Kim English's neighbors were chatting the other day when the conversation turned to Ce Ce Peniston's ten-year-old anthem "Finally." "Didn't Kim sing that?" one asked. "I don't think so," responded another, nonetheless holding out the possibility. They knew English was a dance-music singer; how many such singers could there be, ultimately?
Dance singers are often nameless or unknown, and one is often confused for another. But Kim English isn't a name unknown to even the most casual observer of modern dance music. Ever since the release of "Unspeakable Joy" in 1999, English has cultivated a distinctive presence. She's the spiritual one, the one who sings -- in a grounded, mezzo-soprano voice -- uplifting songs just vague enough to be nontraditional for the church. She sings about God most of the time without saying his name. Take "Joy," for example. On the surface, it could be about the commonly expressed love of dance music:
When I wake up in the morning – gets me outta bed/ Keeps me running, keeps me jumping like a little kid/ You know sometimes I can hardly keep it inside/ It overtakes me, overwhelms me, and I'm more alive.
It took great perseverance to even get the chance to write those lyrics, since her label only knew her as a singer, not a songwriter. For many people, it was a blessing she got the opportunity, and not just because it's one of the all-time greatest dance songs.
"People often have a story to tell me about how ‘Joy' affected their life," English says, followed by a long sigh. Several have told her they stopped contemplating suicide after hearing the song. "It would make me tearful. Just to hear how a dance song affected them, can you believe that? God gave me those lyrics."
English is finding that her newest hit, "Everyday," is having a similar effect on listeners. As she sings in the first half of the chorus:
I got my health, I got my strength, I'm in my right mind/ I still have breath so I got hope that love is on my side.
The singer often employs her ten-year-old son as a test to see if her songs work. While he was enamored by "Everyday," he didn't appreciate Hex Hector and Mac Quayle's re-imagining of it ("That remix could scare babies," he told her). Truth is, she'd rather listen to the original too.
"They made it a mysterious song when the original was all positive and sweetness," she says. "Somewhere along the way it lost the sunlight." Still, English has come to terms with the art of remixing.
"In the beginning I hated it, because I had my heart set on how a song should sound. And I was worried that remixers would pick a random word or line [such as ‘deep inside' or ‘deep in you'] and make it a sex song by repeating it. Now I see [remixing] as a great, creative thing."
But who actually remembers the original "Everyday"? Or "Unspeakable Joy"? Or "Higher Things"? Dance fans are so enamored with remixers and DJs that we often never hear the original, only the remixed take on a particular song -- even, as with English, when the originals easily classify as highly danceable tracks on their own. English doesn't make a fuss over the reinterpretation of her songs -- after all, she wouldn't be the star attraction she is without Hector or Razor n' Guido or Thunderpuss or Junior or Little Louie Vega. Or God.
God gets credit for everything she does. "I'm just a person who sings, a messenger of God," she says, humbly. "I'm far from a saint. There is no perfection in being human, whatever your faith. You just have to do the best of your ability."
English comes from a gospel-infused family but doesn't sing gospel and never really aspired to. "My first love was jazz," she says. "I never really listened to gospel growing up, and singing gospel doesn't allow much freedom. For women, it's a lot of screaming." (English doesn't do much, if any, screaming in her songs -- added bombast is generally the work of a remixer.)
Though her Chicago-centered family was less than enthusiastic by her predilection for popular music, over the past few years they've come around to see that not all pop music is the Devil's handiwork. Even English's church embraced her music by asking her to sing "Unspeakable Joy" and "Higher Things" one Sunday, with a full choir as backup. While not a stretch to imagine those songs in a church setting, English's biggest "Hallelujahs" and "Amens" have come while she's in clubland.
"I get the loudest cheering and the love feels strongest whenever I'm in front of a gay crowd," English says. "I feel more free [to be myself] among a gay crowd than I do at my church."
Kim English performs on Saturday, Dec. 28 at 1 a.m. at Velvet Nation, South Capitol & K Streets SE. Advance tickets are $15. Call 202-554-1500. Visit www.velvetnation.com.