Whether you are interested in developing your skill as a songwriter, cultivating a culture of songwriting for your church – or both, this column will feature insightful tips from the most esteemed Christian artists and songwriters out there. We could think of no better way to kick this column off than with the amazing Darlene Zschech!
[WM] What are some of the most important things you learned early on as a songwriter?
[Darlene] Be secure enough to get feedback. When I’m talking about songs, I’m talking about songs of worship, so have people around you who are theologically sound. I love “team”. I love collaboration. I’ve written a lot of songs on my own, but I wouldn’t say that they are the greatest songs. I think some of my greatest songs have been written with other people. The bible says that one person can put a thousand to flight, but two can put ten thousand to flight! I love sitting with someone and taking these melodies and lyrics and tussling them around.
There’s a song on this new project called “Daylight”, which I wrote with one of the beautiful young songwriters here in Australia, whose family pastors a church not far from us. We are great friends, and we just sat in a room together with me on the piano and her on the guitar. I told her about the idea I had and how I was feeling. We started talking about the goodness of God, and we laughed and we cried and we sang, and we tossed bits out and re-worked sections. And within an hour and a half we had that song. It was so beautiful and so easy.
As a songwriter, you can get stuck on a melody. That’s probably one of my main problems. I’m a little bit older, and I can get stuck in a certain style. I need people around me to challenge me and to stretch that. Be secure enough to bring your songs to the table.
At Hillsong, I would receive songs from people, and sometimes a lot of songs would come in a week’s time. People would say, “Here’s my song. God’s given it to me. It’s very precious.” And I would say, “When you’re handing this song to me, firstly you’re saying that you’re okay for us to play with it and to give you some feedback. But when you tell me that God gave you this song, then it’s like you’re saying that this will be the greatest song in human history, because God is really epic.”
And I tell that story to say just be careful what you say to people when you’re handing them your song. Of course God inspired you; He is creativity Himself. But it can be a little bit heavy to say that God gave you the song, because you’re basically saying, “Don’t touch this song.”
If you want to get better at the craft of songwriting, just breathe and be relaxed. There are so many songs. There are millions of songs. There are better songs ahead. We can’t out-write God’s glory. There are many songs to come. So just breathe…relax…get with some people and hone your craft. Be okay with good, critical feedback, because you’ll get a better song on the other end.
[WM] Giving people the honest truth about their songwriting, and giving them constructive feedback can be difficult at times. Does it come naturally to you?
[Darlene] I don’t think so. I’ve had to learn to be confident, without being arrogant, about what God has called me to do. I’ve had to learn to be okay with being wrong sometimes. I’ve gotten songs that I haven’t been sure about before. I remember when Joel Houston brought the song “Everyday”. I told him, “There are a lot of words in here Joel. I’m not sure how well a congregation will wrap their heads and their tongues around this.” Joel is so prolific in his lyrics! And, of course, the church loved it! And I said, “Yep! I stand corrected.”
None of us know. We do our best, but none of us know. I’ve had to learn to be a bit kind to myself. I’m not the Jesus police here. I’m just trying to uphold a bit of His standard. I do love the congregation. I don’t love that congregations are always guinea pigs. I always want songwriters to really hone their craft and to not just use the congregation as a testing ground to see how a song goes. I tell songwriters that they need to test and refine their song the very best that they can before they bring it to the congregation, because this is their worship. These are their sacred prayers, and this is their sacred space. I’ve had to learn to be okay in my own shoes, and to just do my best.
[WM] What tips do you have for worship teams looking to cultivate a culture around writing songs? Maybe they haven’t started yet, but they know they want to be doing it and have no idea where to start.
[Darlene] One of the things I love about this new album is that ninety-nine percent of the people on this album had never done a recording of any sort, let alone an album. A couple of the singers that are leading worship with me on this album had never been in a studio. And there are songs on the album from people on our team. What we do here at Hope Unlimited Church is to try and cultivate that environment from the ground up. We have a team of about 20 people who are really passionate about writing. One of the leaders of that team, and someone you will hear on the project, is Luke Taylor, who is the worship pastor at our church. He is just a young guy, and he has never really done anything like this, to this degree, before. But Luke will gather the team of songwriters, give them a theme at the beginning of the month, and then put them into groups. For example, this year the theme at our church is “Overflow”. And so, near the end of last year, he gave them that theme to write around and sent them off. Two weeks later they all came back and played their ideas for each of the other teams, and everyone gave a bit of feedback and began to decide which ones they would work on. What came to the forefront out of that was one of the songs that we used.
Recently we had our “Heart of Hope” weekend, which is a vision casting weekend where we talk about who we are and what we’re about. That song became the leading song for that weekend, and it was absolutely stunning.
So, our songwriting teams and process has a lot of structure to it, but with a lot of freedom within that structure. I think that’s how creative people work the best. If you don’t give creative people a deadline, they will just procrastinate until the cows come home! It’s important to give people something to aim for, and a theme to write about, but then also to give them a time-frame that you need it in.
Without something meaty to say, songs may be beautiful but they won’t arrest your attention.
Also, great songs have to have a great message. Without something meaty to say, songs may be beautiful but they won’t arrest your attention.
That’s how we go about it, and it’s working really well! There are lots of ways to write a song, but we decided to start from the ground up and invite people who have never even written before to be on the teams, because they have the desire. Then I listen to the songs, along with a couple of our other guys who are amazing songwriters. We give feedback and work with the writers to refine the songs. And it’s good!
[WM] A search for Darlene Zschech on CCLI reveals 106 songs. You are pretty prolific! In 2008 “Shout To The Lord” was even sung on American Idol, one of the epicenters of American Pop culture. Out of the many songs that you’ve written and sung over the years, are there any that remain most memorable to you and why?
[Darlene] Some of the ones that are most memorable to me are probably ones that aren’t out and around. They are songs that I’ve written for people’s funerals, or songs that I’ve written for friends who are going through hard times. They may be ones that I just record on a voice memo and send to that person. I guess I never tire of God’s story, no matter what the song is. Like what I went through with having cancer. I had no idea that I had cancer when we wrote and sang Revealing Jesus. And out of those songs I was declaring that I hate cancer, because one of my best friends was very sick, and still is. We lost both of our dads to cancer. And so I was very much declaring that I hate this vile thing. The song “In Jesus Name” was written out of that. I was declaring something over this disease. I was declaring that people would live and not die.
The stories that I heard back from that song were so personal and moving. They are hard to read sometimes. And yet, songs like that give people a voice when they have nothing in them to communicate what they are feeling. If you can create a song that will help give voice to the human condition, it is such an amazing privilege. I have heard thousands of stories back over the years from songs like that. They are humbling, and raw, and real. And they just talk about the faithfulness of God.
There are so many great songwriters around, and I’m certainly not one of them. I surround myself with great songwriters and just do my best. But we would all say that writing a song is one thing, but when it releases a God-story in someone, that is the prize. It’s so good! It is a real honor and a privilege.
NEXT ISSUE: Bethel’s Brian and Jenn Johnson