By placing athletes, movie stars and singers on a pedestal, American culture has established a misguided belief that those who do their work on public stages have somehow achieved a stature higher than the rest of the population.
Nicole C. Mullen may have played out her vocation in such lofty venues as Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall and she may have 20 Grammy and Dove awards nominations to her credit. But she firmly believes that the people who occupy those seats in the audience have just as much reason to be proud of their accomplishments as she is of her own. Thus the pointed title of her infectious album Everyday People.
“I am everyday people when it comes down to it,” she says thoughtfully. “We all get to
do different things, but when we take everything else off—we take the titles off, we take the job descriptions off, we take the salaries away—we’re all everyday people that hurt, that bleed, that cry, regardless of the skin color, regardless of the title of our job.”
Mullen, to be sure, is not an everyday talent. Everyday People showcases the depth and flexibility of her abilities. She playfully moans and growls her way through the title track, a cover of the Sly & The Family Stone pop classic. She’s soft and reassuring above the Memphis soul guitar licks in “I Am,” sassy in the hip-hop melodies and harmonies of “This This,” and slyly conversational in “Deity.”
Her songs demonstrate a variety of influences, with “It’s About Us” using ragged pop-rock guitar riffs, “Gon’ Be Free” capturing tribal rhythms, and “Every Nation” mixing a disco backbeat with hick harmonica, hillbilly banjo and a soul-based brass section. (A hidden track on the CD).
She’s a strong enough talent that Everyday People has attracted a few rather impressive fellow musicians. As usual, her husband, David Mullen, takes the production reins but he shares them with Mariah Carey associate James “Big Jim” Wright, India.Arie compadres Drew Ramsey & Shannon Sanders and former Bruce Springsteen sideman Tommy Sims. And on “Message For Ya,” she gets a surprising assist from funk pioneer Bootsy Collins, whose outrageous fashion and in-your-face bass talents made him a key player for James Brown and for George Clinton’s P-Funk. To top it off, ten of the fourteen songs were mixed at Stankonia Studios by John Frye (Outkast, Usher, Destiny's Child).
She’s obviously gifted at incorporating disparate ideas and her self-critical drive for excellence practically guarantees a vocal performance that stands above most of her peers. Still, Mullen plays down any hint that her talents make her special.
“Sometimes we think we are what we do,” she explains. “We are not. I am not a singer. I
sing—that is what I do. But I am Nicole—the mother, the wife, the friend, the daughter, the mentor, the mentee—that’s who I am.”
Indeed, Mullen makes a point of prioritizing her family and her home life over her career, as glamorous as it may appear from the outside. She routinely tours only Thursday through Saturday to maximize her time at home with her three children during the school week. Her family often hits the road with her and at times, the children have been known to join her on stage mid-concert. Her husband, fellow singer David Mullen, is a co-producer of her albums and she adds her vocal tracks at a home studio in the coziest of circumstances.
“When I’m doing a scratch vocal, sometimes my one-year-old son is sitting right on my lap,” she says. “It’s real. It’s like, ‘This is my life, you know. This is everyday living.’”
In many ways, music has been everyday living since the very beginning. From the age of two, Nicole had a mic in her hand, singing with several different family groups in the Cincinnati area. She began writing songs at age 12, partially as a means of working out some of her own very typical feelings of inadequacy as a teenager.
A high school guidance counselor, however, told her authoritatively that singers don’t usually make enough to earn a living—that Nicole needed to find another line of work as an adult. “OK,” she responded, “I guess I want to be a lawyer.”
The counselor helped her shadow an attorney for a week. It was an important step in
establishing Nicole’s vocational steps—though not in the manner that her advisor had planned.
“At the end of the week,” Mullen remembers, “the attorney said, ‘So, kid, what do you really want to be?’ I guess he figured I wouldn’t be any good as a lawyer. I said I wanted to sing and he knew I was really passionate about it so he said, ‘This is not the life that you really want. Go home and sing.’”
She’s been doing that ever since. A man at her church gave her work as a $6-an-hour background singer at his recording studio and helped her land her first recording contract with a now-defunct independent label.
During her tenure with the label, she was recommended to work with David Mullen on a recording project. Their talents blended well, although their musical convictions clashed immediately.
“We fought that very first week because he didn’t want to listen to me tell him what to do,” she laughs.
But he was impressed by her abilities, enough so that he helped her secure a job as a background singer for Amy Grant during the 1991 Baby, Baby Tour. Even when her label went under, Mullen was still able to work touring as a supporting musician for such acts as Michael W. Smith and The Newsboys.
Meanwhile, the working friendship with David became something more.
“When we were dating,” she recalls, “people would go, ‘OK, you guys, so are you on this week or off this week?’ We were always, ‘Love him, hate him, love him, hate him.’ So we finally got to a point where we said, ‘OK, we’re too old for this game. Either we are or we aren’t.’ So it was like, ‘OK, we are.’”
Once they committed to it, the relationship became a permanent one. They married three years after they met, adopted one child, had two more, and have two dogs and a pack of cats at their home in rural Franklin, Tennessee.
Her songwriting helped Nicole re-build her recording career. Jaci Velasquez, in particular, brought Nicole her first Dove Award, as the songwriter of “On My Knees,” and it helped rekindle interest in her as a recording artist.
She signed with Warner Bros./Curb/Word Records, becoming a perennial awards nominee and an advocate for numerous causes.
David’s been an essential part of it—a live-in co-producer and sounding board—though that’s not always as ideal as it may sound.
“There’ve been times where both of us are in the studio together and we’re going back and forth,” she admits, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “but you really can’t go home to your husband and say, ‘The producer teed me off today. He ticked me off.’ You can, but it doesn’t do any good, because it was him!”
Nicole takes none of her good fortune in her recording career for granted. She views it not as a vehicle for self-glorification but as a chance to connect with everyday people from other walks of life.
In fact, the songs on Everyday People are doggedly upbeat, even when the inspiration for the material comes from hard-scrabble situations. “Bye Bye Brianna” was inspired by a blind girl who drowned but its parting sorrow is couched in a funky tribute. “Dancin’ In The Rain” responds to the death of a friend’s spouse with a bouncy reminder that sunny days are yet ahead. And “Valorie” keys off the story of a fellow church member who maintained strength in the face of poverty, welfare, and a handicapped child.
“I sing to a hurting audience,” Mullen suggests, “because I live in a hurting world so I feel like it’s part of my job to present hope.
“My goal in life is to encourage those that are out there listening. How can I make the next four minutes of this song worth more than just four minutes? How can I leave somebody with hope? That’s my goal and if I accomplish that then it’s worth more than a Grammy, worth more than a Dove, worth more than any of them.”
Mullen has put her words into action. She established an informal group called the Baby Girls Club, in which she mentors a group of girls in her area, opening up her home—and sometimes her closets!—to provide them clothes, honest counsel or simple friendship.
“When I was younger,” she says, “somebody from my church that I really respected—that I thought was gorgeous and very talented—spoke into my life. She would take me to her house at times and she would comb my hair or encourage me in my singing. In her belief in me, she gave me belief in myself, so I love doing that with other young girls.”
She’s also become active with International Needs Network Ghana to work at freeing Trokosi slaves. Priests in Ghana have convinced some of the nation’s everyday people that their families are cursed by a sinful past and that the only way to atone for the crime is to give away their virgin daughters— sometimes at just 5-7 years of age—to the priests. The families continue to pay the daily living costs for the child, while the priests put them to work as slaves, often forcing them into subservient sex. Any children the slaves produce are automatically classified as the priests’ property and the Trokosis are forced to wear humiliating braids around their necks, marking them as slaves to anyone who comes in contact with them.
“We in America are outraged at the thought of slavery in our country, how it existed back in the day, but now in our generation we have a chance to free other slaves,” Nicole says.
“International Needs Network Ghana is giving these slaves freedom. They’re teaching them new trades, they’re teaching them how to sew, how to do their hair, how to economically provide for themselves and their families. They’re putting them through school, working them back into society. Some of these women are in their 50s and they’ve not known anything but slavery for all their lives.”
Nicole C. Mullen’s passion for reaching out guides her work and her life. Whether she’s tending to her own children, providing support to other kids in need of a parent figure, empathizing with a friend in emotional upheaval, or working on behalf of the afflicted on the other side of the world, her stage is never a pedestal—only a platform to communicate her relentless message of hope.
“My life is probably a lot more like yours than you think,” she suggests. “The same struggles that you may have, I have sometimes, and the same joys that you experience, I can experience them, too. At the same time, I am allowed to do extraordinary things in my career. But that’s what I do, not who I am. I am everyday people.”