My very first trip to the United States, over a decade ago, was a real eye opener. My first observation was that everything seemed bigger-the cars, the roads, the food-everything. I was intrigued too by all the new words I encountered-my favorite being “unibrow.” Sadly, in England we have no word for when your eyebrows meet in the middle. But one thing struck me more than anything else. The salads.
When you order a salad in England you can easily predict what will arrive on your plate – a couple of sliced tomatoes, some soggy lettuce and if you’re lucky a piece of cucumber. Indeed, I once asked a waitress which ingredients were in their salad, only to be told of course that it consisted of the three items above. Politely, I enquired whether they had any other kinds of salad and was met by a totally bemused reply:
“Sir, what other kinds of salads are there?”
In the USA it’s a different story. I recently visited a café where the salad options were incredible. First you chose a size-a small, medium, large or extra large. Next you picked out a “bed” for the salad-either spinach, or various kinds of lettuce. Then there was a list of about 25 ingredients, which could be added to make up the main body of the meal. And of course five or six sauces to choose from (with an option to have them on the side, on the top, or mixed in). By the time I got through ordering, my brain had gone into overdrive. But I loved the experience-the chance to experiment, and create a brand new meal I’d never tasted before.
I want my song writing process to resemble an American salad. Too often I get stuck in my “English salad” mode-settling for the tried and tested, and failing to tap into all the other options that might be available to me musically and lyrically. If we take this approach, before long everything sounds the same, and we lose the opportunity to imagine age-old truths from brand new angles, or express universal themes in unique ways.
Curiosity Saved the Song
A former head of Sony once commented, “Curiosity is the key to creativity.” The Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin agreed. When asked in an interview what impressed him most about the Fab Four, he replied it was their curiosity-something which led them into many a creative adventure. The creative mindset is always curious. Rather than settling into a formula of “this is how I write my songs,” we begin to ask the question, “I wonder what would happen if…?” That question is the first step towards a journey of freshness in our writing.
We wonder where the song would go if we took the chorus and made it now the verse, re-imagining a new heightened chorus. We wonder where the song would end up if we took as many names of Jesus as we can find and tried to weave them skilfully into one song. We experiment with a different key or an adjusted tempo. We decide to remove the word “love” wherever it appears in the song and challenge ourselves this once to come up with a fresh lyrical way of expressing adoration. We switch sections around. We ditch the opening verse idea-even though it was the first part we wrote-and try to arrive at the theme from a fresh angle we haven’t explored before. We keep asking “I wonder what would happen if…” until the song feels fresh, refined and complete.
Now of course, it is possible to over-craft a song. But in my experience we tend to do the opposite-failing to ask these questions and settling too early on for a song that, though heartfelt, never really reaches its full potential. Yet if we can somehow develop an inquisitive mindset, we’ll find ourselves regularly visiting new and creative places in writing songs for worship.
Of course, the heart of it all is to write songs which bring massive honor to our God, and reflect and respond to Him as fully as we can. It’s a call to excellence and extravagance in our crafting of worship expressions-a call birthed in Psalm 33‘s instruction to “play skilfully.” With our hearts full of the wonders of God, we set off on songwriting adventures-determined to point to Jesus in a profound, powerful and pioneering way.
Apply it: Deconstruct one, or many of your songs.
Put it in a new key.
Bring the chorus to the opening of the song.
Mercilessly seek out overused words and find fresh alternatives.
Make the bridge the chorus.
Source: See Behind the Glass by Howard Massey, Backbeat Books, 2000.
Matt Redman is a worship leader and writer/co-writer of songs such “Blessed Be Your Name,” “You Never Let Go,” “You Alone Can Rescue,” “The Heart of Worship,” and more recently, “Our God.” Based in the UK with his wife Beth and five children, Matt has led worship in over 30 nation. He is also the author of several books on worship, including Facedown, The Unquenchable Worshipper, and the newly published Mirror Ball.