Grammy Award winner Karen Clark Sheard is all about family. In fact, family has always been key to her success as one of music’s most dynamic vocalists. Whether it’s an inspirational R&B track or a down-home gospel groove, Clark Sheard’s multi-octave vocal range and dizzying vocal gymnastics with and without the legendary Clark Sisters have inspired a host of today’s brightest pop divas such as Beyonce, Mariah Carey, and Faith Evans among others. It all started as a child when Sheard was trained to sing by her mother and has come full circle with her 20 year old son, J. Drew Sheard II, producing tracks on her first CD in four years, All in One (Karew Records), a slick set of urban-flavored gospel.
All in One is also Clark Sheard’s first CD on her own label, Karew Records. “This has been a dream of mine for seven years,” she says of the new enterprise that is distributed by EMI Gospel. “We’ve been on record company after record company. You get under these companies and they don’t know you like you know yourself. They are making the decisions and I said, `God, one day I’m going to have my own record company and make my own decisions.’ I have my family on my record company but I’m going to be reaching out to young people to help pursue their dreams too because there are so many talented artists out there who have not been heard yet.”
The label is run by Karen and her husband, J. Drew Sheard (Pastor of Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ in Detroit, MI). “My mother said on her dying bed: “I want you all to keep going no matter how old you get,” Clark Sheard recalls. “My husband is the engine behind this car in pursing my dream. I’m also collaborating with my son, J. Drew II. It’s like the next generation of this family is taking its place. It’s like God hasn’t forgotten about us and is continuing this legacy that started with my mom.”
Clark Sheard’s mom was pioneering Gospel choir director Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, who formed her five daughters into the Clark Sisters when Karen was barely a teenager. Starting in 1973, they recorded nationally and hit pay dirt when their signature song "You Brought The Sunshine" hit #16 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1983. Over the years, the sisters have recorded 15 albums and crafted enduring gospel anthems such as “Endow Me,” “Pray for the USA,” “Name It Claim It” and “Is My Living in Vain?” In 1997, Clark Sheard launched a solo career with Finally Karen on Island/Def Jam. An out-of-the gate smash, it sold nearly half a million copies, garnered four Stellar Awards and a Grammy nomination.
Clark Sheard continued her solo streak with other hit CDs before reuniting with her sisters, the Clark Sisters, for their #1 comeback CD Live…One Last Time (EMI Gospel) in 2007.
The lead single for the Clark Sisters’ return was “Blessed and Highly Favored.” The song, written and led by Clark Sheard, shot to #1 on Billboard’s Hot Gospel Songs chart for seven weeks and earned her a Grammy Award in 2008 for Best Gospel Song. “That was the beginning of me really finding myself as a writer,” she says proudly. “I felt so incapable previously because I was surrounded by such phenomenal writers like my sister Twinkie. I’ve always looked up to Twinkie because of the gift that God has given her… I said one day I’m gonna get like that… Then, God gave me that song and the success over that one song [showed me] I’m in my element now… That’s when I realized that God has ordained me officially as a writer now.”
Clark Sheard brought those newly revealed composing skills to five of the eleven tracks on All in One. She and her producer son J. Drew II wrote the initial radio single “Prayed Up.” The pulsating track boasts a Go-Go backbeat and an urgent cry for prayer to combat the problems of every day life. The CD is truly a family affair. In addition to J. Drew II producing, Clark Sheard’s daughter Kierra Sheard (known for her 2004 multi-format crossover smash “You Don’t Know”) provided background vocals on the set and sings with her mom on “Lord Take Me.” Clark Sheard’s niece Angel Chisholm also sings and co-wrote on the song, along with Clark Sheard’s son J.Drew II. “Lord Take Me” is a contagious pop song reminiscent of Akon’s West African rooted sound; It is performed as a trio recording Chisholm, Kierra and Clark Sheard, and is a perfect coda for what portends to be one of the hallmark musical releases of 2010.
Clark Sheard’s cousin J. Moss and his PAJAM production team produced and co-wrote five songs for the project while his brother Bill Moss Jr. played piano on the worship ballad “Because of You.” Dorinda Clark Cole of the Clark Sisters joins her baby sister on the neo-soul groove “He Knows.”
“Everyone used to say I just love the Finally Karen CD,” Sheard confesses. “So, I kept saying I want to do something like Finally Karen but for the times we’re living in now. So, that’s where I went with this new CD. I wanted to reach my young people but then I have some music the old church mothers can rock to.”
All in One picks up where Finally Karen left off and breaks new ground for contemporary gospel music. “I’m the sister who takes risks in my performances and in saying some things,” Clark Sheard chuckles.
For instance, she wonders if God knows of “my weakness when I feel like I want to choke somebody” on the funky slow jam “He Knows.” She says, “That song was written by J Moss and he knows me..; If anybody knows me, he does. He’s like a brother to me. He said, “this sounds just like you.” I have said to him many times, “I just want to choke you!” Yeah, that’s just real. I’m just speaking what everybody’s thinking. That’s why the album is so youthful. I’m using the new generation in my family to reach this new generation of young people.”
All in One reaches the young and young-at-heart alike with a series of neatly crafted songs with pop-friendly refrains, transparent messages of faith and equally bold urban beats. Clark Sheard and her niece, Angel Chisholm wrote “Crazy Praise” which makes a nod to disco with its refreshing retro soul groove. The two also wrote the uplifting track “Hold On” which carries a catchy tribal drum tempo.
In between these sweat sessions, Clark Sheard cools down with stately worship ballads such as “Because of You” and “Have Your Way.” Clark Sheard and J. Moss co-wrote the bustling “What He Did” that fuses a Sunday morning church vibe with a rock edge for a driving declaration of God’s goodness. The warm and inviting mid-tempo track “I Made A Choice” sparkles with the engaging lilt of smooth jazz. “Good” is a soulful proclamation of God’s benevolence (in the vein of the best Mary J. Blige ballads), while “Blessings is a mid-tempo jam with an old school flair.
Off stage, Clark Sheard proves that All in One is not just a CD title but also a way of life. “With me being a mom, a writer, and operating as a pastor’s wife, it can be challenging but I enjoy it,” she confides. “Just like I enjoy being an artist. I know all of the difficulties and roadblocks that come with it. On days that I have bad times in this industry, instead of giving up, I think about people like Faith Evans who told me she grew up on the Clark Sisters’ music. Or when I hear Mariah Carey tell me that some of my songs really brought her through some issues, that lets me know not only do they admire my talent but that it’s a ministry as well. I think about things of that nature and it keeps me going. I have great respect for them and it gives me a boost to say I can’t stop.”