I was 7 years old in 1989, but that’s entirely beside the point…
Taylor Swift’s hit record was the biggest thing in 2014. I came across it while on my way back from a mission trip where I let some youth group kids control the stereo, and I’ll admit that I really liked it (I’m a sucker for a catchy song), but I wasn’t the only one. Ryan Adams, another artist who’s music I enjoy, couldn’t stop listening either and so here I find myself on my third listen (of the day) to his freshly released cover of 1989, all I can think of is how it mirrors what we do as worship leaders in regards to song choice & song arrangement and the lessons we can learn from it.
BREAK IT DOWN
Years ago, I was talking to some other worship leaders about a new record that a church we knew of had put out. One of them made the comment that, while it was a great record it was “too good”, and it was hard to see yourself leading those songs. I don’t think my friend is alone in this opinion. A lot of worship leaders might hear songs that were recorded with a lot of arrangement or production value and think it’s beyond them or their church.
But I believe that my friend and others like her are mistaken, part of what we do as worship leaders is to break a song down to it’s most basic so we can find it’s heart. Recently, my band started leading the song “There is a Fountain” by Citizens and Saints. Our first task was to get past all the programming and analog synthesizers to find the hear of the song. How would you play the song if it was just you and your guitar or piano?
What we found gave us the foundation to build our own arrangement on. It gave us a starting point to work with.
BUILD IT UP
Once you’ve got the foundation, you’ve got to build upon it. Often I’ll hear a song in church that sounds weak or doesn’t impact me. Later, I’ll hear the original version and think to myself “they took all the passion out of the song!” While we need to break a song down to find it’s core, we then have to build it back up to something with resonance. God has made us emotional people and we can’t ignore that crucial part of our beings in our song worship of God. So let me say it again: once you break it down, you’ve got to go somewhere with it.
Sometimes you have no idea where you are going with it and that’s fine. This is the demo stage. Bands do this all the time, and sometimes you’ll hear a demo version of a well-known song and think “how did they get this from that?” In this phase of building a song back up, I mess around with ideas. Sometimes they never make it past my personal practice time, sometimes they make it to the band.
It’s important to know that we aren’t locked in. We have the flexibility to change things. For example, the version of Oceans that we stared with is different than the one I’m currently leading. Sometimes things have to evolve and develop naturally over time.
Sometimes you know exactly where you are going with a song and you shoot for that target. Ryan Adams has said that the goal for his version of 1989 was to have sound like the 1980’s band The Smiths. In the same way, when we started doing “There is a Fountain,” I knew that I wanted to keep the upbeat, modern vibe of the Citizens and Saints original. I found out that the foundation of the song is really the bass line, so we focused on that. With the guitars I worked on parts and chose effects for my guitar that would get the “feel” even if we weren’t getting the note-for-note arrangement.
One of the things I noticed in the new version of 1989 is that different lyrics were emphasized. Whenever “sloppy wet kisses” are brought up, I remind folks that the lyric was a forgettable line in John Mark McMillan’s original recording and was only emphasized in later versions. The same goes for other songs when we build up new arrangements and it’s something to be aware of. It’s possible that a song will have a new lyrical strength or poignancy as we change the chords, keys or tempos.
BRING IT TO THE BAND
There have been plenty of times that I’ve shown up to rehearsal and said “I’ve got about 80% of this worked out,” and that’s ok. It’s not a one man show and almost every time that I’ve had 80% of a good idea, someone in the band takes it the rest of the way to success. One of the things I love about a “band model” in church is that as we constantly work together, we begin to grow and mesh together in a way that you don’t get under constant rotation.
The flip side of that is that the band has to take what’s been brought to the table. It would be counter intuitive if the bass player said to Ryan Adams, “we shouldn’t do it this way, because Taylor Swift’s bass player did it this other way.” Yet that’s what many church bands do. “That’s not like the original version,” isn’t an uncommon comment (let the band leaders say amen). Sometimes the response is silent, and instead of playing musical parts that fit the arrangement the band leader brought, the player just plays what they want instead. Ryan Adams’ 1989 works so well because the musicians are playing inline with a common vision and common sound instead of playing inline with their own vision or sound. The same success can be found in church bands that follow the same path.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO CHANGE THE KEY
Ryan Adams and Taylor Swift are very different singers. The same is true for you and Phil Wickham or Kari Jobe or Chris Tomlin. Worship leaders often struggle with songs or just avoid them all together because they don’t change the key.
Adams changed the keys on songs to better suit his voice and so should we. Over the years I’ve learned which keys worked with my voice and which ones didn’t. I’ve also had to compensate as a guitar player, learning how to play in keys that aren’t naturally comfortable for me, or in some cases, learning how to transpose keys from memory and use a capo to help things alone. Phil Wichkam writes great songs, but might sing too high for you or most of your church. Finding a more appropriate key is essential for taking a song and making it work for you and your church.
MY ONE CRITICISM
Adams has said that he wanted his 1989 to have a specific sound, which puts certain limitations on the record. This is generally good for creativity, and as I listen to the record, I feel like an unspoken rule he put in place was that his new arrangements would follow the structure of the original, with no extra verses or repeated choruses, etc.
The problem with this is that as the music changes or different lyrics are emphasized, sometimes repeating a line is the right thing to do. How often have I repeated the last few lines of “How deep the Father’s love for us” because it captured and summed up everything the song had made me think or feel? Or repeated the first line of the song at the very end as a way to bring things full circle? Ryan Adams’ 1989 suffers slightly from this, and our arrangements as worship leaders will too if we aren’t mindful of this.
FIND THE SONG, THEN FIND IT’S HEART
The big idea in all of this is the encouragement as worship leaders to fulfill the biblical imperative of singing a new song to the Lord. Once we find those songs, we’ve got to find their heart to see how they will work in our local church’s context. Ryan Adams’ version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 is a good lesson in how to do that musically.