The Songwriting Journey: The First Release

Moving houses can be a stressful process. Someone told me recently that it is rated as the second most traumatic event a person can go through. I’m not sure traumatic is quite the word, but it was constant low-level stress that was enough to make you feel unsettled, but not enough for adrenaline to kick in and give you a rush. Kind of like the background whirring of a plane engine when you are on a long-haul flight that causes you to never really feel rested.

I’m glad to say we are finally over the worst of moving. We’ve still got some boxes to unpack and some rooms to set up, but at least we can more or less live a normal life from our new place.

Last Sunday, as a worship ministry, we crossed another threshold. If you have been following my rather sporadic writings over this last season, our church has been on a journey towards writing and singing worship songs crafted by our own worship team.

In my last post, I talked about how we went through the process of crafting the lyrics.

A few weeks ago, our music directors and lead musicians got together to put some musical flesh to song. Building on the basic structure, riffs were introduced. Our drummers even charted the drum patterns.

And then last Tuesday, another group of musicians and singers ran through the song one more time.

Finally, on the Sunday just past, without much pomp or ceremony, we quietly introduced the song to the congregation. I was very privileged to lead our congregation in singing the song. None of the original writers of the song were on the team that week, and so the song became truly owned by the worship team and the church rather than by the few who composed it.

It was such a thrill to realise that this had become a collaborative team effort. It took some to write the song; others to adjust the lyrics; and still others to work on the arrangements. And ultimately, the arc was finally completed as the congregation gave voice to the song.

The significance of the moment was not lost on me. I believe that this will be first of many more home-grown songs to come. Songs that capture the heartbeat and cry of our church as we journey towards discipleship and disciple-making. Songs that will create memories of a time and season in the life of our congregation.

Quite coincidentally, when the song, entitled “Your Love” was written in around October last year, we had no idea that when we finally released it, our church would be going through a sermon series on God’s Love. And we could not have predicted that last Sunday, the preacher rostered on was actually our worship pastor, Dave Wong. And if we think about what’s been going on in our city, with many people losing jobs and struggling to hold on to hope, the song reminds them that God is “our rock, our strong foundation / There is nothing to fear, God I know You are here.”

Only God could have orchestrated such a prophetic moment.

So here is the live recording of “Your Love” as sung last Sunday.

 

And here is the final version of the chords and lyrics.

Your Love

by Joe Chuah, Rina Tean, Melvin Kway, Brittany Gan

Key: G

Intro: C D Em C

Verse 1:
C                                                 D
All my eyes have seen will pass away
G/B
But You will never change
C
You remain the same
C
When darkness closes in
D
I’m not afraid
G/B
Your arms around me
C
Surround me

Pre-Chorus:
C         D/C
Here I stand
Am7                    D
My life is in Your hands

Chorus:
G       Am                  C                              D
From my heart, I will sing a new song to You, Lord
G                  C                            D
From my soul, I will give You all the praises
Em   D            C       G/B
And even in my lonely hour
Am                       D
I will lift Your holy Name
C                       D          C
For Your love will never change

Verse 2:

When troubles come my way, my hope remains
Lord I will seek Your face, for all my days
The voices of the world will fade away
As I call out to You, only Your words are true

Interlude: Em   Bm C  Am x2

Bridge:
Em                G
You are my light, my salvation
C                             Am
Whom shall I fear? Whom shall I fear?
You are my hope, my validation
Whom shall I fear? Whom shall I fear?                        
You are my rock, my strong foundation
There is nothing to fear
God, I know you are here
You are my rock, my strong foundation
There is nothing to fear
God, I know you are here

Instr:   Em G C Am (end on D)

I pray that as you listen to and worship with this song, God will really minister to you.

I can’t wait for the church to sing it again this coming Sunday.

The Songwriting Journey: Crafting the Lyrics

In an earlier post, I described how our church began its songwriting trajectory with the view to eventually having our congregation use a pool of “homegrown” songs in our corporate worship.

To recap, we selected a winning song from all those that were written as part of our New Song Cafe in September last year.

That song was “Your Love” by Joe Wee Chuah, Rina Tean, Melvin Kway and Brittany Gan.

We then purposed to refine the song further and then to work out its musical arrangements.

Over the last many weeks, Dave and I have been working on the lyrics to:

  • ensure the song is theologically grounded;
  • refine the words further to tidy up some thematic threads and to give the song an overall unity;
  • round off some of the imagery.

Actually, we have been really slow in exchanging drafts, and to be honest, the original was already pretty polished.

Here is a mark-up of the changes:

Your love Lyrics

As you can see, the changes were minimal since the original lyricists did such a good job.

When I first read the lyrics, I thought they were pretty generic. Recently, however, I was sharing with the Perth Prayer team about “hope”, particularly because in the current economic conditions in our city, with people losing their jobs, the price of oil dipping (our economy is very much based on oil, gas and mining) and the fall in the sharemarket, there is a lot of pessimism out there.

But yet, I believe that this year is a “Year of Possessing Our Possessions”, of entering into the promised land.

The problem is one of perspective. In Numbers 13, of the 12 spies that were sent to scout out Canaan, 10 reported a land that devoured people; a land, whilst full of milk and honey, was inhabited by indomitable giants. Only two of the spies came back with a different report. Caleb and Joshua kept their eyes on God and saw that the land had already been given to Israel. Ultimately, of their generation, only Joshua and Caleb were able to enter into their promised possession.

So this year, I believe that God has already given you His promises for your life. But the circumstances around you might seem unyielding; that the promises seem improbable and distant. Keep your eyes on God, the One who is able to fulfill His promises. His promises are “yes” and He has called us to echo with “Amen!”.

When we revisited the lyrics to “Your Love” it became clear to me that the song was breathed out of a prophetic moment, capturing a sense of hope in God’s unfailing love despite the circumstances that we may face. It will capture the cry of many in our congregation. And it will also be prophetic in the sense that it will propel our ministry forward in the area of songwriting.

Tomorrow night, a team of musicians will get together to work on the arrangements. It’s going to be exciting.

In the meantime, here is the “raw” recording of the song by Joe Wee. He plays everything, so the recording is not really that “raw”. Enjoy!

 

The Songwriting Process Behind “My Shepherd”

In my earlier post this week, I described how our worship team began our journey into songwriting. In this post, I want to reflect on the process that I personally went through with my team in writing our song, “My Shepherd”.

The songwriting process is quite foreign to me. Prior to the New Song Cafe, I can point to having written two other complete songs. The first was a song I wrote for a church youth camp when I was the youth worship coordinator (I must have been about 17 years old at the time). It was suitably old-fashioned, even for the youth of that era! I wrote another song two years ago as part of an assignment for MetroWorship Academy. I don’t think I really liked either of those songs and they have suitably been relegated to the annals of obscurity.

For the New Song Cafe, the challenge was not so much in the quality of writing. For me, it was in the process of collaboration. As I had said before, the team groupings were pretty random. The only requirement was that each team had to have an assigned musician. It was quite perverse that I was given the role of musician around which a team would coalesce. Perhaps I should have seen it as a compliment, or perhaps it was a bit of wishful thinking on Dave’s part.

That evening, after Dave taught briefly on songwriting and we broke into our teams for the first time, we had to make a start on the song. We had 20 minutes.

It was one of the most awkward 20 minutes of ministry ever!

Our team was quite intergenerational, which was good in one sense, but in another sense, it presented all sorts of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Michelle (who plays keys) should have actually been the assigned musician, a part she eventually took up very competently. Sunray is young and edgy. As much as I try to be “with it”, I’m actually quite old-school. And so is James.

So our little misfit team tried to unite together to write something that hopefully wasn’t too embarrassing. I said perhaps we could write something along the lines of Psalm 23, because I was going through a period of uncertainty and decision-making and Psalm 23 really spoke to me in this season. So we opened up the Psalm and started reading.

Sunray then said that she already had a melody line. It sounded nice when she sang the first couple of lines, but in my unprofessional opinion, it really needed some swirly pads and indistinct chord changes, which didn’t gel at all with my pronounced old-school style. I admitted that I couldn’t hear the chords at all.  James and Michelle ably pitched in with some polite lyrical suggestions – some we ultimately adopted, and others we discarded.

At the end of 20 minutes though, we had…. absolutely nothing!

All the groups came back together and Dave had the audacity to get us all to share the beginnings of our songs.

Most of the groups had already strung together workable melodies and a structured verse and chorus. It was quite disgusting really how they all seemed to have it so together. Did I mention we had nothing?

Oh well, for our team, the most significant achievement of that evening was setting up a whatsapp group so that we could continue to confer on our non-existent song.

Over the next two months, we met about 3 more times. If memory serves me right, we began to put together the chord structure and the start of the lyrics. I wanted the verses to paint a picture of our personal need (with cues from Psalm 23) but with a resolution in the chorus based on God being our shepherd. So we all tried to contribute some lyrical ideas around that theme.

Eventually, we got a verse and half a chorus together, but we got really stuck on how to resolve the chorus. So I suggested a completely different chord progression, with attendant melody, which I think most of us were uncomfortable with at the beginning, until Sunray broke the ice and finally said, “I quite like it”. We recorded what we had and left it at that.

Sunray pretty much finished the second part of the chorus (she calls it a bridge because of the different melody and chord structure, but I think it’s still the chorus!) and we were pretty much well on the way to a complete song.

After that, Sunray wrote the second verse all on her own. It pretty much preserved the thematic approach, so I wasn’t going to argue with her.

By the third time we met, we were rehearsing the song, and Michelle was filling it out on the piano.

The more we played and sang the song together, the more it grew on us.

To be honest, we weren’t sure how people would take it. So we tried it on James’ son as an “impartial” observer, and he thought it was pretty good. He would say that of course, since his dad helped write it.

In the end, and I think to our team’s surprise, our song was the runner-up.

So here’s a video of the entire song, as performed during New Song Cafe. We even included a deliberate bit of free worship to demonstrate how the song could be used effectively in a congregational setting:

MY SHEPHERD
(c) 2015 James Ng, Lester Ong, Michelle Siew and Sunray Zheng

VERSE 1
Through the darkest valleys I have no fear
Cause You are with me
Through the driest desert You walk with me
To still waters

CHORUS
You are my Shepherd
You guide me to Your way
The warmth of Your embrace revives me
You are my Saviour
Forever I will praise
Your goodness and Your grace restores
So I will dwell in Your house all my days
And I will dance and sing praises to Your name
My King, my Shepherd

VERSE 2
Even though I’m broken You lift me up
You anoint me
Through my days I vow to devote my life
To my Redeemer

 

The Beginning of Our Church’s Songwriting Journey

I have been part of Faith Community Church for about three and a half years now. Over its 20-or-so-year history, the church has grown from about 80 people to over a thousand in strength. Our worship team now has nearly 50 members. For a church of that size, I have always wondered why we weren’t singing songs that were written by our own congregation.

When I first joined the leadership of the worship ministry, I thought it would be cool if we could, one day, hold a “New Song Cafe”, an evening where members of the ministry could sit around in a cafe setting, whilst those of us with a songwriting gift would begin to explore and exhibit those gifts by performing their new songs in a non-threatening, safe environment. To my mind, that was one way we could get the ball rolling in writing home-grown songs for our congregation.

This was important for at least two reasons:

  • Our congregation consisted primarily of migrants who grew up in another church, often from a different Christian tradition, and almost invariably with their own song vocabulary and worship expression. Having songs birthed out of our own congregation would wipe away the preference divide and give an indigenous voice to our congregation. (One way we have tried to address this challenge was to institute a 30-song repertoire.)
  • We have awesome sermons in our church. Like really awesome, biblically-grounded and inspiring preaching. Home grown songs would capture the spirit of these messages and document the vision and journey of our congregation and calcify these in our personal and collective memory.

So, even though I had shared the idea of a songwriting cafe in our team meetings and to specific individuals, it seemed like there was simply no impetus for it. For a while, it seemed like a pipe dream and an impenetrable barrier.

And then, a fault line began to appear. Just before his appointment as worship pastor in July 2015, Dave Wong wrote a song which was featured in a Sony youtube advertisement about long-distance relationships. Dave and his girlfriend Cheryl performed the song and it now has over 550,000 views. I wrote about this in an earlier post.

At that time, I again said quite publicly to our team that our ministry was on the cusp of something significant because our worship-pastor-to-be had broken through the gates so that we too could follow.

Not long after, Dave taught songwriting during a team night and got us all into groups to write songs together, with a view to our performing them to the rest of the ministry.

The day finally came last Tuesday, 27 October 2015.

I mark the date specifically, because I believe that, years from now, we will look back at this moment as a watershed. A moment when that glass ceiling which seemed to hold us back from writing our own songs was broken through. The moment when the Spirit of God began that creative trickle that would ultimately became a deluge of new songs birthed from our congregation, which may perhaps overflow to bless and resource other churches in our region as well.

Here’s what we did.

To attach especial significance to the moment, we decided not to just have the songs performed in our usual team night setting. Instead, we booked out a local hipster cafe, Sprolo, owned by a couple of music directors of a large church down the road. In fact, the idea that their cafe space would be used for worship was something they already saw very early on when they started the cafe.

We made sure that there was plenty of good food.

We then invited four “guest” judges: our Senior Pastor Benny Ho, our youth pastor Jon Quay, our university pastor Amos Ngoi, and our former worship director Lisa Palm.

And then, we told our team that the judges, along with Dave, would listen to each new song that was presented and at the end of the night, decide on one song that would be the “winner”. The winning song would then be worked on by our music directors and worship leaders, including building in arrangements and instrumentation, and then taught to our team during a jam session. After that, the song would be introduced to our congregation and sung during a Sunday service.

The excitement level, when added to the the idea of running the night at a cafe, reached unprecedented heights. People started to invite their friends to come and see, and before we knew it, the whole cafe was packed. And the energy in the room was electrifying.

On the night itself, as teams came up to perform their songs, applause followed, not just as trite encouragement, but as a resonating statement of belief that we could do this. A couple of individuals even performed their own solo compositions.

And at the end of the night, when the winning song was announced, the applause continued for what seemed like an eternity, signifying that we had arrived at a “yes” moment. A convergence. What was prophesied had become reality. And a new journey had begun for our church.

Here are a few photos of the night:

We had some awesome food. Thanks to Ephraim and his team for helping us put up a heap of delicious finger food!

newsongcafe1

 

Here is Dave telling us about how the night was going to be run:
Newsongcafe2

A packed room. We’ve never had so many people at our team night before!
Newsongcafe3

Matt, Mark, Diana and Nat performing their song.

Newsongcafe4

Lydia and Ritchell performing Lydia’s song, “Beautiful God”:
newsongcafe5

An all girl’s team (Amanda, Su-Ern, Jane and Genevieve) performing their song:
newsongcafe6

An appropriate way to finish the evening with our former Worship Director Lisa Palm exhorting the team through the song “Potter’s Hand”:
Newsongcafe7

I’ll continue to update our readers on our song-writing journey over the next few months.

The goal is that we would run the New Song Cafe every six months or so and open up it to others within our congregation and other ministries to share their songs. Other people in the congregation would be able to come and enjoy a relaxing evening of coffee and live music. Even our unchurched friends would be able to attend.

And once we’ve got enough of our songs out there, we would then record a live worship album.

We’ve started on an exciting trajectory. I can’t wait to see what God is going to do through us!

I want to quickly thank our amazing and hardworking leadership team for putting the evening together: Dave, Ansen, Addie, Caleb, Ephraim and Sunray. And also to Darren and Gabes of Sprolo and Nations Church for standing with us in the journey.

The best is yet to come!