CHURCH MUSIC - SONG STORIES

The new album drops on Friday, so I thought I'd share some background on either the writing or recording of the songs.

I'll also be previewing the entire album on the worship podcast next week if you'd like a sneak peek! Be warned though, my song stories on the podcast will probably be pulled directly from this post!

The album is five all new songs and three bonus tracks (at the end) that were previously released this year as singles. I was pleased to see folks download them this past year but definitely wanted to get them on an actual collection of songs.

PRAISE GOD

Written by Blake Russell, Sky Howard, Todd Wright

WRITING: This was a co-write with my friend, Blake Russell. Blake showed up with the chorus already written. He wanted to write an adaptation of the Doxology, which his church had been singing each week. On our first write, Blake spent most of the time teaching me how to play it! (I'm not a good guitar player.) But eventually, we started writing. We got the first verse down and then called it a day. For the next couple of weeks, we would text each other lyrics for verse two until we could meet again. When we did meet up, we got a second verse done rather quickly but couldn't figure out a bridge. Initially, we thought the bridge would be a big instrumental turn, but Blake had an idea. He asked his friend, Sky Howard, to help with the bridge. Sky built a beautiful bridge melody and then the three of us wrote the lyrics together.

TRACKING: Coming into the record, I didn't know what to expect from this song. For some reason, I was worried about it; I'm not sure why. But as we began tracking it, every iteration just got better and better. When I finally went back to do final vocals, the song really took me by surprise. The performance had certainly gotten really good, but it was something more than that. When I heard it as a finished song, I knew this was the most congregationally friendly song on the record. The studio process made it a "real song" for me. I can't wait to play it live.

WHAT I LIKE: Electric guitar and drum loop on the intro; drum groove on verse 2; melody and dynamic build on the bridge; extended jam at the end.

ONE AND ONLY HOPE

Written by Todd Wright

WRITING: At my church, I try to plan worship along 5 principles each week - GOD IS IN CONTROL / CONFESSING OUR INABILITY TO MEASURE UP / CELEBRATING THE GOSPEL THAT MAKES US RIGHT WITH GOD / THANKS AND PRAISE FOR THE GOSPEL / RECOGNITION OF THE MISSION OF FOLLOWING JESUS. I had this idea to write a song for each one of these five elements. This song was my attempt to write a GOD IS IN CONTROL song. I intentionally wanted to stay extremely focused on that theme. In fact, I wanted to stay away from the confession and Gospel aspects in order to hone in on the theme. The problem is that I got so into the song, I couldn't help but sing about the Gospel! I fought it for awhile, but then thought, "I think this song needs to be what it is" and finished it.

TRACKING: I knew it would be the most upbeat song on the record. The producer and I had a clear vision for what the arrangement would be, but there were still some very fun surprises. While our drummer, Brad, was listening through the songs and the producer said, "I'm hearing some roto-toms on this," and then looked back at me as if to say we can do that, right? Brad had a set of roto-toms and he had them setup in 20 seconds. For a long time, V1 and Chorus 1 were pretty sparse because we knew we would be doing programming for those parts. The other thing we knew we needed was a gang vocal in the bridge. Since I had done it previously this year on another tune, we decided to track the "choir" back in Tyler with folks from my church. One Thursday night after a band rehearsal, I gathered up the band and had them sing through the bridge for about thirty minutes. We stacked them, put a couple other voices on it and then added some reverb to thicken it up and BOOM - instant choir!

WHAT I LIKE: Roto-toms, choir in the bridge, dotted 8th delay from the guitarist. Obviously, having my friends sing on the bridge is a highlight of the album. I think what's most fun about that is being able to hear some of their individual voices.

CHRIST HAS COME

Written by John Paul and Joseph Allen, Todd Wright

WRITING: This song, by far, took the longest time to write. A couple of years ago, I met two brothers who's parents were missionaries and had just moved back to the states. They were young guys who loved Jesus and loved making music. We met at a songwriting conference and made plans to write not long after. When we met, the guys had a hymn idea. Of course, I jumped at the chance to co-write a hymn. They had a verse melody and a solid idea on what the overall musical treatment of the song would be, but that was about it. We worked a couple of hours on the song and didn't get very far. For weeks after that, we emailed ideas back and forth. We met again for another marathon write and got a little farther. Then, more emails. After a couple of in person writes and months of emails back and forth, we settled on the song. And then I forgot about the song. I liked it, but I just got busy with other things and didn't think of it again until the Allens sent me a video of them leading the song at a worship service. I was amazed at the response of the congregation. The song sang well, the lyrics built the Gospel narrative in a really easy way and the guys sounded great leading it. I opened up the notes from the song and immediately started considering it for the record.

TRACKING: This was the first song I heard with the studio players on it. Michael, the producer, had finally mixed acoustics, bass and drums and sent me a very early mix on this tune. He put a subtle pad underneath, but that was really it. But even with my scratch vocals and no other instrumentation, this song leapt off the computer and into my head. I couldn't believe how solid it sounded even in its earliest stages. Michael did a fantastic job of layering this song without overdoing it. From the electric guitar mix to the backing vocals and the key change, the whole tune felt timeless. Classic case of a producer knowing what NOT to do with a song.

WHAT I LIKE: Song moving from a march to straight groove on last choruses; Wendy's 2nd backing vocal that echoes each line of the chorus; Spence's guitar riff underneath last choruses.

DRINKING DEEPLY

Written by Ross King, Todd Wright

WRITING: I like writing songs, and I write a lot of them. Most of them don't ever end up being anything, but occasionally, one will stand apart from the rest...for a variety of reasons. This song is one of those. I had been feeling very worn out from trying to be clever. I had been in a period of writing big, long wordy hymns and I was getting exhausted. I decided that I needed to write some songs just for me - just honest, emotive, personal worship songs. I wanted to write songs without worrying about honing the words to perfection or crafting the most perfect arrangement. I really wanted the attitude of the song to be the strongest aspect. I had a verse melody and some lyrics, but I just couldn't get past all my songwriting "rules" to find that place of pure writing. So I called in my buddy, Ross King. He immediately understood what I was going for and the song immediately became something special. Ross operated as a constant guide - reminding me to write and sing from a place of thankfulness and to not overthink it.

TRACKING: My favorite tracking story is the bridge. Ross and I knew we wanted a bridge, but we ran out of time before I turned in the scratch tracks to the producer. I put an instrumental break in the demo with the plan of writing a bridge once we were further down the road. When we started laying electric guitar tracks, we told the guy that there was going to be a big empty spot where a bridge would eventually be. When we got the tracks back from him, he sent an apology: "I know there's a bridge there, but I was having so much fun, I recorded a guitar solo. Y'all can delete it." Which would have been easy enough to do. Hit DEL and the solo goes away. The problem is that the solo ended up being really amazing. We stayed true to our plan and I sang the new bridge (which I love) but it sure was hard to send that solo into the trash.

WHAT I LIKE: The whole song feels like such a prayer to me. I'm still moved every time I hear it and sing along.

TOOK MY CHAINS

Written by Ross King, Todd Wright

WRITING: Oh boy...here we go. This song was a goof. This happened in a write where Ross and I just couldn't get anywhere. I was talking about how much I loved the blues and Ross was talking about how common it is now for old-sounding Gospel music to be featured in TV shows. One of us eventually said, "well, we could write THAT." Ross had a great plan. He told me to sing my guts out - to write it as soulfully as I could and he would make sure that the lyrics stayed true to the vibe we were going for. "It has to sound old," he said. "It has to be simple." We wrote it in probably 15 minutes. It's not a complicated song, but it was FUN.

TRACKING: I was on the fence about this one. It's obviously so different from the other tunes, but my producer texted me late one night and said, "If you don't put Took My Chains on this record, I'm quitting." From the very beginning, he had a firm vision of what the song would sound like. And because I secretly want to be a blues singer, every thing we did in the studio got me more and more excited. At the last minute, we decided to have Ross sing the second verse and do some ad libs. We sent him the tracks and he recorded his vocal at home in Nashville.

WHAT I LIKE: I think Spence Peppard's tracks make up some of the best slide guitar I've heard in a long, long time. I love slide, but rarely get to use it, so I still geek out over it when I listen to the  song.

THREE WAYS TO PRAY

Praying is an odd thing for worship leaders. Sometimes you feel the urgency to do it and other times it can feel like a chore, especially when you have to do it in order to make some sort of transition in the service. It probably feels wrong to say it, but for a lot of worship leaders, praying is hard!

For this post, we're talking specifically about extemporaneous or off-the-cuff prayers. Corporate prayers as readings are a valid expression in our worship, but we're focusing a bit more specifically on those moments where you pray all on your own!

If you've ever struggled with "how" to pray or even wondered if there are some other ways or styles of prayer while you're leading, here are a few tips!

PERSONAL PRAYER

This is the most common way most of us pray - these are the moments where we personally feel prompted to pray. This mode of prayer gets a lot of flack because it can sometimes produce wandering, pointless prayers, but I want to speak in defense of this way of praying. You may feel weird in these personal moments, but very often God will bless your sincerity and authenticity in that moment to encourage others. I encourage you to be open and honest before the Lord in these public prayer times. Pray as yourself - not as a person on stage or as a staff member. Don't adopt a prayer voice or use phrases you normally don't speak. Be you.

PROPHETIC PRAYER

There are also moments of prayer where you're NOT praying for yourself. These are prophetic prayers, meaning that you're praying publicly about something your congregation is learning or going through. You certainly should aim for sincerity here, as well, but this is not a prayer about just the condition of your heart. This is a prayer that is focusing on what God is doing (or about to do.) It's helpful to recognize this prayer for what it is and to ask God to give you this gift of prayer. It can be a huge encouragement and teaching tool for your congregation.

PILOT PRAYER

I'll confess that I don't do this one nearly enough. A pilot prayer is better known as "guided prayer." This is where you give the congregation instructions (and time) to pray for specific things. This may feel like an easy job, but it's a huge burden to clearly communicate and compel your people to pray. Pilot prayers need forethought, practice and possibly even some written notes to keep you on track. It might be a bit awkward for your congregation at first, but I think they'll appreciate you truly leading them in a prayer time.

What about you? What are some ways you pray from the platform?
Does praying publicly come easy for you?

 

YEAR END REVIEW

Talk to any experienced worship leader and you'll eventually discover that they're quite good at analysis - they think about worship every single day. They're constantly running scenarios in their head about song choices and stage setup and sound problems in the sanctuary, etc. Good worship leaders are good thinkers, and the best of them make a point to spend some time in a year-end-review before January gets here.

If this isn't a regular practice for you, let me encourage you to give it a shot. Below, you'll find some tips on how to "think" about this year and an example of some of my own year-end-review thoughts.

GOALS

For many of us, goals are a part of the budgeting process. Last year, you may have come up with some things you wanted to accomplish in 2016. If you're like me, however, sometimes you look up in December and think, "Oh, yeah, I had some goals for this year, I think. Now, where did I put that list?" But once I find my list, it's good for me to look at how we did for the year. [Many times, I find that the goals have often morphed and adapted to church life over the past 12 months, which is always worth thinking through.]

EXAMPLE: For the past few years, I've had a goal of training up worship leaders - primarily the people in our congregation with some worship leading experience but who need more training and platform time. Earlier in the year, I was talking to my pastor about this goal because I couldn't get it done. But he encouraged me to think a little more broadly - instead of thinking about JUST platform singing/playing, why not try to mobilize our people in other ways, liking leading band devotionals, working with our tech team, organizing outside church worship opportunities, etc. It was a good tweak to my rather nebulous goal and I've already been trying to find LOTS of ways my folks can get more total worship leading experience. That's a goal that didn't get met AND adapted over the year.

 

ONE THING / EITHER WAY

I don't think year-end reviews have to necessarily focus on every single aspect of your ministry. In fact, it's probably impossible to go through all the stuff you got roped into this past year, right? You don't even remember some of the stuff you've done! That's why it's good to think on ONE THING - in other words, what's one thing that was a huge hit this year? What's something that was an absolute, undeniable WIN in your ministry. Once you come up with that, then think through the other side; what's ONE THING that was an absolute failure this year?

EXAMPLE: My good "one thing" would have to be new songs. I added three new original tunes this year and all of them were strongly received. That's a little rare for my church, so I'm counting that as a win. My "one thing" that failed would probably be the Verses worship nights. I've long believed that those events need to be community focused and we just could not folks in the community to show up this year.

 

BRIDGE REPAIR

 

This is, by far, the toughest one to work through. This part of reviewing your year means thinking through any bridges you've burned this year and how you can mend them. But I'm not talking about church. I mean repairing bridges AT HOME. See, worship leading is an odd profession. To the outside world, it probably seems predictable and steady but to your spouse and children, they know the truth. The job is weird and the hours are completely unpredictable. This means that there are times in the past year where you've had to bail on the family last minute. Or you've had to stay way later at work than you expected. Whatever the case, it's possible that the job may have impacted your home life in a negative way. Reviewing your year should focus on what you can do in the next 12 months to make your home life better and more stable.

EXAMPLE: This past year, I was really bad about scheduling. I would regularly setup lunches or co-writes or planning meetings and completely neglect to A) consult our family calendar to make sure I had the margin to do these things and B) make sure those events on my calendar showed up on everybody else's. This led to confusion and frustration with my wife, especially. Now, that's not a burned bridge, per se, but it is a place where I want to improve. In fact, I've doubled my efforts in December to make sure the pace of our lives stays in sync.

 

Do you do a review of your year?
Is it something you do personally or does your church create a way to do this as a staff?
Give it a try! It's a great practice and it will definitely make you stronger and better in the new year!

OLD HYMNS / NEW MELODIES

On this week's podcast, I'm talking about the odd phenomenon of rewriting melodies for familiar hymns. Yes, it gets a little ranty, but if you're offended by that, you should hear what we edited out!

All jokes aside, I think the hymn conversation is a good one for us. We've been in a "hymn resurgence" for some time as worship leaders, but a lot of us are still unsure of how to adequately and effectively implement them into our sets.

Because I try to keep the podcast short, I can't always get to all the nuances of conversations like this. But this is where the blog comes in handy! If you struggle with find a way to fit hymns into modern worship sets, here are some tips.

KILL THE 7

I love 7th chords, but not everyone does, and that's often the catalyst for changing up hymn melodies. But it shouldn't be. Yes, 7th chords will give your song an antiquated or folky/country aspect, but you can bring the song into a slightly more modern place by just playing the normal chord and not the 7. You don't have to blow up hymns and rebuild them. Simply going to more neutral chord positions will immediately dial down some of the old-timey flavor.

DON'T INTRO EVERYTHING

Worship leaders who are uncomfortable using hymns sometimes feel they have to justify the song before playing it. This usually is something akin to "hey, we're going to do an old song today, but it still really fits with what we're talking about today." I actually don't mind song intros (for new stuff, especially) but most of the time, you can go right into the hymn and your folks won't miss a beat. Even if they're not familiar with hymns, there's very little chance your congregation will be bewildered or thrown off.

A LIL' NOSTALGIA ISN'T NECESSARILY A BAD THING

This actually comes up on next week's podcast (sneak peek!) but it's a good tip for guys and gals who struggle with hymns. The fact is that HYMN WORK. Many of us have learned that throwing an old hymn in the set automatically connects with people. It's almost a given that a hymn will get people singing. There's a tendency, though, to pull back from that because it feels like manipulation. And it is - just grabbing a hymn so people will like what you're doing is a form of manipulating the crowd. But there's the beautiful thing...eventually those hymns will get you. Some of you know this; you used to do hymns solely to appease the old people and now you realized you've come to love these songs. You find comfort in them now. They're valuable to you personally all this time later. I don't want you to manipulate your people, but I do want you to try hymns even if your motivation may not be 100% on the up-and-up.

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

The internet is a big help when it comes to this. We know that "hymn stories" can help our people to appreciate the timelessness of these songs. But it also can be a big help to you as a worship leader. Remember that these songs were written by people who A) lived in difficult times and knew their need for God in a tangible way and B) cared deeply about the local church. These old men and women were serving the body of Christ plain and simple. Nobody was making these hymn writers rich or famous. They weren't perfect people, but many of them cared just about church as much as (if not more than) you do.

What about you out there?
Do you do a lot of hymns?
How do you feel about the rewriting of familiar hymns? Good idea? Bad idea?

GRATEFUL, PART 1

We're in the month that's centered on being thankful, so I figured it might do me good to dedicate a few posts to recognizing God's blessing in my life as a worship leader. I encourage to jump in the comments and share something you're thankful for!

WRITING SONGS

The majority of the songs I write either aren't very good OR they're not a great fit for my church. That's why I write a lot of them - because it takes awhile to find one that works with what we do on Sundays. But even though just a few make the cut each year, writing songs - specifically worship songs - is one of my greatest joys.

Maybe it's because they're an encouragement to my own heart or maybe it's because I get a rush from searching for that perfect song for corporate worship. I'm not sure why, I just know that I feel abundantly blessed to write songs for church.

In fact, if you want to see me down and discouraged, come hang out when I don't have any songs in the works. IT'S BRUTAL! I don't deserve all the good God has done and songwriting is just one more thing that reminds of His kindness.

SO, WHAT ARE YOU THANKFUL FOR?