 2021, when things aren’t as much better than 2020. To hope is to place your trust and faith into something unseen, something undetermined, but still praying that whatever possible outcome that occurs, will still move us all as a people towards a better tomorrow, in a way that we all can reflect within ourselves about what our own roles are in the society that we are in. ‘Keep on Hoping’ encourages us to never give up hope, hope in God, in ourselves, in the people around us, to never lose sight of what we are fighting for, especially during moments of uncertainty and trials. Riley’s song has come at just the right time in this tumultuous year, and after such a downer of 2020, such a song as this, can hopefully (no pun intended) lift our spirits and allow us to hope again once more, to place our trust and faith into something bigger than ourselves, and to relinquish the control on our situations, and rest in that the God who created us, will ultimately use whatever circumstance in life, good or bad, to impact and challenge our very beings, and to make us into the better people He is shaping us to become.
‘…when I entered the studio to write the track last year with Ethan Hulse and Tedd T. [Keep on Hoping], I remember feeling a heaviness that was weighing down, stemming from all the noise in my life. It was the fall and things were still not totally normal. I was overwhelmed, and I set out to write a song about quieting all the voices we hear–whether good or bad–so that we can listen to the voice of truth, the voice of God, the only voice that really matters. “Keep on Hoping” is a song about the expectation that things are going to get better–a message that’s desperately needed in our culture right now. We need to seek God in the middle of chaos. I wrote the song mostly for myself and it’s been amazing to see how people have connected with the message of the song…I knew that I wanted to write a song about hope; specifically, the hope that comes from God and what He promises. I wanted to write it as a reminder that there’s a reason to keep on looking up, to keep heart, to keep on singing even in the hard days. There’s a promise that God has got you. And I believe that’s true. Life gets busy, and at times we forget to lift our eyes to our sustaining hope that only comes from God. Our feet will stay steady on the ground if He is the ground you are standing on. There’s so much imagery there, and I love how imagery brings power and stories to our lives. My bible passage of last year that helped me write the entire album was John 10:10. The whole concept of how even in the middle of a global pandemic and how so much was taken away, God promises abundance. That was a big part of writing this song and this album…’ [KEEP ON HOPING – NRT]
‘Keep on Hoping’, ‘Over and Over’, ‘Fighting For Me’ and ‘Healing’ are the backbone, both lyrically and musically, of Godsend as a whole, and while I won’t really say much about the rest of the album (I’ll leave that for my review of it, that I’m gonna post very soon), what I will say is this- as a whole, Godsend is perhaps one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard from any pop release in 2021 thus far, and other standouts like the title track, ‘Headspace’, ‘Stuck Inside My Head’, and album ender ‘In This Moment’, all have made an early impression on me as I’ve listened to the album probably twice through, since its release not that long ago. We are continued to be reminded through this album that even during the bad moments of our lives, God is still in control, that maybe, just maybe, the difficulties we experience can be a godsend, in regard to what we have learnt in the process through the ordeals we go through. Both ‘Stuck Inside My Head’ and ‘Headspace’ reference Riley’s personal life, in specific fashion, a past relationship with someone that ended in a way that maybe Riley herself didn’t anticipate, but nevertheless, she felt as if she was going back to said relationship and reminiscing, again and again, instead of moving forward. ‘Stuck Inside My Head’ chronologically tells some of the thoughts she may have had in the initial aftermath of the relationship breakup, and the real feelings people often have- thinking about an ex on a continual basis while trying to move on, is not uncommon for people going through breakups. ‘Headspace’ follows along from the groovy ‘Stuck Inside My Head’, and it is where Riley is- in a place of accepting that what once held you down, shouldn’t be occupying your headspace any more, that what seems to be dragging you to the past, and all the seemingly ‘nice’ memories it’s conjuring up about the relationship, is simultaneously hindering you from a future God Himself has intended. ‘Headspace’ can hopefully allow people to cut off things in their life they know should be rid of, but also acknowledge that clinging to something can still be ok- if we know that through God’s help, whatever we believe should be salvaged, can be.
Album ender ‘In This Moment’ counters everything we may have believed about God, as we understand that God is right here in the present moment that we’re in; even if we believe that He isn’t, because we haven’t ‘felt’ Him. Sometimes we often think that God is somewhere off in the distance, or we have to attain this, or become this or that, in order for us to even be worthy enough to even think about asking God about this or that- and yet, this song counters everything we’ve been taught, that God is here, God is in the moments we often think He isn’t, and that He can take all of our unanswered questions, our worries, fears and doubts. Title track ‘Godsend’, could potentially be a single of some kind in the future (but even if it’s not, it’s still a standout on an album that has a lot of them!)- the song itself clearly lays it all out there and really captures the heart behind the album as a whole, that that things that happen in life are often godsend’s when we don’t even see it or even believe it. One of the most hauntingly refreshing, and vulnerable moment of realisation on the album for Riley, she surmises that ‘…I had the word ‘Godsend’ saved in the notes section on my phone for probably the last four years. I knew that I wanted to call my record Godsend, and I knew I wanted a track on the record to be called Godsend as well, but I didn’t know how to write it. So I saved it and held on to it because I wanted to do it justice. So in April 2020, just pulled off the road, the world is shutting down, no one really knows what is going on, I was sitting on my bedroom floor. A busy year had suddenly turned to dust, and I just remember staring at my little dinky keyboard that I’ve had since middle school and thinking, “okay, I think now is the time to write it.” So I hopped on a Zoom write with Emily Weisband and Colby Wedgeworth, and it all started with the line “what if maybe every broken place I’ve been was a Godsend.” And we built the song on that idea and concept. And from there, the rest of the album was created with that as the foundation…’
While Riley’s primarily known for her two full-length albums Riley Clemmons and Godsend released in 2018 and 2021 respectively, she’s still been able to release a few songs here and there, either as singles, EPs or collaborations. ‘Free’ was released by Riley in 2019, and, while it can be a little bit of a cliché (and maybe even a downer) to call your song ‘Free’, especially when there are so many songs in both CCM and mainstream by other artists (a song titled ‘Free’ was recorded and released by artists like Delirious?, Jeremy Camp, Dara MacLean, Mandisa, MercyMe, Switchfoot and Steven Curtis Chapman, to name a few), Riley nevertheless presents a track that us vibrant, compelling and hopeful, as we’re encouraged as Christians to start living as though we believe that we are free, instead of finding ways of how to still be in the mindset of rules, structure and regulation, even though we know that the Lord has done away with all of that. Riley also unveiled her Christmas EP in 2019, and while this 4-track offering presents standard-fare holiday songs/carols like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and ‘Silent Night’ (two of the most overplayed song in the holiday and carol categories respectively, it is the songs ‘The First Christmas’ (an original track written by Riley herself) and the cover of WHAM!’s ‘Last Christmas’ that stuck out for me the most in all the best ways possible. Now I don’t know much about WHAM! (or even George Michael for that matter), but I do know ‘Last Christmas’- anyone who’s anyone who loves Christmas songs knows what that song is. It’s a track about holding your heart close for someone else, after you’ve been burned by a certain relationship. The song recorded in the 1980s, still has impact and influence even now, and Riley provides a nice spin on an already compelling Christmas holiday classic. Employing light keyboard electronics to make it feel like the song was done way back in the 1980s, nostalgia reigns with this song- dare I say that Riley’s version is as enjoyable, maybe even more so, than Britt Nicole’s version recorded 14 years ago? ‘The First Christmas’ speaks about the first Christmas ever celebrated (Jesus’ birth) and intertwines it with Riley’s own personal experience of Christmas and recounting her first memories of the annual celebration, as we’re reminded of how personable Christmas has become for us all: we all have our own expectations of a day that seems to come through for some, and not for others. A song that brings to the fore themes and messages that are similar to that of Steven Curtis Chapman’s ‘The Miracle of Christmas’, Riley’s new song has been a joy to listen to; and has quickly become one of my favourite originally-written Christmas songs over the last few years.
Riley also has collaborated with Christian hip-hop duo Social Club Misfits on two songs- ‘Misfit Anthem’ from the duo’s 2017 album The Misadventures of Fern & Marty, and ‘Without You’, from the duo’s 2020 album Feared By Hell. While Riley’s first collaboration feels more like a ‘paste-on’ job, and her addition to the song feels a little bit disjointed, one cannot deny the attempt of creating a song that has elements of rap and worship- Riley’s parts in the song are actually the chorus of Hillsong Worship’s ‘Amazing Grace (Broken Vessels)’. While ‘Misfit Anthem’ feels a little cliché in parts, Riley’s second collaboration with the hip-hop duo is much more seamless and more cohesive- ‘Without You’, a potential radio single from Fern & Marty, speaks about how without God, we’re just ‘…a house of cards bound to fall down, without you…I’m nothing without you…’, a great reminder to the fact that we are who we are, where we are, and whose we are, because of Jesus. The duo even released a remix of the song in 2021…maybe released as an official single in the upcoming weeks ahead? ‘I’m Leaning on You’, one of the many collaborations by worship leader Crowder, is presented on the album featuring Riley Clemmons, and is the fourth single from his album I Know a Ghost. The song itself speaks about leaning on God in a variety of circumstances- we are giving comfort that Jesus is there, as we need someone to lean on and someone to hear our musings and cries. The last remaining collaborative song is ‘Out My Mind’- Riley carries the song herself against the musical backdrop of EDM duo Tritonal; and is a track that presents this matter of fact- that when we love someone, we are often perceived to be out of our minds, because when we’re in a ‘honeymoon’ state, we can often do crazy and unbelievable things for this other person we’re in ‘love’ with.
As we continue to marvel at Riley’s powerhouse vocals, we can hopefully be reminded that a female presence in CCM is currently needed, and Riley’s presence ought to act as a reminder, that young female Christians who love to sing and perform, can still go the route of CCM if they want to. Frankly, there hasn’t really been as many young female role models who are in the CCM industry currently- aside from Riley, who is 21, there isn’t really much else…maybe Rachael Nemiroff, Hannah Kerr, and Leanna Crawford, but their popularity as artists, aren’t as high. And this is why Riley’s presence in a music industry still dominated by men (both CCM and mainstream music has this problem), should be welcomed with open arms. The last CCM/pop artist akin to Riley’s style to ever have such impact and popularity within CCM and even in the slightest bit of mainstream music, would have to be Britt Nicole (famous for her hits like ‘Gold’, ‘All This Time’, ‘You’, ‘Believe’ and ‘The Lost Get Found’), and while it can stand for some reason that artists like Britt aren’t as active in CCM (and in mainstream) now than they were before, it is good to see Riley basically pick up from where Britt left off. Who knows, maybe Britt can come back to CCM or even back to music at some point, but herein lies the point in all of this- Riley’s music is good, but hopefully through her two albums, other aspiring artists can take the plunge and pursue music, if they ever feel so led, and if they believe that God has laid it on their hearts to impact people through the lens of music. There unfortunately seems to be a void of CCM female artists right now- yes, there are impactful and famous artists like Natalie Grant, Francesca Battistelli, Kari Jobe, Mandisa, Plumb, Amy Grant, Rebecca St. James, Nichole Nordeman, Laura Story, JJ Heller, Ginny Owens, Meredith Andrews and Jaci Velasquez, but none really around Riley’s age, impacting music, culture, and society at this moment, which is a bit of a shame. Different people who grew up in different time periods, relate to different artists, and while it’s all well and good to have artists in your own industry that are established (like all these female CCM artists I’ve aforementioned), it’s even more important to have more artists that are up and coming that can relate to Gen Z’s and Millennials like Riley has been. Sadly, I can’t seem to count that many- Leanna Crawford, Hannah Kerr, Rachael Nemiroff…maybe Lauren Daigle? And then that’s it? This is why Riley’s place in CCM and mainstream and just in music full stop, is necessary, crucial, important, and maybe even impactful and compelling. Maybe she can be a role model to other young musicians who can follow in her footsteps and create music in a way that glorifies God and still presents the songs in a modern pop way of doing that.
However the CCM landscape looks like, going forward, one thing is for sure- Riley can hopefully be there to stay and create music that impacts and challenges, encourages and compels, and maybe, just maybe, follow in the footsteps of CCM young musicians gone before (namely artists like Rebecca St. James and even Britt Nicole herself). While there have been some artists who have come and gone along the way (Rachael Lampa, Stacie Orrico, Jaci Velasquez), some have still stuck with it, and here’s hoping that Riley’s one of the people that do. Riley Clemmons was nominated for a Dove Award for New Artist of the Year at the 2019 Dove Awards, and while I reckon they made the right decision in giving the award to up-and-coming black hip-hop artist Aaron Cole, I was nevertheless bummed at the time that Riley didn’t win…maybe it was because I saw the trend of how these award ceremonies were going. The last female to ever win New Artist of the Year at the Dove Awards was Lauren Daigle in 2015, and Ellie Holcomb the year before that. Jamie Grace won New Artist in 2012…and then before that, anything female-fronted that won the ‘New Artist of the Year’ award was ZoeGirl (band) in 2002, and Ginny Owens (solo female artist) in 2000. See a trend here? Maybe it’s not intentional, but it seems like there is a pattern. Maybe, Riley’s presence in the industry can buck the trend a little. Now who is up for New Artist of the Year at the 2021 Dove Awards? Maybe Anne Wilson, Hope Darst, Tasha Layton or Leanna Crawford? Whatever the case, Riley’s imprint on music, in especially CCM, and more broadly speaking, the mainstream community at large (by and large because of the People article highlighting artists for Summer 2021), is necessary, welcomed, and God willing, maintained as the months and years go by. Riley Clemmons is good, Godsend is great, and I’m sure whatever comes next will be enjoyable too. With her only being 21, she has her whole career ahead of her. Till her next release, whatever that may be, let us all be reminded and encouraged, that whatever we face in life, can be, and often is, a godsend, and that however we may feel about our prayers to God, He wants us to cry out to Him, however broken the ‘prayers’ may seem to us.
‘…With every passing day, I’m constantly learning more about my faith, my identity and God. So much of what I’m learning I process through writing music. A massive goal of mine was to capture the growth and questions rooted within my faith through the songs on this record. While so much change and growth has taken place in my life, faith has been a constant…getting quiet [during 2020] changes a lot. I took more time than I ever have before to pause and have more meaningful discussions with God and about my faith. It most definitely directly impacted the music I was writing, and I think that shows through the songs. My only goal was and is to create authentic music, born from hurting, growing and healing. I hope people are able to hear this collection of music [Godsend] and find pieces of themselves and their stories within the songs…God has definitely taken the last year-and-a-half or so to reshape my definition of abundance. I’m still very much in process of that, but it’s been an extremely important aspect of much of the growth I’ve experienced as a person…’
Does Riley Clemmons make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Influential Artists of the next 5-10 years’ list? Is there any song, like ‘Broken Prayers’, ‘Better For It’, ‘Over and Over’, ‘Healing’, ‘Godsend’ or ‘Keep on Hoping’, that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!