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About Stuff I Had to Learn: I’ve been leading worship for almost two decades now. I started out thinking I knew everything, while actually knowing very little. Now I’m painfully aware of how little I know, even though I know much more about my craft than I did seventeen years ago. Along the way there have been a host of people, circumstances and difficulties that have taught me invaluable lessons. Stuff I Had to Learn is a collection of lessons I’ve learned – from the mundane and practical, to the sublime and spiritual.
“But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
That is the famous cry of the innocent, naïve little boy in the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Two scheming weavers convince a vain emperor that they have made him a set of clothes that can only be seen by those who are intelligent and competent. Of course, the Emperor can see nothing – nor can his advisers – yet still he publicly parades with his “new clothes” on until finally a young boy says what everyone else is thinking. The tale is a warning about the perils of vanity, and surrounding oneself with “yes men” so eager to please that they won’t tell you the truth, even when you’re about to step out in public naked!
It should also be a warning to those of us who are songwriters, especially if you’re a sucker for praise like me – as I detailed in my last blog post.
Songwriters, we have a hard time being objective about our music. Every time I finish a song I’m certain I’ve just completed the greatest musical work since “Stairway to Heaven.” And it’s especially dangerous in the realm of Christian music – particularly worship music. If the song you’ve completed strikes within you a spiritual chord as well as a musical one, the emotional attachment to the work can be blinding.
The truth is that none of us are putting out great work all the time. In fact, most of us are rarely putting out great work, with the vast majority of our output falling somewhere between fair and decent. And it’s true for every songwriter. Paul McCartney may have a better batting average than you, but even he has struck out a time or two.
The problem is that none of us want to get to the end of the creative process, having poured out large quantities of emotional energy, and hear someone say, “Eh…not your best.” (And most of your friends don’t want to be “that guy,” either.) So instead we surround ourselves with people – often non-songwriters – who will be impressed with whatever we bring to the table. And in doing so we sell ourselves – and, for those of us who are worship leaders, our congregations – way short.
Songwriters, you need someone who doesn’t like all your music – and will tell you. The first person that really fit this mold for me was John Mays, who did the A&R for the first (and only) label record from my band, Better Days Ahead. (“A&R,” for the uninitiated, stands for Artists and Repertoire. The A&R guy at a label plays a huge role in song selection prior to entering the studio.)
Now a VP at Centricity Music, John has spent decades in the music industry. He’s been a musician, a writer, a producer, and an executive – often all at once. And John has learned to tell it like it is, all with an even-keeled West Texas drawl. He’s not mean, critical, or overbearing – but he is honest.
I remember the first song selection meeting before the Better Days Ahead record. I was so confident in the songs I was bringing to the table, and I couldn’t wait to get into the studio. But as we went through the songs and John weighed in on one after another, it became clear that we didn’t yet have enough songs to make an album. We would have to push back the recording sessions and go through another season of writing. I was so disappointed, and my confidence was shaken.
After another few weeks of writing, we gathered for a second song selection meeting. In the intervening time I had written several songs that received high praise from John. And I realized in that moment that I could trust his opinion. He had been honest with me when he didn’t like a song I had written, and so I could trust that when he did say he liked a song it really meant something! Like the truthful little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, John wasn’t going to let me walk into a recording session “naked,” as it were.
These days, I have a few people whose opinions I trust when it comes to the songs I write – among them John; our producer, Scott Williamson; and my wife, Jess. (And if you think it takes courage to be honest with a songwriter who is a friend, imagine the courage it takes to be honest with a songwriter who is your spouse!)
Truthfully, sometimes it hurts when I come to one of them with a song I’m excited about and receive only a tepid response. But I’ve also found that when I swallow my pride and get back to work on the issues they identify in a song I am exponentially more pleased with the final result.
None of my “trusted opinions” is perfect. John could tell you about the successful acts that he’s passed on over the years. (Even Matt Redman, by his own account, told Tim Hughes that he wasn’t really wild about “Here I Am To Worship.” Whoops!) But you know who is definitely wrong? The person who tells you all your songs are great.
News flash: they’re not.
So don’t be the vain Emperor, surrounded by “yes men” who never help you develop as a songwriter, who never send you back to the drawing board, who never help you do the dirty business of gutting a song that’s just not up to par. Find someone you respect, who can give you honest, negative feedback that’s constructive and supportive, then swallow your pride and start listening. It might hurt (your ego) a bit – but it will make you a much better songwriter!
And hopefully, next time you walk on stage to play a new song, you won’t go out there “naked.”
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