Our [WM] staff was very impressed when we first saw For All Seasons lead worship at the Night of Worship concert at NAMM that we sponsor. We recently caught up with Emily and Johnny Hamilton and Jeff Luckey of For All Seasons during a quick break in the middle of a three-week stint at camp. They are leading worship for the second year in a row at Super Summer Camp held at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, OK.
[WM] You’re in the middle of another camp week. You’ve done camps before… tell us about this one?
[Emily] Oklahoma has one of the largest camps in the nation, Falls Creek, which is like a Baptist camp. This camp that we’re a part of is not directly associated with Falls Creek, but a lot of their leadership is the same. This camp is designed specifically for students in leadership. It’s really cool because the students, as soon as they show up, they’re just like ready to go and so engaged rather than like some of the camps we’ve done. Many of them are full of a wide range of students… many of them know Jesus and many of them don’t and you kind of have to get them to trust you. So, it may be like night two or night three before they are engaged. But, here at Super Summer, these students right off the bat, they are engaged!
When we first started doing camps, we started with junior high students. At that time, we were coming straight out of college. So, we went from leading our peers to leading eleven-year-olds! That was a big transition, but actually leading worship for junior high for a long time really taught us a lot about actually teaching people what it is to worship through music. Especially coming from a Christian University where people were more knowledgeable and they understood what that meant. But then having junior high students… some of them really didn’t understand like why some people were raising their hands or even wondering why are we singing. As a worship leader, that taught me a lot about how to explain to people why it is that we are called to worship through music. Now, we’ve taken that into whatever arena we are in. Now it feels like in our camp season, the summer season, we’re leading mostly high school students.
[WM] You initially formed the band in order to audition to lead worship at Biola University’s Chapel services. Tell us what prompted you to want to get involved?
[Jeff] Personally, I joined the group after they had been playing together for a year. Basically, worship was something that was happening on campus all the time. There were probably eight different chapel services a week. As a Biola student, you’re required to go to 30 chapel services every semester. There was a lot of that happening and I think all of us just really gravitated toward worship, our love for music, and a chance to get involved on campus. And this was a chance to be a part of forming the culture of worship at school. It was interesting because at Biola, they obviously have a music major and they also have a worship emphasis of the major, but nobody in our group was a worship major or even a music major! (laughs) We just kind of fell into it because we wanted to be involved and we loved music. I think we were at a stage in college where we were really being shaped by the truth we were hearing in the classroom… you know, in Bible classes and in our relationship with the Lord and just feeling that prompting from Him.
For myself, it started at a homeless brown-bag ministry and an athletic camp during the week… any opportunity to serve really, and then when the opportunity came to play music, it was like marrying passion and excitement with service at the same time. I think because we formed that groundwork at the very beginning, it really speaks to the longevity that we’ve had. The three of us have been playing together for over ten years now.
[WM] What were your majors?
[Jeff] I was a business major with an emphasis in marketing and then Johnny and Emily were both communications majors. (laughing) Johnny wanted you to know that he didn’t finish! He kind of dropped out and started working on music a lot more! He was in another band while we were playing. It’s interesting because, being in a band and doing it full-time, we’ve essentially launched a business. And Emily is really gifted in teaching and communicating from the stage. You know, Emily’s communication is a large part of what we do and I know that has a lot to do with her communications classes.
[WM] Tell some of how your band sound evolved over the years.
[Johnny] We’ve always kind of been guitar heavy… even back in school we had two electric guitars and that was always a big focal point of what we did. I think back in school, we were always trying to think of different arrangements for the songs that we’re hearing. A big part of us was like putting our “stamp” on those songs. A lot of music at that time was like a five-piece arrangement where there was a keys player, one electric, a bass, an acoustic, and a drummer. Um, we saw having two electrics as having an advantage toward our own renditions and our own arrangements of songs. We leaned heavily into having specific guitar parts.
[Emily] I remember specifically, we would rent out a classroom late at night, like starting at 10:00 PM because that was like the only time class was not going on. We would like set up all of our stuff and I remember working on the song, “Amazing God” by Brenton Brown. When we started playing, I just said, “I’m just going to play it on the acoustic and play it from the beginning and then we’re just going to build parts around that.” Rather than pulling up the original version, learn that, and then change it. So, we just started from acoustic and built it up to where we wanted it to be. It’s funny because now there are songs… like we have a keys player playing with us this summer – which normally we don’t have a full-time dedicated keys player – and she’ll ask, “Oh, like do you guys play the original version of Great Are You Lord?” and I’ll be like, “To be honest, I don’t really even know how the original goes as far as specific keys lines and guitar lines!” We would really just start from nothing because it allowed us to put our stamp on the song.
[Johnny] I think along with that, something I’ve learned over the years, since we’re not playing at a church every Sunday, we’re not like evolving with the song with the church. We’re playing a lot of the same songs in different places over and over and over. It wasn’t planned out, but it just so happens that we each have a passion for writing our own parts, which has really helped us over the years to take ownership in the song and to pour our worship not only into when we’re playing live, but also in being part of the production beforehand.
[WM] How does someone go about figuring out what “stamp” it is that they can put on
[Jeff] I think for me, the way I look at it is… you know the phrase, “There’s nothing new under the sun?” You could spend your whole life trying to be original, but I read this quote, I think it was from C.S. Lewis, “No man who cares about originality will ever be original. It’s only the man who’s only thinking about doing a good job or telling the truth who becomes really original.” So, in a personal setting like a solo artist or a band who wants to develop a sound for themselves, I would say, don’t take the music that influences you and inspires you and engages you… don’t look at that as like something else on the side. You need to incorporate that into what you do and I think if you allow those influences to put their coloring on who you are – you like those things because of who you are. So, even in a band setting, it’s like no one else can sound like me, Johnny, and Emily together because it’s a combination of influences. We all have different bands that we admire or grew up listening to, like different genres that we think are better than others, but when we put all that on the table and we can find a middle ground of, “This is where we all are stoked about it”. Then that becomes “our sound.” It’s about being honest about who you are. It’s finding the certain elements that inspire you at a heart level and then finding ways to incorporate those while maintaining the focus of leading people in worship and not becoming a distraction, but cohesively working as a unit in leading people.
There have been plenty of lines that we’ve written and we’re like, “it just feels too showy” and it did not feel like it accomplishes the heart of the song. It just felt like I was trying to show off. Or, it can be the other way around where the song feels like it needs more because it’s just too basic. I think for a long time, I tried to shut out my influences and the bands that I like because I was just trying to sound different than them. But realizing that no one else can have my combination of likes and passions and especially in a group setting when you put it together and you all are excited about it, it will be uniquely different.
[WM] Tell us about your time at the Hume Lake Youth camp, how that came about, and how you grew as a band there?
[Johnny] There are definitely things that we learned at Biola that really stuck with us, like an emphasis on Biblical truth in lyrics and the idea of worship not being limited to music but of music being a means of worship. I think those things really stuck with us from Biola, but Hume was definitely a forming time because we had to make the decision, “OK, are we going to really leave everything behind and pursue this 100% – like quitting our job or quitting whatever career we were going for or plans we had?” and we put everything on hold just to go for it. Because, at Hume, you would move up there for like months at a time and that turned into over half the year, we were up there. Then in the fall, we would tour. So, that was very formative in our own walk with the Lord and in our faith. Hume is not a place where bands can be “divas” or bands can just do their thing on stage and then leave and not talk to anyone. It’s a place where your running recreation games… you’re up at 7AM doing a dawn patrol acoustic worship service or worship under the stars… worship around the fire for a victory circle at the end of the week. We were just full bore! Worship was a small part of what we did and I feel like that really formed how we view what we do and also how we view the people we are interacting with and how important it is for us to interact with people outside of being on a microphone. We would do things like leading devotions or just having coffee with students – learning about their lives. One of the first tag-lines we ever put to our name was “A Life of Worship” and I think that’s something we really learned at Hume. Music was a small part of our worship lifestyle. We’re very indebted to that time. We grew a lot and it kept us in a really humble place doing what we’re doing.
[WM] When did you begin to shift from being a worship band playing other people’s songs to writing your own? And do you still mix up your set with originals and covers?
[Emily] I think Hume definitely played a part in that. Up until Hume, we really didn’t have a reason to name ourselves in any way. It was like, we would play a couple of conferences and stuff while we were students at Biola and some youth groups would have us out. They would really just call us, “A Band From Biola.” But then when we went to Hume, even the need for just merchandise to support ourselves, we were, “Oh, I guess we need a name!” And especially when we go to make a record. For the first record we did for Hume, out of ten songs, maybe two were originals… possibly three. It was then we were, “I guess we need to figure out a name” and it was around that time people were really affirming us in what we’re doing and encouraging us to keep going and God was opening doors. I think it was right at that time that a desire to start writing more music came to the surface.
The cool thing about, not just Hume, but the different avenues we were able to walk down and places we got to play, we were really learning what it looked like to write a great worship song. When I say “great,” I mean one that the congregation can really be engaged with. At Hume, we had the students for six days and we would only introduce two of our own, but we wanted to do a really good job introducing them rather than just like throwing a bunch of new songs at them.
But we didn’t feel the pressure of having to release a full-length record immediately. And at that time, we had absolutely no understanding of Nashville and how that works. We were just releasing music so that every summer we have a new project. It would be a mix of some of the stuff that we were playing at camp and a few of our own songs. Looking back, it’s almost like we were able to slowly ease into it. We were a part of camp ministry for six years! Having that safe environment to begin to write music and not feel this pressure of getting an entire record together. We didn’t do a full record of our own music until 2014 and we had been going at it full-time since 2010. It kind of allowed us to figure out what we wanted to be about and write about and also really retain that heart for leading people in worship rather than just, “Let’s write a bunch of songs so that other people will sing our songs.” Not that that is the heart of other people, but I just see that I could put that pressure on myself. You know, I just had a meeting with the camp director here at OBU about teaching new songs. Pretty much all the songs we are doing this week are popular in the church right now, but it’s always hard when you have a bunch of churches together because they are all playing different songs. Sometimes we just have to go with the ones that have been played for the last ten years so that for sure everybody knows them. I was just telling him, “If you’re getting feedback that students don’t know the songs, I want to know because our only job here is to lead them in worship and if they don’t know the songs, then we are failing at our job.” Being at Hume really allowed us the freedom to really embrace that and also providing us a spot to write music and try it out on the students and to see what’s really connecting with them and to see what’s really important to a congregational worship song.
[WM] You narrowed over 60 songs you wrote down to seven for your first EP, “Clarity” with Centricity. Will you use some of the others for future releases?
[Emily] We’ll save some of them. We’ve had a couple of sit-down meetings with our publisher and A&R just say, “Hey, out of the 50+ songs we have left there are at least 20 of them that we really don’t care about at this point. They could be good songs, but we just really don’t feel super connected to them.” A lot of this beginning season with the label was finding people to write with that we really connect with. But I think that there’s probably 15 songs that we said we really believe in these songs which means we’re going to revisit them… maybe we need to re-work the chorus or write new verses or maybe there’s just one part of a song that we really like and we’ll scrap the rest. It’s hard to let those go because there’s this fine line between wanting to fight for them and also realizing that we might be walking into a new season of completely different songs. It’s tricky because you really feel connected to them, but sometimes you just have to let them go.
[Emily] Yes and no. I see the only setback currently is that travel time is long. There are bands that live somewhere on the west coast or just “not-Nashville.” And if they get on some kind of national tour, they will just fly out and almost live out of Nashville. But I think what’s been really cool is that we’ve been able to spend six years just getting a really good grasp of the West Coast. You know, like Washington, down California and even over into Arizona. We have just been able to spend a lot of time here and even on this last tour with Jordan Feliz and Blanca, it was like, “Jordan’s going to do this West Coast run, so he’s going to bring a band with him that has a good read on the West Coast.” Also, a lot of bands don’t want to make the trek all the way to California because you can’t just do the West Coast for the weekend and then go back to Nashville. You have to stay out for a couple of weeks. So, honestly, we found it to be a benefit and I think it’s even proven in the fact that we’re still here based in California. I think that influence-wise, we like being in California. When it comes to our sound, kind of having that separation a little bit considering that 90% of Christian music is made in the same 50-mile radius, having that separation is nice for us. Even just work-wise, being able to be in a population where the majority has no gauge of what you do and honestly doesn’t really care either – because Christian music is just not a big vocation in California, it’s such a corporate place. It allows us to just turn off work-mode and enjoy time with our families, but still have an opportunity to play because California is so populated. I remember having this conversation with our manager about another artist that he manages and how when you play a show in, let’s say, Oklahoma, it’s like you can maybe play two shows in Oklahoma – Oklahoma City and Tulsa… but it’s like in California, you can play Anaheim Hills and then go 20 minutes away and play Huntington Beach and then drive another 35 minutes and you can play L.A. It’s just such a populated place that it allows us to stay really, really busy without having to travel very far.
[WM] Emily, on your Instagram feed there are a number of photos of you playing a red Fender Jazzmaster. What drew you to that instrument?
[Emily] Yes, that is my main guitar. I got it originally because I had been playing acoustic for so long and transitioning to something smaller like a tele just seemed kind of tricky and I had an Epiphone Sheraton for a little bit – I actually thought I would like that more because it felt hollow like the acoustic, but I ended up liking the size and comfort of the Jazzmaster better. Since I have gotten it, I ended up borrowing our old guitarist’s tele for a little bit and actually really liked it. I’ve been thinking about adding onto the never-ending cycle of gear changing! But, I do really love my Jazzmaster right now!
[WM] Are you still playing the Gibson acoustic?
[Emily] I have a Gibson Hummingbird that really has a lot of issues, but I love it because Johnny actually proposed to me with it! It was like a birthday gift and then my ring was actually attached to it. So, I can never get rid of it! It’s going to have to be passed down in our family forever. For acoustic, I am playing a Taylor 816 that I really love. It’s the Grand Symphony, which has a bigger bottom end on it, so it’s a lot deeper. Other Taylor’s seemed too thin sounding to me. I’ve had it for almost ten years now.
[Johnny] (Laughing) Always! It’s always a problem! I am the problem, it’s always my fault, I always have to apologize to people… seriously, I usually find the drummer who is before me and after me if we’re sharing a set and I go try to become best friends with that guy, or girl. From there, I just let them know what’s going on and that I’m a lefty… it’s a process that I don’t look forward to, but it’s what I have to do. What I really want to learn how to do is learn to play drums right handed! That would be amazing!
[Jeff] John Brinton at Tyler Amps made me a custom cabinet and I have the JT-46 (like the Blues Breaker model) and then the HM-30, which is like a Matchless, or a VOX and I blend those together. But on the record, we used those, plus we used a Matchless and a Tyler JT-14. We also used a Tyler 20/20 and then for some, we just went directly in. The producer had a really nice Neve mic-pre and we just went straight in through that for the hook on the song, “Higher”; straight into the board.
[Jeff] I have some of the Strymon pedals like the Big Sky, Timeline, and Mobius. But, I think I use them because we play so many different songs that it’s nice to have presets for them ready to go. I don’t have a loop setup where I can have them all programed. I use a pretty small board. I really like the Walrus Luminary octave generator right now because you can go up or down two octaves and blend them all together. So for some of the lead lines, like the hook in, “No Other” I used the Walrus Luminary to get those high frequencies blended in. I’m loving that pedal right now. I just got a Zvex Fuzz Factory and I don’t yet know how I’m going to incorporate it into a worship song, but I’m going to find a way!
[WM] Emily, what mic are you using?
[Emily] I have a Neumann, but I’m looking to switch to the Shure KSM8.
[WM] What else is your “go to gear” and why you like it?
[WM] One thing I like about the Clarity record is the mix and the drums are very upfront. What was your process for arriving there in the final mix?
[Johnny] We simply like a big drum sound! We like real drum sound or a hybrid of both and I feel like when it comes to the mix, we are a band and not a solo artist so we want it to feel like a band. We want it to feel like we would want to “hear” it if we were just listening to For All Seasons and not a part of it. We’ve always been kind of a guitar and drums forward mix, so the guitars, drums, and vocals are all kind of sharing that top spot in volume and feature. We’ve just always been okay with that. There is always a little push back when it comes from people we are working with or the mix engineer saying, “We can’t hear the vocals anymore.” And we’re like, “We know, it’s cool.” We’re pretty picky about all that stuff. I think just because we care a lot about it and we really want it to be what we imagine it being.
As far as sounds on the EP, we worked with a couple of different producers and I think something that I’m just a huge fan of is mixing samples and loops with real drums and kind of messing with the drum sound to just get a unique tone out of them, as opposed to what you may think of a clean, crisp, Nashville tone of drums.
I love pop music and rock music and so we were fishing around for a unique sound and landed on a couple of these things in post production. I know that one of the producers took my snare sample and ended up re-sampling it two or three times and then doing something different to it and that became my new snare sample. I think he crushed the junk out of one of the snares and then he like fattened that one up… he just got creative with it. It seems like mainstream music is often a couple of years ahead of Christian music. We love mainstream music as well and we’re influenced by the sounds we hear and we use the things that inspire us in our own music. For us, we love it and we’re proud of it and that’s what mattered the most.
[Johnny] That was incredible! It was our first time playing with her and we’re on the same label, which makes it kind of neat. Also, we live right down the street from Anaheim, where NAMM is held, for us it was really cool! You know, like seven years ago, we were stagehands at NAMM- it was kind of like a full-circle moment. To top it off, the guy running sound was one of the best in the industry. It was an all-around amazing night!