The Art of Songwriting…. from The Semi

I answered an email asking PhD internationals to publish in Fuller’s student newspaper ‘The Semi’…. & you can check out my article online, it’s seriously an amazing publication:

But I thought I’d put it in my wordpress as well so my subscribers can read a little of where I’m at (and what is important about me here haha). And if you’re interested in The Arts, check out Fuller’s Brehm Centre and online courses you can do – they’re brilliant. Ok, here it is!!!!….

The Art Of Songwriting

by Tanya Riches

It’s been sixteen days, seven hours and twenty-three minutes since I wrote my last song. Or something like that. I say it kind of tongue in cheek, laughingly. But only kind of. I’m super conscious of the current tensions between my creative praxis and PhD-dom. I’ve heard surfers spend most of their lives wishing for the next big wave. I’m positive songwriting is like that. If you are one, or somehow become one, it defines every waking moment.

My main support to come to Fuller Seminary was in the form of a grant for an album. An entrepreneur told me he could either give me a monthly payout, or he could help me write and produce some songs as a tent-making business, and he’d prefer the latter. If you could read my journal during May, it would have said nothing but:

God, please. Just one, great song.

In the end twelve songs made it through my selection and recording process – the greatest wave I’ve yet had the privilege to ride.

Here in Pasadena, I’ve learnt not to put all my cards on the table immediately. My accent betrays that I come from Australia, and, (once it becomes clear where that is, geographically), people invariably ask ‘Have you been to Hillsong?’ … usually, I just mumble ‘yes’. Occasionally I try to explain – it’s not a music publisher or a concert, Hillsong is a church. Sometimes I say that I attended this church for eighteen years, from seven through twenty-five, and it was where most of my significant life events occurred. Sometimes I say that we returned there in 2011 while I was reading missiology textbooks wondering if Fuller was even a possibility, unsure if I had the tenacity to do a PhD. Sometimes I say it’s my church, but usually the impact of this statement is lost. I usually don’t mention that between my husband and I, we’ve sung on every Hillsong album 1996- 2005, and that rehearsals stretch out ad infinitum in my memory. Occasionally I admit I was a vocalist, or that I directed three choirs in two locations and administrated the United Band full-time as a volunteer – but then it becomes awkward. If I’m feeling up to it, I just say I published six songs with Hillsong Publishing in the time I was there. Yet because of the crazy structures we’ve created around worship music, it seems like bragging in something I hold lightly because my confidence is found in Christ.

The craft of songwriting is a topic about which almost all Christians have some form of opinion. The responses can range from a little embarrassing to suddenly needing to find a Pope-mobile to prepare myself for the screaming and crying. People have gone out of their way to tell me how much they dislike Hillsong songs – and, I’ve seen Christian crowds going wild in the ‘celebritisation of worship leaders’ as academics say. It’s hard to negotiate – and I admire Hillsong’s worship leaders, who are graceful and take it all in stride. This community of songwriters that provide resource songs for church congregations are either loved or disdained, depending on what types of music you listen to.

I’ve heard everything from ‘I go to church for the preaching so I don’t really care about the music’ (ala Zwingli) to ‘I love all types of music’ (really? All forms of music? I’m sure I could find something you don’t), to ‘I love Jesus but Christian music is why the church sucks and my friends aren’t saved’ (believe me, not new, although I’ll talk to you kindly as if it’s a novel idea). There is growing backlash against the contemporary Christian chorus within Western culture. According to the critics, it’s too feminine. It’s unintelligent. It’s no longer spiritual. All at the same time as the new Christian heartlands of Latin America and Africa are embracing it in unprecedented numbers. From the perspective of a Christian songwriter passionate about church music, these messages are confusing. Maybe the reality is, we’ve lost a hold of the idea of worship as a spiritual discipline rather than personal entertainment.

Within the Biblical text, songs are highly esteemed, with the Psalms as the most recognized biblical collection of songs –while we unfortunately aren’t given a musical score, we can read the lyric and observe its importance in the life of Israel for prayer and praise, following corresponding narratives in Chronicles and Kings, which provide a more vivid picture of the role of the musicians and inspiration behind some of the Psalm texts. However, there are other lesser known songs found in the biblical narrative, in both Old and New Testament. Deborah’s song in Judges 5 springs to mind, written following God’s victory over Sisera, the leader of Jabin’s army. This song of praise commemorates the story from her viewpoint, and she tells the passers by to take heed of the singers tales;

“You who ride on white donkeys,

sitting on your saddle blankets,

and you who walk along the road,

consider the voice of the singers at the watering places.

They recite the victories of the LORD,

the victories of his villagers in Israel. (Judges 5:11-12)

Exhortations from Paul to sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16) are often cited, alongside the story of God’s response to Paul and Silas’ praise. Paul seems at ease with music, using words of the local poets in his apologetic to the people of Athens to expound the message of Jesus and the cross. The “voice of the singers at the watering places” weaves throughout the entire biblical narrative – both Old and New Testament is interwoven with ordinary songs. While I believe it is vital that the songs our congregations unify around are based in biblical truth, which is unparalleled in speaking to the human condition, I think there is value in the “singers at the watering places.” Even if they use only three chords. Even if their theologizing is inferior. “Experiential” and Pentecostal forms of worship appeal to thousands of worshippers all over the world. Hillsong United quietly filled the Staples Center in Los Angeles last year as well as multiple other venues in the U.S. before returning home to tour five of Australia’s capital cities as a precursor to their annual July Hillsong Conference.


Former Worship Pastor Darlene Zschech, probably Hillsong’s best-known worship leader, writes,

Music, being such a powerful language, is created to give voice to the human condition; it is a powerful vehicle of expression for the human heart. It communicates the cries, the elation, the anguish, the joys, the highs and the lows: when language is insufficient, the music speaks on.

There is no doubt Zschech’s songs communicate deeply to this current generation. Author of well-known chorus Shout to the Lord, her passion for encouraging intimacy of connection with God through the Spirit is a hallmark of her legacy with Hillsong worship that continues in Australia today. Yet, the acceptable music within seminary life is often the classical, high art or more traditional forms of music. It is not the music of most people’s every day, but the aesthetics of hierarchies and complexities – the music of the elite. This is not to undervalue the contribution of classical music to the faith or our Christian lives, though I can’t help but think that if we exclude contemporary choruses from the conversation, we exclude the people who listen to them. We’re faced with the reality that deep theological discussions are not reaching many churches whose diet is exclusively popular music. The question is, Can we reject certain types of music without implicitly rejecting the people who are connected to those musical styles?

We live in a world in which we find solidarity in the trials and afflictions – yet I think it is becoming more acceptable to sing, pray and proclaim the greatness of the God of the Bible in diverse ways. Worship is powerful. It is in worship that we are restored and our true identity is found. When poverty and earthly troubles are visible to us, we know that God can see our humanity. All I have is the language and the industry I know – I suspect that our songs have reduced often to the common denominator, to a ‘third language’ that denies culture. But I also cannot help thinking that there is a whole generation of emerging songwriters who want to be a part of a conversation, asking pastors and theologians to join with them in singing a new song in Spirit and Truth in their vernacular languages. And so I think we have to continue to wrestle with the tensions that unity within diversity creates. As a discipline.

One thought on “The Art of Songwriting…. from The Semi

  1. Thanks Tanya. What a balanced, well-written article resonating with truth and authenticity that only come out of a life of praise regardless of circumstance. Well done.

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