Leslie McKee

Corner Cafe Show: November 25, 2017

Singer/songwriter/worship leader Leslie McKee never intended it to take so long to follow-up True To You, her 2009 debut EP on Creative Soul Records, but sometimes an artist’s best laid plans don’t always fall in line with the reality of a complicated situation. Sure, there was her single “What Love Looks Like” (produced by Grammy winner Phil Naish for 2013’s We Are Creative Soul compilation celebrating the label’s 15th anniversary) and the 2016 Christmas song “Jesus Born On This Day” (found on Creative Soul’s Timeless Christmas collection and released to radio this year), but the celebrated Christian artist truly hit a brick wall of setbacks and spiritual testing prior to finally putting out the immensely anticipated full-length offering Another Mile towards the end of 2017.

On a simply practical level, the wife and mother of three who’s based in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania took some time out of her musical schedule to round up some financial resources as a registered nurse, but her lifelong passion for performing, playing piano and providing lessons never left her mind. In fact, that unwavering dedication to her craft ever since performing in various vocal groups throughout high school and beyond even propelled her towards a major ministry position within the family’s church community.

“It looked like everything was lining up to happen, and then all of a sudden, a door closed really hard in my face and those plans came to a quick halt,” recalls McKee. “As time would go on, I learned about some dishonestly surrounding that opportunity and a trust that was betrayed. For me, it was really hard because it was in the church, especially because you think of the church as a safe place. At the time, I didn’t talk about it because I didn’t want to cause any disgrace or ugliness towards the church, but it was the beginning of a very long, lonely journey.”

Not knowing who to confide in, other than her husband who was extremely supportive, McKee gradually began to enter a season of brokenness surely shared by so many believers, despite sometimes seeming like a tight-lipped topic. She not only began to distrust leadership in the church, but found herself not wanting to be in church because of the pain it represented, and the more she distanced herself from God, the further she spiraled towards an already pre-disposed disposition towards depression. That darkness continued with amplified bouts of anxiety and sinking self-esteem, yet two more rounds of ammunition in stifling her spiritual walk and artis-tic expressions.

“Before moving forward, I struggled with trusting God in the midst of that broken human trust and it was a long time before I walked the road to healing,” she echoes. “I really didn’t expect it to take that long, but as time’s gone on, I’m able to identify that ultimately, it was an attack of Satan, and he had me right where he wanted me. I also had to process the fact that the church is made up of people and people fail. We all make mistakes. I had to walk through forgiving them and extending grace, even those really hard graces.”

For as long as she stayed down for the count, the turning point came in early 2016 with no massive revelation or landmark event, but rather McKee simply feeling like God was saying “it’s time.” “We still didn’t have the financial means, but felt called to do it and trusted that He would provide. At that point, I was a couple of years into walking through healing and was in a much better place to focus on writing or choosing songs, plus I think those feelings and struggles I experienced were the catalyst to putting together an album of hope. Ultimately, the songs are encouragement for people to press on and go that extra mile.”

With all that in mind, Another Mile couldn’t be a more ideal moniker, and time and time again throughout the refreshing contemporary Christian pop collection of upbeat selections and bal-lads, McKee and her talented team of Nashville’s finest speak of clinging to faith throughout any storm, ultimately pointing towards hope, strength, resilience and reconciliation. “I’m so grateful for my co-writers, who really helped this project not be a bunch of melancholy songs,” she says with a laugh. “Everyone I worked with had a really great way of putting light into the darkness and adding to the encouraging and positive aspect of this album. It was quite a learn-ing experience that showed you don’t have to be dark and gloomy to still be real.”

Stylistically speaking, Another Mile is likely to put McKee as a peer to say Francesca Battistelli, while she’s also a massive Natalie Grant appreciator and shapes her songwriting narratives based on inspiration from the incomparable Steven Curtis Chapman. In fact, it was in seeing that very CCM legend on stage in Nashville about ten years ago (when she won tickets to the entire GMA Week and Dove Awards from an artists’ conference she attended) that was the final spark needed to officially get started on this extraordinary journey.

“When he sang ‘Much Of You,’ at that show, which also included Casting Crowns and Chris Tomlin when they were just starting out, I was just overwhelmed with emotion and it was almost like a prayer resounding in my heart,” remembers McKee. “The lyrics were words I identified with deeply, which inspired me in stepping out on my own, going to more conferences, and meeting people like Eric Copeland from Creative Soul and so many other friends and collaborators.”

In between her debut and today, McKee also connected with Tasha Layton Smith (Katy Perry, “American Idol”) and her husband Keith Everette Smith (TobyMac’s Diverse City Band, Amy Grant, MercyMe, Jack White) who served as her vocal producers to help build technique back up after so much time away and admittedly struggling through her initial session of the tune “What You’re Made Of.” “There were a lot of tears over it, but God used them in a mighty way to speak truth into my life and help me embrace what this song was saying. It’s message says, ‘You’re beautiful, you’re good enough and God made you with purpose.’ It was the hardest song for me to sing at first because my experiences left me feeling not enough in so many ways, especially not like any of those things in the song, but it turned out to be the one that connects with people the most and was ironically the one chosen for radio promotion.”

But not to fear, it’s a home run along with literally everything else McKee touches, including the already familiar “What Love Looks Like”, finding a home for the first time on any of her personal projects. Throughout it all, Another Mile traces the troubadour’s journey from the pain to the empowerment that’s come from healing and her musical comeback, plus a season of family milestones with her daughter’s recent nuptials, son’s high school graduation, second son entering his sophomore year of high school and celebrating 25 years of marriage.

“As a parent, this can be an opportunity for me to be able to show my kids to go for their dreams and not to let anything hold them back, even age because God can use us no matter what stage we’re in to make an impact for His kingdom,” she relates prior to embarking on an-other season of concerts, church worship, retreats, conferences and all around special events. “All I can offer is what I’ve experienced and how He’s held my heart and revealed Himself to me along the way. It doesn’t matter the stage or the platform. I’m just honored to be able to do this.”

Continues McKee: “The biggest thing I hope people take away from this project is a feeling of encouragement and hopefulness. Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what to say, especially when people are dealing with horrible circumstances where they pray really hard and nothing changes. I often wonder ‘how do I offer hope to that person?’ and I think it’s in sharing the light of the promise that we have of spending eternity with Christ when we believe and trust in Him. Whether there’s something that changes in our situation here or not, we have a bright and glorious future ahead of us and I want to help people cling to that hope and find their rest in him as a Savior.”

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