By Lorraine Walker
Legendary ladies of Southern Gospel have each had a distinctive sound and personality that have set them apart from the crowd. Singers like Vestal Goodman, Janet Paschal, Connie Hopper and Karen Peck Gooch have made their mark in the industry not only for their incredible vocal talents but also for being Godly women and prayer warriors. Marlene O’Neill, well-known award-winning Canadian songstress, is another such lady who is continuing to bless hearts with her new recording, “The Hymns Project”.
Based in Mississauga, Ontario, Marlene O’Neill has taken her special brand of Southern Gospel across Canada and the United States and even into Zambia, Africa. Her music has even travelled to places where she herself has yet to see; nations such as Poland, Nairobi, Kenya and the Asia Pacific. O’Neill has been presented with numerous awards from the Gospel Music Association of Canada and the MAJA Awards Organization and has a wide fan base eagerly awaiting this latest release.
Marlene O’Neill spoke with SGM Radio recently about “The Hymns Project”. “I am so proud of this one!” says O’Neill. “I guess every artist says that of their most current project. It has been lying dormant in my soul for a very long time and I recently had the opportunity to record it.”
“I believe that each CD that I release should be a true representation of where I am spiritually and musically at that time,” O’Neill continues. “I guess I’m feeling the urge to go back to the basics but make them current with nice arrangements and fresh vocals. I think people respond to an old hymn because it takes them back to earlier, easier days. The lyrical poetry of an old hymn is very soothing. My favourite hymn right now is ‘Be Still My Soul’, because in this day and age there are so many things we can do to ‘still’ our bodies, like a spa, massage, quiet vacations of rest, etc., but nothing can still or touch our soul like the Lord can.”
O’Neill had noticed that her audience responded to hymns she included in her repertoire even before considering
this new release. In her live concerts there were two songs which brought the most response from her audience, both from her ‘Generations’ recording. The songs were ‘Just One Angel’ and ‘His Eye is On the Sparrow’. O’Neill says, “Although I have been performing both of these songs for several years they are by far the most requested songs at the merchandise table following a concert. ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ is an old hymn classic but arranged with a bluesy, soulful, gospel feel that I really like to put everything into on the stage. Again, this is a song that touches many because it brings back memories of their past either in the church or remembrance of their grandma singing it around the house. Both of these are songs that people can relate to and they gravitate towards that.”
Marlene O’Neill’s own recollections of the past include music as well. “I have so many memories of singing as a small girl. However, I did my first solo at the age of 5. I sang a song written by Gordon Jenson called, ‘A Song Holy Angels Cannot Sing’, with my dear Grandmother. I am told that they stood me on a chair because I could not reach the lowest mark on the microphone stand. Embarrassingly, as I sang my harmony part, I absent-mindedly wound my index finger into my skirt and my Mother had to consistently get after me to stop fiddling! I’m so glad that I kicked that habit!”
Many Southern Gospel fans in Ontario watched Marlene grow up on stage, singing with her mother and brother as, “The Elliott Family”. Now O’Neill’s own family is involved with her solo ministry. “My husband Jim is co-owner of O’Neill Ministries and takes care of all booking details and negotiations,” says O’Neill. “He accompanies me on most road trips and takes care of my sound system needs. Our 19-year-old daughter, Kayla, is also a singer. She sings in her own worship band and also with me on occasion. We are often booked to do Mother/Daughter events in the month of May, sometimes with my Mother too. Our 16-year-old son, Tyler, is also very musical and plays the bass guitar and drums, though not at the same time, with his youth group. If I ever decide to put a band together he would be first on my list to book. Our children are very supportive of what Mom does for a living.”
Marlene O’Neill appears to thrive in her busy life of family and travelling, and somehow is able to keep everything in balance. “My husband Jim and I are co-labourers in O’Neill Ministries, although he has what we call a ‘normal’ job. Because this is fulltime ministry for me, I work in our home office sending out correspondence and confirmations, updating our website and preparing song choices for up-coming performances.”
“From the very beginning I have tried to be very conscious about keeping office time separate from family time,” O’Neill continues. “When our children were very small I would only work in the office during regular office hours and then shut down the computer and close the door to the office to take care of my children when they returned from school to help with homework, make dinner, etc. Now that the kids are older, that has changed somewhat depending on what my – or their – schedules are.”
O’Neill has several other hats that she wears. “I am also one third of a vocal trio called ‘The Tonettes’, and our performance schedule has increased significantly in the past year or so. I also teach private performance lessons and have several weekly students.”
The Tonettes is a jazz ensemble that has recently made a splash in the Toronto area. O’Neill is joined by her cousin Cathy Borges and friend Amoy Levy, who are also Christian artists. However, the ladies’ trio is not strictly labelled as a Christian group, so SGM Radio asked O’Neill about her thoughts regarding ‘going secular’. “Christian music is truly an extension of who I am as a woman, who I am as a Christian, and what I was created to do,” states O’Neill. “It is not just a style of music but also a way of life for me. I have a very long and rich heritage of Christian music in my life and always was encouraged to use my gift for God. Now that I am confident in who I am in Christ, I feel confident to explore other styles of music as opportunities present themselves.”
O’Neill continues, “The Tonettes are booked to do everything from worship leading at women’s conferences, to backing up other headlining artists and studio sessions as well. So, to answer your question, no I would not consider completely ‘going secular’ but I would never want close a door of opportunity to let Christ’s light shine through me in a dark world.”
The music of Marlene O’Neill has certainly been a light in a dark world, and she shares her desire for her ministry. “I want to be an artist that is ‘real’; no pretense, just a real-life woman with a real-life approach to presenting music,” shares O’Neill. “My desire is that Christ would impact people through my ministry whether I am singing on stage or having tea with friends. I want to let my light shine and that doesn’t stop just because the concert is over. It is a lifestyle choice. I would now like to expand my territory as well.”
As O’Neill’s music has spread and her territory has expanded, she has had the opportunity to meet many of the movers and shakers in Canadian politics, as well as religious and sports figures. This has given her a unique perspective on fame and notoriety. O’Neill says, “I feel very blessed to have met some key people in my ministry life so far, people like the Honorable Lieutenant Governor David Onley. He is a member of a church that I frequently sing at, and my husband and I have struck up a friendship with him and his dear wife over the years. I have also met the former Lieutenant Governor Lincoln Alexander and many of the Toronto Raptor Basketball team members too, as I sing at several Raptor games through the seasons at the Air Canada Centre.” O’Neill is also friends with Michael ‘Pinball’ Clemons of the Toronto Argos football club.
“Most of these relationships have stemmed from us being booked to participate in the same events or to sing at their churches,” says O’Neill. “However, these folks were created by God and for God just like you and I. They just happen to have more visual jobs than most. They desire to use their gifts for His glory just like the rest of us should.”
In the field of Christian music, O’Neill has also met many well-known artists and has her preferences as well. “My favorite all-time Christian vocalist has to be Michael English. I have followed his career from when I first heard him sing when I was a young girl. The soul and deep passion with which he sings is infectious. My wishful prayer is to someday sing a duet with him!” says O’Neill, “So Michael, if you’re listening…”
Unlike many young singers who try to copy the style of their favourite singers, O’Neill has never wanted to be like any of her gospel music heroes. “I learned very early in my career to always be myself when I sing and not necessarily emulate anyone. I would like to be an artist that perhaps others might want to emulate, but definitely be the best Marlene that I can be, the woman and performer that God has called me to be.”
As one of Canada’s most unique and sought-after vocalists, young ladies taking the stage or taking lessons from Marlene may indeed want to emulate this soloist. O’Neill’s schedule is very busy and it seems hard to imagine what she might do if she was not singing. However, if something happened to make performing impossible, this lady of many talents has other options. “I worked in advertising for nine years before going into music fulltime and thoroughly enjoyed that,” shares O’Neill. “I love marketing. I also enjoy psychology, the arts and creative writing. Anything that requires creativity is my passion. Or I would want to be in some sort of industry working with people who have fallen on hard times, or maybe a position at a women’s shelter or a drop-in.”
As O’Neill doesn’t seem to be switching careers any time soon, her busy life and singing schedule afford her little chance to slow down. However, she says it is extremely important that even with the travel that is part of her career, that her family attends a local church. “It is paramount for us that we have a home church where we can go to be spiritually fed when not on the road,” says O’Neill. “My family and I currently attend Kennedy Road Tabernacle in Brampton, Ontario. I am active in participating in their seasonal stage productions and New Year’s Eve presentations, concerts and leading worship on occasion as well. We just recently made a new change in our home church situation and so this congregation is a fairly new venture for us. We are thoroughly enjoying our time there!”
Along with regular church attendance, spiritual growth is encouraged by mentors. O’Neill notes that she has been privileged to have had people in her life that have modeled Christ. “I have a few spiritual mentors in my life, my mother being one of them. For me she has modeled thankfulness, faithfulness, endurance, tenacity and a sweet, loving, Christ-like spirit. That’s more than one thing, isn’t it! Another spiritual mentor is a close friend who has shown strength in adversity and faithfulness to what is truth.”
Marlene’s mother’s thankfulness is reflected in Marlene’s life as well. “I am thankful for my supportive husband and family, protection on the road of travel, good health and ministry success. Most importantly I am thankful that the Lord created me with a gift and has given me the platform to exercise it freely! In response to this gift I will always use it for His glory and not my own. I am one of a few who can say that I truly love my job!”
Marlene O’Neill has had many years of using her gifts for God’s glory, and looks forward to many more as she continues her journey. The Hymn Project not only reflects her past but also points to possibilities in the future as it further showcases her talents and vocal skill. The path ahead looks bright for this Canadian gospel artist and O’Neill knows that her road is in God’s hands.
“I love to hear from God whether through my devotions, a sermon, a song or a conversation with a friend,” says O’Neill. “Jeremiah 29:11 says, ‘ ‘I know the plans I have for you’, declares the Lord. ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a hope and future.’’ This is so encouraging to me today to know that even when things don’t fall into place, as often happens in this type of ministry, God still has a plan for me. I love that!”
PO Box 43202 | Mississauga, Ontario, Canada | L5B 4A7
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Born and raised in southern Ontario, Canada, Lorraine Walker has been interested and involved in Southern Gospel Music since the mid-80’s. As part of a ladies’ trio, she became more familiar with this style of music and the people that made it popular, and began writing occasional articles for a Canadian publication on Southern Gospel.
Known online to her internet friends as “CanChik”, Lorraine began writing a monthly inspirational article entitled “CanChik’s Corner” for www.johnlanier.com in 2002. This column began on www.sgmradio.com in January of 2005, a popular southern gospel music radio and information website which also publishes other features and interviews with her byline.
”Reality Check” is a monthly column relating the realities of living every day as child of God. Lorraine welcomes your comments and suggestions, and you can write her at email@example.com