Interview :: Shane & Shane

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Shane & Shane about their musical development over the last 16 years, their Worship Initiative project, and their latest major-label release [aptly named] The Worship Initiative. While both Shane’s were on the line, Shane Barnard took the lead answering the questions.


conversation has been minimally edited for the sake of clarity

Ryan: Back in August of 1999 I moved to Lubbock, TX. My very first weekend on campus, I saw Shane Barnard play for the first time at Southcrest Baptist Church. Musically speaking, what have been some of the big growths and changes that have happened since then that define where you’ve been and where you’re at now?

Shane B.: There have been so many and it’s kind of hard to see when you’re so close to it because there are so many hundreds of things that have influenced and changed that. I would say, mainly, back then I didn’t have any kind of history in music at all. So, when I started to play right around that time I was just brand new. Not even a couple of years before then I had the first thought: “I need to sound good.” That was a foreign thought because I never grew up singing, there was no music in my family. So, I think the main thing that’s happened has been developing some patterns and finding things that I like. I think that [I’ve discovered] the beauty of simplicity. Back then I just sort of freaked out most of the time, musically. “How loud can I scream? How fast can I strum? That always equals better.” So, I think [I’ve developed] a little more of a musical taste since then, and that’s been a really big difference. The way that I’ve grown I’ve developed an appreciation for a simple groove that’s just right on and a simple vocal that’s not in the rafters.

Ryan: I’ve followed along with the Worship Initiative project since you launched it last year on Kickstarter, but I wanted to ask you about what the real impetus was behind wanting to do that. I understand what you’re trying to do, but were you seeing something out there as you were interacting with people that said “wow, this is a real need” or “there’s a real gap”? What was the driving force?

Shane B.: The closest encounter we’ve had to that is that we did a songwriting class for 5 years. We would walk with young artists and worship leaders in college by meeting up at our studio 12 at a time each semester. And we’ve always met with worship teams and artists along the way as we travel, but having a close-up, week-by-week relationship with these students we saw a huge need for discipleship. That combined with a passion and a conviction as we would go through the Scripture and see what Jesus has asked us to do in making disciples.

So, we looked at our lives and thought that making as many Gospel-centered disciples as we can from here on out until we die is probably a really good thing. After all those years of getting into the lives of these students and we started to find out that for most of them a lot of their hope was caught up in what people thought about them, what the future would bring, what kind of success they could have. At the end of the day, if you asked them what their passion was, it was pretty far from the person of Jesus. But until [we die to our self] nothing ever really happens. So, within the music community as a whole, the harvest is white.

There are tons of people – thousands upon thousands of people – within the music community at church: players and strummers, people who have been classically trained in piano jumping into the band, lots of worship leaders getting started – maybe a firefighter who kind of leads worship and goes to a small church… There’s this whole group of people that maybe think that preacher is the one who needs to focus on the Scripture and do the teacher thing and I’m just the singer-person. So, we’re trying to call that out a little bit and consider what we are called to do Biblically as musicians.

Ryan: You obviously have a passion for teaching, behind the scenes. As you are on the stage or as you are recording, how much do you feel it is your role to teach theology to the church through worship?

Shane B.: A lot. (laughs) A lot our role. We’re totally into that. When we first started the Worship Initiative it was like: stage one, let’s do the 100 songs that the church is singing. That’s pretty much what we did – barring any song that was way off. And then we surrounded those songs with Bible studies to point people to the Scripture. So that’s where we started. People want to learn the song “Oceans” so we did that to get them in and once they are in we can begin pouring into their lives.

I think a lot of songs to come, that’s what we’re after. Theology inside of our doxology is it. We have the chance of a lifetime to inform people of who God really is inside of music. That is at the top of the priority list, for sure.

Ryan: As you were going through that process, were there any songs that you didn’t agree with theologically? Did anything not make the cut because of that?

Shane B.: Nothing comes to mind. We didn’t come across a lot of those songs in the very top of the list. There are a few where here and there we would change a lyric and just hope that nobody sees it – because a little change can make a big impact.

Often we get the question of “do you lead a song by a certain ‘camp’?” because when you’re leading that song, you are sort of embracing that group and sending people there and the teaching may be kind of off. That is a genuine concern. It’s hard to find the line of that even when we look at our hymn writers. The guy who wrote “It is Well” went off the rocker at the end of the day. Do we throw out the song “It is Well” because his life and his theology suffered later after that?

So, it’s hard to find the line. I think we have a responsibility as pastors to say, “this is true.” We don’t have to push people into any camp. If there’s a song that is Biblical truth put into music, we’re probably going to embrace it and say this is a great song to get behind. We understand the concern and we’re not really trying to endorse a camp, say Hillsong or Bethel, but really just get people into a place where they can get discipled in truth. But also we want to wrap some truth around those songs. So we’ve gotten our three favorite writers at Desiring God to write Bible studies around every song. So you get songs that are beautiful and metaphoric like “Oceans” or “You Make Me Brave.” Some of these songs could mean a variety of things so we just wrap some truth around it and equip worship pastors with that truth.

Ryan: So, when you’re recording these kinds of songs, how do you maintain the authenticity of the experience of worship in the studio say when you’re on the 26th vocal take of singing “Alleluia”? How do you translate that live experience into the recording process and keep it engaging to the listener?

Shane B: We did 100 songs in a little over a month, but we didn’t sing them [at that time]. I would say that probably 70 out of 100 were super enjoyable and the other 30 were really difficult to get through. We did it just like a worship band, though. I would get in early, come up with an arrangement, and then we would just play it through as a band. Because we were capturing everything on video, we had to play it. There was no “punching in” or “punching out,” we had to play it just like a band would play it. So, that was kind of a cool part because we were kind of like a church band. On Sunday morning there are no start-overs or do-it-agains, you just play the song.

Then, over the course of the next six months, it was mostly really sweet for me. I would come up to the studio most every day that we were in town and crawl into my little vocal booth that used to be a bathroom and put a lot of reverb on my vocal and I would just be tracking alone. We have a computer in there so I can mirror the computer in the control room and I would just get a good mix. In trying to get a vision for 100 songs, I knew I had to make it enjoyable. So I would set up a rough mix of the song, I had good reverb, it would sound like I was in a cathedral and I would just try to have a devotional experience.

Some of these songs I had never even come close to singing before, so I would literally have to learn the song. So, I would sing it through like fifteen times just trying to get the hang of it. But it was actually very sweet. I mean, I cried maybe 20 times just in this little room by myself singing these songs to Him. I didn’t know how it would go, but we did twelve full records in not even a year so it was just a steady pace of tucking inside a little room for several hours a day and trying to think about the Lord through these songs.

Ryan: Did you do anything different to adapt your production process on the official label release that just came out?

Shane B.: We were a little bit more choosy on the songs to take the time and really think about it. On the first hundred songs, the first thirty came really easy. The second thirty was kind of difficult. And the last thirty was nearly impossible to figure out which ones we were going to do. This time we had more time leading up, so there were about five songs that we knew for sure [we wanted to do].

I would say our favorite song on the record – I think it’s the second song – is “Seas of Crimson.” A new Bethel CD had come out and Shane was listening to it while we were recording. We already had a set list and Shane was pushing for a few songs, including this one but it was way out there and it was hard for me to wrap my mind around it. Their new record is so artsy and creative and it took probably a year for them to make it. And the song wasn’t produced in a corporate worship manner at all, so it was hard but he thought it would be awesome. So, we gave it a shot and it ended up being, by far, our favorite song on the record. So some of it just happened on the fly like that.

Shane & Shane: The Worship Initiative

Release Date: April 28, 2015

Two years ago I wrote a history-filled, non-review of Shane & Shane’s Bring Your Nothing record outlining my deep love for these guys and their music alongside its far-reaching impact on me. I mention it because, in this case, my personal history with the artist drastically impacts my evaluation of the record.

Back in February of last year, I saw that Shane & Shane had set up a Kickstarter campaign for a project called The Worship Initiative, a website and resource for local church worship leaders. The site would feature song tutorials, videos, Bible studies, and more. It sounded really cool. In addition, Shane and Shane revealed that they had already recorded 100 songs for the project which would also be built into their proprietary system, but would also be available in album format to project backers. They made their goal of $150,000 and the site is live – check it out.

Last year, I noticed that the Worship Initiative “albums” were being released on Spotify and Amazon. In total, the band put out 10 albums totaling 100 songs – most of them familiar worship songs from the last 20 years, but a few were more obscure. The production quality was really basic, which was at points a turn off, but understandable given the context.

So, when I saw the announcement of this record from their label, I figured that they had culled together their favorites from that project and decided to promote it as an official release. From listening to the record, it seems like I was maybe 50% right. The songs on the official The Worship Initiative album are not found on the previous independent releases, save for two “radio edits” at the end of the record. The songs here seem like they may have been favorites that were not featured previously. The production is similar, but definitely enhanced from what we’ve heard over the last year – but it’s still not the same as the tone and style of their previous major releases.

The song choice for the album is a good mix of familiar and more obscure selections originally recorded by a variety of artists. Only one original song, “God of Ages Past,” is included. I was surprised and excited to hear a couple of my favorite songs from Hillsong bands make the cut, “Scandal of Grace” and “Man of Sorrows.” This recording was my first exposure to “Forever” (originally by Kari Jobe) – which, oddly enough, seemed to be everywhere just a couple of weeks ago. While I’m not a huge fan of the song lyrically, I really like the inclusion of “You Make Me Brave” simply because it provides a welcomed and much needed change in the tone of the record. In my opinion, the best is saved for last with “All the Poor and Powerless.”

Many of the tracks on this album sound very much the same in tone, pacing, arrangement, and even lyrical content. This makes it hard for me to sit and listen to the record as a whole – but for someone who is looking to learn these songs, each individual track is a phenomenal reference tool. Still, their previous record of worship cover songs (Dare 2 Share) felt like it had a much better flow and the songs sounded far more unique.

As a complete work, it’s hard for me to call this an album. The best descriptor that I came up with is that it is more of a “resource.” While the individual songs are great, the collection of songs does not offer the same type of flow or continuity that I would like to hear in what I would describe as an album. I’m certain that the songs hold up well in the context of the overall Worship Initiative project and fans of the band will want to hear their take on these songs. I, for one, would like to hear a live recording of a setlist like this, so that I can feel more a part of the experience.

Hillsong Worship: No Other Name

First thing out of the gate, as previously reported, the band formerly known as Hillsong Live is now Hillsong Worship.

While I’ve been aware of the work of Hillsong for many years, it wasn’t until last year’s Glorious Ruins that I had a proper introduction to them. That album was great, but likely overshadowed by Hillsong United’s Zion record and the massive hit “Oceans.”

The group’s latest album, No Other Name, is a solid addition to their catalog, though time will tell as to its staying power. The set list starts strong, though excitement seems to wane toward the back half of the record. Several songs are “keepers,” but most took some time to grow on me — as opposed to the immediate connection I had with their previous release.

It’s often hard to critique a worship record because there is a lot at play beyond just production values, artistic choices, and listening experience. With that in mind, I will try to be as holistic as possible with my review.

The album opens with the mellow and melodic “This I Believe,” a nice, contemporary take on the Apostle’s Creed. While far from a new concept, the structure here is really engaging. “Heaven and Earth” is a great follow up, further developing the creedal theology and introducing the album theme. The high point of the album comes on track 3, “Broken Vessels.” The nine-and-a-half minute epic weaves together new lyrics and a new tune with the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”

With how strong Glorious Ruins and Zion were, it’s hard to not hold this record up against them. For me, Ruins was immediately engaging despite being new material. I think that a large part of the effectiveness of that record was that the LIVE aspect was really ramped up.

The crowd volume was high and the songs were melodically engaging. That made it easy to feel like I was part of an experience. On No Other Name, the crowd voices are present, but are buried in the mix — sometimes to the point that I had to really pay close attention in order to hear them.

United’s Zion was not as captivating to me right off the bat. In fact I think I turned it off after about 30 seconds. I did, however, give the Zion Acoustic Sessions more opportunity and it has become one of my favorite records of the last year. Track by track, the songs have grown on me. That style of song-writing, especially the moodier melodies, are readily present here. While there are some anthemic moments, the entire presentation just seems muted — not that that is bad thing, just not what I was expecting.

Beyond the listening experience, an album that presents itself as a worship record should be able to provide resources to the church – that is, it should be “transferrable.” (It should be said that I think this is where Live and United have served different functions in the past, with United being more artistic, and Live being more corporate-worship-oriented.)

With that in mind, I think that church leaders will be pleased with “No Other Name” because it does offer several great songs that can be immediately picked up and used in corporate settings.

All things considered, this is a good record and definitely worth the listen. I would highly recommend it to worship leaders who are looking for something to add to their Sunday morning set list.

If this record suffers it is only due to the high expectations set by its predecessors in the Hillsong catalog.

Crowder: Neon Steeple

[Legacy Content]

How many “favorite bands” have been cursed by their fans upon release of a new “experimental” album? With that in mind, the debut release by Crowder, Neon Steeple, may have the deck stacked against it from the outset.

I remember picking up David Crowder’s first independent record (billed as University Baptist Church) my first weekend at college and feeling like it was something I had never heard before. It was part of the growing “worship” music subgenre, but it was artistic, introspective and advanced. Over the years, Crowder and his Band honed their craft of great melodies, solid guitars, electronic elements, DJ samples, occasional violins and southern gospel influences. While firmly planted within their genre, they definitely expanded its definition.

Their final record, 2011’s Give Us Rest, was—in a word—dichotomous. Blazing, electronic-heavy tracks were juxtaposed against acoustic guitar-only ballads and bluegrass oriented revival hymns. Shortly thereafter, the Band re-formed after the breakup under the moniker “The Digital Age” and released an incredible EP, Rehearsals, and the man himself put out a sparse solo video for the song “After All (Holy).” These two movements made the gaps in Give Us Rest all the more apparent.

David would go on to form a band of bluegrass musicians that would operate under the name “Crowder.” The played a few gigs, released a live iTunes session, and hosted a hoedown at Passion 2013. All signs pointed to a full-on nu-grass record, perhaps in the vein of Chris Carrabba’s Twin Forks project. A full-length record was announced, with Crowder himself coining the term “folk-tronica” to describe it.

I tell you all this, because this is how expectation is built.

So, it took about a month of listening for me to overcome my own expectations. What I was looking for was something more decidedly folk. What I found was a much heavier (elec)tronica influence. At first I was asking, “How is this any different than what he has done before?” But, eventually, I found the nuance and grew to appreciate the record for what it is, not what I had wanted it to be.

The bluegrass influences are there, and they aren’t subtle. Songs like “My Beloved” and “Hands of Love” don’t shy away from their use of the banjo. “Jesus is Calling” is suited for a Sunday afternoon church-grounds potluck. And “Lift Your Head Weary Sinner” has a dark, roadhouse flair about it. But then there are tracks like “I Am,” “Come Alive” and “You Are” that sound like they may have been lifted straight out of the DCB catalog with new instrumentation added.

There don’t seem to be as many immediately catchy, “singalong” songs here as Crowder (the man) has offered in his previous work. With that in mind, I don’t know if this album easily fits into the “worship” subgenre—and maybe that’s a good thing.

David Crowder is a standout among his peers and always has been. He has always been willing to play with sound and take risks that others may not be willing to take. That should be applauded. This group together has a lot to offer as evidenced by their unofficial work (that iTunes session is definitely worth a listen).

It seems, however, that when they hit the studio they weren’t quite able to reign themselves in enough to cultivate a single sound/message/identity. This is a good record, but I would just encourage you to leave your expectations at the door.

We Are the Monks: We Are the Monks

[Legacy Content]

There’s a group of singer/songwriters that exist just outside of the mainstream of Christian music — many of them with decade-plus-long tenures in the business. Artists like Bebo Norman, Andrew Peterson, Derek Webb and others. For the last 15 years, Trent Monk has occupied this same space.

I first heard Trent’s debut record on a little site called (for you old-timers out there). I later met him during a coffee shop gig in Lubbock, TX and I actually had the pleasure of working with him for about a year while recording his second independent album. He would go on to team up with his long-time friend Michael Neagle to form the group Monk and Neagle who put out two great records and several radio hits including “Dancing with the Angels” and “Twenty-First Time.” Now, Monk returns with his wife Shellie under the moniker of The Monks with their debut record, aptly titled, We Are the Monks.

The album is everything we’ve come to know and love about Monk’s music: relatable lyrics set to hummable melodies, crisp acoustic guitars and tight harmonies. Opener, “Walking on Water” features a jangling, up-tempo melody spotlighting the story of the artist taking the risk of getting back out of the boat.  On “Stronger,” Trent’s vocal is strongly reminiscent of Bebo Norman on lyrics that again speak of the artist’s renewed passion for God, family, and calling.

Backing vocals from Monk’s wife/percussionist provide a welcome change from what has been heard in the past. Their vocal relationship gives life to the friendship and love they speak of in their lyrics. When they sing together of “These Arms,” presumably to/about their infant son, you can’t help but be moved by the closeness of this family.

It would be unfair if I didn’t mention a couple of minor missteps. First, I’m hard-pressed to call eight songs an album. However, I would rather an artist give me eight solid songs than tack on two more “throw-aways.” And, certainly, it’s good to get more than an EP from an artist who’s been away for so long. Additionally, there are a couple of tracks early on in the record that incorporate a choir into the final chorus. I’m not sure if this was accomplished with duplicated vocals from the duo, or if an actual choir was brought in. The sound is great, but the use on back-to-back tracks feels a little heavy-handed, or at least repetitive.

As mentioned, I met this artist a long time ago and have been listening to his work for years. When I first approached the album, which is chock full of family-life stories, I was a little bit taken aback. This wasn’t exactly what I had been expecting. Then I began taking stock of my own life and how far I’ve come since those college coffee shop days and I realized that his story is, in many ways, my own as a husband and dad.

In an industry where so much of the music feels distanced from real-life, it’s a breath of fresh air to encounter genuine hope, faith, and love. The Monks bring a simple, un-formulaic approach to simply sharing their life with the listener and inviting us into the journey that God has them on.

Interview :: Martin Smith

I recently got to do a really quick Q & A with Martin Smith (former lead singer of the band Delirious) for the folks over at Martin has released two great records this year, God’s Great Dance Floor: Step 01 and Step 02.


Ryan: You spent many years in the band Delirious and had a lot of success – and if that’s not the appropriate word, we could say “worldwide impact.” Since the band broke up, you’ve embarked on a solo career. What have been some of the biggest surprises about this stage of your career vs. your years in the band?

Martin: I think the greatest thing about this season has been not being so busy and being home more, and being part of a growing family. We’re also part of a new church plant in Brighton called St Peter’s, and we feel really privileged to be there and part of that. It’s been a surprise to me that I’ve been able to release so much music and I’m amazed that these songs have made an impact on people!

Ryan: I’ve heard songwriters talk about the importance of writing with other artists. Collaboration has been a key component of both Step 01 and Step 02. How have those writing opportunities come about and what have you learned from working with such noted and respected artists?

Martin: It’s always great to write with people that are better than you – it stretches you, it brings things to the table that you couldn’t have imagined and you learn a lot in the process. Usually if you invite someone into the writing process who you trust, 9 times out of 10 they will always make it better. The aim is always to make something as good as it can be.

Ryan: I know that mentoring the next generation is something that’s very close to your heart. How has that played a part in your life, your ministry and these recent records?

Martin: Well I think mentoring always starts at home and mentoring is just another word for being a good dad, or a good parent, and wanting people around you to win and be successful, fulfill their potential. So we all play our part in helping people around us to move onwards and upwards. It’s been great for me being at St Peter’s with so many young students and I’m just happy to be a part of them growing into the next phase of their life.

Ryan: I’ve noticed on twitter that you mention your daughters a lot. How has your family life influenced your writing and how does your writing style now differ from those earliest Delirious records?

Martin: When I was younger, before being married and having children, it seemed like I had all the time in the world to be creative. And you would think that’s when the best songs come. But, I’ve found that the greatest creativity can come out of community, being part of something. Being part of Church, you never ever dry up with ideas and things to write about good and bad. I’d say now, even with all the responsibilities I have less time to be creative, but I’m far more focused. It’s just where I’m at right now.

Ryan: You’re heading out on tour throughout the UK with Matt Redman this fall. Will you be bringing the Dance Floor to the US sometime next year?

Martin: Yes, I’d like to do a couple of tours in the US next year – watch!

Interview :: Dustin Kensrue

Some may know Dustin Kensrue from his 14 years fronting the alternative rock band, Thrice. In 2012, the band took an extended hiatus and Dustin left to do something a bit different, becoming a worship pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He’s just released his first solo record from this new journey, The Water and The Blood. (He released a couple of solo albums several years ago, but they are wholly unrelated to his new material.) Dustin took the time to answer a few questions about his journey to the church and its effect on his music.


answers have been minimally edited for the sake of clarity
Ryan: How do you go from being the lead singer of a well known rock band to being a worship leader? I know that probably didn’t happen overnight. So, it’s probably a long story, but what were some of the key moments along the way of that journey?

Dustin: I guess a key moment, initially, would be that I had told my wife that I would never be a worship leader – I don’t remember that, but she does. I had a really negative attitude towards corporate worship music in general. There were a lot of things I thought were unbiblical or just not helpful about it. I just didn’t want to be a part of it. So, God started convicting me of that attitude and really just giving me an understanding that I was seeing a problem that I had been (in a certain sense) trained to do differently or do better and I was just sitting on the sidelines complaining about it.

He started changing my heart toward it and giving me a vision to try to be a part of something larger that would effect change on a much greater level than just me. To try to cast vision for what could be different about it and have people respond with that vision. Not that I would be some lone wolf in that, but part of something to change it.

Ryan: And how did you get connected with Mars Hill [Church]?

Dustin: I can never really figure out the exact timeline, but the biggest connection for a while was [that] one of my best friends was Pastor Mark [Driscoll]’s executive assistant for a long time. So we had a connection there. Pastor Mark had known of my music and he blogged about it once or twice. We ended up meeting and, ironically enough, he told me I was going to be a pastor and I was going to come work for him. Those have both come true.

So, at the time I was like, “Man I don’t think I’m ever moving up to Seattle.” But then it was funny when we planted Mars Hill in Orange County. I was like “well, I guess I am kind of working for him now.” But I didn’t have to move. And then God had different plans for that. So that was the next benchmark. We ended up, after I had known a bunch of people at Mars Hill at that point, some good friends, we felt called to plant a church in Orange County. Then it ended up being that we were planting Mars Hill Church.

Then, a year later, Pastor Mark asked me to pray about moving up to Bellevue and serving with him here. The idea was for me to take more of a leadership role over Mars Hill Music. I ended up realizing that I was called to that role, but I couldn’t do it from Orange County.

Ryan:  So, how does the songwriting process differ for what you did on this record from what you’ve done before – not just in the content, which obviously is a little different, but also in the whole process? Are you writing alone? Are you writing in a group?

Dustin: I try to describe that the main difference is really the purpose in what the song is for. Like if I was writing with Thrice, the song really doesn’t have a purpose outside of itself. It is kind of the end. But for writing music for corporate worship – for people to sing together in church – the end is that it would actually foster that singing together and that it would do that well. So, it creates different parameters and restraints. And restraints aren’t a bad thing. Creativity is really hard without any restraints. So, whatever the medium is that you work in, it’s always good to give yourself different restraints to work with and it fosters creativity. So, I enjoy that aspect of it, trying to write in a different way. And some of the ways that I think are important when writing that way I already kind of naturally do, whether it’s consistency of metered melody or whatever.

So, that’s different. And then, I’m not writing with a band. I wrote a lot of songs in a very short period of time, trying to get ready for the record. I realized that I can’t really finish songs without having a deadline – I’m just so used to writing for records. I’ve managed to do a couple of other songs without writing for a record, but they still had a deadline whether it was like my wife’s birthday or we’re starting some new series and I’m writing a song for it. I have to have a set deadline to make me finish it.

I wrote the record and then we recorded it with a couple of musicians that we knew or the producer knew. So the recording process was pretty different, where we would take my song and do a full arrangement of it within a day and have 70% of the song tracked. A lot of spontaneity. A lot of cool things captured in that process. And I did co-write a song with Stuart Townend who wrote some great modern hymns – “In Christ Alone”, “How Deep the Father’s Love” – so that was awesome.

Ryan: The sound, musically, is a lot different from what you’ve done in the past – whether with the band or even your solo work. How much of the musical tone is influenced by the community you’re a part of there, or just where you’re at personally?

Dustin: I think a lot of it is that it’s a totally different thing. Thrice is a completely different animal. The way we write is very very collaborative and because it’s collaborative, you’ve got 4 minds that are smushing all together. I mean, even Thrice’s sound was changing all the time.

On this, you see a lot of my influence into Thrice songs – where my job was primarily pulling things together into a cohesive whole – to care about song structure and melody in general. So, I think that’s the reason it’s very melodic and also, just the fact of asking “what is the purpose of the song?” And so this is something that I’ve carried over of learning through the years of Thrice is that you really want the song to match the lyric well – the actual music and the melody. So there’s still that interplay as I was writing this record. A song, “Come Lord Jesus”, had a different chord [progression] and a different melody, but what I was trying to tackle was just too large for one song. Do I narrowed it down and it really changed the tone of what was going on so it got a bit darker as a result.

Ryan: I think every church environment is different and probably when a worship leader goes out and picks up a record off the shelf, they’re listening to it with (at least a little bit) the lens of “Could we bring this to our church?” So, question about this record: How much of the songs on there are songs that y’all sing corporately at Mars Hill and was there any thought given to the transferability for someone else to come in, pick up this record and transfer these songs to their environment?

Dustin: Yeah, those are great questions. 10 of 11 of those songs are meant to be sung in corporate worship. “It’s Not Enough” is the exception to that. And, definitely, thought is given to how they transfer. What we’re trying to do is to make the record a really, really great record – a record that people are going to want to listen to over and over. And that’s really helpful… because music that you listen to over and over is forming us and transforming us for good or bad. If the lyrics are not great, you’re actually harming people as you reinforce false ideas or false emphasis. So, it’s really important that at the foundation of the songs that the lyrics are solid, but then that the songs are really great and the record is really great so that people want to listen to it.

And then, what we’ve done to try to show people that they do work in a broader context, we have “how-to” videos that we do for the songs online, just going through “here’s the structure,” “here’s the basic chords.” And then, also, this time we’re doing 8 of the songs with a stripped-down, acoustic band: acoustic guitar, bass, drums, piano and that’s it. Just showing, here’s a way that you can break it down and build it back up from there. Just trying to strip away the idea that if it might sound intimidating on the song – say there’s 3 keyboard parts or something – showing that it’s really not that complicated.

Ryan: And you’re doing all of those as videos? I know I saw “Rejoice” the acoustic video this week.

Dustin: Yeah, so we’ll be releasing those kind of staggered every week.

Ryan: Is there anybody that you look to, or artists that you pick up songs from and incorporate into what you guys are doing?

Dustin: We do mostly hymns, or hymn re-writes, or originals in our services. Not at all saying “hey, we don’t like everyone else’s music,” it’s just developed that way over time and it’s kind of become part of the culture of the church. There’s a song here or there that we’ll pull in. Stuart Townend stuff is some of our staples. “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep” are some modern ones we do all the time. “Before the Throne” which is an old song but with a new melody from Vikki Cook. Those are still very hymn-esque.

Every now and then there’s a song that we’ll pull in. But I think, more and more, as we have the label and we’re writing together as a church we’ll be pulling more and more from what we’re doing here. And I think there’s a lot of reasons that is good for us. I think, theologically, there’s not a lot of stuff out there that we’re going to land – at least in as far as how things are emphasized in the songs. Or there are songs that you think are really good songs, but the vibe of this [may not be able to transfer to where we’re at].

And then on top of that, we’re really trying to manage the pace at which we’re writing new songs and recording so it’s not like a firehose as we try to incorporate these new songs. Like, I had a lot of originals on this. I won’t have nearly as many on the next one. I’ll try to share some of those that we’ve done in the church before that maybe weren’t featured on a larger recording, do some more hymns.

Ryan: I’m sure that the transition has created a lot of interesting opportunities for conversations with people both inside and outside the church regarding stereotypes and expectations. Are there any of those conversations that stand out in your mind?

Dustin: I’ve been encouraged – and this is what I hoped would be the case – I’ve been encouraged that there are a lot of people who have listened to my work in the past and have respect for me who have good things to say about this, even though they don’t agree. There’s a fair amount of people who seem to be able to distinguish between someone’s beliefs and them as a person or artist. And I think that’s been good and I hope that there’s fruit from that in the same way that there has been from the Thrice music where there’s relationship and interaction that gets fostered over time between the artist and the listener. I know a fair amount of people who have gotten used to the music that I’ve made to bring them the knowledge of Jesus. So, I hope that this would do it for those who are willing to see it. And it’s also going to be interesting for some of those people in that I’m really writing about the same stuff, it’s just a lot more exposed and polished.

Martin Smith: God’s Great Dance Floor Step 02

Release Date: September 30, 2013

Former Delirious? frontman Martin Smith returns with a follow up to his album God’s Great Dance Floor: Step 01 released earlier this year. This record, Step 02, continues the tradition that Smith has built over the last 20+ years and is a great compliment to the Step 01 album. Here, again, we find Smith working with a host of well-known collaborators including Hillsong’s Reuben Morgan, Michael W. Smith, and Matt Redman (who Martin will be touring with this fall). Also collaborating on the album are Smith’s daughter Elle-Anna and vocalist Sarah Bird who also appeared on Step 01.

While it may come across as more musically reserved than its predecessor, Step 02, seems to be a more lyrically rich experience – which is a pretty significant claim considering the great work that was found on the former. Many of the tracks on the record seem to sneak up on you and lull you in before exploding right in front of you. While there’s not much wrong with the album, a few tracks shine more brightly than others.

“You are My Salvation” leads off the album rather unexpectedly with a drum loop and Rhodes organ before adding live drums and bass on the second verse. It kicks into high gear 3/4 of the way through after string filled bridge. Similarly, “Great is Your Faithfulness” starts out with a very mellow mood that makes you think that it may be easily forgettable. Fortunately, less than a minute in, this unassuming track morphs into an explosive anthem.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me was a song that I all but dismissed upon seeing its title. It turns out, however, that “Song of Solomon” is nothing of what I expected it to be. Smith has described it as the most intimate song he has ever written. It is a piano-driven cry of loving desperation. While it doesn’t have the flash and pizazz of most modern worship music, this song is a rare gift that exemplifies (as Gregg Matte once said) “a desperate dependence and a restful residence” in God.

As I said, there are no bad songs here. If I have any detractions, they are purely my personal taste. “Only Got Eyes” is a bit too “on the nose” for my liking. I don’t particularly care for leveraging common phrases and building songs upon them. On this record, Smith has recorded the Chris Tomlin version of the song that they collaborated on, “God’s Great Dance Floor.” As I mentioned when evaluating the Step 01 album, Smith’s previous take on this song – released there as “Back to the Start” – is a brilliant track, far superior to this shortened version. Finally, I loved Sarah Bird’s vocals on Step 01‘s “Waiting Here for You”. Her appearance here on “God is Coming” fails to take full advantage of her voice the way it was before and the song just isn’t as epic as the other.

All in all, it’s great to hear someone who has been making this type of music professionally for 20+ years continuing to do so with freshness. The album is as relevant to a corporate context as it is to a personal listening experience. And Martin’s voice is superb throughout. I can’t say that this album is in any way superior or inferior to its predecessor. Given the time, I’d love to listen to them back to back.  Offering Smith that hour and a half would surely be a deep experience of desperate hope that will not be disappointed.

Dustin Kensrue: The Water and the Blood

Release Date: September 30, 2013

I came across Dustin Kensrue and his new album The Water and the Blood in a bit of a strange way – given that it was right under my nose. I was watching some video on YouTube and saw the thumbnail for Dustin’s “It’s Not Enough” as a recommendation. I watched it and was blown away. I made some contacts, got my hands on the record, and even got to chat with Dustin for an interview that will soon be posted.

Dustin is the lead singer of the rock band Thrice, who I knew by name, but had never listened to. The band is currently on hiatus as Kensrue has joined the staff of Mars Hill Church as one of their worship leaders. If you aren’t a part of the church scene, Mars Hill is maybe a new model for you – they have live music at each of their 14 campuses and then project video of the week’s sermon from pastor Mark Driscoll, as though you were in a movie theater. It’s becoming more and more common.

Based in Seattle, Mars Hill has birthed several bands including Citizens and Ghost Ship. Their music is very progressive, indie rock and this album is no exception. I will say, however, that I’ve enjoyed it far more than what I’ve heard from either of the bands listed above.

Kensrue’s album is a good blend of indie and alternative rock that is both melodic and emotive. As in his earlier work with Thrice, the music that he crafts is complex in both its tone and lyrics. In short, it’s not the typical worship record you would find from the Passion crowd.

In my opinion, some songs on the record seem better suited to group participation than do others. For his part, Dustin says that “It’s Not Enough” is the only non-church song in the bunch. The best choices for audience engagement are “Rejoice”, “Rock of Ages”, and “My One Comfort”. A how-to and an acoustic version of “Rejoice” have already been released as a means of bringing it down to the everyday level. While I enjoy the pacing and melody changes on the classic “Rock of Ages” (one of my favorite hymns), I don’t like the idea of adding new lyrics to these songs for the sake of giving them a more modern verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure.

Two tracks rise far above the rest. The aforementioned “It’s Not Enough” is a great listen and a visceral yet simple video. It’s a great transition from the artist persona to the worship leader. It is filled with passion and emotion. The other big winner is “Suffering Servant”, a song with lyrics lifted almost word-for-word from Scripture – that alone is no little feat. Again, the personal conviction shines through the vocal performance. (And I may be alone on this, but the verse reminds me of the Paul Revere & The Raiders classic, “Indian Reservation.”)

The only shortcoming for me on this record is “God is Good.” It begins well and has a great melody, but the chorus comes off a little corny to me (God is good / all of the time / all of the time / God is good). And it’s not so much that it’s a kind of hokey, cultural phrase that bothers me. It’s more the feeling that they just mailed it in on the chorus.

When I listen to music like this, I’m usually looking for that “transferability” factor. Can someone at a church in the middle of nowhere transfer these songs to their situation? The answer here is yes and no. Normally that bothers me, but this album is so good that it really stands alone as not needing to translate into a corporate setting. It’s just a great listen and if it guides the individual listener to look at God afresh, then I think it is a success.

Phil Wickham: The Ascension

Release Date: September 24, 2013

The Jason Mraz Effect… Jason Mraz. You know him – fedora loving, oft-times awkwardly goateed, nylon-string strumming, love song crooning, avocado farmer. You probably don’t know much about him because what you’ve heard didn’t impress you. But for nearly every mediocre, unexciting studio album he’s put out, he’s also released a live album and often a concert DVD. That’s where you’ll experience one of the most underappreciated talents in music performing a 30-minute long, halfway improvised medley to start off a show, or utilizing his background in theater to bust out an opera ad-lib mid-song. My point is this: some people are amazing live, but make really disappointing studio records. Such is the plight of Phil Wickham.

Several years ago I was ever so briefly introduced to the music of Phil Wickham through playing in my church’s band. Though some raved about him, I never felt too compelled to dig any deeper into his catalog. A year or so later, I stumbled across his Singalong (2010) album and was blown away. That live record is a testament to the artist’s songwriting, vocals, and corporate worship leading. I’ve worn that record out. Finding myself with a renewed interest, I went back and looked up some of my favorite songs in their original, studio form. And then it hit me: Phil Wickham is a victim of… the Jason Mraz Effect!!!

I typically won’t review music that I don’t like because I don’t want to just be down on someone. It’s hard for me, though, when I know what the artist can be, yet they fail to live up to their potential. As I listened to his latest record, The Ascension, I kept asking myself, “what would this sound like, live?” Which, really, is an unfair way to judge a record, but I just want so badly to enjoy it that I’ll go about it any way that I can.

Certainly, the “worship music” genre is a strange one. It can be difficult and delicate to balance art and approachability – especially when you are essentially telling the same story that’s been told for thousands of year. But at the end of the day, as a listener, I don’t want to experience a huge dichotomy between the studio and the live experience whether you’re a local church or a national recording artist.

Wickham offers up several really great songs here. The album opener, “The Ascension”, begins very reminiscent of his Songs for Christmas (2011). The song itself is a great introduction to the record. The corporate singalong standouts are “Carry My Soul”, “Glory”, and “Wonderful”.

You may recognize “Wonderful” from Wickham’s Singalong 2 record (2012). The song was a bit of a “sleeper” on that record but definitely grew on me over time. Its production on this album was so different that I was caught off guard when I recognized it halfway through the chorus. Overall, the production has something of a mid-90’s feel about it. Everything seems to be carefully dampened so as not to appear too emotive (a hallmark of Wickham’s live work).

Wickham is a very talented and complex writer. Perhaps the most “natural” track on the record is “Mercy”. Here you hear the most beautiful vocals layered on top of very simple instrumentation. While it doesn’t pack the high-energy punch that some of the other tracks do, I would have loved an entire with this style of production – leveraging the power of the studio without overwhelming the heart of the artist.

For his part, Wickham has offered an acoustic version of the record as part of a pre-sale on his own website. I don’t know if this is a whole separate set of recordings, or just the studio masters stripped of additional instrumentation. I would love to hear this version of the songs, but it always begs the question – why did anyone feel the need to offer that version of the songs or make that the official release to begin with?