It all started on the A24. On the daily commute from suburban Sutton up to central London.
The extraordinary sight and sound of a lycra-clad cyclist waiting at the Balham traffic lights not just speaking, but singing out loud the words of ancient biblical Psalms. Could you imagine a more incongruous scene?! Yet that is exactly where the inspiration for these PsalmSongs first dared show its face.
To be fair, the initial idea came from reading a book purchased from the local post office at the end of a day spent on Holy Island at Easter 2012, telling the story of the 4th Century saints, Aidan, Bede and Cuthbert. They founded the monastic community on Holy Island and, to encourage each other on their journeying around the north east of England, all those centuries ago, they recited the Psalms to each other … from memory – all 150 of them. The Psalms clearly gave them inspiration and empowerment for their daily work.
Hoping I could experience something of that encouragement, I decided to follow in their steps, albeit learning just 15 of them. The obvious place to carry out this learning was on my 50-minute daily cycle ride to London and back each day. I set myself a three-month time period and, astonishingly, achieved it. Even more astonishingly, the notes I jotted down about how these Psalms were relevant to everyday 21st Century life – a cool three thousand years after they were written – ended up being published in 2013 as my first book: ‘Riding the Tide’. Most astonishing of all, I found myself working out how to set these Psalms to contemporary music.
There must have been something about the early morning air rushing through me and mixing together with the prospect of the day’s work, with all its challenges, that provided the crucible for such a mad project. For mad it was. I was clear from day 1 that the task was to set every single word of the Psalms I had memorised. And anyone vaguely familiar with the Psalms will know that they are very complex and often obscure compositions, regularly rushing from one emotional extreme to the other and back again. Yikes!
Availability – the most useful ability
Was I qualified for such a project? As a trained singer, I had sung the lead tenor roles in 26 operas over a 12-year period in the twilight zone between the professional and amateur worlds.
My dream of being a professional singer, though, didn’t work out. I had been a worship band leader at my local church in Surrey for 15 years. I taught myself how to play guitar (to a very modest level). I had dabbled in writing a few songs over the years, but they hadn’t gone anywhere. So hardly Mozart, McCartney or Matt Redman!
Yet, I found myself entirely absorbed, and not a little inspired, as I grappled with the challenge of creating a pattern out of the words that would work with contemporary musical genres. Fortunately, I have an appreciation of a wide range of music styles, and I was going to need all of them to try and breathe fresh life into these ancient words. Tunes seemed to fall into my head. The main melody for Psalm 42, for example, arrived in about 15 minutes one Sunday morning, as I sat in my summerhouse basking in the warm sunshine and chatter of birdsong. I had to rush indoors, pick up my guitar, work out a chord pattern to fit the tune, and then record it on my iPhone, pronto, before I forgot the whole thing. Not a note has changed since. Psalm 23, by contrast, began as a nice tune (as one would have expected) and evolved into what I am told is ‘grime’ (unexpected). Psalm 136 started life with a full complement of 26 ‘His love endures forever’s but, when revisited three years later, was edited down to a mere 15 repetitions and a completely different shape. What do I conclude? That God takes what we offer Him and works it into something over and above what we could ever have dreamed of. The well worn maxim comes to mind … availability is the ability God can best use.
‘Are these any good’?
Sharing some of the songs with friends in the band at church was a nervy affair. Would they raise their eyebrows in wonderment that I had the temerity to take up their time with such drivel?
Would they ‘have potential’ but need completely reworking? Neither, as it turned out. They were very warmly received, and this gave me confidence to give a few of them an airing at a launch event for my book, Riding the Tide, at St James’s Church, Muswell Hill in April 2014. I was thrilled that they went down really well. We seemed to be in business.
From dust to daylight
So, naturally, I took the bull by the horns and got on with recording the songs, there and then, so they could be enjoyed by others. None of it. They sat there for two and a half years, collecting dust.
Yet, not simply due to laziness, I must tell you. During that period I wrote three other books, two of which I published, one of which still sits on my computer. Why did someone who is essentially action orientated lapse into inaction? Several reasons. You are very reliant on other people on a project like this, and everyone is very busy, so carrying it forward is not easy. Then, the market is saturated with material, so getting your stuff out there is difficult, particularly if marketing is one skill you do not have.
The main reason, though, is lack of confidence. Funny old thing, confidence. I reckon many who appear to have things sewn up, spend much time wondering how everyone else perceives what they’re up to. I, for one, can own up to going through periods of positivity only to see paranoia creeping in and leaving me anxious about not just the value of what I’ve done, but whether I actually have anything to say and, indeed, whether I’m imagining that God is leading me down the path I’m on, or I’m just having a laugh.
It took the persistent encouragement of one of the band members – thank you, John – and some very positive comments following launch events for my book ‘The Character of Fashion’, when we topped and tailed the evening with three of the PsalmSongs, to convince me that these songs should be recorded. It also struck me that it was a question of stewardship. If God had indeed given me the ideas and inspiration for these songs, they needed to be got out there, regardless of whether they gave encouragement to ten people or 10,000.
So it came to pass, through the latter part of 2016 and into Spring 2017, that we started regular practices to work on the songs and make rough recordings in preparation for visits to the recording studio through May to July 2017. The songs were, after all, to see the light of day.
The greatest joy on this journey has not been grasping melodic inspiration out of the air, or grappling with the words to make them fit – although that has been huge fun and particularly rewarding. The greatest joy has been working with friends to bring the songs alive.
From the very first session, back in 2014, when Neil hammered out huge organ chords to set Psalm 150 alight, to November 2016, when Richard suggested that Psalm 51 have a ‘cello’ theme running through the introduction, taking the songs from simple guitar chords and solo voice to a fully realised treatment for band has been quite wonderful.
I’ve included some notes under each song to give a flavour of the creative process and the input from different band members. The principal is quite clear, though: God may work through individuals, but His purposes are best worked out in fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Of course, the same principal works out in the secular world, whether in music or most other endeavours. My aim of including a wide range of different ages and approaches in the development and recording of these songs, has not come to fruition as much as I would have liked in this first batch of Psalms. My hope, though, is that there will be a second batch (and a third and fourth?!) and that God will send in my direction other musicians to widen the scope of the PsalmSongs and their appeal to a wide an audience as possible. If that’s you, please get in touch.
The recording sessions
On the morning of Friday 5th May, the rhythm section of the band made their way down the A3 to the WaterRat Studios in Woking, with an ambitious target of laying down the ‘backing tracks’ in preparation for the vocals and instrumental solos in June.
Astonishingly, the tight schedule was achieved and no less than eight songs were recorded in an 8-hour session. For those who like their statistics, each song was practiced an average of three times, and three recordings of each were made to give the producer, Kim, plenty to work with. So, with nearly 50 ‘performances’ under our belts, it was no wonder that everyone was exhausted as we packed up for the journey home. It was my first day in a recording studio.
What did I make of it? Set up took much longer than I had expected. There were no less than 10 mics on John’s 60’s Premier drum kit and each musician had their own mix. So preparation was not quick, but it paid dividends as, once we got going, we made steady and almost uninterrupted progress. I didn’t find it easy singing with headphones on (I was singing ‘guide vocals’), as I couldn’t hear what my voice was actually sounding like. And it takes some concentration to focus, song after song, knowing that each slight break with rhythm and every bum note had nowhere to hide. But stick with it the band did, and I was hugely proud of and grateful to them. And I was not unhappy that the songs seemed to have stood the test of a day’s recording. Yay!
Day 2 of recording was on 7th June and saw saxophone and vocals being laid on top of the rhythm tracks. A far less stressful day for me, as we had the basic tracks already there and we could concentrate on Calvert’s sax fills and solos in the morning and the vocals, firstly lead vocals and then the harmony vocals added, in the afternoon. It was great to listen to the playback as the sound started to fill out.
After General Election day, we were back on 9th June for Richard and me to work on two Psalms, 42 & 51, both with totally different feels to those we had already done. It was also the first time we had layered the different keyboard sounds separately. And what a difference it made to the overall sound, as well as giving Kim, our producer, all the scope he needed to mix the sounds exactly as we wanted them. Neil joined us in the afternoon and we split out the keyboard sounds from the first session, again making such a huge difference to the sound.
We ended with Psalm 1 which, after a hilarious moment when we all mimicked the Apollo Moon Mission music (the introduction to Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra) was completely transformed from our initial stab as the first song of the first session in May. That is the fun (and the fruit) of allowing the songs to develop organically, as everyone puts in their two penny worth – including Kim on the mixing desk in the room next door!
The final part of the production process was to edit and mix the songs. This was Kim’s domain and it was an eye opener and great fun to work with him and his electronic gadgetry.
Course, website & events
God hadn’t finished with this project, though. Not by a long way! As I started to assemble a songbook, it ‘occurred’ to me that, actually, the content coming together, when held alongside my earlier book, Riding the Tide, could make the basis of an interesting multi-media course for small groups. It had always struck me that, in any small group, it tended to be the more cerebral who dominated the proceedings. How good would it be if there was a resource that, through songs, reflections, videos and blogs, drew in everyone.
After a few discussions with my friend John, the PsalmSongs Course was devised and three Life Groups at my home church trialled it – with very positive results. The Course did indeed draw in all the different personalities in a group and was thoroughly enjoyable.
As Calvert joined John and I to look at the potential, it was only a short step to create the idea of a live experience of the Course – ‘PsalmSongs Live’ (and smaller scale events – ‘PsalmSongs Lite’) and another friend, Les King, came on board to create a website – www.psalmsongs.org – which in turn, cried out for a regular input of blogs, themselves a good hook for social media to help get it out there.
At the time of writing, I have no idea how much further this project will develop, but it has been one intriguing journey thus far. Watch this space!