Trey McLaughlin has always known he was destined to sing.
“Probably around the age of four is when I really knew that this was going to be my thing for the rest of my life,” McLaughlin explained. “I was selected to sing for a program for my preschool — my mom actually didn’t know — so when they called me up and handed me the mic, she said she started sliding down in her seat, because she had no idea what was going to come out.”
But when McLaughlin began to sing, his voice stunned everyone in attendance, exuding control and confidence far beyond his years. “She said I started singing like a grown person,” he recalled. It was in that moment, performing on stage at 4 years old, that McLaughlin realized: “I don’t ever want to do anything else.”
Thirty-something years later, McLaughlin’s world still revolves around music. As a performer, composer, arranger and arts educator, McLaughlin travels the world with his ensemble, the Sounds of Zamar, delivering rich harmonies and expressive vocals through intricate arrangements of contemporary gospel. And on Nov. 11, they’ll add Asheville to their extensive tour list — with a special gospel workshop, open to the local community, to boot.
“Growing up in the church, I was immersed in music,” he explained. “So when I graduated college and moved back home (to Augusta, Georgia), I started getting some invites to come sing at different churches and events. But I’m kind of shy — I mean, I can turn it on and off when I’m on stage — but I’m pretty laid back, so I asked my friends to come with me to sing.”
For each new performance, McLaughlin would compose complex arrangements to showcase the talents of his vocalists — breathing new life into not only traditional gospel tunes, but also into the music of other genres, from pop and R&B to musical theater hits, freshly reimagined through a gospel lens. Ultimately, this creative endeavor is what led the gospel choir to viral success.
“I started posting our videos on YouTube,” McLaughlin said. At first, most responses were from other singers and those in the gospel community. But in 2012, “I did an arrangement of a song, ‘Better is One Day’ by Matt Redman. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to post it. I didn’t think it was that good, but my group encouraged me to share it, so I did.”
Within just a few days, the video had amassed well over a million views, and by 2014, Trey McLaughlin and the Sounds of Zamar had hundreds of thousands of followers. Shortly after, they were signed to a management company and set off on their first international tour, performing and teaching workshops in France, Spain, Denmark, Poland and beyond.
“It feels unreal,” he said. “I think I’m still getting used to it. We don’t always view the things we do that come naturally as special, so sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed with all the love and positivity. It’s a blessing, and I’m so glad to be able to reach people and touch them in an uplifting way, even if their faith is different from mine. And I think people will be surprised at how ‘unchurchy’ we are: At our shows, you’ll hear Prince. You’ll hear afro-beats and country music. You’ll hear ‘Hamilton’ and Janet Jackson.”
While in Asheville, McLaughlin will conduct a pre-show workshop with local vocalists, who will be invited to sing with the ensemble during the Saturday show’s grand finale. Twenty vocalists have already signed up to learn McLaughlin’s arrangements and join the choir for the final song. The workshop is funded in part by a grant from South Arts.
If there’s one thing McLaughlin hopes people take away from his music, though, it’s that gospel is for everyone, regardless of background or beliefs: “Gospel is charismatic. It’s dramatic. It’s fun and full of energy,” he explained. “If we make it about the human experience and truly connecting to other people, then, no matter what your faith is, you can’t help but be touched by its sincerity.”
But above all, he continued, “my biggest hope is that people leave feeling a bit more optimistic, because I think we all need some of that right now.”
IF YOU GO
What: Trey McLaughlin & the Sounds of Zamar
When: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m.
Tickets: $58 adults, $22 children