A DOUBLE TAKE OF NICOLE C. MULLEN
by Gregory Rumburg
Funk meets folk in a woman who sings about plungers. Get to know Nicole C. Mullen...again.
You know her. You just don't realize you do. "Anybody who's seen a Michael W. Smith show in the last several years has seen Nicole," says Brent Bourgeois of Word Records. "She has been an important member of Michael's performing entourage for many years. And Nicole always gets a great response from the crowd!"
Still nada, eh?
Hear the voice. Go put a video tape of VeggieTales' "Larry-Boy" in the VCR. (We'll wait.) Press play now: "Who do they call when Bumblyburg's in trouble?/Who's got the suit with supersuction ears?/...Larry-Boy! Larry-Boy!"
Yeaaahh... how you doin'? She's that musical hero, that outta sight, Vegemite voice who sings about the purple-masked plungerhead in the popular children's video series. But now she's singing her own stories on her self-titled Word album.
Fixed with a bright smile, Mullen explains, "See, it's like we've always known each other, we just haven't been formally introduced. I have been around. I haven't been right out front, but I've still been singing on just about everybody's record."
The resume is long and distinguished: Smith's "I'll Lead You Home" and now his "An Evening With Michael W. Smith" tours; Billy Graham crusades; children's videos; studio background vocals for Carman, CeCe Winans and others.
Mullen even toured with Newsboys.
"Nicole sang backup for us on the 'Not Ashamed' tour in 1993-94. She was then, and is now, a great talent," says frontman Peter Furler.
Mullen looks more like someone from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, rather than a Newsgirl. She's a thin woman with tone arms. She'll greet you with a joyful smile and immediately treat you like a friend. Mullen seems to do everything with contagious enthusiasm. She laughs heartily, her long, black and brown braids fly through the air with each merry hair-flip.
"She's got an indefinable quality that comes across in conversations, in photos, on stage," says Bourgeois, who oversaw the record, which was produced by Justin Niebank and David Mullen, Nicole's husband. "It's charisma! You can't teach that to anyone. It's like speed with an athlete. You can't teach an artist charisma." And she's got that familiar alto voice that's tender enough for a great ballad but powerful enough to deliver bossy funk, pop and R&B licks.
Born Nicole Coleman, she developed her voice singing in church and listening to Andrae Crouch, The Winans, The Hawkins, Grant and Smith, growing up in the urban neighborhoods of Cincinnati, Ohio. Mullen paints a self-portrait noticeably lacking charisma and sought-after vocal talents. As she and her two sisters rode the bus every day to school, girls in the back of the bus would always call them "homemade" because of their appearance.
"I knew I wasn't the most beautiful. I knew I wasn't the most popular. But I remember sitting there thinking I may not be these things, but God has a plan for my life." It's an experience semi-autobiographically told on the song "Homemade," a ballad loaded with warm guitars over lyrics considering the "not-so-good old days" and what love can do for producing real-life Cinderella stories.
A woman today of strong religious conviction, Nicole became a Christian at eight years old. "I knew that God had put something in my heart and He was going to use me. That hope kept me going."
Affirmation of this came by the hand of a woman in Nicole's church. "Cecilia was the most beautiful woman. And she would take notice of me and my sisters. She would do our hair, and she would work with us on our singing. She'd tell us we were pretty and never laughed at us if we looked funny. She bestowed dignity on us."
Coleman fast-forwards to her late-teens and early twenties, which found her in Dallas attending Bible College. Dignity, and a pretty darn good singing voice which she shared in her new church, were enough to convince producer Tim Miner to help sign Coleman to a record deal with the then-California-based pop/rock Christian label Frontline Records. But when her 1991 Don't Let Me Go debut was released, it wasn't quite the creative experience she'd hoped.
"I didn't really feel like an artist," she says, admitting the label wanted a female rapper, not a singer. "I felt like I was filling a position (on the label roster)."
For her second record Nicole contributed more writing than on the first. Wish Me Love, from 1992, revealed an artist influenced by pop/R&B divas like Janet Jackson and a woman thankfully recovering from an abusive relationship. The record also noted her new co-writing partner, 1990's Dove Award-winning New Artist of the Year David Mullen.
Though radio embraced her songs, the Frontline deal went south. Still, Mullen's talents, now also influenced by Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, shined on other projects and tours as a background singer. She married David, and they eventually started a family and moved to a small horse farm south of Nashville. And she kept writing songs, chewing and chewing on them until they were good enough. A number of recording contracts came her way, yet she waited.
"Why now? It's not necessarily because of things that have changed in the industry, but rather in me. The things I have done behind the scenes have helped me get where I am today."
"I want people to love the Christ I love. I want them to taste and see that He is good. He's not a fairytale we've made up. He's real and He's alive! He is so merciful. I'd be a fool if I passed up a chance to tell someone about that. I want to ask, 'How well do we love each other? How well do we try to bestow dignity upon God's creations?"
Deeply committed to being a Cecilia to others, especially for the dignity of young girls, Nicole works with youth locally and also nationally through Kids Across America, a sports camp for urban youth. "I want to show the kids how God can use ordinary things and make them extraordinary.
"Christ changed my life. Even after I made mistakes, He's taken me back. He's given me grace and mercy. He's taken this skinny, bony girl that had no hope of doing anything without Him. I had no special talent, no special gift, no special family heritage that I could hang my hat on, nothing of merit that He should take notice of me. But in His grace and mercy He still did. He looked past it all and found me!"
Meanwhile, Mullen found her sound. She calls it "funkabilly." "It's a hybrid of R&B, folk, funk, trip-hop, pop all mixed as one."
"She's basically reinventing a genre," says Bourgeois. "The R&B urban sound has a lot of imitators. The thing that attracted me to her music in the first place was that it had a guitar-ish quality about it you don't usually hear in urban music."
Mullen adds, "It's me where I am, where I have been. It's city girl meets country girl. I don't listen to country music, but I love nature and being outside."
The first song on the radio, "Shooby" (rhymes with "Scooby"), is "kinda like my party song for my faith," she says. "I believe, therefore I dance!"
"I write from the overflow of my heart," says Mullen. "Things that I see, things I've gone through, things I've just got to get out. Some of these songs other people just can't sing. It's not their story. It's my turn to tell the stories."
"Originally published in the May 2000 issue of CCM Magazine, copyright 2000, CCM Communications. Reprinted with permission. For CCM Magazine subscription information, please call: 800/333-9643." This article appears in its entirety in CCM Magazine.