Marie Lacey has been a performer for almost four decades, and her voice and work ethic has earned her great respect in the Northern Ireland music scene. To hear her talk about her Belfast Community Gospel Choir – BCGC for short – she sheds the years and takes on the enthusiasm of a teenager on her way to a One Direction concert. She is beyond excited about taking her choir to the Big Apple at the end of the month with their new CD, the appropriately titled "Ain’t No Stopping Us Now."
“We are not your typical choir. We are more a phenomenon,” Lacey enthuses. “Northern Ireland is not a land where gospel rules. We are more diddly-diddly. I have always loved the vibe and joy from African American gospel music. I have always connected at the level of soul for the joy that music brings.”
On "Ain’t No Stopping Us Now," BCGC brings that joy of gospel to everything from folk standards to seventies funk. The title track, a famous disco hit back in the day, bounces with sheer exuberance in the hands of this choir.
Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” takes the song to church, relaying the peace and harmony that a loving relationship brings to the soul. “Are You Ready for a Miracle” starts with a screeching blues guitar, a musical longing in the soul quenched by a joyous cacophony of voices.
“Every song I pick gets a gospel flavor when I arrange them,” Lacey says with a laugh. “They almost become worship songs the way I arrange them.
“We are doing Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors’ now and it becomes a song of worship in our hands. The song is perfect because it promotes being yourself. Be positive. Don’t conform to what people expect of you. I won’t do a song if there is a depressing lyric.”
They had to make an exception to the rule recently, when American visitors to Belfast requested “Danny Boy” be played at the corporate events they were attending. “Even THAT sounds like a gospel song,” Lacey jokes.
This starts a conversation about how the songs in our culture are so sad, and Lacey dismisses them from the setlist outright.
“A lot of those songs are pub songs. They get a few drinks into them and they like to cry in their Guinness,” she says.
“If you cry at our concerts it will be out of laughter. It’s important for me as a director to make them part of the choir. I don’t want this to be a performance. I want a party!”
The power and energy in the group’s YouTube videos promise exactly that. Lacey has always dreamed of having her group take its talent to the heartland of gospel music here in the U.S.
They were afforded the opportunity to make that dream a reality after an invitation from the Belfast Lord Mayor Mairtin O’Muilleoir to sing at the New York-New Belfast Conference this June in New York City. They will play a series of shows in churches and pubs alike in a whirlwind mini-tour of Manhattan.
The BCGC story began back in 2009, when Lacey acted on her desire to create a gospel choir for Northern Ireland. After putting out a call for interested singers, she found herself inundated with people eager to become part of Northern Ireland's first community gospel choir.
The first auditions saw 67 singers form the choir and since then they have grown to a choir of over 100 auditioned singers performing to audiences all over Northern Ireland and beyond. Since its formation, the choir has performed at the London Olympics and sung for the Queen of England at Titanic Belfast.
“As proud as we are of the grand performances in exciting places, for the choir every performance is special. We sing because we love it and we want you to love it to,” Lacey says.
“We are so excited about New York. It’s a different audience and a different culture. We are not a religious choir. We are not a faith-based organization – we have some atheists singing. The only criteria was that you had to love gospel and R&B music.”
By Lacey’s side for the past 35 years is husband Lynas, who works as operations manager for the choir. They have a son, Jonathan, who lives in Liverpool.
“My son gave me some advice recently – behave yourself in New York and don’t act like a rock star – we have a family name to maintain,” she says with a laugh.
Lacey has written and directed several musicals, one of which was performed in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast with a cast of over 200. Among her many achievements, she directed a choir of over 600 voices to support James Galway, Lesley Garrett, Andrew Strong and Peter Corry at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast. When Galway heard her sing, he was so impressed that he invited her to perform with him in a special concert in Downpatrick Cathedral.
Lacey says her crowning achievement is the choir and the goodwill it could bring around the world for her beloved Belfast.
“Our communities are suspicious of one another and it seemed as though there was not a season for us to ever put something like together,” she says.
“The Good Friday peace process changed it all. It was a possibility of peace that was never there before. As we moved into the new millennium, there was not only a fresh spirit of peace but it began to thrive economically.