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:
(c) 2015 James Ng, Lester Ong, Michelle Siew and Sunray Zheng
Through the darkest valleys I have no fear
Cause You are with me
Through the driest desert You walk with me
To still waters
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
Even though I’m broken You lift me up
You anoint me
Through my days I vow to devote my life
To my Redeemer