I was able to catch up with Chris at the end of February for this interview. Since then, his single, “Hallelujah For The Cross” has released. What a fantastic song! It’s a blessing to be able to hear his heart and preparation going into this new record.
[WM] Hello Chris! How have you been?
[Chris McClarney] I’ve been really good! It’s been a busy year. I feel like there has been a ton of (God’s) favor on the music stuff, and I’m so thankful that I get to do what I’m doing!
[WM] I heard that you were writing with Stephen McWhirter yesterday. He was with us at the Christian Musician Summit in November.
[Chris] Oh, I love that guy! He’s the real deal. Yeah, and I think we wrote a good song yesterday, too! That’s always the goal, (laughs)! I do write a lot of bad songs too, but… I think that’s part of the process.
[WM] Oh, I agree.
[Chris] For this record I just made, I think I wrote fifty songs last year. We narrowed it down to, I think, twenty-five, and then we narrowed that down to fifteen. Then we recorded thirteen songs, and maybe eleven will be on the record.
[WM] That’s a great place to start… with that information, what is your test process to approve a song to where it makes it onto the record?
[Chris] Oh, gosh! I mean, a lot of it is just trusting the people I’m working with. One, I trust my pastor, I trust the guys at Jesus Culture, and I trust Capitol Music. When I write a song, a lot of times that song has come out of something that is happening at my church… whether that is like a spontaneous moment or something I’ve been working on with my church in mind. We’ll do a quick recording on an iPhone and it usually makes the rounds, whether that is with my pastor and the Capitol guys, or Jesus Culture and the Capitol guys… and then I love to get feedback from those guys where they’re like, “Oh that works/that doesn’t work.” Then we kind of narrow down to the songs we want to dig into a little more and maybe refine. Maybe there are ways to fix them and make them better and then, for this record, there are probably a third of them that I’ve been doing in some capacity. Then the majority of them though, I had never tried them live, which was a little weird. So, the night we recorded was the first time to really do a bunch of them. That was really outside of my normal. I guess I felt a little comfortable with it because we had narrowed them down through such an open process… I think we got the best songs for the record!
[WM] What do you do with the other 39 songs that you wrote for this record?
[Chris] It’s so funny you asked that question because I had that same thought the other day! I just don’t know. I don’t know what you do, because part of me says, “Well, there were some really good parts in some of those! I wonder if I can take some of the pieces of those and refine them to make them better?” and then another part of me is very aware that maybe those songs are not for a broader audience than just me and the other songwriter and God. I don’t know… it is a weird feeling to put so much effort into stuff and then (not use it). I wrote a bunch of songs for the last record, but it didn’t feel like this. This feels different.
I recorded my record in December, and then in the first part of February we recorded the Jesus Culture record. So, I had different songs for those two records. I wrote a song called, “Yes and Amen” that we ended up doing on both records, but the other ones are all different. So it was kind of like needing 14-15 tunes before it was all over!
[WM] What is the title for this upcoming record?
[Chris] I think it’s going to be called Breakthrough. We also have a single coming out called, “Hallelujah for the Cross” and we wanted to put it out for Good Friday and Easter, so we rushed the process for that song.
[WM] You mentioned, “Yes and Amen.” I love the song. I’ve heard several versions that different artists are recording. Can you tell me about writing it and how so many artists picked it up?
[Chris] Um, well that song was such an easy song to write, which they are not all that way. I just felt inspired! Nate Moore, the guy who sings it on the Housefires record, brought an initial verse idea and just played the verse. Then, almost immediately, I just kind of sang back a version of what the chorus is now, which we went on to refine a little bit. It happened so quick… like within ten minutes! He just sat down and was like, “What do you think about this idea?” and my spirit was like… ”Yes, and what if we sang, “faithful You are?” and we were both like… “This feels good” so we went back and wrote a second verse. In the end, we spent a lot of time on the song, but the guts of it were so quick, it just happened that way. I’m always thankful for those!
[WM] So, you wrote it with Nate from Housefires. How did Chris Tomlin get the song to record?
[Chris] Well, so Tomlin had recorded “Good Good Father” which was also a Housefires song. So, he asked them if they had any more songs that were on their latest record that they thought would be good for him to record. They sent “Yes and Amen” to him. When he heard it, he was like, “Yeah, I’m going to do it!” Tomlin’s record was awesome because, I had another song that I had written that he picked up for that same record. The song is called “Impossible Things.” What was great about that is that he heard that song in a completely different way and ended up recording them both. When I heard he was thinking about recording them I got excited and then told myself… “Oh, he might not.” It was such an honor for me! I was like, “Wow! Chris Tomlin!” so cool.
[WM] What is one of your favorite songs that really took you the longest to write?
[Chris] Ooo, gosh, I mean there’s been a lot of songs that kind of span years of writing. Like off that last record, “God of Miracles”, I had started to write it two years earlier than when I sat down to finish the bridge of it. Some of them take a long time and change a lot in the in-between. “Your Love Never Fails” was like that too. It was just a spontaneous thing that came out of… ‘You make all things work together for my good’… and then fast forward like a year or year and a half when I sat down and wrote stuff around it.
On this current record, there’s a song called “Crazy Love” that I think I struggled the most with so far in trying to get it to say the right thing. The terminology is… from our point of view, it’s so crazy that the God of the universe would give His own son for us. I mean, that’s crazy, but how do you say it right? Not that God’s love is crazy! So, trying to be really sensitive to how it comes across and what’s actually being communicated as opposed to the feelings only. I spent a lot of time on that song for this record, and I’ll just be honest with you… we’re still tweaking it! There have even been some small changes that I’ve made even after the live recording, which is definitely weird, but I just want to make sure that we’re honoring to God and to worship leaders that lead worship at their church, and to Scripture. I feel like it’s important that we, as songwriters, are doing stuff like that. We need to make sure the songs say something. I think the songs need to say something as opposed to saying everything, or nothing. But then, what the song is saying is based in Scripture and is theologically sound and represents the God that we are worshipping. I don’t know, I feel that it’s a weighty thing to try and decipher every time I’m recording. You’ll hear the finished product and maybe it’ll still hit people weird, but I’m definitely trying not to.
[WM] One of my favorite tunes of yours, “God of Miracles,” just got picked up by Teen Challenge. How did that happen?
[Chris] You know, that song has been so organic. I don’t know the exact story for that situation. What I know is that the story I keep hearing is that somebody shows it to somebody that shows it to somebody, and it’s like, “This song is giving me life and hope.” It’s such a weird and awesome feeling to know that I wrote a song that is meeting someone in the spot that they are at and gives them hope, or helps them through a hard season. I mean, what an honor! I don’t know exactly how it works, but I’m so thankful that I get to be a part of these people’s stories.
That song in particular, I feel people keep coming back to. It’s almost viral. People are passing it on themselves as opposed to us spending some sort of budget on marketing.
[WM] What was different for you, being a part of the Live Original Tour?
[Chris] HaHa! Well, the Live Original Tour, I mean is outside of my normal thing that I would normally do, which are mostly worship events. Worship events where the core of the entire night is worship and the crowd is mostly teens to young adults. Um, this was way outside of that normal in that it was a lot of younger teens, and half of it was more of a concert/show, and then Sadie Robertson was speaking the most incredible messages, and then we would do worship in a couple of points in the night. The reason why I did it was I felt like God said, “Do it!” It pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and I am so thankful I did it. I feel it was such a big win for the Kingdom, and we saw lives changed. I think a lot of people might have come for a show or a concert, and I think that many of those people were kind of surprised by the Holy Spirit and by the Lord touching them in ways they were not expecting. They came to just have fun and watch a show, and I think a lot of people left completely changed. What an honor to be a part of that! It was super cool!
[WM] Back to your record, when is it due to release?
[Chris] Right now it is scheduled sometime near the middle of May.
[WM] Do you prefer co-writing, or do you find something special in just writing by yourself?
[Chris] That’s a really good question, um… I’ll say there is a greater value in co-writing, but almost all of the co-writes kind of started with me sitting down by myself. Rarely do I sit down in a room and we’re like, “Well, what do you want to write about?” Most of the time, somebody is bringing a nugget of an idea that started on their own time. For me, I do a lot of writing on piano and sometimes guitar, and just playing the same chords and singing. I mean, I just start worshiping and singing a new song to God.
I do love co-writing. There have only been a handful of times that I’ve written completely on my own.
[WM] You mentioned writing on your piano, what is your writing piano?
[Chris] It’s a Yamaha upright. It’s a U7, which we got from a showboat… I forgot the name of it. It’s a riverboat in Nashville and people would just play it every night.
[WM] You mean the General Jackson?
[Chris] That’s it, the General Jackson Showboat in Nashville. So, it was on that, but it wasn’t super old, so it was in good condition.
[WM] What is your writing guitar?
[Chris] Ooo, now that’s a complicated question because I have a handful of guitars and I kind of feel they all have had different songs hidden in them. You know you pick up a guitar and you’re like, “Oh this guitar is singing to me!” so I like to mix it up. This year I did a lot of writing on a Waterloo from Collings, and also a small bodied Avalon, which is a Northern Irish guitar… and also a Lowden that is also from Northern Ireland. My main guitar is still a Gibson J-45 from 1966. But, the other ones got a lot of use this year.
[WM] The J-45, that is a popular Gibson! When did you get yours?
[Chris] I actually got it for when I was recording my very first record ever, which was called “Love Never Fails.” I actually bought it the night before we recorded! I was like, “Oh, I need a new guitar!”
[WM] I’ve seen many pictures of you with that guitar. It looks like you have an L.R. Baggs M1 pickup.
[Chris] Yep, that’s it. I put that pickup in after I bought it. I love that pickup. It hasn’t worked for all of my guitars. I loved it so much on that J-45 that I tried to put it in two more guitars, and it just didn’t work for them. For those guitars I have a K&K Trinity in one and the L.R. Baggs Anthem in my two small body guitars. It’s great because it has the mic and the piezo to help those smaller guitars sing.
[WM] When did you learn to play guitar?
[Chris] Well, I played piano from when I was a kid. Even when I first started leading worship, it was from a piano. But when I was fifteen, I also wanted to find a wife eventually and it wasn’t cool to carry around a keyboard! So, I bought a guitar! And you really can’t put a piano in your trunk, so I got a guitar and it was multi-purpose… I played for the Lord and for the ladies! Now my wife probably could have cared less that I played guitar! (laughs)
[WM] Staying on gear… Do you have any special processors you run through? What is in your signal chain?
[Chris] No, I just go straight because I’m too lazy to carry stuff around. I mean, the truth is, in Nashville, we have some incredible sound guys and they’ll always have the best D.I.’s to plug into. Then, they do their sweetness on the back end, making the guitar sound awesome in the front-of-house. When I’m out with Jesus Culture, the same thing, our sound guys on the road are amazing! I have not had to struggle with knowing all that stuff in a long time because of having great sound guys!
[WM] You’re still at your church outside of Nashville, right?
[Chris] Yep. It’s in Franklin, just south of Nashville. But, yeah, I’m still there and the drummer from Jesus Culture actually lives here too, so we travel to all the JC events together. Any tour that we do is also out of Nashville too.
[WM] Tell me a bit about your church and how things are going there.
[Chris] It’s called Church of the City, and it’s amazing. For me, having a home church to anchor to is probably one of the most important things to do for a worship leader. Especially for ones that travel, it’s important to have a church family and have church leadership that can speak into your life and into you as a person. A bonus for me is that my church is kind of amazing! I think it’s the best. It’s called “Church of the City” because we really are trying to change our city. We have four campuses, actually churches. Each one of them has a worship pastor and a pastor. But we’re all kind of in the same family heading in the same direction. The church on the west side of Nashville, Nate Moore from Housefires is the worship pastor there. That’s fun too, getting to hang out with buddies.
[WM] What does your campus team look like?
[Chris] Well… Sunday before last, I had Stu G on guitar and last Sunday, James Duke was on guitar. I mean it’s Nashville! We’ve got the best! And to have guys like Stu G and James Duke, who are kind of icons in worship guitar, and they’re just serving at their local church… it’s amazing! I don’t want to brag about it, but I don’t take lightly the fact that there is a real honor in being able to live in Nashville and have people like that available and coming to your church. I’m really thankful for where I’m at.
[WM] How often are you out with Jesus Culture?
[Chris] In all, between Jesus Culture and the tour I did with Sadie… I was only gone 16 weekends. Other than that, I lead worship every week at my church.
[WM] How does that balance with your family and ministry? Are you taking your family with you?
[Chris] It’s a little bit half-and-half. We tried to do the take-my-family-thing on everything, but in all honesty, sometimes it’s easier for my wife to just keep the kids at home, for the sanity of our family and to keep a normal routine and stuff. But this year, now that the kids are getting a little older, we all travel together a little more. We try to make fun trips out of everything, like if I am going to Florida with Jesus Culture, we take the whole family and make a mini-vacation out of it. I think that’s how we try to manage it. For the family, it’s just to try to make it fun to where everyone is looking forward to it. It’s important that at the end of my life, I’m not going to care about how many shows I played, but was I a good dad, friend, and husband? Was I a good pastor? These are the things that really matter, and I think that what we do is important. Like I said earlier, it’s such an honor to be able to write songs that other churches are using. But, being a dad is still way more important than that to me.
[WM] Now, really important, tell me about the “Tiny Hands” videos!
[Chris] (Laughs) Yes! Well, I was on tour with Lauren Daigle and we went to a coffee shop one day, and there was a toy store across the street from the coffee shop. So, I went in and at the counter, I just bought on impulse a left and a right tiny hand because they were sitting there at the counter. I don’t know, tour life can get boring sometimes, so we started making videos with these little hands. It was to crack ourselves up! We were just making videos and it turned out that people loved them, so yeah! It’s been kind of an ongoing joke. I quit making videos because other people started making them! But I still have a bunch, and I fully intend to bring them back at some point!