I didn’t know that. I wonder who considers me that? Was there an award ceremony I missed out on? Shame if there was. I do love giving speeches. Especially about myself! Oh well!
I certainly don’t think of myself as a great songwriter. I tend to look at others that way but not me. Perhaps its because my songs never really connected with sales in excess of a few hundred thousand. Which raises a good question. Can you be a called a great songwriter and have not had large-scale commercial success? Perhaps there is an amazing world-class songwriter somewhere in the world who will never release a record but has amazing amazing songs that no one will ever hear. Perhaps you can only be considered great if many people buy your songs or record them?
I think a great song is pretty much today what it’s always been. Part melody, part rhythm and with something extremely hooky and intoxicating in it that makes people have to own it and hit rewind. Melody certainly is the most important thing.
In indie music, it’s sometimes the goofier the song the better (see Okkervil River and Andrew Bird as examples). Yet, there are a lot of literary references and unusual words. Is there a challenge in Christian music making sure the lyrics are mainstream enough? Should there be more songs about Tamar and Enoch?
The problem with the term “Christian music” I guess is that it is certainly very limiting as a writer. I think there a millions of Christians in churches across America who would purchase and love a wider pallet of songs but somehow they’ve been told that these are not Christian songs. I don’t criticize it; it’s just a shame that the paradigm is so limited. I’ve been angered and provoked by people telling me that Jars of Clay are not a christian band because they don’t often give an obvious gospel message and alter calls. I know these guys well and they are 100 percent followers of Jesus who are making great arts against a back drop of their faith in a totally Godly and passionate manor. You can’t compare Jars of Clay and Casting Crowns. One band writes more cryptically and the other more obviously. Who are we to judge? I just think writers have to be true to themselves.
I naturally write a very eclectic collection of songs. I will have a fully obvious vertical worship song next to a song graphically describing my raging ego. (see GLORIA and NOTHING WITHOUT YOU from Let it Go) Then there will be a more cryptic song about God’s love. This is a nightmare for a record label to market sometimes but it works for me live when I get to put them in context with stories. I think the best songs I have written have been when I was not thinking about a specific audience, record label, genre or anything: just writing from my heart and seeing how it comes out. I hope to get back to that. As a matter of fact the next collection of songs I release will be just that: a very eclectic and honest work and not worrying if they seem to lack complete cohesion. No one is like that as a person so why should a record be that way.
I’ve tried the whole “make the lyric more christian-make it more mainstream” and it’s silly. You should be true to what comes out. It’s hard to not try and write a song to make money in a certain genre but it should be avoided.
One thing I really like about your songs is they seem to come from a deeper place spiritually. Do you sometimes write as part of your own devotional time, or what is your process like?
I appreciate that. For the most part I just try and write honestly about my own life. I get a feeling or emotion or unction or whatever you call it, and I try to capture it as quickly as possible. Then I refine it. The amount of time until it is finished varies on the song and the necessity for its completion. My songs tend to lead me to a devotion time as opposed to coming out of one.
Is there a temptation for some writers to focus on the music and words that are catchy, but without adding deeper meaning?
Yes. But even C.S Lewis said that true art is where artistic endeavor and commercialism meet. I’m always trying to make it meaningful and catchy. The trick I think is to learn which songs are going to be more commercial than others and not force it. Having said that I always try to make all of them as catchy as possible. Perhaps memorable is a better word than catchy.
How much do you need to pay attention to life as a songwriter and reflect those experiences, versus just reflecting what you find in the Bible?
Interesting question. For me it’s both, and not in any order. My whole life is founded on my relationship with God. Therefore every relationship or experience has His fragrance whether it is sweet or sour. His written Word lines up with every moment in a wonderfully romantic and mysterious way.
I do think its pretty comical when I get a new Christian CD and someone has copied King David’s exact words, written a melody and then put their name on it. That one always cracks me up. But surely I digress.
What do you think is the best song you have written and how did it come about?
Once again, is it the best in my opinion, or the song that is requested, played or purchased the most? I have quite a few songs that I wrote that I think a pretty good and some of them seem to have been completely overlooked. (SWEET RIVER, MY BROTHER JACK, YOUR MAN, BIG BLUE PLANET) It’s wonderful for the raging artistic ego.
Perhaps a good one to describe is “The One Thing.” I like it and it seems a lot of people do too. That song began as me writing down in poetic form all the things I began to question in my life as a result of internal disconnection and heartache. I co-wrote it with Jason Ingram who really helped it to be more memorable and hooky. He came up with the bridge and massaged the chorus lyric until it was universal sounding. I’ve learnt to love co-writing. I co-write most songs now. I consider performing my expertise and writing secondary. Therefore I need writing experts to help me get the ideas to a great level. I’ve written quite a few songs lately with Tyler Burkum. He’s an exceptional writer and musician. I’ve also written with a great writer and musician called Michael Neale.
I know you are working on songs for a new solo CD, what are some themes you are exploring?
I am writing about what’s happening in my life. I am the tree in Jeremiah 17:5-8 both as dry and lonely and planted by the river. Because these songs have been written over the last 5 years, some are one tree and some are the other. It’s a breathtaking piece of Scripture that have become my life-verses.
You had a band, then were in the Newsboys, and now are a solo artist. Is there a connection there in terms of wanting to get back to songwriting?
Not really. But I am very excited about this new record. I think it will be my best yet. I can’t wait. This interview has made more excited about it actually so thanks mate.