In addition to leading worship and heading up the Bethel Music ministry, Brian and Jenn Johnson are truly prolific songwriters. If you are interested in taking your songwriting to the next level, we encourage you to read, share, and discuss this interview with your worship team and songwriting partners.
[WM] A search on SongSelect reveals that between the two of you Brian has sixty-five songwriting credits and Jenn, you’ve got twenty-five. More than just being prolific writers, many of these songs are currently in rotation at churches around the world. What did you do as young adults that made a difference in your writing now, and what suggestions do you have for people who are just starting out?
[Jenn] We’ve both been writing since we were in high school. We just started putting words and music to our connection with God. Vineyard Music really helped steward that Father’s heart and connection to the Lord in those scenes of our lives.
We both write really differently in the sense that Brian is a crafter. He will get his theme and just wring it out and find the best lyrics. It’s amazing that he has such a crafting gift. Brian really writes from the eternal: Who God’s always been and who He will be. But for me, I’ll get a message of what I feel the Lord is saying, almost like a letter, and then try my best to figure out how to sing what I felt the Lord was saying. We do cross each other’s lanes a little bit, but it’s been really cool to see how the other writes.
[Brian] I know a lot of young writers, and it honestly goes back to having confidence in God. It’s important to not be an insecure writer, and just be confident that maybe that thing that you think is so sacred and isn’t the best it can be – maybe it could be better or the song could say it in a better or fresher way.
I would say if you want to be a great songwriter, learn from the people that are doing it well and that have success. And when I say success, I mean the songs that heaven is on, like “10,000 Reasons.” My goodness, what a song! Heaven joined in and nodded and is resting on that song. When churches sing that song it just brings people to a point of response. Glean from those kinds of writers and learn how they do it. Realize that you’re going to be writing for many, many years. An idea that you might think is the best ever but other people don’t, just keep working on it.
Every great leader will thrive in an environment where the people they are leading might be better than they are.
I see this a lot, people want to start songwriting communities but don’t have the backbone to sustain critical thinking and growing people that may be better than themselves in that field. Every great leader will thrive in an environment where the people they are leading might be better than they are.
[WM] Brian, I remember being floored the first time I heard Kim Walker-Smith singing “We Cry Out.” What’s it like to write a song that helped introduce the world to Kim Walker-Smith and Jesus Culture?
[Brian] That’s just awesome. I love it. I honestly wish more songwriters would let go of their songs and maybe allow a better carrier to carry a song. I think, as a songwriter first, that is the goal. For me, I don’t necessarily care who sings the songs as long as they’re resonating. It’s kind of a pastoring perspective on songwriting. Even with our team they’ll sometimes be like, “No, you need to keep this song for your record.” But for me, it’s not even something that I’m even thinking about. I’m always just writing, and whoever wants to sing it can sing it. When someone covers the song, that’s a success.
To be honest with you, when you think about all of my songs, they didn’t really become what they were because of me, they became what they were because Passion covered “One Thing Remains,” and Kari Jobe covered “Forever,” and so on.
Songwriting is not as much about my personal expression, even though some of them are my personal expression. It’s more about, “How is this going to resonate with the body and the church?” We’re constantly shape-shifting and changing lyrics so they can be more palatable for a larger group to sing. For me, when that happens, that’s a success. I love it. I think it’s great. To be honest with you, when you think about all of my songs, they didn’t really become what they were because of me, they became what they were because Passion covered “One Thing Remains,” and Kari Jobe covered “Forever,” and so on.
[WM] What suggestions do you have for teams who are wanting to cultivate a culture of songwriting?
[Jenn] I think that co-writing is a huge key. We co-write with other people a lot. I know for both of us, we just ask the Lord, “Who would be a good person for this song?” Sometimes it’s organic, and sometimes it’s like, “Hey, ask this person to co-write with you.” Just to cross-pollinate what God’s doing around the world has been really beautiful, singing other people’s songs and them singing ours. I think that’s one of the biggest strengths of Bethel is that we don’t just sing our own stuff. If you come to church on a Sunday you’re going to hear songs from four different movements in one set, and I think there’s such a beautiful strength about that.
I think songwriting, for both of us, is definitely on our hearts. It’s what we feel we’re called to do. To give language for the church to sing, especially cross-denominationally. To be a bridge to other denominations and to glean from them. Also, to give them what God’s given us in this cross-pollination.
[Brian] I think that sometimes we have to leave our ego at the door and realize that we need to just keep working. Work, work, work, work. Keep it honest, keep it authentic, but keep working. Sometimes you need to hold onto that baby and not let anyone touch it, but most of the time exposing it to other writers that may be better or stronger in other areas will help make it better. My strength is more melodic, but someone else’s might be more lyrical. I’m going to involve them on that lyric end and not be a closed door. I think all of our writers have been more open to suggestion. It doesn’t mean you have to listen to it or make the change, but just be open to suggestion. I feel like we’ve all seen our songs go to the next level because of that.
[WM] Commercial success is one of the signs that God is on a song. How do you find a balance between what you can do to move a song along and when to let God do the rest?
[Brian] I don’t think we can control which songs rise to the top. There’s a point in our ministries and in our creativity where we stop and God takes over. The problem is that we can stop too soon, or keep going too far, and He’s not actually in what we’re trying to push. It’s like when we’re pitching a song and it’s not doing anything and we keep on and keep on, and then we’re becoming pushy because we’ve got to keep this thing alive and we’ve got to keep the business going, and that’s not good. But the flip side is sometimes our work ethic isn’t as it should be. It’s got to be right in the middle.
I think Jenn is a beautiful example of someone who writes from an authentic place. God will give her a word, message, or theme. She will write to the best of her abilities, bring co-writers in to hit it home, and then she feels as if she accomplished what she was supposed to do. At the end of the day, if you feel like you did what you were supposed to do before God and you worked as hard as you could, then you can say, “It’s done and it’s as good as we could get it!” But the thing is, you have to be able to honestly say that you did your best, and your best possibly looks like being humble and bringing other people in to help. Your best should never be an excuse to say, “I did my best. God gave me this idea and I did my best,” but you really didn’t do your best.
I think success can be on so many different levels, so don’t compare your level to someone else’s.
At the end of the day, if you know before God that you did what you could with your art, that is success in my opinion. That will translate, and I feel like God will bless that. If you’re in the field that God has called you to be in, I believe He wants you to be successful. So the question is, why are some people not successful in the field that God has called them to be in – and what is success? I think success can be on so many different levels, so don’t compare your level to someone else’s.