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by Alex MacDougall

Worship Leader’s Alex MacDougall sat down with Phil Joel (Zealand Worship founder and frontman) to hear the heart behind the latest album from Zealand Worship, Liberated.

WORSHIP LEADER (WL): 2018 appears to be a huge year for you, with the announcement of your return to “The Newsboys” as part of the “Newsboys United Tour”, and the release of a brand “new” Zealand Worship project, followed by my assumed tour support of that project. What Spiritual disciplines do you plan on practicing to keep everything in perspective?
PHIL JOEL: Wow. In the last moment, your question there took a turn. Spiritual disciplines? I’m going to maintain the ones that I’ve been maintaining for the last 17 years. And initially, it’s giving the first fruits of my day to Lord. You know, trying to get up and spend time with him. It’s that “one on one” time as best you can, on a tour bus or in a strange town. But I’ve learned with that to always just kind of ask the Lord where and when, what’s it going to look like today? Where should we hang out? Do I need to get in a car and go to Barnes & Noble? Or is the back stateroom in the bus going to be available for us to spend a little one-on-one time together? If your eyes are open He’ll always sort of lead you to a little spot to meet with him. And it’s so important for me just to be grounded there, and begin my day from that place. That’s all been my practice for the last 17 years, so I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. If it does, you know, I’m in trouble.

Liberated album coverWL: Zealand Worship’s previous project was 2015, self-titled EP. The new release is a full release with some marvelous songs, and is entitled, “Liberated”. Is there any meaning behind that title for the project, besides the fact that there is a song with that same title?
PHIL: There is. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I’m understanding it more now. And it’s funny how records can do that. They can speak to you, and once you’ve even created them they can speak to you on different levels later on. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. But when it came to this project, trying to write corporate worship that felt like us was really tough. I must have been a part of writing 30-40 songs for this project. We actually got this record finished and it had a different title. And I had to sit back and say, “I’m really sorry, I think I’ve made a mistake”. We had created a record that might be good on one level, but on another, it just didn’t feel honest to me. And it didn’t feel like who we are. And so we scrapped half the record and went back to the drawing board, and wrote some new things. I went back and picked up some of the songs that I thought were really important, but somehow got looked over. And we made the record we have. I felt the Lord was saying, “Just quit trying to be something you’re not. Just be who you are. That’s all I require. Be who you are and write from that place. That’s all I want from you.” I felt a real liberation in that.

WL: It comes through. When I listened to it 3, maybe 4 times though, I thought, “liberated” sounds like they’ve been liberated from the same worship formula that’s been practiced or at least encouraged by record label sales, for quite some time. And so I thought, “they’re liberated”. They’re doing what they are, they’re playing who they are.
PHIL: Man, I love that you picked up on that because that’s exactly what happened. The label was cool with it. They didn’t start with, you know, like “what are you talking about”? We spent all this money and all this time and energy. And we’re ready to go with this, you know, seemingly, with this modern worship record that we’ve created here. I respect the fact that Jesus Culture and Bethel and some of these other worship leaders are doing great work. But me trying to be them just feels like me putting on.

WL: Liberated has some very well-written and clever lyrical imagery within it. “Move in close to the fire”, you’ve been washing our eyes-you’ve been changing our minds-and we’re ok with it, you’ve brought us from the dark to the land of the living, this is the end of the world as we know it”. Can you comment on your songwriting collaborations on this project and why they are significant to you?
PHIL: Wow! You’ve picked up on a lot of key lines. The same old just doesn’t seem to fit anymore. The collaborations were interesting in the writing process. I definitely got with some of the usual suspects in town. And sometimes it was really successful, and other times it was a struggle trying to pull away from the usual stuff, the usual lines. What seems to me to be like low hanging fruit, which you know, plays on sort of church sentimentality, just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I tried to pull away from cliché as much as possible.

Zealand in concert
Photo credit: Ashley Adcox

WL: When you create through collaboration, what dynamics take place with your co-writer? Who are the first people that hear your new songs penned?
PHIL: My family. My family is my first line of defense. I have a 14-year-old son, or he’ll be 14 very soon, and a 17-year-old daughter. And they’re pretty quick to point out whether-or-not a song makes sense; whether a song fits me, or it doesn’t. They’ll say, “Dad, that doesn’t sound like you”, or “Dad that’s you! That’s who you are! That works”. So they’re really helpful, and my wife Heather’s opinion is really important to me. She was one of the first to point out once we’d finished the record initially that some of these songs just didn’t sound like they were coming out of my heart. And who better to say that than the person who knows me best.

WL: Romans 12:1 (NASB) says, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” In addition to raising a family, you and your wife have been committed to children and family ministry, and Bible study. The word “worship” obviously taking on a larger role than simply singing in church on Sunday mornings. Can you comment on this?
PHIL: That’s a big one! Worship is so much more than just 30 minutes on Sunday or even musically listened to in the car. It’s our life. It’s how we conduct ourselves when we’re by ourselves. And it’s how we conduct ourselves when we’re families. It’s how we see life. Life is an enormous gift from God. It’s just too good to be true at different points. We get to enjoy this God that lavishes his grace and his love and his mercy on us and takes care of us. And it’s all too good. And so worship is really sort of a conversation. We talk about Deuteronomy 6. It starts at the beginning of the day, it doesn’t finish ’till we hit our head on the pillow. And even then, hopefully, we can dream dreams that are congruent with what God would have us be dreaming.

So it appears you picked up on what I meant. You picked up on what I meant by it by quoting that scripture. Because worship is a lifestyle it’s not just singing songs on a Sunday morning. The next part of that scripture [Romans 12:2] is so important to me: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (NASB). That’s vital. Family is a wonderful incubator for that, to train our kids in how to see the world, understand God, understand their place in the world, and learn how to enjoy life in this wonderful planet that we get to run around on, and not conform to the ways of it. Allow ourselves to be transformed is a lifetime process.

WL: What are two key songs from the new project that you would hope worship leaders would listen to and consider introducing to their congregations, and why?
PHIL: “End of The World” would be the first one because it’s definitely a little more congregational and doable for a worship team. There’s a deep heart cry in this song. On first listen it might be thought of as an attempt by us to create some sort of church anthem saying that the end is near and we need to repent. But really it’s a personal heart cry. It’s a personal song of surrender. And that’s where it starts, you know. It starts with us as individuals learning how to surrender to the will and ways of God to a greater degree, in order to enjoy him more. And so that song I think would be one I’d like to see manage to find its way into the church.

And” Liberated” was the last song to rise, the last song to be written. I’d been reading the story of the guy who got lowered down in front of Jesus through the ceiling, the crippled guy. And Jesus looks at him and says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven”. And then He realized the Pharisees and everyone around him snickering and saying, “How can Jesus say that”? And so Jesus says to the guy, “hey, pick yourself up and get out of here, and walk out of here”. And he’s healed. On the first glance, of course, he’s healed of being crippled. But when you really think about it, Jesus is also saying, get up and walk in this new freedom that I’ve given you. You’re free. You can run out of here. And so I thought that was just such a powerful story. And it had been sort of bouncing around in my head and my heart for a while.

WL: There’s a lot of the content on Liberated, so much that is so often forgotten. Congregations sometimes need to be sung over. And that’s what you’ve provided a lot of in this project.
PHIL: “Still” is one of those songs. I wrote it with Darren Mulligan. He came from Ireland and his record did well and his ministry is sort of blowing up. And he turned up one day and we’re going to write together. And he was worn out, and so was I. We were both very tired. It was good for our souls to just really acknowledge that we were worn out and may have really just been muscling our way through the writing process a bit. We were relying on our own strength and not really leaning into the Lord at different points. But at the end of the day, our hearts still want for the Lord. And so we wrote that song, and it was kind of this honest little expression.

It’s been a fruitful couple years, but also just really hard. I sang that song just like in tears. It was kind of awkward, you know. It’s a personal love song. And it’s one of those things like you say, “it may be something that you sing over a congregation”, that they can relate to. At the end of the day, we still long for God and his heart in our lives. And that leads us to a sweet place usually of repentance, which isn’t a bad thing.

WL: Do you have any words for aspiring songwriters and worship leaders?
PHIL: Yes, stay true to who you are and keep tuning up. And don’t let fear or judgment, inhibit your creativity. Because that’s the number one thing, you know, what is so-and-so going to think of this? What is my pastor going to think of this? What are my friends going to think of this? If you go into a writing session or you’re trying to write and you’ve got that hanging over your shoulders, the good stuff is not going to come out. And then I also think for me leading worship I’m always looking, I’m only going to lead songs that I truly believe in. Make sure that the content resonates with your soul, and that you can communicate with integrity.

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