'A story that is like no other': Christina Grimmie's music revived by hometown teen singer
Sometimes it is in the darkest hour that a sliver of light shines through. And sometimes, that sliver of light can grow to be brilliant, even if it takes years.
Christina Grimmie’s star was just beginning to rise when the Marlton native was fatally shot by a fan while signing autographs at a meet-and-greet after her concert at The Plaza Live in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016.
She was only 22.
While Christina never lived to see all of her dreams come true, her music lives on nearly six years after her passing.
In 2009, the then-15-year-old began posting YouTube covers of Top 40 hits and inspired millions of followers.
Grimmie appeared on NBC's "The Voice" in 2014, finishing third on Season 6, a favorite of singer Adam Levine, who served as her coach and mentor on the show.
When her life was cut short so violently, she left behind many unfinished projects.
Now, another Marlton teen singer-songwriter is bringing one of Christina's unfinished songs to life — and she has the full support of Christina's family.
“Rule The World” written by Christina and her brother Marcus, was released on all streaming platforms at midnight on Friday, March 11, the day before what would have been Christina’s 28th birthday. Christina, Marcus said, was about 16 when she started writing the song.
Ryan Brown, who completed and added vocals to the song, is 16 now, too. She attends Cherokee High School like Christina once did. She learned to play music by listening to Christina's song "With Love."
And Ryan's connection with the Grimmie family developed from her own songwriting, an effort to express herself that emerged from the darkness of a pandemic-fueled depression.
As Ryan sat at her family's kitchen table in Marlton recently, she struggled to fully express the excitement and anxiety of bringing Christina's music to life, of carrying on her legacy.
“Working with Christina’s stuff was like handling glass," she said, "because I wanted to make it perfect.
"I was scared that I wasn’t going to do it justice,'' Ryan explained, "and I didn’t want to add things, even though I had to, but I’m incredibly honored that I get to continue her legacy.''
One town, one school, two singers
The Brown and Grimmie families have developed strong ties over the years, a bond that grew stronger after Christina died.
Randy Brown, Ryan's father, is a proud son of Marlton and was a three-term mayor of Evesham Township. He and his family became cheerleaders of Grimmie’s career.
“Bud and Marcus Grimmie (Christina’s father and brother) are so supportive," Ryan said. "They really helped me through this. When I got worried about touching her songs too much, they were there and telling me that it was OK and they were always super reinforcing and supportive.”
The opportunity his daughter has right now has few parallels, Ryan's dad said.
"We were trying to come up with something where there’s a comparison in music that has happened like this,'' said Randy, who wondered over the connection with the Grimmies. "We couldn’t find anything where two singers from the same hometown, from the same high school, one died, one is alive, both starting in their (mid-teens), the similarities are insane. That’s why it’s a story that is like no other.”
Ryan paid close attention to Christina's music and became a fan early on. She liked her style and her passion for music, and was filled with hometown pride.
"I feel that connection,'' she added. "She died when I was 10, I think, but I do remember liking her a lot. She came and she talked at one of the Fourth of July events my dad put on.''
And the road has not always been easy for Ryan, but music has been a salvation.
“I’ve always been a poet,'' Ryan confided. "I’ve always been into music. I dabbled in songwriting in middle school and things like that, but going through the pandemic put me in a very dark place. Music was my outlet, music was my therapy. One day I was in my school bathroom crying and I wrote half of ‘Plan B’ [her own song], just by accident. I came home and I wrote the song within a week.”
Ryan and Christina’s soulful voices meld together in "Rule the World,'' sometimes making it hard to distinguish whose voice it is.
The Grimmies feel it was a natural pairing and are pleased with the finished work.
Christina's music lives on in the more than five years after her passing, and her father Bud Grimmie is mindful of how the family works to keep her work alive. (Bud’s wife, and Christina and Marcus' mom, Tina, lost a battle with breast cancer in 2018).
“The big part of her legacy is her music, so this just kind of adds that new dimension of having a duet with a young artist who had a connection with Christina,'' he said. "It wasn’t just this out of the blue thing. I think Marcus and I are both very sensitive to the exploitation aspect of posthumous music. We don’t even want to get close to it. This really just feels good, feels natural and we’re excited about it.”
'Out of the darkness came light' through music
The Browns live in spacious home in a cozy Marlton cul-de-sac. On this day, Ryan sits at a long kitchen table in the kitchen near the family's den.
The family dogs run around, bounding up and down the stairs after a day at doggie daycare. Up a flight of stairs, Ryan has a home studio. Guitars hang from the walls. There is her keyboard, as well as a microphone in the bright room.
Ryan seems comfortable belting out parts of “Rule The World” for a photographer and reporter.
In the winter of 2020, Ryan was eighth grade vice president at DeMasi Middle School, the lead singer in her former band The Exit, lead in a school play and never got anything less than an A.
But when the pandemic arrived, “she took COVID really hard,” her dad recalls. “She put on almost 25 pounds. Her appearance changed dramatically. She became very depressed.”
Randy Brown has been a special teams coach for the Baltimore Ravens since 2008 and previously worked with the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom Ryan's brother Tyler is a special teams quality control coach.
The Ravens had a Monday Night Football game at Cleveland on Dec. 14, 2020, so Randy was away.
“That Monday morning 3 a.m., Ryan locked herself in the bathroom, I had panic calls from my wife (Trisha Brown),” Brown recalls. “Thankfully, Ryan came out of the bathroom. We got her help. We got her on medicine, we got her talking to people.
“Out of that darkness came the light of Ryan writing songs.''
These days, Ryan is not reluctant to talk about the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on young people, "and this is her way of trying to find her way out of it.”
Ryan is talkative, yet pensive. She’s very close to her family, thoughtful, intelligent, curious and mature for her age. She sings in the Cherokee choir and is part of its theater group, regularly participating in plays.
She taught herself to write music, inspired by Christina's song, "With Love.''
“I think it was around the time of her funeral ... I learned to write music by playing songs on the piano. I picked up on patterns and chord progressions.''
Last May, Ryan came downstairs and played “Plan B” for her family, which also includes her younger sister Mackenzie and mom Trisha.
“Plan B,'' Randy says, is about always being second choice, being ignored and invisible. It was their daughter’s sharing her feelings.
“Trisha and I said, ‘Who wrote that, Ryan?’ ” Randy recalls. “She said, ‘I wrote it.’ She’d never written a song in her life. She showed us her book. I sent the video of her (singing 'Plan B') to Marc Grimmie.”
Once the Grimmie family, who'd moved to Thousand Oakes, California, as Christina's career was taking off, heard Ryan sing, Marcus and Bud Grimmie took the Browns under their wing, Randy says. The Grimmies flew back to New Jersey and saw Ryan perform in person last summer.
“They loved her,” he says.
'Almost like you could feel her there'
The Browns live in Huntington Beach, California in the summers. They love the warmer weather, beautiful beaches and the break from the East Coast.
"When we went out last July, we drove up to Thousand Oaks to (the Grimmies') home,'' Randy explained. "We went into Christina’s bedroom, which is really a small studio, and we met with Stephen Rezza, who was Christina’s producer, boyfriend, and we (recorded) ‘Plan B’ and ‘Getaway Car’ (songs that Ryan wrote on her own) in Christina’s bedroom in July of last year.”
Recalled Ryan, “It was almost like you could feel her there.”
In a photo taken in Christina's room after a long day of singing and recording, Ryan is asleep on a black and white couch. Marcus is nearby resting. The room is bright, open and colorful, one wall covered with anime and Metallica posters, and a photo of Christina. Stuffed toys surround Ryan where she rests.
To those who knew her well, Christina was bright, pensive, motivated and curious, a ray of sunshine who enjoyed video games and anime. She was a super fan of the video game series “The Legend of Zelda” and grew up playing video games with Marcus.
At the vigil held in Marlton soon after her death, Peter Innaurato, one the singer's school friends, said she should be remembered for more than just her musical talent and "incomparable voice," describing her as selfless, caring and Christian.
There was a moving moment in that bedroom/studio in July where Christina had spent countless hours singing, playing music and recording her YouTube videos.
“Ryan was singing, Bud came up and was a little choked up,” Randy recalled. “He said, ‘I haven’t heard music come from that room like that in five years. Could Ryan come every day?’ I couldn’t even put myself in the shoes of Bud and Marcus in dealing with not only the loss of Christina but Tina ... They are amazingly strong people.”
“I absolutely loved it, just to hear the music coming out of that room,” Bud Grimmie said. “Just the connection that Ryan has with Christina, it’s just really special.''
Stephen Rezza was Christina’s music producer and reportedly her boyfriend at the time of her death. Her family calls him a good family friend.
"They were working on songs together right before Christina was taken from us,'' Bud said.
After two of Ryan's songs were produced last summer, Bud told Randy about some of Christina's unfinished songs. "How about I send you some things and maybe Ryan can take the songs further?'' he suggested.
Bud sent the Browns several songs, including "Rule The World," and Randy said if they had Christina's vocals, they could create a duet.
Seven months later, Brown got the final mix of “Rule The World” from multi-time Grammy-winning producer Joe Nicolo, who’s now co-producing Ryan’s music, along with Rezza.
"We have ‘Rule The World’ because of that unlikely chain of events,” Brown said. “It’s a made-for-TV movie. It really is.”
A second song "Can't Stop the Rain," likely will be released in April. Marcus and Christina had partially completed the song but sections were blank, Brown explained, and Ryan finished writing it.
'The spark' to help others
Marcus was with his sister in July 2014 when she returned to Marlton and to honor then-Mayor Randy Brown’s request to sing the National Anthem at the town's Fourth of July celebration.
At the last minute, she was not permitted to perform after taking a call from her representatives, but did speak to the crowd. She had just come off NBC's "The Voice" and her star on rising.
That's when she got to know Randy Brown, her brother recalled.
“He was just so great and they had a great rapport,” Marcus said. “It was awesome to see the way he took care of my sister. I never forget things like that. He made her feel comfortable. We met little Ryan. She was really young at the time.”
A few years later, Christina would be gone.
Marcus said Randy went way out of his way to accommodate the family during those unthinkably dark days.
Marcus was by his sister’s side in Orlando on the last day of her life, and tackled her attacker after he’d fired the shots. The gunman, Kevin Loibl, broke free and shot and killed himself.
“When Christina died, Randy was the mayor (of Evesham),” Marcus remembered. “He went above and beyond. We came there after we were in Orlando. He’s the one who organized the vigil, made sure it happened ... It wasn’t a political thing.
“He was there for our family in a really tough time … He was just accommodating everyone. ‘Anytime you come to Jersey let me know. I can get you from the airport.’ ''
The Christina Grimmie Foundation was created by Bud, Tina and Marcus Grimmie in 2017 and has raised more than $200,000 for more than 80 families who have lost loved ones to gun violence. The foundation works with local victims' services organizations and networks with district attorney offices across the U.S. to reach families in need.
"That was the spark,'' Marcus said of Randy's kindness to his family in the wake of Christina's murder. "That’s kind of what inspired us to help people with our foundation. We had people go way out of their way for people that had been through one of the darkest things they could possibly go through.”
Brown has been extremely supportive of the organization, Marcus said.
“It’s not about the music,'' he continued. "It’s not about her name and if she ever gets a Grammy or how many numbers she gets in the stream count. It’s just about these families like us who were affected by such a terrible tragedy and the fact that we can shine a light on things.
"Every time her music is brought up is bittersweet in a way. It’s really sad that she’s not here anymore but the fact that we can do something as a family to help other people has really kept me and my dad going.”
Christina 'still has an effect' on budding artists
Randy Brown called the Grimmies one day and shared that Ryan was singing and doing pretty well but he didn’t know what else to do to support her aspirations.
“(Randy's) been in the football world, political world,” said Marcus, who co-wrote music with his sister, played guitar in her band and was her road manager.
The Grimmies offered advice about how Christina's career was launched. They listened to a piano version of "Plan B'' and watched a Facebook Live performance of the song by her band. They were impressed by her voice and her stage presence.
"It was exceptional,'' Marcus recalled. "She was 15 at the time, even 14 in one of them, and she’s doing 20-song sets of classic rock songs, a couple of modern rock.”
"Getting to talk to her and just how much she was influenced by Christina, it just really did something for me and my dad, too. I was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool that there’s someone out there, Christina’s five years removed from being here and she still has an effect on newer artists.’ It was really special.”
While Marcus was uncomfortable about the idea of releasing songs by Christina at first, the family has done it over the years because they feel there are songs she would have wanted people to hear.
And Christina's fan base is still hungry for her music. New releases of her recordings have accumulated over 105 million streams on Spotify since 2017, Team Grimmie says. Some of her posthumously-released songs include: “Side B”, which was made available on Spotify and iTunes in April 2017; a full-length album called “All Is Vanity” in June 2017, and a song called “Cry Wolf” in September 2020.
“We want to find that line,” Marcus explained, emphasizing the family doesn't want to exploit his sister's memory. “We showed (Ryan) some of the songs and she was saying how much she loved all the songs. Me and my dad were like, ‘Maybe she can finish the second verse, put her input on it.’ It just felt so natural. It’s just been a joy working with the family.”
Ryan said she's had vivid dreams with Christina in them. In one, they were in the gym of Cherokee High School.
“I was asking her what I could do to ‘Rule The World’ and what her advice was,” Ryan said. “I just remember she was content and she was happy with what all of us were doing … I have teachers that taught her. When they found out that I was finishing her songs, they got emotional, I got emotional."
'Christina knew' it'd be a duet from the start
“Rule The World” could be interpreted as an anthem for women: “They’re not going to see us coming. We’re going to rule the world, rule the world, rule the world,” the upbeat, high-energy song says.
Since Christina's death, some lyrics take on new meaning, the Browns say.
The chorus goes, "We’re going to rule the world,' but all of the verses are "I.''
Trisha thinks that's not an accident: "We kind of looked at it as — Christina knew she was going to have another person in this song.''
“You could tell, they were planning on this being a good song, a big song,” Randy added. “There was an attachment that Marcus had to it, but the moment Marcus and Ryan worked together, they worked together like brother and sister.”
His sister was 16 when she came up with the skeleton of the song, Marcus said. They fleshed out the lyrics while on a 2013 tour with Selena Gomez when Christina was about 19.
“This song is very emotional to me,” he admitted. “I was never a huge fan of pop, but I love my sister and the journey. I was just so fired up working with her on it. To see this become a reality, wow, 10 years later or more, it’s just really cool.”
“Normally, finishing one of my own songs is satisfying but finishing someone else’s was a sigh of relief. And it’s bittersweet because I loved working on her stuff, but I was happy that I was able to do it, and I feel confident and comfortable with what I was able to do with it,” Ryan said.
“It was also very sentimental because it’s something she couldn’t complete. I still can’t believe that Bud and Marcus would put their trust and faith in me to handle it and finish it.”
“Rule The World” will be made available on multiple streaming platforms on March 11. Link to pre-save: https://found.ee/RuleTheWorld. Follow @ryanbrownmusic, @marcusgrimmie, @therealgrimmie on Instagram or @TheRealGrimmie on Twitter for updates.
Reach Celeste E. Whittaker at 856.486.2437 or email@example.com.
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This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: Christina Grimmie's music gets new life through singer Ryan Brown