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How Singer-Songwriter Montell Fish Is Redefining Christian Music With New Album ‘Jamie’

"I'm still very much a faith centered person and I love Jesus," Fish says. "But I think a lot of my art has taken a different way of telling those stories."

Montell Fish became a musician the same way he began his latest album: with a broken heart. “I was passionate and I went through a breakup,” he says. “Every time I go through a breakup, I write a good album.”

At the time, Fish was 16 years old, and newly kicked out of his mother’s house due to a budding romance with drugs. (“Weed edibles, and then psychedelics like shrooms,” he elaborates). Quickly, he spiraled into a state of depression, unsuccessfully juggling the breakup with a girlfriend and familial tumult, turning to music creation, and eventually, God, for reprieve. “I was just so low and depressed that I started calling out to God like, ‘If you’re real, show me,’” he explains. “And then I began to see the God that my mom knew.”

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Born in Pittsburgh, Penn. to a devout Christian mother and a faithless father who split when the singer was six months old, Fish grew up in a world of deeply entrenched duality, something that came to define his identity. “I’d be at my mom’s house–no explicit video games or music, we’re going to church every Sunday, gospel music in the house. At my dad’s house, we’d do whatever,” Fish explains. “So, I always had two sides and that’s where I think I learned how to play characters.”

“I just don’t know who I am sometimes,” he goes on, “I could be really religious, then other times I could be a completely different person – I think we all do that to some extent.”

On his hauntingly melancholic new album Jamie, his first distributed by Virgin Music (released July 22), Fish is definitely grieving. Over the course of its creation, the emotive singer-songwriter was immersed in sorrow, shaving off his dreadlocks and losing 40 pounds, his outer being reflecting the depressive nature of the 10-track offering. Walking listeners through a gallery of his unfiltered desperation following love and loss, Jamie captures a heart-wrenching longing all too familiar to audiences across genres. The album’s production is barebones, with desolate guitar instrumentals and teary vocals capturing Fish’s isolation during this chapter of his life. (Appropriately, he produced, wrote and recorded the entire album himself.)

The intro track – also titled “Jamie,” after the ex-girlfriend who inspired the project – opens with distant, distorted electric guitars, layered with Fish’s chorus-filtered falsetto declaring, “We don’t even speak no more.” The lonesome line speaks to the musician’s deceptively simple songwriting – lyrics written in 5-10 minutes, that at face value are black and white, but overflow with nuance by way of his delivery. “Kind of like a Pixar movie,” he adds.

It reflects Fish’s personal journey, a former Christian rapper and YouTuber with once-unyieldingly rigid views on the world – views which have since softened and evolved, without the sacrifice of his faith. Today, the singer still releases all of his music under the Christian genre on streaming platforms, with the intention of redefining Christian-based art. Straightforward lyrics like “I’m just rolling through the forest while reading some Revelations” now give way to beautifully self-deprecating, spiritually tinged tracks that have amassed millions of views on Fish’s TikTok and YouTube channels.

“I didn’t want to make gospel or contemporary Christian music,” Fish says, “So I began experimenting.”

After gracing the stage at Pharrell’s Something in the Water music festival in June, the singer born Montell Frazier was announced as Spotify’s Artist to Watch (complete with a Times Square advertisement). Fish later announced a distribution deal with Virgin Music Label and Artist Services (under Universal Music Group) – a far cry from crafting beats on Fruity Loops in his cousin’s basement studio after school. “I got in trouble at school once and my mom was like, ‘You can’t go to the studio,’” he recalls. “I was 14, and I cried. I was like, ‘Oh, I really like doing this.’”

Despite the major label deal, Fish continues to keep his circle tight, working solely within his own label, Lord’s Child, and with director Caleb Wild, as well as manager Patrick Bradley, bringing in most of his revenue from streaming and tours. “I don’t like working with people,” he adds with a laugh. “I’d rather just do everything.”

Seated at the Naval Cemetery Landscape in Brooklyn, Fish dons an all-black ensemble, his cotton t-shirt absorbing the blistering summer sun as a mist of sweat forms above his brow. The outfit is appropriate, considering the theme of his album and those laid to rest below his feet (after brief deliberation, Fish decided that the former navy cemetery turned garden would be the perfect scene for his first major publication interview).

“There’s this platform culture now where if you have a platform, people want to listen to what you say,” he says. “That fed my ego [and] still does.”

The East Coast born and bred singer began his rise at 18, by way of an almost entirely Christian audience and publishing over 500 videos in the last 5 years – including Jesus-centered raps, musical production tutorials and vlogs titled “3 ways to keep your focus on Christ” and “5 Christ-Centered Artist I think you should listen to.” In his early days, Fish’s most popular video was surrounding pornography addiction, a vlog he published at 18, which has garnered over 650,000 views to date.

“I didn’t know what I was talking about,” he reflects sheepishly. “I was a monster in some senses. In other senses, it was genuine.”

While other artists and their teams would rush to delete the potentially incriminating archival videos, Fish has left them alone. “I kind of like the challenge of people putting me in boxes sometimes,” he says. “I know those videos are putting me into a deeper box, [but] that’s a part of me.”

It’s his unapologetic vulnerability that has attracted almost four million monthly Spotify listeners and over 35 million likes on TikTok, hundreds of thousands of app users sound-tracking their videos with a few seconds of the Fish’s soul-baring music. But the move away from more “aggressively Christian” music came at a cost. Fish says he lost a subset of his following with the pivot, some former fans declaring that the singer would go to hell for the sin of his “sulky” music.

“I know if I was 18 and freshly saved, seeing an artist like me, I probably wouldn’t listen to them [either],” he acknowledges. “I’m still very much a faith-centered person, and I love Jesus. But I think a lot of my art has taken a different way of telling those stories.”

And while the singer is vilified by some due to the more secular nature of his new artistic chapter, Fish says the transformation was guided by prayer. In May 2021, Fish posted a clip of his somber acoustic track, “Talk 2 Me,” on TikTok. “I remember praying right before like, ‘God, I don’t know if this is gonna do anything, but have your way.’ And then I woke up the next morning to 100,000 views.”

The confirming response to the video catapulted Fish into a broadened fanbase and unprecedented opportunity: “It’s funny because I always felt like God told me I would have 50% Christian fans and 50% non-Christian. And now it feels like this is the vision of that.”

While Jamie dropped just days ago, Fish is already teasing his next album, Charlotte. The projects follow a trilogy (Jamie Charlotte Marshall) centering the stages of grief. “Denial, isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance,” he lists. “But I just wanted to do it in three [projects] because seven is way too many.”

Fish’s multi-platform approach to his artistry also includes releasing films, and eventually starting a high-end clothing brand, named after the trilogy of projects. Today, his Instagram page is cryptic and sparse, with a couple digital camera photos of “Ghost Boy 4045,” a persona Fish is developing, inspired by his rising fame and reach. “I’m in this new part of my career,” he says. “More people are noticing me and these characters are the only way I can process [the pressures].”

Despite the mass of fans and foes categorizing Fish into binaries – saint versus sinner, good versus evil – the singer remains focused on pushing boundaries through his genre-less take on storytelling that has captured the hearts of millions. “It’s just my life,” he says. “I can’t hide much, and I’m just learning more and more [that] the only way you’re gonna get far is if you are completely yourself.”