For years, composer Larry Theiss put words and music together, crafting beautiful melodies that he hoped would touch people’s hearts and inspire them in their faith.
As time went by – seven years, in fact – Theiss had completed 12 songs, “Jesus is Near,” “Listen to the Wind,” “In You Lord, I have Found my Peace,” to name a few.
While he was pleased with the songs, he couldn’t find the right voices to sing his work.
“I had the instrumental track, but I was trying to find the right singers,” Theiss, liturgy and music director at Holy Family Parish, Whitefish Bay, explained to the Catholic Herald. He said he was on a constant search, evaluating everyone from his Holy Family students to the adult choir to people he met, “but I never said, ‘This is the right voice.’”
That changed about three years ago when Theiss stumbled upon a YouTube video performance by a group of young girls from Texas.
As Theiss explained, he had taken his choir to sing the National Anthem prior to a Marquette University basketball game. After the performance, he went online to YouTube to see his choir sing, and a message from YouTube suggested that he might like to see a video from the Cactus Cuties.
“Who in the world are the Cactus Cuties?” wondered Theiss, but the minute he clicked on their video from 2007, he was hooked.
The video portrayed four girls, in third to fifth grade, singing the National Anthem in four-part harmony prior to a Texas Tech basketball game.
“I thought, they can’t be that good,” said Theiss, admitting he watched it five times in a row, astounded that such young voices could sing “in absolutely outstanding harmony.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Theiss watched the video several times trying to find out what he could about the performers.
He learned that the girls got their start at the Cactus Theater in Lubbock, Texas. They were invited to sing before the Texas Tech game, and one of their grandfathers videotaped it and posted it to YouTube so that relatives around the country could view it.
Much to their amazement, the video went viral with 5 million views in three months, said Theiss. Eventually the views and shares reached 15 million.
Invitations to perform came pouring in from the Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers, Rachael Ray, Oprah, the Jerry Lewis Telethon and even the White House.
As Theiss listened and learned more about the performers, he realized he had found his voices.
“Trying to get in touch with them was not an easy thing,” admitted Theiss, explaining how he finally connected with them through the father of one of the girls.
“Over the years, they had crank calls from people trying to get in touch with the girls,” said Theiss, noting that the parents were protective of them, as would be expected.
But, he introduced himself to the father, wondering if the girls might be interested in recording the songs he wrote.
The father contacted all four girls, and about a week later, told Theiss that two of them agreed to do it.
By this time, the girls were in high school, and had gone their separate ways.
“They had started to break apart as the Cactus Cuties and wanted to live normal high school lives,” said Theiss, adding he hoped the two that agreed to sing were Andi Kitten and Madeline Powell.
“I had watched videos of the girls as a group but also solos and duets and I had hoped it would be Andi and Madeline as they were the best and really sang with passion. They had wonderful voices, and the other two were good, but I prayed it would be these two and, thankfully, it was,” said Theiss.
Receiving the call from Milwaukee was surprising, admitted Powell in a telephone interview with the Catholic Herald.
She said she and her family discussed the opportunity.
“We definitely sat down as a family and all thought it was a good idea. We all wanted to do it, after my dad researched Larry and found he was really credible,” said Powell. “It just felt good and felt right and everything fell into place.”
Theiss made the first of what would be seven trips over three years to Lubbock in western Texas in January 2013.
No stranger to recording music, Theiss, a classical guitarist, has recorded three other albums, “Christmas Presence,” “Christmas in the Country” and “Christmastime in the City.”
After making the 1,300 mile drive to Lubbock, Theiss, Powell and Kitten got to work recording the songs and even made a video of one song, “Listen to the Wind,” which Theiss described as a Christmas song.
“I finally realized I had found the voices I had been looking for all these years,” said Theiss, looking back on the project. “Here we actually have recorded my songs and now we want people to hear them.”
While in the recording studio, Theiss said Kitten’s mother was astounded to learn that her daughter was performing with a composer with whom she was familiar.
“I co-wrote a song with Carey Landry, ‘Feed us, Lord,’ that is in a youth hymnal and it was a funny coincidence that Andi’s mother taught music in a Catholic grade school maybe 10 years ago, and she taught that song to her students,” he described.
As he composed the music for “Listen to the Wind,” Theiss said he “wrote songs, melodies that touch people, beats and lyrics that really strengthen their faith. Melodies that touch hearts and lyrics that strengthen faith. That’s what I want to do and hope that’s how people react when they hear the songs.”
Powell, a member of the Second Baptist Church of Lubbock, said she and Kitten, a Catholic and pre-law student at Baylor University, welcomed the chance to sing religious music.
“Andi and I grew up doing the classics, singing from hymnals, patriotic songs with lots of meaning. While singing with the group we hadn’t done any music (like Theiss’), listening to Larry’s songs and performing them was emotional. The songs are so beautiful and so well done,” she said.
Theiss made his most recent trip to Texas in late August and he and the young women performed their music on three local television stations and during two church services.
“It went over just wonderfully,” said Theiss of people’s reaction to the music. “I played the guitar, they sang. During the church service, the people’s reaction was just so exciting. We had big applause and as people do during a church service sometimes, someone let out a large gasp.”
Looking back on the experience, Powell, a junior at Lubbock High School who hopes to pursue musical theater and opera, was thankful.
“I definitely want to emphasize how great Larry is and how grateful we are to him for giving us this opportunity. It happened out of the blue, but we were so excited to do it,” she said, adding, it was a “neat project.”
For his part, Theiss was equally grateful that the young women agreed to participate.
“It was truly amazing to hear in prayer and to see what they could do. They sang my songs so beautifully, their voices and they put such feeling into it,” he said. “They have wonderful harmony and I couldn’t tell them enough how much I appreciated their talents and what we actually accomplished.”