Interview on Hope Chapel CD 2009-1010 "Here is Mercy"
With the impending release of the Hope College Worship 09-10 recording, I thought it might be good to get some publicity going—you know fire up the marketing machine and make sure the word gets out. We are going to be posting the recording on iTunes for the very first time, after all. I’ve managed to arrange an interview to be published in hopes that I might get some hype brewing.
Sadly, the interview will only be published here on this blog, and further, the only interviewer I could find on short notice is me.
Nevertheless, I’ve been greatly anticipating this interview--have been thinking about it for days. The butterflies are all a flutter. I’m experiencing the expected shortness of breath. What if I say something stupid and don’t articulate myself well? And then there is the double pressure of fearing that I might embarrass myself as the interviewer and ask a stupid question as well.
Either way, hopefully this little exchange contributes to some further thoughts on what music feeds our souls.
JB: No, no, thanks goes to you for helping us get the word out to Hope College students about this recording.
JCB: You mention Hope College students. Is this a recording just for them, or can people off campus get copies?
JB: We print 1500 copies. The CDs will be available at the Keppel house on March 15 and also at the Hope bookstore. We are also trying out iTuens for the first time, but in terms of the main reason we go to such great lengths to make a record every year, yes I’d say it is the students who are the main focus of our energies…well, other than God, of course, since it is a worship record. We don’t have any expectation that these recordings are going to make us famous or anything.
JCB: Honestly? You don’t have any hope that these songs will be heard by people off campus?
JB: No, well, uh…there needs to be a clear understanding of what music is for and why it is that we should make recordings in the first place. Fundamentally I believe music is a gift from God that helps us communicate back to him and also with other people in ways that prose discourse cannot facilitate. We make music because we are human. God made us to make music. The trouble is that music has become a big business in Western culture and we assume that if you make a CD then you must have some ambition to become something special, someone famous...or at least someone that is noticed at some sort of significant level of recognition. So, I think it is kinda weird for Christians to make records these days. It can so quickly become an avenue for self-promotion when what we are called to is God promotion or Jesus promotion.
JCB: In listening through the CD, I realized that you actually sing very little on this year’s record. Was that a conscious decision?
JB: Yeah, I’m glad you noticed that. I guess it may be no big deal to other people, but actually, no, it wasn’t a conscious decision to sing less on this record. This is my fourth year leading at Hope College. All the students who lead with me are students I’ve recruited. It’s been four years of learning mostly how to identify and release their gifts. I’m surprisingly a shy person. I really don’t have an internal urge to be in front of people. I love leading worship and facilitating opportunities for people to pursue God. It is a gift to be in the middle of that kind of communal sharing with each other and with God, but what really excites me is identifying gifted persons and helping them learn how to use those gifts. So, me not singing much on this CD was just what happened. Most of these students are better at something than me, and it just so happened that they did a better job at leading each particular song than I would have. Oh, and I also think that after doing three other CDs, maybe I’ve grown bored with hearing myself so much.
JCB: The title track of the CD is “Here is Mercy,” is a song you wrote. How do you decide when to put your own songs on the CD and how did you decide to title the whole CD after your own song?
JB: Great question Josh. Again, I don’t want to belabor this point, but I really try to shun self-promotion. The main reason why my song became the title of the CD is because we have to come up with a title really quickly in order to get our CD design/layout artist, Chris Cox, something to work with. Honestly, “Here is Mercy” just seemed like an easy fit and it felt and sounded better than the others I was considering. Further, if I title the disc after another song by another artist that we are already licensing, then legally we have to pay them even more to use their title. At a gut level though, honestly, “Here is Mercy,” the song and its arrangement is something special to me. So, maybe at some gut level I felt safe titling the recording by that song because at a gut level I have peace with that song.
JCB: So you don’t have peace with other songs on the recording?
JB: I was afraid this might come up. Yeah, honestly, not all the songs on the CD are my favorite songs in the world. Well, know that I think of it, I do have peace about pretty much the whole of this particular CD.
JCB: But not some of the songs that have made CDs in the past?
JB: Honestly, yes, there are songs on previous records that weren’t my favorites.
JCB: So then why are they on the recording?
JB: I don’t pick any of the songs we sing in chapel because they are my personal favorites. I try to find music that will serve the students.
JCB: What does that mean? How do you know what will serve the students?
JB: It isn’t that I don't think about the faculty and staff who participate, but the students are my main focus. I’m still trying to figure out how to qualify or explain the parameters I use in song selection. Sometimes decisions on songs are made with very concrete, definitive reasons and sometimes we pick songs because it just feels right—we feel led to the song. Again, it is not the kind of leading that has to do with my musical preference. I’m sure my musical taste is part of a filter, but ultimately the questions I’m always asking are: who are these people? Who are these students? What are they learning? How is God speaking to them now? How does God’s specific purposes for our community relate and compare God’s work in the church throughout all time and to the greater truth of Christianity? I have to balance an immediate perspective with an historical perspective. If I only pick the hottest, juiciest rock worship songs of today then we miss out on the powerful and formative language of hymns. If we only do hymns, we miss out on the chance to contextualize our worship to a sound that makes sense to our musical sensibilities today. Anybody who has trouble with this needs to study church history and see how all of our greatest hymn writers were musically and theologically innovative while still being musically relevant to their day and age—not a kind of hackneyed competition with popular culture. I don’t want to compete with pop culture. That is impossible. Yet, I do want to respond to it, to subvert it and redeem it.
JCB: You just said something about picking song based on your feelings? Is that safe for a pastor…to lead based on feelings?
JB: Of course not. Worship isn’t about creating feelings. I’m trying to talk about that personal intuition that helps me hear God’s voice. I can trust this openness to God’s leading partially because I am someone who has been formed by the Scriptures. The Bible constrains the way I understand that God works and leads me. Further, I regularly present my decisions to the campus ministry staff and to my student leaders to see if what I’m considering makes sense to them. They know me well enough to help me distinguish between God’s voice and my own. I think we are getting off topic here though. How bout some more questions about the CD?
JCB: “All Hail Christ” is another song you wrote. I’ve heard from some people that it is a hard song to sing. What are your thoughts on that?
JB: All the worship songs I write are an experiment in some manner. “All Hail Christ” is definitely an example of an experiment.
JCB: Can you elaborate on that a bit more?
JB: Well, first of all writing a contemporary song is a very difficult thing to do. The people who can put together top 40 pop songs are geniuses in some degree. Academic careers have been built around the study of the elements of popular music to identify what makes them popular. I remember hearing about some guy who created a computer program that would listen to a song and tell you if it had any potential as a market success based on this audio researcher’s study of the distinguishing marks of the great pop music of the last thirty years. So, when I say my song writing is an experiment, I mean that I’m trying to respond different elements in rock music that I think can be redeemed and used to draw attention to God rather than the guitars and drums.
Further, I’ve studied hymns somewhat and I’m really interested in writing contemporary songs that are also a response to the greatest of hymns. Some people like Keith Getty and Stuart Townend and others have been described as ‘modern hymn writers.’ I think that is great music and a worthwhile endeavor. However, what I’m trying to do is take contemporary music seriously without watering down the lyrical content—the biblical and theological depth of the text. I read somewhere that that Charles Wesley’s hymns averaged two or three biblical allusions per line. I’m all for singing a chorus with some nice repetitive phrases that sink deep into our guts, but I’m more interested in trying to contribute something more rigorous to the development of contemporary Christian worship.
So, my song “Fairer” was based out of my meditation on “Fairest Lord Jesus” and “Psalm 19.” “Light of Jesus” was the result of my study of the Nicene Creed and the Gospel of John. “All Hail Christ” came out of my consideration of the great hymn “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name,” the single most published hymn in all of hymn publishing and also Charles Wesley’s “Rejoice the Lord is King.” “Here is Mercy” was a result of my reading of St. Augustine’s Confessions. He showed me that we can be theologically astute while still having warm, tender hearts all that the same time. None of these songs sound like hymns. Nor am I just trying to spice up an old hymn either. I really want these songs to sound contemporary. I don’t want them to sound like Praise and Worship music either, but that is a whole other conversation.
Now with “All Hail Christ,” my experiment was with vocal styling. I had a great discussion with Brad Richmond, choral instructor/director in the music department, a few years ago. He lamented the affect of electronic sound reinforcement on sacred music. In the past hymns were written to be sung with the full body, shoulders back, heads lifted, mouths open. You can’t sing “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” any other way than with your whole body. This seems to be a great loss, another example of how our Christian faith has less and less to do with our physical existence and more and more to do with our cerebral and emotional selves. So, if “All Hail Christ” is difficult to sing it is either because I overshot the experiment, or its because people today don’t know how to sing with their whole bodies. Maybe it's a matter of both.
JCB: I’m also aware that you were not the main mixing engineer this year. What led to the change? How has that affected the process this year.
JB: Its hard to not be in the central nerve of the post production of the CD, but ultimately it is a great thing for me personally to let go of. Paul Chamness has mixed the record for us this year. I still did a lot of editing and some mixing, but Paul carried the bulk of the weight. If you remember, I had a bilateral pulmonary embolism last Fall. That took away a good three almost four weeks of my semester. I couldn’t imagine disappearing into the studio that long this semester. And fortunately, Paul is much more qualified to mix the record than me anyway. It was an amazing gift that he gave us and me.
The record does sound better this year than ever, well of the records I’ve made these past four years. If there is anything that compromises the production quality of the records it is my insistence on riding the room mics up hotter in the mix than most mixers would like. It creates some raw ambient texture that isn’t as nice and polished as a pro, large distribution record might have. I find that ambient texture to be very meaningful. If we are going to be making these records from year to year, recording some of our own songs and re-recording other songs from other popular writers, then we need to put our own stamp on the recordings. They need to sound like us and feel like us. Again, back to the students, I want them to hear what our Dimnent chapel really sounds like and to remember God’s visitation in that place. So, if some think the record doesn’t sound as slick as some other worship records, that is because I don’t to sound like other worship records. It’s just us: a group of college students led by a hack of a musician (me) trying to trust Jesus for the worship life of a college campus.