Archive for category Song Writing

Songwriting Part 1-B: The Creative Process – Sketchbook

The creative process is not an assembly line so don’t expect each phase to move mechanically into the next. At any given time, I’m in any one of the phases with a particular idea.

Phase 1: Research

Phase 2: Sketchbook

After you’ve been marinating creative ideas in your research, the next thing to do is to have a kind of sketchbook where you allow pieces of songs to freely flow from you without criticism or judgement. For this stage, I have used a notebook where I write out ideas or a document that I can access at work or at home. For the visual artist, the sketchbook goes with them everywhere so that anytime they see something compelling or they have time to kill they can sketch their ideas in order to access them later.

Another tool for “sketches” could be the voice recorder on your phone. There’s an old myth of the songwriter in a hotel room calling their own answering machine in order to record a song idea. I’m glad that today most of us have a pretty decent recorder with us at all times in our phone.  When recording a sketch, it’s best to not attempt a “demo” just yet. You’ll be doing that later on. Just press record and then sing every idea that comes to you as it comes. When I’m in my office, I prefer to use a TASCAM DR-05. It sounds really good, it’s easy to use, and it’s easy to transfer onto the computer.

If you literate in notation, a program like Finale can be a big help. However, sometimes when I try to capture ideas with Finale, I end up getting bogged down in an attempt to create the finished product when I should just be sketching.

Sketches of songs can be a single phrase, a chord progression or a melody. The parts may not have a clear formal structure yet and they may be nowhere close to looking like a song. Don’t force them to be a song yet. Give your ideas a place to live in your sketchbook on their own without asking them to get out there and go to work in the wide world. They will get tested and refined in the next phase, but for the moment, let them stand without judgement. If you expect every thought to become a world-changing musical expression then you become either paralyzed with self-doubt or blinded by an inflated ego. My dad, a gifted songwriter and my mentor, always told me something like 1 out of every 30 songs is a keeper. If you expect to have a lot of ideas that will end up in trash, then it frees you to let go of forcing the process and it gives you a realistic expectations of how often you need to working on the process.

The transfer of an idea from your head onto paper or into a recording has a powerful affect that can sometimes ignite inspiration rapidly. Sometimes, the creative process takes over at this point and within an hour or less you have a fully formed song. This happened to me when I wrote a new setting for Isaac Watts’ text “Jesus My Great High Priest.” My pastor liked the hymn, but I found the musical setting in the hymnal to be lacking. He asked to sing it one day in staff prayer and after that meeting, I went in my office resolved to fix it. Within an hour or two, I had a new melody and chorus for the song that has become one of our church’s most loved songs for worship. That rarely happens, but when it does, it’s usually because I’ve been researching heavily and so my mind is ripe with ideas.

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Songwriting Part 1-A: The Creative Process – Research

Creativity is not magic. It’s not mysterious or inspired. The Romantics are wrong about artists as isolated, half-mad geniuses. Creativity is a process of applied skills, experiences, knowledge and craft. You might have met someone who claimed that they were just minding their business when a song came to them as a fully formed product as if inscribed by the Holy Spirit onto their brain. That person is not really acknowledging the thought and preparation that went into the moment of creative spark. Writing songs is a creative process that can be repeated and developed like any other skill.

Stage 1: Research

Song writing research takes many forms. It could be listening to a particular style of music for details about song construction or learning to play the songs of a particular artist. I wrote the song “Search Me” after I read that Paul McCartney said “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys was his favorite song of all time.  Then I learned to play it and analyzed the chord movement. Research could also be studying scripture in a systematic way to generate ideas. A few years ago, I went through a process of doodling the the Psalms. I would read a Psalm and then draw symbols or phrases. This process was the preparation for writing my song of lament, “Hear My Cry.” Sometimes a deadline or a project objective means that the research phase needs to be very focused on a task, but the best creative research happens more fluidly without a goal in mind, giving your brain and your heart freedom to wander through the information without boundaries. Here are some ideas for research direction:

  • Go on YouTube and watch a ton of NPR Tiny Desk Concerts.
  • Look up hymns written by Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley and analyze their form, melody, harmony, content, etc.
  • Get a Real Book and learn a few classic Standards
  • Pick a CD of a style you want to understand better and listen to it over and over and over in your car until you can sing every word and instrumental part by memory. (I did this one summer in college with an Earth Wind and Fire’s Greatest Hits cassette.)
  • Read a biography of a musician you love and respect; then go and listen to their influences.
  • Read all the annotations for a song you like on Genius.com
  • Watch a documentary on film making, writing, visual art or other creative people (My 1st year after college, I used to watch DVDs of “the Simpson’s” with the commentary on to hear the writers and creators discuss their process of making each episode.)

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2015 New Songs at New City Fellowship

January

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize – Mavis Staples

Following the tragic and paradigm-shifting events in St Louis, it felt necessary to look back to the Civil Rights movement and the expressions of worship that shaped the theology of righteous protest. “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” or “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” as it’s sometimes called fit the theme. I chose to blend the lyrics of Mahalia Jackson’s recording with the more recent verses from Mavis Staples recording. Jackson’s recording focused on the more transcendent context while Staples’ recording focused on the immanent call for justice.


February  

You Reign – William Murphy

I chose this song because I liked the easy to sing call and response format that invites participation. It was also a popular recording on the Gospel charts which connects with fans who are looking for signs at NCF that we care about current cultural expressions in the community. I did choose (emboldened by my friend Michelle Higgins) to add some more verses. Murphy only composed two verses and then  created variation through key modulations. I added a few more verses to further meditation on the theme of Jesus’ sovereignty. Here they are if you want to use them:

With justice and righteousness, Your kingdom is forever blessed, You reign!

Through the blood of the worthy Lamb, we worship the Son of Man, You reign!


March

Help Me Walk With You – James Ward

My dad wrote this song based on Micah 6:8. There’s an old Maranatha setting of that verse which has been played out since the 90’s. We also sang another setting from the “Compassion Art” project in the ‘00’s called “You Have Shown Us”. However, this new setting was inspired by the music of jazz vocalist, Gregory Porter has some very tasty changes. It’s a keeper.

http://ncfmusic.com/resource/help-me-walk-you/


April

Taste and See – Edwin Hawkins

Michelle Higgins dug up this classic from the Hawkins song book for the 2014 LDR conference. The song touches on so many themes without losing focus so it’s a good opener, communion song, sermon prep, offertory, and more. I opted to leave out the bridge, but every time we sing it, I have doubts about whether that was the right call.


May

10,000 Reasons – Matt Redman

Maybe you’ve heard of this song. Sometimes you have to just play the hit. Especially when it’s got good meaty lyrics. I couldn’t just play it straight though, so we’ve turned it into a Reggae feel, kind of like “Three Little Birds” and we moved the key to E flat.


June

Nkembo Alleluia

My friend, Dieu Teku shared this song with us. “Nkembo” means glory and each verse is about one of the persons of the Trinity. It’s fairly simple to pick up by Americans.


July

Where All the Nations Shall Be Healed – Kirk Ward

This song was composed for the 2015 New City Music Conference. It was well received by our congregation despite the more laid back groove. I had a lot of fun writing this song, and it’s pretty fun to perform if you can hold the pocket together.

http://ncfmusic.com/resource/where-all-nations-shall-be-healed/


August

Tambira Jehovah – Mkhululi ft Joyous Celebration choir

African music, as I’ve come to understand it, is deeply connected to dance. This song simply says, “Come and dance to the Lord.” It’s a challenge to ask Americans (especially those from European cultures) to give into the groove and shake it. However, embracing reconciliation is sometimes more than words and ideas. If dancing is such a powerful expression in African cultures, then loving Africans requires an open attitude toward body movement. (We didn’t perform all of the song on the video. I didn’t roll around on the stage either.)

 Libéré – Maggie Blanchard

There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We are free. We are redeemed. We are heirs. We are justified. This is the message of this song composed in French by Maggie Blanchard, a Haitian singer living in French Canada. How could you not love a song with these words?

Father of Lights – Josh Davis (performed by Nikki Lerner and Bridgeway)

Josh Davis is the founder of Proskaneu Ministry. I love how this song uses multiple languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and Swahili) to express thanksgiving. It is based on James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” This song has connected well with our congregation. I have to honestly say that our band sounds great performing it.


October

He Will Supply – Kirk Franklin

We performed this song a while back at one of the LDR conferences and I’ve been looking for a good time to perform it. In October, we were having a “Choir Sunday” and I was torn between a few different songs that we could have added. I sent an email to several Gospel music fans on my team with 4 options and asked them to pick two. They all picked this one. The message is one that we preach often here at NCF, that Jesus calls us to love the world and he has promised to supply everything that we will need to accomplish that calling. Our pastor, Tony Myles really got fired up by this song and exhorted the congregation to continue singing this song. It was a blast!

Dios Manda Lluvia – Ericson Alexander Molano with Marcos Witt

We had a “Spanish Sunday” in October when we were able to teach this song. A new singer, Marcella Lee, shared this song with us. It’s a prayer of invocation asking the Spirit to rain on us with power and to restore us again. Amen!


November

In Jesus Name – Israel Houghton

We’ve only been able to perform this once. I wrote about it a few weeks ago, so go read about it here.


December

Come Again Lord Jesus – Kirk Ward

I wrote this song for Advent and we performed it on our last Choir Sunday of the year. It was a blast and the choir had fun learning it. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to composed music for NCF and to be able see that music become the emotional framework for the people of NCF.

http://ncfmusic.com/resource/come-again-lord-jesus/

Please share any new songs your church learned this year in the comments or if you are from NCF, what was your favorite new song from 2015?

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How might Kingdom values reshape the music marketplace?

Musicians who are in the Kingdom of God are faced with two choices:

A) Make your living off of the benevolent patronage of other Christians (churches and other non-profit arts ministries)

B) Make your living off of the secular marketplace of music consumers (gigs, recordings, jingles, scoring, etc)

I would place the CCM, modern gospel music, and even the “worship” industry into category B. These musicians, even those who are making “worship” recordings, are vocationally producing a product that is designed to compete with other products in the secular market place. I’m not saying that it’s somehow “evil” or “sinful” to sell you product in the market. I am saying that the market place is not the church nor is it the Kingdom. The Kingdom can inhabit (become incarnate) in the market place, but the true worship of God, the fellowship of his people, and the restoration of creation is not achieved by floating in the current of the secular culture that has established the laws of market. This is true of any industry or vocation. We are not just citizens of this world who happen to prefer Jesus to other religious ideas (like I might prefer Star Wars to Star Trek). We are citizens of the Kingdom of God who happen to live and work in this world. Our citizenship in the Kingdom should determine everything else about how we live.

Instead of mastering the laws of the secular market in order to produce a competitive product, what would it look like for Kingdom musicians to actually reform the marketplace by offering an alternate set of laws?  Kingdom musicians could change the nature of how music is produced and consumed in order to restore the relationship of musicians and their communities. 

The church is one of the last places in our society where large groups of people meet together to sing songs. Despite trying to contextualize for the cultures we are trying to reach, we are still meeting together to sing songs which is one of the most bizarre, antiquated and irrelevant things we could be doing. If we wanted to be contextual in our culture, we should have done away with singing-church in favor of something like shopping-church or gaming-church. Aren’t those the activities practiced in our culture on a daily basis? (Shopping and gaming are cool. Don’t stress.)

Despite the push to be relevant, we haven’t let go of the practice of singing together because it’s a music expression that reflects the values of the Kingdom: healed relationships, shared abundance, and equal access to power. However, instead of taking these values into the marketplace in order to restore the creation, musicians of the Kingdom are often bringing the values of the secular marketplace into our worship spaces (or the “A” category of Christian music patronage).

So what should musicians of the Kingdom be working toward? A couple of changes off the top of my head would be:

Participation vs. elitism  – The Kingdom gives power and meaning to the whole community and not just the elite. This means the pyramid hierarchy of the music industry would be deconstructed in favor of more community and educational based music experiences that encourage as many people as possible to become music making participants.

Creation vs. consumption – Along the same lines, our relationship to music changes from being consumers to creators. We need a D.I.Y. revolution in music to come out of the application of Kingdom vlaues. Composers, educators, and performers should not be aiming at creating products for mass consumption but products for mass creation.

These ideas could start to shake the power structures that make music participation, creation and dissemination only available to the privileged and resourced communities.  New tech has already opened the doors to these changes but instead of embracing these new technologies, the music industry has been fighting them “tooth and nail.” They see these tech developments as a threat to their consolidated power.

More practical jumping off points:

  • New means of sharing and supporting music that are localized and community based
  • New performance venues that support participation and creation
  • Kingdom based paradigms for intellectual property
  • Educational practices that emphasis lifetime music participation and relationships

Share any thoughts you might have in the comments on how  Kingdom values might re-shape the music marketplace?

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Song for Advent: Come Again Lord Jesus

“Advent” is the time of the church calendar when we look for the coming of the Lord Jesus. It has elements of past, present, and future longing for the coming of the Messiah. We read the Messianic passages from the prophets that long for a suffering servant to come, a child who will bring light from darkness. Then we celebrate that Jesus did come as a baby in the time of Caesar Augustus.

In the present, we look for the Messiah to come now in the present into the hearts and lives of broken people, structures, and communities. We cry to the Lord for his Spirit to fill us and to be present in all our thoughts and give us purpose and vision. Then we celebrate that his promise is fulfilled over and over to be the living and ever-present Emmanuel, God with us.

For the future, we look to the coming of the Lord in the full consummation of the story of redemption. All the saints from the past, present, and future, along with the whole universe of creation groans with anticipation that the Lord Jesus will be forever present as the King of Kings in the glorious New City of God. We celebration in Advent that he has always been faithful to his promises and he will not fail to come again.

I wrote this song for Advent that doesn’t have any stable, shepherds, angels, star, or even mention sweet little baby Jesus. However, it does get to the heart of the longing for the Lord Jesus to come again and be our King in the past, present and future.

Come Again Lord Jesus

Come again Lord Jesus
All creation join and sing
Come again Lord Jesus
Come again and be our King
Come again and be our King

To the poor and the forsaken
brokenhearted and alone
Come again and bring us hope
The one true Son of David
Worthy Lamb upon the throne
Come again and bring us peace

As you came before, Jesus come again
Oh, we need you Lord, please come again

To the victim and the prisoner
with no power and no name
Come again and bring us joy
Be the one true Righteous Shepherd
Calling lost sheep to reclaim
Come again and bring us love

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Behold Your King

I was reading in John 19 this morning where Pilate is interviewing Jesus. There was a phrase that struck me this time reading it. Pilate brings Jesus out to the crowd and sarcastically says, “Behold Your King.” All of a sudden I had “O Holy Night” in my head which uses that phrase in a much different way. It started me on the process of writing a song about the humiliation of Jesus, in his ministry, his trial and his death. He is our king and we follow him into that same process of humiliation.

Side note: I was using a thesaurus website at points to get different ideas and I found that Christians have a very different understanding of the words humble or meek. I often take it for granted that these are positive qualities even in our culture. However, the synonyms for these words reveal that our culture hates these qualities. No wonder this world despised and rejected Christ Jesus as well.

Here’s the song in the 1st draft form. No music for it yet.

Behold your king
Behold your king
Impoverished and despised
His kingdom is not recognized
By the Spirit’s power he’s led
With no place to lay his head
Born into our suffering
Behold your king

Behold your king
Behold your king
Arrested and abused
Now falsely he’s accused
He stands refugee from
A kingdom yet to come
But now stripped of everything
Behold your king

Behold your king
Behold your king
Tortured and alone
A suffering servant to atone
He exhales his final breath
The sun is shrouded in his death
His blood becomes our offering
Behold you king

Behold your king
Behold your king
Vindicated, glorified
He has risen! He’s alive!
His kingdom now reality
Death has lost it’s victory
Hear the nations stand to sing
Behold your king

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Throwback Thursday: some of my older songs added to ncfmusic.com

I just posted a bunch of my songs to ncfmusic.com. Here’s what I added today:

I wrote Your Presence is Here early in the morning on Easter Sunday in 2008. I remember that because my son was born a few days later, and I had a million contingency plans in place if my wife went into labor at any point during Passion week. The song is about the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus in our regular worship practices. He is risen, and he is present in every worship service. It was kind of a response to the gospel hit that was popular at the time, “The Presence of the Lord is Here.” The song as well as almost all the others on this list are included on my recording, “Guardian Grace”.

Restore Us  was written when I was in college and listening to Coldplay’s first CD a lot. It’s based on Psalm 80. This was one of the first songs that I wrote that really seemed to click with people in worship. We’ve only sung it once at my church even though we have a ministry called “Restore St Louis.”

Rejoice In The Lord  comes from my jazz performance days in college. I was interested in what it would be like to use “Rhythm Changes” to create a song for worship. The verses were inspired by the Steely Dan tune, “Peg” The text is from Philippians 4. It’s a real harmonic work out for all you music nerds out there. I had so much fun arranging the horn parts for the pros I hired on the recording.

New Creation was written after I was living in St Louis for a while. Our church had a large group of Liberian immigrants who were struggling with some pretty serious sin issues in their community that called into question their understanding of what it means to be changed by the gospel. So, I had the idea of writing a song in an African style using the text from 2 Corinthians 5:17. The bridge is composed in the typical African worship fashion where the group repeats a short idea over and over and the leader embellishes/preaches over top.

Walk the Talk was the theme of the 2002 Urban Camp at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga. It was composed for that purpose and a team of African American  high schoolers  (including NCF-Chatt musician Nikki Ellis) helped sell it to the kids. Among the other things that were created at that camp were the “Afro Man” videos and friendship with a certain counselor that would turn into an engagement a year later. Good times.

Greater Is He Who Is In Us was also composed as a song for kids in our ministries at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga. There was another song we were singing by the same title that I was really tired of, so I composed a new one.

To check out all the songs that I have on ncfmusic.com you can hover over the “My Songs” tab at the top of the page.

songs

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The God Who is Able (Take 2 the Stevie Remix)

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The God Who Is Able

I wrote this today. Its based on Jude 24-25. It’s kind of got a 90’s worship vibe – like Alvin Slaughter or Ron Kenoly.

The God Who is Able

The God who is able to keep you from falling
The God who is able to keep you from falling
The God who is able to keep you from falling
Is worthy of all our praise

Chorus
Now to the only God, our Savior
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
Now to the only God, our Savior
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
Be glory, majesty, dominion, authority
Be glory, majesty, dominion, authority
Both now and forever, Amen!

The God who is able to present you as faultless
The God who is able to present you as faultless
The God who is able to present you as faultless
Is worthy of all our praise          To Chorus

The God who is able to give you joy in his presence
The God who is able to give you joy in his presence
The God who is able to give you joy in his presence
Is worthy of all our praise

©2013 Kirk Ward Music. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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God Spoke

The pastor at our South City worship site, Kevin Vanden Brink led Staff Prayer this morning and he talked about the meaning of the creation narrative in our theology. We talked afterward about the need for good creation songs. So I wrote one.

God Spoke

God spoke to the darkness, let there be light
The Sun in the day, moon and stars in the night
Let there be waters, mountains and sky
With creatures that swim, run, crawl and fly

Chorus: What God has spoken shall come to pass
His word is faithful; his promises last
If you are broken; if you are weak
Restoration’s coming for your King and Creator will speak

God spoke to the ashes, “You are my son
You are the masterpiece of all I have done
Become my image, become alive
I bless you to live and I bless you to thrive

God spoke through his prophets; my cup of wrath will pour
For the hands you stretch in prayer, bring oppression to the poor
So my arm will work salvation and restore what was lost
My blood will bring atonement to pay the ransom cost

God spoke to this sinner, let grace abound
Let all creation now sing and resound
Let there be justice; let there be peace
That the praises of creation shall begin and never cease

Kirk Ward 2014

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