Recently, I met a talented musician who sings, writes his own songs, and is also a pastor and worship leader.
John W Stevenson and I had the opportunity to chat for my radio podcast which features musicians from around the world. His songs have the quality of waters deep and still, yet you get the feeling you’re sitting by a tinkling fountain.
I asked him how he retains the heartfelt emotions of a song despite singing it many times over in the many places he visits.
His first words struck like a tuning fork resonating in my mind along the dim corridors of time. It reminded me of catching a falling star.
“I liken songs to having babies,” he said. “With mothers—my wife and I, we have five children–you never forget the moment when that child was born,” he said. “You may, over time, no longer remember the pain of it”—at which point I begged to differ–“but you never forget.”
“It’s important because when you’re birthing that song, you’re in that moment.”
He explained, “Over time, you may birth a song but not record it for two years. And by the time you record it, it may sound even different then when you first wrote the song, or when it was first birthed.
“But because I write songs out of a place of my relationship [with God], my songs come out of that. Then when I am singing that song, it’s out of that place. What that does for me is that it keeps it from becoming a performance.
“It’s the risk you run when you record a song. Because when you record a song and people hear it, they want to hear it the way you recorded it, versus, I’m looking for the place where it originated . Because if I can land there, then hopefully I can get you to experience the true essence of the song, and not the finished product.
“One of the things that happens, which I found is, you can hear a song in its original form and it can be incredibly annointed and minister to you. But someone else can take it and arrange it in a whole different way. And it loses the annointing, and it loses the effectiveness of the piece.
“I don’t think it’s something I hear as a musician, I don’t think so,” said the pastor. “I think there is something about honoring the integrity of the song.”
I thought a lot about the other things he said that afternoon in that cube-like studio with the music stands, the in-your-face mikes, the walls of acoustic egg-crates. It—what is this ‘it’?—Is it singing? Is it expression? Any kind of creative expression? Perhaps, though it seems dangerous to say it here, if this kind of expression has to be any good, if it has to do any good, has to come from the act of Remembering. (Click to hear a most remarkably uplifting song.)
What for you is the essence of a song? Listen to Show Me Where You Are Today, another beautiful piece by John W Stevenson.