Jeremy Armstrong, Worship Leader Managing Editor talks to Chris Tomlin about his new album Burning Lights, songwriting, recording, the music of the Passion Movement, the connection between worship and justice, a new take on an old song that brings the Church Universal together, and…of course, leading worship.
JA: Your new record Burning Lights is a little bit of a shift for you in sound, obviously. So I wanted you to perhaps explain to people who are longtime listeners to your music, what might they hear that’s a little bit different than what you’ve done in the past?
CT: Yeah I think that I’m excited about where the sound is, but it’s not a huge departure. I think what we try to do is keep the songs simple. Not try to overdo anything or overproduce anything but keep the songs that need to have some energy to them really fun and keep some of the beauty as well. I think a lot of that comes from the guys that helped me produce this music. I have the very best help with me on this album. Jason Ingram, who produced most of this record, and I have really bonded together over the last few years and he really gets what it’s about for me; he understands how we make the record a connection even in the studio, how we make this connection to the Church, and how we make this a way that is exciting musically and connects to people. I can see myself singing and playing these songs in my church. And that’s what I wanted to do. I want this to be a real gift to the Church and I want people to be able to sing these songs. I think the beauty of it is just really captured in a lot of these songs. My friend Ed Cash also produced a few of the tracks as well and he’s been a big part of my music for a long time. What an absolute privilege to be working with these guys.
JA: I was actually kind of surprised I thought there would be a bigger departure for you, but there are some subtleties, which are very nice, and I don’t think people are going to be overly shocked with what they hear on the record.
CT: No, not at all. I don’t want people to be shocked, that’s not what I’m looking for.
JA: I agree that there’s a little bit of fun there that might catch people by surprise.
CT: I think if you’re blessed to have a longer musical life and career, you begin trying to make the records bigger, with bigger production and all of that, but I just wasn’t really interested in that. I wanted to keep it what it is and how it naturally comes out of me. I hope people love it and the way it sounds.
JA: What will always be in a Chris Tomlin record no matter how long your career lasts? What would you say will always be a part of what you do when you release something?
CT: It’s always going to be for me songs that are written from the heart of worshiping God: simple, singable songs that can hopefully find their way into the Church and that really help people to worship God and give them a voice to sing. That’s just always been it for me. That’s the filter I run [songs] through. People hear the finished product and really don’t know what went into it and what was knocked off and how many times these songs were re-recorded to really get the guts of it and make you feel it because at the end of the day that’s what music does and that’s God’s gift to us through music. You feel it in your heart and it helps us respond to God with our emotions; it’s a beautiful thing. I want people to feel it in their guts when they sing a song like “Crown Him” or “Thank You God For Saving Me” or “Whom Shall I Fear?” I just want that to come out of their guts. That’s what we’re trying to do in these songs and really capture the emotion and write them in a way that is singable for people.
JA: You’re a servant particularly I think to our readers because they are the people who lead the songs. You’re a servant also to the worshipers, but you serve our people almost on a different level.
CT: And to elaborate on that answer a little bit more I think that I take great responsibility in the platform that God has given me, especially your readers, which are people that are me; I am a worship leader at my church. I’m not out there trying to just put pop songs out. I really want songs that can be played on the radio so that a lot of people hear them and know about the songs, but ultimately it’s more important to me that a song goes way past me and finds its way into people singing it at a church. It becomes a song that they sing at their church. That’s the most important thing to me.
JA: You have a lot of experience with live recording with Passion. What’s the difference between the two as far as a worship approach and why did you choose to go studio this time?
CT: I really like making records in the studio. I used to not think you could do that—make a worship record in the studio—but I’ve definitely changed my mind on that and I really feel that there’s things you can do in the studio that… you can’t do live. The beauty of the live thing is that you really capture the ambience of the room, you really hear the room worshiping God and that draws you in. That’s a special thing on its own that draws you in that the studio doesn’t have. But I still think there’s something special about what studio records make you feel as well. We do our best for it not to feel like a dry room and really fill it up. Some of these songs you hear have many voices on them. Everyone, the band and the producers, are all singing together in there so you really feel a group singing. I think that’s important in the song of worship because songs of worship are meant for community and are meant for the people coming together to sing and that’s what we try to capture with these studio records.
JA: Talking about Passion: What does this month look like for you? What is the ramp up to Passion?
CT: This is like the 25-minute break that I’m taking, and it’s an interview. That’s what it looks like for me and it’s full on. It’s amazing though, I feel like we were just under a waterfall of songs over the last three or four years starting with the Awakening albumto Here For You to White Flag to now the Passion conference. And that’s every year, trying to bring new songs that are important to a generation of college students. And I know this music reaches way beyond college students as well, so I’m trying to write and bring fresh new worship songs. We could just rehash other people’s songs, but when you think about the last record and some of the important songs on there—“10,000 Reasons,” “Not Ashamed,” “White Flag,” and “One Thing Remains”—it’s just amazing to me to look back and see what God is doing in our community. We’re really praying and we’ve been working through this year as well, and this month we’ll be finalizing all the demo arrangements. Right now we’re looking at about 20-25 songs and trying to see what the eight or nine are that we really feel are special and for this moment. So that’s a big filter that maybe people don’t understand about Passion. Things are going though a filter for this conference and for what it’s about and the conference really dictates a lot of the songs, so we’re writing for those moments.
JA: I felt like your record really complimented the theme of Passion last year.
CT: So people might say, “Why don’t you do this?” But that’s for another time. It wasn’t for this moment in this conference. And I think you’re right, people are listening in to an album that really only about 50,000 others have experienced but hundreds of thousands of people are listening into it, so we’re trying to make it where it really captures the heart of this generation of students. We want to make sure it captures what we’re trying to say and [that it] captures this movement, yet really ripples across the churches around the world. Obviously we can’t do that in our own flesh in our own human ability, that’s just above and beyond. But even in these new songs that we’re working on right now, that I can’t wait for people to hear, we just have to laugh because it’s like we’re under the faucet and God has given us so much blessing. I’ve noticed that it’s a moment of the floodgates opening and it’s a moment in time that we’re standing in, and we’re really thankful for that. We have an amazing team so obviously Passion is not just music, but it’s a movement among university students, and music is just a part of it. There’s a lot bigger stuff that’s going on right now than just making demos. There are lots of visions for Do Something Now, for justice, for all of these things that we’ll bring to this conference and the teachings of what it’s all about.
JA: What’s the overall theme for the Passion this year?
CT: We’ve only had one overall theme since we started in ’97, and it’s Isaiah 26:8. The website is 268generation.com and everything you see is 268 and around that Scripture. And Do Something Now has become such a big part of what Passion is, which is social justice and peace. And again this year, that is the focus. The focus is the slavery issue and different forms of human trafficking; whether it be work related, sex related, child labor related—so many different ways people are enslaved and don’t have a chance. I think there seems to be a real cry from across the world, from CNN to the Clinton Global Initiative to the speech from the President at the National Prayer Breakfast. There are people being treated in horrible ways and I think worship and peace and justice go hand in hand. I’ve been studying a little bit of the history of the movement of music and worship in the Church and it’s always been hand in hand with justice. People don’t even realize that The Salvation Army started as music in the Church. This guy named William Booth upset about everybody putting brass instruments in the church. He started changing up the music of the Church and also helping the poor. And that’s what the Salvation Army has become; it started off as worship in the Church. You think about when people came out of slavery for the first time with Wilberforce, and here’s this movement of worship songs in the Church that John and Charles Wesley wrote. Wilberforce was converted under their ministry. He took that and ran with it. You never know who’s sitting in the audience at Passion that’s going to run with it for the next generation. It’s amazing this thread through the Church, and I think any time you encounter the presence of God, he sends you out: Whether it be when Moses with the burning bush encountered the presence of God and God said, “Okay you’re in my presence, you’re going to go set my people free.” Or when God is speaking to Elijah, or to Isaiah when he encounters the presence of God. It’s amazing how that correlates so much and that’s so much of what the Passion conference is about, encountering the presence of God and being sent out. We’re trying to help people encounter the presence of God through these songs.
JA: I’m excited to hear your passion for that as well. We’ll keep you guys in our prayers. By the way, congratulations on the Grammy nod. What does something like that mean for you?
CT: I appreciate it you, thank you. You know, it’s not something that I aspire to, or it’s never the goal for me. It’s very awesome to even be in the category of so many great people and to even be thought of. When people think of all the songs that have been around for this past year and White Flag is what comes to people’s minds, it’s like, “Wow that’s amazing.” And also last year receiving the Grammy for And If Our God Is For Us. Again when people think of all the albums that were made in this past year and that’s what stands out and people say that’s what they really love, I really appreciate that. It’s more than just your friends, especially the Grammy’s, it’s all these people that I don’t know, and that’s a very humbling thing. I’m really grateful for that.
JA: On your record, other than White Flag (we know how great and wonderful that is), what songs are you specifically excited about or what songs are people already responding to in your worship leading?
CT: The top song for me right now is “Whom Shall I Fear (God of Angel Armies).” It’s the biggest song in our church right now. We start the opening guitar riff and the place blows up. They’re so excited to sing the verse, and I think it’s what people need to sing. This is a song that is needed in our churches because we are not a people of fear, we are a people of faith and we live in a world of fear. Everything you see on the news is about fear of the future; fear of financial collapse, fear of relationships going down the tube, fear of anxiety, fear of depression, fear of cancer, fear of everything that’s coming at you, and life comes at you hard. But that’s not our story, our story is not to live in fear but our story is to live in faith and to open our eyes. 2 Kings 6 is really the heart of that song with that story of Elijah and his servant: this army coming down on their village. The servant goes to check it out in the morning to see what’s going on and he sees the army and all their horses camped around. He then runs to Elijah, scared to death, and says, “What are we going to do?” And Elijah says, “Do not fear because those who are with us are far more than they who are with them.” He says, “Lord, open up the eyes of my servant so he can see what you truly see,” and immediately the servant’s eyes were opened and he saw this hill filled with horses and chariots of fire and these angel armies camped around. I think that’s what I’m praying for in this song, that the Church would see… that their eyes are opened to see. What Elijah tells us that to truly see is not just seeing what’s in front of your faces, but to see what’s really going on when you feel like things are coming against you. So, I love what that song says.
There’s a song “Crown Him With Many Crowns” that I’ve wanted to reclaim for a long time for the younger generations. …[T]he second line of that hymn has always been something I can’t ever shake. When I’m teaching songwriting classes, when I’m talking about lyrics, I always bring this line up, “Hark how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but it’s own.” It just cannot be written any better than that. When I think about what we’re doing as worship leaders, when we’re bringing a song of praise, a heavenly anthem of praise, it drowns out all music and drowns out all other noise … That’s why there’s so much peace when people come to sing; God drowns out every other competing thing. I was able to write this song with my friend Matt Maher. When writing, we looked up its history and where it came from. It turns out there was a little dispute with this song between the Catholic and the Protestant churches. And here we are: me a leader in the Protestant Church and Matt Maher, a leader in the Catholic Church. And we’re just sitting at the piano laughing like, “Are you kidding me?” …The Catholics have written all of these verses and the Protestants have written all these verses and they argued over which verses should be sung. It was one of the few songs that was sung through all the Church in both Catholic and Protestant churches, and there’s not many of those, so what’s been passed down to us is sort of a mixture of the two. And here are Matt and I sitting there working on this together and I thought how ironic that the Lord would bring this all around and us not even know that. I’m just really excited for this song and what that could mean for the Church. And obviously, there’s a couple songs that were on the last Passion record like “White Flag,” “Lay Me Down,” “Jesus, Son Of God,” that were stand outs that I wanted to put on this record. I know only a certain amount of people hear the Passion record, so for the great majority of people who buy my music these will be brand new songs for them. I felt like these were important songs. “Lay Me Down” has just been one of the songs that you’re always looking for as a worship leader that has so much energy, but it’s still saying something. It has so much excitement and joy to it. We love playing that; we play it every night if there’s ever a tour. It’s just so fun to play.
JA: Well let me just say, “Crown Him (Majesty)” is definitely a highlight, you guys did a wonderful job with that, adding to it and giving it a renewed majesty. Listening to the whole record and I came to the last song where you get the title of the record: “Burning Lights.” It takes a little bit of interpretation and I wondered if you could explain where that song comes from. I feel it could mean something even more to worship leaders, but I wanted to hear your take on that and where your heart was and what that song means to you.
CT: Again, speaking to worship leaders, I feel like I’m speaking to my people here, and they’ll understand what I’m saying … The first couple lines of the song “I’m no hero of the faith / I’m not as strong as I once thought I was / I’m just a shepherd boy / Singing to a choir of burning lights.” That right there is everything I want to say because anybody who’s ever been on a platform—which is all of the people reading this magazine—with a church or some kind of ministry, people look at you in a different way and think, “Oh you must have it all together, you must have this direct line to God.” Worship leader’s can really sing that from their heart and know what it is to say “I’m no hero of the faith, I’m not as strong as I once thought I was.”
I want to find myself just like David, long before he was made king, long before there was a platform, long before people knew his name. He was singing the songs, he was writing songs of worship, just watching over his little flock. He was just a humble kid, and I want to be the same way. If no one ever bought a record again or if I didn’t tour again, I’d still want to have the same heart. Lord, just find me being that shepherd boy. You know that’s who we are; I just want to be singing to a choir of burning light. And obviously it’s twofold, the burning lights are just singing to God’s creation, the stars, but also the people. And Jesus is the light of the world who we’re singing to, as well. What a privilege it is, Sunday after Sunday night, that God would give you the responsibility and give you the platform to sing over people—to lift people’s souls and lift people’s spirits with a song, and that’s the heart of it.
JA: I think that that one’s going to be a special gift to our reader’s in particular so I appreciate you sharing a little bit of your heart.