A friend told me that 50,000,000 people sing Hillsong worship songs every week – wow! As a companion piece to our Hillsong United cover story we are super excited to share Matt’s insights on songwriting. One of the reasons that we love this column so much is that we know that the next generation of songwriters are potentially reading this column or attend your church. We again encourage you to share this resource with your friends and team.
[WM] In addition to being Joel Houston’s primary writing partner, you’ve also written amazing songs like, “I Surrender”, “Go” and “Fire Fall Down” on your own. Is it different for you when you’re writing on your own, or is it the same “pool” and you just happen to be swimming around by yourself?
[Matt] I write with Joel more than I write with anyone. I find that we just have a flow that works. When I write with Joel these days, he’s so thematically driven with his songs, and he’s unbelievable with lyrics. It’s not that I don’t help with lyrics, but I know how to step out of the way when it comes to that stuff. If I don’t understand where he’s taking it, then I’ll just let him take it and we’ll see where he’s going with it. I’ll keep trying to write lyrics for it at the same time too.
When I’m on my own, I’m not consciously thinking, “I’m writing a song on my own and this is going to be my own song.” But if I’m writing a song and it feels like I’m going to be finishing it on my own, it is a little bit different. You have the pressure of trying to figure it out on your own and you don’t have someone there to bounce ideas off of. It really helps to talk through ideas with people. When writing on my own, then getting on my own before God is the thing that works. They are usually very simple songs when I write on my own. Just honest, God-seeking songs. I think that’s the “hat” I put on. I’ve got a room back home where I’ve set up a piano and I turn all the lights off and just worship and start singing whatever comes to me. Then I’ll find a melody or some lyric in there that stands out and I’ll try to figure out if that’s the song. If it is, then I’ll start figuring out what it is and what it’s going to say. And that’s how it happens.
[WM] Is piano the main instrument that you write from, or does it vary depending on what you have in your hand?
[Matt] It’s a bit of both. It could be piano or guitar, or sometimes just singing while I’m walking down the street. I’ll record that into my phone.
[WM] How has the your records in your collection changed your world as a songwriter?
[Matt] Mikey Chislett used to pump music down my throat cause I used to just love Pop punk and he was always giving me Beatles albums, and The Police, and all these old records that, as a kid, unless you’ve grown up listening to it you’re like, “This is so weird. Why would I listen to this? It sounds terrible!” And then you actually start listening to these songwriters from back in the day, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and all those guys from back in that era. It’s all of those older albums that really stand out to me as a pivotal point in my songwriting, as far as learning from them. There’s so much great music around these days, but a lot of it, when you listen to it, you can hear the inspiration that comes from those guys who paved the way.
[WM] Out of the Beatles era, what are some of your favorite songs, albums, and artists?
[Matt] I love the late ‘60’s and what they did then, when they started detaching themselves from the public and just started making music. I think that was kind of cool, and that was a moment in time where writing music was something fun that they enjoyed. It was different and it pushed the boundaries. It was so good, and I think that it’s needed in music and I think people are continuing to do that. You can tell when there are times in music where people are getting stale and wanting something different, so they just go and do something completely different, and people will move with it.
[WM] Who are your favorite lyricists, and are there any particular songs that have influenced you the most, and if so why?
[Matt] I love the singer/songwriter folk vibe, so maybe Ryan Adams. And I would have to say that one of my favorite songs of all time is by a guy named Ray LaMontagne called, “All the Wild Horses”. It’s just a very simple song, but there’s something really stand out about it. Just the emotion and the flow of it is something that I love. If you can connect to someone on a simple level, then you’re doing a great job.
[WM] What advice do you have for young songwriters that are coming up?
[Matt] Get on your own. Put the time and effort into it. Dig and dig and dig. I remember being inspired by one of the guitarists from the Red Hot Chili Peppers who just wanted to play guitar, so he would actually play guitar for 7 or 8 hours a day, just trying to get better and better at it. So, for me, when I had the chance to do it, and obviously it’s easier when you’re younger and you don’t have too much responsibility, and that’s where I was at, I just decided that I was going to write as much as I could. Any moment that I had free, and any spare moment I would be in my bedroom, writing. Not consciously thinking, “I’m learning how to write,” but just doing it and putting pen to paper, writing terrible songs, but gradually getting better and better at it.
I think for a songwriter who is aspiring to be someone who does it with their life, that’s what you’ve got to do. You’re not just going to fall into it. You’ve got to put the time into it and craft what it is and what your sound is. Be true to who you are and don’t be scared of what everyone else is doing. If there’s a sound that you’ve got, go with it, because it’s probably your sound for a reason. I would just say, “Work hard.”
[WM] Thank you so much Matt!