They were content to be a local worship band, leading music at church events and opening for professional contemporary Christian music bands that occasionally came through Northern Nevada.
Then recording studios took notice. I Am They became more than a local band. On Feb. 22, they accepted an offer from Provident Label Group, a Sony Music company out of Nashville, Tenn. The six members of the band expect to relocate to Nashville next year.
“We were playing for several years, not aiming for success or a contract,” said Adam Palmer, lead singer and guitarist for I Am They. “It just happened.”
The band members are Palmer and his wife, Sara, the drummer and coordinator, who live in Minden; Carson City residents Matt Hein, lead vocals and guitar, and Stephanie Kulla, lead vocals and violin; plus Justin Shinn, keyboard and glockenspiel, and Bobby Stiehler, bass, of Reno. They range in age from 19 to 31.
The band’s name was inspired by the Bible passage in John 17 in which Jesus refers to his disciples as “they.”
“We made it personal,” Sara Palmer said.
The metamorphosis from being a hometown church band to rubbing elbows with music industry professionals began in 2011 at the Spirit West Coast Christian music festival in Monterey, Calif. — a popular event for church youth groups from throughout California and western Nevada. Through the Partner and Play program, I Am They competed against 73 bands during the festival.
They played their set and headed back to the hotel, figuring their time in the limelight was done.
Everything changed with an excited call from Matt Hein’s wife, Tori, telling them to come back. I Am They placed first in their category and received the highest overall rating at the festival.
The prize included the opportunity to record one song in Nashville, produced by Billy Smiley, formerly with the contemporary Christian band White Heart. It also included $500 and a slot to play in the 2012 festival in Del Mar, Calif.
“The contest in Monterey really springboarded us,” Palmer said. “We had great opportunities opening as a local Christian band in the area, but we were always going to stay local. We weren’t even trying for it.”
“The last year and half, it’s been crazy,” keyboardist Shinn said. “It’s a weird feeling having your childhood dreams come true.”
Despite the festival win, community support was needed to make it happen. The prize did not include sufficient funds to get the entire band to Nashville. Fundraisers made up the difference.
“Our trip was really funded by the community and the church,” said Palmer, who attends Calvary Chapel Carson City.
I Am They recorded their original song “Satellite” — available on their website, iamtheyband.com — in Nashville in February 2012. They attracted the interest of several studios.
Through 2012, I Am They members traveled back and forth to Nashville talking to representatives of Word, an affiliate of Warner Brothers, and Provident. They also signed with a new management company, Creative Trust out of Brentwood, Tenn.
“It was really an amazing time, feeling ‘Is this really happening to us?’” Palmer said. “It was surreal.”
I Am They received an offer from Provident in December, followed in January with an offer from Word.
“Then we had to choose between the two,” Sara Palmer said. “Both are great companies. They became like friends. It was hard to choose.”
“We felt like (Provident) believed in us,” said her husband. “They got us and our music and know how to market us. … First and foremost, it’s a ministry, and we desire to continue on that path.”
As the contract works through the attorney phase, the band members are preparing for major changes.
“It really has been one of the things that makes everything very exciting, but not really immediate,” Adam Palmer said.
The challenge of change has been particularly apparent for Hein, a new dad to 7-month-old son Micaiah.
“Slowly, severely, it seemed to change everything about my life,” Hein said. “For us, it’s been a big challenge to juggle the band, the college group (meeting at) our house. We’re actively involved in church. It has changed the way that I’ve written music and seeing the entire music industry, seeing a whole different life. It’s excited me about music.
“It’s a dream come true but also the greatest challenge of my life.”
Although he’s not looking forward to uprooting his family, Hein said he is excited about moving to Nashville.
“In Nashville, everywhere you go there’s music,” he said. “We had also pictured ourselves here for the rest of our lives. I love it here.”
For now, Provident wants to keep I Am They on the West Coast, doing West Coast tours. The band continues to practice at Calvary Chapel and plays every other month for Solomon’s Porch worship nights, a nondenominational gathering where the band had its beginning.
At some point, band members will have to quite their current jobs and the assurance of regular paychecks to become full-time, touring musicians.
“I’m looking forward to being able to do the band as a full-time job,” Kulla said.
“We’re blessed with extra time with family and my church. We’re excited to move but glad (for the extra time). I think it’s really the same with everybody. I don’t know how we got here. We’re excited to see what’s around the next corner. We feel blessed and so undeserving of what’s been happening.”
“It’s just really humbling. It’s crazy,” Shinn said. “This little Christian band out of Carson City, we’ve been noticed. I hope we keep our hearts in the right spot. It’s not something we can look up on the Internet. It’s scary and exciting.”