Tell us a little bit about what your experience at NAMM. What did it feel like to be leading from the stage?
The thing about NAMM is just how inspirational it is to go and see the amount of creativity that people are still putting into music and into creating instruments and products that musicians can use. It’s like a musical Disney World. It’s definitely refreshing, beyond a shadow of a doubt. At the end of a day of looking at a bunch of gear, it’s great to be able to create an environment where a roomful of musicians and creative folks can stop and reconnect with God and be reminded of the beautiful fact that He’s the source of all their creativity. And He made them to make music and to give Him glory while they do that. I think it’s a real affirmation of the innate calling of the musician. I think whenever we have opportunities to do that, and not just in a traditional church setting, but also in the midst of a trade show, we should do it!
You talked to the crowd about giving back to God in regards to the creativity you’ve been given. Will you elaborate a bit on that for us?
I think for a lot of people who are in full-time church work, for example, it can become easy to forget that a big part of what you do as a musician for the church is not as much about becoming famous as it is about sowing into people. It’s always about other people, which is hard because, as an artist, nobody is demanding that you be selfless. But the gospel demands that. The gospel is counter-cultural, and I think the way that works in the life of a worship leader is that nothing is really about you. As a leader, one of your responsibilities is to raise up other leaders. If you’re the worship pastor at a church, you’re supposed to be working yourself slowly out of a job. At the same time, I think it’s about learning to embrace the different seasons that happen in life and learning to give God glory in all of it.
It’s funny that you mentioned the moments where I spoke to the crowd, because I have always struggled with feeling like I talk too much. But then people will often say to me, “I loved it when it was just you at the piano and you were just talking.” I think that the two artists that I look up to the most, as far as what I do live, would be Keith Green and Rich Mullins. There is a certain element of talking, but everyone is different, and people have different gifts. Some people’s gift is literally just their voice. But sometimes your voice is more than just the songs you sing. I think that it takes a certain level of honesty and willingness to listen to other people around you to be open to make adjustments and find the right balance. It’s been a fun ride!
Let’s talk about your pseudo-piano. That’s really a Nord keyboard dropped into a distressed upright piano body so you can carry it easily on the road, right?
Right. So basically a buddy of mine gave me an old Wurlizter spinet piano. He just said, “Hey, I don’t need this. Do you want it?” And I said, “Sure!” I asked him if he minded if I gutted it, and he told me that was fine and to do whatever I wanted with it. So my drummer, Richard Scott, and I gutted it, which involved power tools to take off all the strings, the sound board and the frame. The frame alone is a giant piece of brass and iron that weighs several hundred pounds. Once we did that we brought the piano body to a company called 44 designs, which is a production design company that works with folks in a lot of different genres. I told them what I wanted to do, which was to take this shell and make it a little more compact. Because one of the big things that artists like myself struggle with is portability. If you’re going to take gear and production equipment with you, you have to keep a low footprint in the trailer because you’re also bringing merchandise and sometimes the P.A. equipment, so you don’t always have a lot of space for the musical gear. So that was the motivation . . . . it was just a lack of space. But what came out of that was something that was functionally great. That piano shell now folds up and goes into a road case. And the Nord rides in a Pelican keyboard case. (As a side note, one of my old bass players figured out that if you take a Pelican rifle case you can convert it into a great bass case. Of course, if you travel Internationally you are guaranteed to get stopped at customs! But that’s a whole different story)
How does the Nord fit in there? Can you get to all of your controls, or are parts of it covered up by the wood and you can only see the keys?
No, it’s all exposed. It just sits in the key bed of the piano body and all of the controls are accessible. If I had it to do again, I might try to design it a little differently, because the Nord is bright red, and if you’re in a theater, then people have a viewing angle where they can see “how the sausage gets made”. It kills some of the mystique of it. But for the most part people have responded really well to it.
What made you decide to use the Nord versus a Yamaha?
You know, it’s interesting; I’ve found that Yamaha keyboards mixed with a band actually sound great. But Nords, by themselves and with just a human voice, sound fantastic! Because they’ve got all of that weird upper mid-range thing that a piano naturally has. And I think that Yamaha instinctively dials a little bit of that back because in pop music a lot of that stuff gets EQ’d out anyway. So it’s kind of a trade off. We debated for a long time about which one to use.
You have a female rhythm guitar player, a female road manager, and a female manager. Talk to us about how that came to be.
None of that was really intentional. I met my manager, Kat Davis, and I immediately knew that she should be my manager. I’ve been working with her for ten years now. She had years of experience in the record industry on the label and radio promotions side. My road manager, Natalie, teaches at the Contemporary Music Center (CMC) in Nashville, which a lot of young people come through. My front of house guy, Keithon, went to school there to study live sound. He had recommended Natalie to me, and so had several other people. She came on one tour with us, and it was great!
As far as the female singer and guitar player – you know, a lot of the songs that I write, when I’m recording them I’m always wanting a female voice to sing the backing vocals and harmonies. So it kind of started just from the necessity of it. But I think it’s also important, and important for the church to reflect, that men and women are equal but we are different and have different gifts and strengths that we bring, and the same is true in ministry. I realize that there are a lot of young people that listen to my music and come to see my shows, and it’s good for the young women to look up and see a woman up there using her gifts to glorify God.
Part of what made Jesus so uncomfortable to the religious establishment is the way that He empowered women, and the way that He talked about them and showed preferential treatment to them. I think that even now it is good for leaders in the church to be able to demonstrate that complementary style of leadership.
Callie is an amazing musician in her own right. She’s a fantastic singer and guitar player. She is one of the members of the group, The Vespers, which is an amazing group and consists of two brothers and two sisters. I played at a festival called Soul Fest, and The Vespers had worked with the same producer that I had worked with, Paul Moak, and they heard me sing a song at Soul Fest that they thought was beautiful. I told them that I was actually just about to reach out to them to see if the sisters would sing on my record, and they said that they would love to. So they sang on the song “Rest”, which is on my record Saints and Sinners, and when the opportunity presented itself for me to have a full-time female band member who could play and sing, Callie was at the top of the list. And it just so happened that her sister had just had a baby, so it worked out in the cycle of where they were at as a band at the time. We tried it out for a while, and she has really enjoyed it and it’s really worked out.
One of the things that I’ve always tried to do is to invest in the people that I’m on the road with. I think I learned this while touring with Toby Mac. He is a genius because he surrounds himself with incredibly talented people. He himself is incredibly talented, but when you surround yourself with people who are just as talented, if not more so, and in ways in which you are deficient, it raises the bar and they help to call you out. I think that some of the people who are the road with me now have way better stage presence than I do. I’m kind of like a mannequin that got struck by lightning that somehow started animating. Sometimes I feel like when I’m up there playing guitar I’m not moving at all. And I look at that and think that I’m deficient in the way that I communicate with my body language, so it’s good to have other musicians who have this innate ability to do that. It really is a gift. Like watching the Superbowl halftime show and looking at Bruno Mars, Beyoncé, and Chris Martin, and looking at the way that they have this innate ability (or maybe it’s not innate but they’ve just worked really hard at it) to communicate a song, not just with their voice, but with their bodies, and it’s really amazing!
When you’ve spoken at conferences, what do you like to teach about while you’ve got worship team people around you?
I think that the two things that I’m passionate about are songwriting, obviously, and the church calendar. I’d really love to see more and more churches embracing and consistently promoting the concept of the Christian church calendar again. I think that the promotion of Christian unity is at the heart of everything that I’ve done in ministry. It really has been my life mission: promoting unity and reconciliation through people and churches working together. I think that it’s a good time now, around the five hundred year anniversary of the reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin didn’t have a problem with the notion of a Lectionary and the idea of a church calendar year; the idea that God actually orders our year with the scriptures in a specific movement that also reflects the life of Christ and the life of Christ in the individual worshiper. We human beings are habitual creatures and we develop habits and patterns and ways of doing things. And there’s even the notion that God made us that way and wants to use that as a process of our sanctification as we live from Easter to Christmas and all the Sundays in between. When you boil it down, we’re called to live from Sunday to Sunday. The world was made in seven days, and in some ways it’s that seven day cycle that circulates. Our lives are marked by weeks. We still think in terms of a week ending and a new week beginning. And what marks that is literally the day of the Resurrection.
I’m really wanting to help get younger worship leaders excited about that. I’m wanting to dive into figuring out how to develop a resource that points people towards that.
When I run into worship leaders and songwriters on the road, people are always asking me where I get my inspiration. They always say there’s something different about my lyrics and about they way that I look at things. And it’s really just that idea of the week to week progression through the church calendar. So I’m really excited about that.
I was just at a WorshipTogether conference in Franklin, TN where Chris Tomlin gave a great talk. One of the things he talked about that concerns him about the culture of the Church today is that so much music is being written that we are losing the common songs that we have as a Church. Years ago there used to be these common songs that the whole Church was singing, and in some ways it created a pathway and an avenue for unity. And I think that one of the ways that is happening now is that God is getting different worship leaders together from different churches to write songs together. If you look at the CCLI top 25 list from 20 years ago, there were only 5 songs that were written by more than one writer. Today, 24 out of the 25 were written by more than 1 person! So songs are being written more and more in a communal context, which I think is a really good thing. And I think it’s even a better thing if the writers are not all part of the same church because I think that music is one of the ways in which churches are going to stay connected.
Tell us about the song that you wrote with David Crowder, “Come As You Are.”
It all started with my wife. I was on the road and on my way home, and David and I had a co-writing session set up. I told him that my wife had heard an old hymn at church that she thought sounded like a Crowder song, (and I thought in my head, “Why doesn’t it sound like a Matt Maher song?”). It was called “Come, Ye Disconsolate”, and I thought to myself, “David is gonna love this,” because he loves big ideas and big words that are also profoundly simple at the same time. There was a line in it that was the line that my wife thought sounded like Crowder, which was “Earth has no sorrow that Heaven can’t cure.” I knew that what David was shooting for with Neon Steeple was this whole idea of the Blue Ridge Mountains and small mining town Christianity from the front porch, with a bluegrass twist to it. So he and I were sitting on two Cracker Barrel rocking chairs on the front porch of my house and we started writing the song based on this hymn. The hymn writer was Thomas Moore, who was a Catholic, and he was kind of a strange man. He was born in Ireland in 1779 and was mostly a poet and a writer, and then in 1804 he went to Bermuda as a government official, which is just so random. And he hated the work so much that he turned his job over to a deputy, went to America, and then eventually back to England. By the time he got back to England he learned that the deputy that he had left in charge had run away with the proceeds of his ship and cargo, and now Thomas Moore was legally responsible for £30,000 (British pounds sterling). He died at the age of 73 and just kind of lived an odd life.
So David and I talked about the whole notion of “invitation” and how it’s at the basic heart of the Good News. The lines, “Come out of sadness, from wherever you’ve been,” and “Come find your mercy,” became the basis for the song. And we basically wrote these verse couplets using the original lyrics as the guide. David showed the lyrics to Ben Glover, who is a really good staff writer and producer with Capitol Records, and Ben sat down and just started singing this chorus. And as soon as I heard it I said, “Oh my goodness, that’s amazing!” You never really know. Songs don’t always come out, especially in a collaborative model and long-distance songwriting. You don’t always know what you’re going to get. So for it to all come together like that, I think we all knew that the song was special.
When I started singing it live, one night I just started into the chorus. And this was maybe a year after the song had been released, and I hadn’t really sung it yet live. And then I sang it one night and I was immediately struck with this overwhelming sense of, “You’re an idiot! Why haven’t you been singing this song?” Ever since then, I think I’ve sung the song every night.
What are some of the things that go into making an album, specifically Saints and Sinners?
We really tried and wanted to have this album explore the notion of the tension between the Saint and the Sinner, and how does that interact with music that’s digitally made versus music that’s made in an analog environment. Paul Moak is, of his own volition in Nashville, trying to make and create music the way that it’s always been made and created, and not in such a sterile environment.
I always struggle with the whole process of making an album. If I made a record and there were no hiccups and there were no problems and I didn’t doubt myself or any of the songs, I almost wouldn’t trust the whole process. And this record was no exception. When we finally turned in this record, I probably could have spent another month in the studio working on it. But it’s kind of cool that I didn’t get to and that I was forced to stop.
Originally published in Worship Musician Magazine, March/April 2016. Used by permission.