Nathan Pacheco was sure that the only solution was to go home. As a young missionary serving in the Campinas Brazil Mission far away from his family, he’d perhaps expected to feel a closeness to them despite the distance—after all, his grandfather had grown up in Brazil. But the homesickness he felt was unrelenting, and when he called his family on Christmas Day in 1999, he was ready to go home.
“I was on the phone with my dad, bawling my eyes out and telling him that I wanted to come home,” Nathan says. His dad’s response would change not only Nathan’s mission, but largely the direction of his life. “He said to me, ‘Nathan, to know is to love.’ He was inviting me to really get to know the Brazilian people, knowing that [doing so] would invite a love into my heart that would make all the difference.”
The approach Nathan settled on to get to know and love the Brazilian people pushed him out of his comfort zone every day. And when he woke up in his second area feeling happy for the first time in months, he knew it was working. And just what did Nathan do?
“I sang nonstop. I was probably a little over the top now that I look back at it. I would literally get up on buses all the time and start singing for people—because I not only loved to sing for the people, but I also believed that it could be a way to break down barriers and create an atmosphere of friendship. So I would do that all the time. I had so much fun singing for people on buses, in the streets, and in people’s homes,” Nathan says. And as Nathan used his rich tenor voice to share eternal truths taught in Primary songs and hymns, he witnessed how music could soften and connect hearts.
“I became so close with the people in Brazil that those friendships, that love, filled my heart, which allowed me to feel so fulfilled and happy,” Nathan says. When his mission was complete, he’d gained a deeper passion for music, a love for God’s children, and a firm testimony that never left him.
“I remember President Gordon B. Hinckley saying how he could trace every good thing that had happened in his life back to his choice to serve a mission and give his life to the Lord, and I feel like I could do the same thing,” Nathan says. “The Lord changed my heart, and that made all the difference.”
In the years that followed, the 19-year-old who sang on buses in Brazil would go on to sing in Carnegie Hall in New York City, Royal Albert Hall in London, and with The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. He has toured with world-renowned Greek composer and performer Yanni and Welsh superstar mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins, as well as performed nationwide on his own solo tours. He has been featured in not one but two PBS specials. In 2017, his album Higher, which exudes Nathan’s joy in God, hit number one on three Billboard charts. His latest release, Abide with Me, is Nathan’s seventh album and features 12 of his favorite hymns in stunning arrangements.
Nathan has seen time and time again how music and the Spirit can determine the course of a life. Whether it’s his fans who have been changed through his songs or his cellist who was inspired to be rebaptized through his music, he says it’s not him who has really brought about that change.
“People will forget a pretty song or a good performance. But if they feel the Spirit, that could change their lives forever,” he says.
Nathan would know how life-changing a spiritual prompting can be—without one, he may not have had the courage to chase music as a profession in the first place.
“He Can’t If You Don’t Dream”
Nathan loved music long before he could walk—or even talk. In fact, his mother once told him that people at their local Virginia grocery store dubbed him “the singing baby” because he would sing at the top of his lungs from the cart while she shopped. Their home, full of seven kids, was a musical one: his mother taught piano lessons from the house and Nathan woke up before school to practice. Then in high school, he earned a spot in his school’s show choir, which deepened his love for singing and led to him to take voice lessons.
After his mission, Nathan headed to Brigham Young University to study vocal performance. His experiences there, including a music-focused study abroad in Lucca, Italy, deepened his dream of performing as a career. But he was hesitant: life as a professional musician would be full of risks and unknowns—should he even try? But his senior year, he attended a devotional given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who said something that sank straight into Nathan’s searching heart.
“God is eagerly waiting for the chance to answer your prayers and fulfill your dreams, just as He always has. But He can’t if you don’t pray, and He can’t if you don’t dream. In short, He can’t if you don’t believe,” Elder Holland said in his 2004 BYU devotional “Terror, Triumph, and a Wedding Feast.”
“I felt like the Lord was taking notice of me and of my dreams, and that He was breathing faith into my heart,” Nathan said on an episode of the All In podcast. “[He was] giving me the courage to chase after these dreams that I’d had, to follow the path that Andrea Bocelli followed—that beautiful style of music where he mixes classical with pop.”
So Nathan decided to dream. After graduation, he planned to earn a master’s degree in vocal performance at the Manhattan School of Music. But at the last minute, he called the school and said he wasn’t coming, deciding that real-world experience auditioning and performing—not more time in a classroom—would help him achieve his dreams. And his decision paid off—10 months after graduating from BYU, he was hired as one of four vocalists for Yanni Voices, a project associated with Disney in which singers wrote lyrics for arrangements created by the famed Greek pianist Yanni Chryssomallis. Of Nathan’s audition, Yanni later told the Orlando Sentinel, “When Nathan Pacheco sang, I fell over: ‘That’s the best voice in the world,’ I thought.” The group recorded an album and toured the US, Mexico, and Canada. With his career really starting to take off, dating and marriage was the last thing on Nathan’s mind—until he met Katie McKinney.
Founded on Family and Covenants
As soon as Nathan walked into the restaurant, Katie wanted to know who he was. It was New Year’s Eve in Washington, DC, and Katie had been invited to join some friends for dinner. To her delight, the tall, striking man with disheveled hair joined their table, having also been invited by their mutual friend. Nathan was in town to visit his family and was only barely convinced by a friend to come out that evening—but he is forever glad that he did. That night was the beginning of what would become a long-distance relationship between Nathan and Katie; he was recording music with Yanni in Miami, and she was teaching at a hair school in Virginia.
“One of my first impressions of Katie was that she was a beautiful Southern belle and that everything about her spoke kindness,” Nathan says.
Katie was also impressed with Nathan after their first meeting. “I knew from the beginning that he was the man I was going to marry,” she says. “I could say that with confidence because I had done my fair share of dating, and I’d never been so crazy about somebody, and Nathan made me feel crazy. He had a quiet confidence that I loved so much about him. He wasn’t boastful. He just was calm. He never wanted to be the center of attention, and I fell in love with his gentle nature.”
While he was fully immersed in his career at the time, Nathan recalls when the rehearsals and recordings didn’t feel nearly as exciting to him as the woman he was growing to love. “I started to notice things changing within me,” he says. “I still remember being out in LA and rehearsing with Yanni and his crew. There we were, surrounded by Disney executives and lights and cameras preparing for a PBS special, and yet the best part of my day was going back and talking with Katie on the phone in my hotel room. I took note of that.”
After a year and a half of dating, Nathan and Katie were married in the Washington D.C. Temple. About three years later, they welcomed their son Emerson into the world—and Nathan felt his heart changing once again.
“I was touring over in the UK and Ireland with Katherine Jenkins when Emerson was only three weeks old. And there I was performing in the most beautiful venues, with the most incredible musicians, and yet, I felt such a sinking feeling in my heart. All I wanted was to be home with my wife and our newborn baby,” Nathan says. “And that’s why, over time, my shift has turned to covenants and family. That’s not to say that I don’t value my career in singing and music—that’s not what that means at all. It just means that covenants and family have become the foundation. I believe with that foundation there is no limit to the amount of success and happiness you can find in every other area of your life. For me, covenants and families are where it’s at.”
This foundation has helped Nathan navigate the highs and lows of the music world. After finishing the Yanni Voices project, he signed as a solo artist with Disney Pearl, an imprint of Disney Music Group for adult contemporary and pop music. Nathan released his first album and recorded a PBS special with the label. But since then, Disney has focused on kids’ music, so Nathan has made his own way as an independent artist—a journey which has been rewarding but sometimes difficult.
“Even though there were amazing things that happened to me almost immediately in my career, that doesn’t mean I’m set for life. It’s a journey,” he says. “Continually believing, dreaming, praying, and seeking for the Lord’s guidance can help you navigate through the different challenges of life.”
One of Katie and Nathan’s greatest challenges came after the birth of their third child. Katie was struck with postpartum depression so severely that for a time it seemed like everything in their lives screeched to a halt. But amid those dark days, a song gave Nathan a precious glimmer of hope—a song he performed live in the Conference Center for more than 20,000 people for the prophet’s birthday.
For the first three months after their daughter’s birth, Katie was doing just fine. But then everything changed.
“I hadn’t experienced any kind of serious mental health crisis ever in my life. I’d felt sad, I’d felt anxious before, but I have never experienced anything like I did after having my third baby,” Katie says. Nathan, however, had experienced depression and anxiety in the past, in part because of struggles with perfectionism, and he was ready to help her.
“Nathan was able to speak so much truth to me in my moment of darkness, when everything [in my mind] was trying to tell me something different: that I wasn’t loved, that I didn’t have enough love to give my children, that this was going to be it for me—I was going to feel this way forever. I honestly do not know what I would have done without Nathan in those times,” she says.
On days when she didn’t feel like she could get out of bed or stop crying, Katie remembers Nathan turning on a Zumba dance video that she had loved in the past and gently encouraging her to try it. Or he would help bundle her up for a winter walk after reading that cold air can be beneficial for the brain. And most importantly, he continually reminded her of God’s love.
“So many times people are like, ‘Stay close to the Lord; pray, and He can help you.’ But the thing is, when you’re going through emotional trials like that, you are literally so completely detached from any kind of truth. Everything that you hear in your mind is lies. Nathan worked so hard at trying to remind me of these truths over and over: God did not want me to suffer. This was not God’s plan for me. I was going to heal. I was going to get past this even though it didn’t feel like it,” Katie says. “God sent me Nathan for many reasons, and one of them was so that I could get through that time.”
And while Nathan was dedicated to supporting his wife, whom he calls “his entire world,” he felt emotionally drained—he put his career on hold for a year as he watched over her and their children. The family also decided to move from Nashville, Tennessee, to northern Alabama to be closer to Katie’s mother for support, and Nathan had to organize the move on his own.
“I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders every single day,” he says with emotion. And right in the thick of it all, Nathan was preparing to perform at President Russell M. Nelson’s 95th birthday celebration at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City in September 2019.
Out of love for President Nelson, Nathan wanted this performance “to be better than anything else” he’d done. This was quite the task, as he’d been asked to perform Giacomo Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” one of the most beloved and technically demanding opera songs ever—an aria that pushes the tenor voice to the limits, with the last note jumping to an accented high B. Nathan did everything he could to prepare: for several months he took virtual lessons with his vocal coach in Manhattan and readied himself mentally by repeatedly visualizing how he wanted the performance to go.
On the night of the concert, Nathan had the chance to say hello to President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, before the celebration began and recalls their interaction:
“They both said some very kind things to me and wished me luck on the show…. ‘If you just say a prayer for me, I’m sure I’ll be good,’” Nathan responded, only half joking. “And without missing a beat, they said, ‘Well, we have. And we actually fasted for you and all the performers as well.’”
With the Nelsons’ love and support behind him, a weary but excited Nathan walked out onstage to perform the famed “Nessun Dorma.”
“This is a song about someone who, in my opinion, declares in faith that he—against all odds—will overcome, and he will make it through. I was relating the message of that song to me,” Nathan says. “That was such a fragile and vulnerable and challenging time for me and my family that it caused me to put that much more into the performance. It caused me to bear my heart and soul.”
Nathan’s rich, clear voice filled the Conference Center main auditorium, and when he finished singing the sustained final word, Vincerò, meaning “I will win,” the crowd burst into applause and jumped to their feet. Even the orchestra members were moved to put down their instruments and join in the thunderous cheering. Filled with the rapture of the moment, Nathan beamed and even did a happy dance in place before exiting the stage.
Watch Nathan’s performance below.
While those listening were enraptured by the music, it may have been the singer himself who needed the performance the most.
“I felt so close to the Lord in that moment, very close to heaven, and so overwhelmed with gratitude that I started crying when I finished the song,” Nathan says. “The performance was one way I was turning from all the darkness that I was up against at that time. I was trying to turn to the Lord and express in faith that I knew through Him and through His grace, my family and I would be able to overcome the challenges we were up against.”
Abide with Me
Fortunately, with the help of family and medical professionals, Katie turned a corner and started to feel like herself again. Today, she and Nathan encourage families to be open about their mental health struggles and to get the help they need. They also feel strongly that it’s important to remind people that they are loved, that they are not forgotten, and that they will be OK—which is very much the message Nathan shares through his latest album, Abide with Me.
Featuring 12 tracks, Abide with Me includes a collaboration with YouTube sensation Simply Three on “Be Still, My Soul” and a classical arrangement of Coldplay’s “When I Need a Friend.” Listeners will also hear soothing sounds of the cello played by Nicole Pinnell, a musician who rebuilt her testimony with the help of Nathan’s music.
Latter-day Saints may recognize Nicole as the solo cellist in the Lamb of God concert film and the Book of Mormon Videos series. She and Nathan had toured together in the past, but their first extended recording project began in 2016 for Nathan’s album Higher. It was also during this time that Nicole was going through one of the worst years of her life and was searching for peace. As a result, she started turning back to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which she had formally left 20 years prior. Nicole started reading the Book of Mormon and meeting with missionaries, but returning to sacrament meeting for the first time may not have happened if the lyrics from “Come As You Are” weren’t on repeat in her head from recording the song with Nathan:
Come out of sadness, from wherever you’ve been
Come brokenhearted, let rescue begin
Come find your mercy, O sinner, come kneel,
Earth has no sorrow that heaven can’t heal.
“The song, in my mind, started to have a personality. I would argue with it because the song would be like, ‘Just go. You know where your church is; it’s two blocks away. Walk in the door,’” Nicole says. “I just didn’t want to go. I was really concerned with how my parents would feel, because they have stayed Latter-day Saints, and I knew they would be heartbroken if they thought I was investigating and then I didn’t return.”
But with that song reassuring her, Nicole found the courage to walk through the chapel doors. She eventually regained a testimony for herself through the Book of Mormon, and even though she hadn’t resolved all the reasons she’d initially left the Church, Nicole says she decided to “choose to have faith” and was rebaptized a few months before Higher was released in 2017.
“Nathan was a sincere and genuine friend to me. But really, it was his music that made the change,” Nicole says. “Nathan’s music brings people together to a place of light, hope, and healing that is much bigger and deeper than a human being can actually offer.”
Latter-day Saints are not alone in recognizing Nathan’s gift for bringing the Spirit when he sings. For example, composer, songwriter, and orchestrator Colin O’Malley, who met Nathan when they were both working with Disney and Yanni Voices, has likewise been impacted by Nathan’s music.
“When he sings, the light that he has comes through, and I think that is ultimately what moves people—it transcends his talent in a way,” Colin says.
For Nathan, singing the songs on Abide with Me has done exactly what singing on buses in Brazil did so long ago—it’s brought him closer to the Lord. “The messages of those songs would just sink deep into my heart, and many times [while recording] I’d have to stop and start over because I’d just start crying,” he says.
The music is now available for everyone, and Nathan hopes that, in addition to uplifting souls, it will be a small way for him to do his part in the gathering of Israel.
“When it comes to gathering Israel and helping prepare the earth for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, I believe that the biggest thing that we can all do, whatever our gifts may be, is not only try to cultivate and develop them, but most importantly, invite the Lord to be with us so that we can feel the Spirit as we use those gifts,” he says. “If we do this, not only will more lives be touched by the Spirit, but I also believe it will result in us feeling perfectly at home when the Lord comes again because we will have felt His Spirit throughout our lives.”
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as the cover story in the July/August issue of LDS Living magazine. Find past issues as well as learn how to subscribe for inspiration straight to your mailbox at ldsliving.com/magazine. Find Nathan's latest album below.