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It's ok with me!

Being a worship songwriter is a lot like being a freelance graphic designer - discuss

Posted at 13:28pm on 18th October 2016
Joel recently suggested this to me, and invited me to spend some time chewing it over. The following ramblings are my thoughts on that. And I think he has a point.
 
You hear the word ‘songwriter’ and you think ‘artist’. You think unbridled creativity and freedom of expression with no constraints. And surely that’s even more so for a *worship* songwriter? We’re writing songs which express the very best of our experiences - grace, salvation, forgiveness, mission, peace. What could be more freeing and fulfilling than that?
 
Ah, if only…. 

In my life as said freelance designer, I spend my time in an often-frustrating tug-of-war. (If any of my clients are reading this, don’t worry - it’s not you - this is about someone else). I don’t have free reign. It’s not a case of pouring my soul onto a page and letting the world see it. That’s the ‘artist’ bit, and it’s not a luxury that I have much of.
 
Instead, I have a different job to do. My role is to use my creative spirit and my technical training to interpret and present what someone else is trying to say. I might well agree with them, especially as the majority of my clients are from Christian circles, but it’s still their message I’m being paid to express.
 
And that’s the rub with being a worship songwriter too. Don’t misunderstand me - my worship songwriting is my own heart-cry. That’s crucial, and songs would be lifeless without that. But the key difference is that when I take a song out of my own private worship and look to present to my church, I have to be mindful that to be accessible it has to convert their message and express their views. As with design work, it’s very likely that we will be in agreement about that message on the whole, but it would be inappropriate for me to ask them to sing a song that is, for example, wholly about my own personal struggles.
 
So you have to remember that you have a client. Your church might be challenging itself to be more outward-looking and missional. Write songs to help them engage with that. You may be hosting refugee families in your area. Write songs of welcome. You might personally struggle to engage with some of the themes, but to be useful for your church, you need to reflect their message and aims.
 
One way of summing that all up is to simply say this: The difference between ‘Art’ and ‘Design’ is that design is functional. Both deal with the use of creative expression and aesthetics. Both are intending to convey a message, but to ‘Design’ something means that you are intending other people to use it. Not just to appreciate it, but to interact with it in some way which is useful to them personally.

And that’s just the start. When I’m working on a design, whether for an advert or a website, there are a number of technical things to bear in mind throughout the process. So let’s see how far we can stretch this metaphor.


HANGING TOGETHER

 
A piece of graphic design should be consistent. It must look like everything belongs together. There would be occasions which suit something a bit disjointed, obviously, but if the finished design was a mishmash of unmatched fonts of different sizes, clashing colours and badly cropped images, I very much doubt I’d get sign-off. I have to pick a single font (or maybe two); find a colour-palette which sits well with the subject matter. I then use these throughout the design, and only move away from them where it absolutely makes sense to do so.
 
For your song, do the same: Pick a single theme. Find a key (major or minor) which sits well with the subject matter. Use these throughout the song and only move away from them where it absolutely makes sense to do so.
 
Doing this will give your song/design integrity. As people navigate through a website, or worship through your song, they will recognise where they are, even if it’s the first time. They will know roughly what to expect on the next page, not be surprised by what happens at the end of the next verse. It all hangs together and is accessible on first look.
A good chunk of what makes a song accessible is down to how it relates to other things already in people’s experience - what else are people singing? What styles are well received?
 

TRENDING

 
I’m a proper font-nerd. I remember watching a set of adverts in my favourite programme and spotting that almost all of them used the ‘Gotham’ font in some way. That’s what I’ve been using! It was a nice affirmation that, at least in some ways, my current work is ‘on-trend’, and hopefully doesn’t seem dated or boring.
 
What I’m getting at is that there are always going to be trends which are worth following. Does your church really like the modern hymn style of Townend & Getty? If so, try and write in that genre perhaps. Listen to new music as much as you can (worship or not) and see what styles are popular and working well in contexts like your own. Let your approach be informed by the styles in the world around you. 
 
There is an obvious balance here though - following a trend is by no means the same as being unoriginal. You still need to have that element of blazing your own trail - you need to include your own creativity in there somewhere or there’s no point even bothering. 
 

ADAPTING

 
Web design is a funny beast. As the internet grew organically with no one company at the helm (which was no bad thing) the standards which set out how the various technical elements should work were at first a little hit and miss. Back in the day, you had Internet Explorer vs. Netscape Navigator and websites often came with a disclaimer telling you which software you’d be best using. Things have improved in later years, but even now it’s very easy to find features that aren’t available in all the browsers on the market.
 
Just as each ‘platform’ and ‘technology’ has its own strengths and weaknesses, so do our churches. Some will excel in vocal arrangements, others will have a fantastic worship band of semi-professional musicians, and some may just have a handful of people who play as much as they can. As far as possible we need to bear that in mind when writing our songs. Obviously you can’t cover all the bases, but be very wary of binding your song so tightly to a specific style or musical element that it falls flat without it. 
 
Some of the global worship movements release songs where a guitar or keyboard riff is a massively prominent part of the song - and to some extent, I can think of songs by Stuart Townend and Graham Kendrick with set intros. Obviously all these elements are optional, but I know I’ve avoided using songs like these in the past purely as I don’t have the time to write and notate a new intro. 
 
If you write a song which doesn’t always translate well into a variety of church settings, you might find that will be a stumbling block to people using it, in the same way that a website which isn’t compatible with the software will look awful and stop people wanting to visit it.


THE MOVING MASTERPIECE

 
I think I’ve probably pushed the metaphor as much as can. So I’m going to finish up by highlighting one key difference between being a designer and worship songwriter - the final delivery of the latest ‘masterpiece'.
 
When I roll out a website, or send marketing materials to print, I know exactly how they will look. I can rely on the web browsers and mobile phones rendering them correctly, and I know that through my use of industry-standard files the printers will reproduce my design exactly as it was intended with just the right shades and hues, on the correct type of paper. I can be sure that the impact on the viewer will be as close to what the client asked for as possible.
 
Not so with a worship song.
 
For a recording artist, whose ‘product’ is primarily an album or single, the metaphor holds. The finished production is key. It plays on the radio in its honed and polished format and, short of remixes and acoustic versions, that’s how the song is known for all time.
 
But a worship song is a much more fluid and living thing. While my church band are probably the ones who play my songs most, through being a part of Resound, I’m aware that my songs have been occasionally used around the world. And I very much doubt that they’re being played exactly as I would play them.
 
There may be uber-talented multi-instrumentalists adding new riffs, vocalists improvising their own harmonies. There may be Doris on the piano in a small chapel. There may be an awkward teenager with their first guitar, muting half the notes in the bar chords. There could be a mainly female vocal section who need the song in a different key. Where I tend to drop the arrangement to create space, someone else might lift the music to celebrate that line. Someone might repeat the chorus a couple of times on the end to really allow people to respond to the theme. A couple of people have even translated the lyrics into their own languages.
 
And that’s the thing. For all my careful work on how I want the dynamics of a song to be, how I emphasise that certain phrase, or what inversion of a chord I favour, at the end of the day, once the song is out there and another worship leader brings it to their church, it is no longer my song in the same sense. It becomes their song. They interpret it, tweak it, adjust it and deliver it in a way which works for them. 
 
And isn’t that great? There’s no constraints here. Someone else can take the honed and crafted core of your lyrics and melody and make it their own offering of worship. 
 
As a designer, I have to do all the work at making sure those flyers are a good cultural fit across the board. I have to do my level best that anyone who sees them will engage with the concept and ‘get it’. The final nature of a printed advert means that it has to meet every need in a single format. An impossible task if ever there was one. But with a worship song, I can offer my wonder at an aspect of God’s grace, or express my thankfulness for the acceptance I find in Christ, and someone else can take that and give it again. In their own way. As their own offering. 
 
As a designer, I don’t want someone to recreate my designs for themselves. That’s not what they’re for. 
 
But I love it when I know that people have taken the songs and sung them their way, made them fit their situation, and made them their own offering of worship. That was the design all along.