[WM] With over a million plays on You Tube, the title track from your new album Living Hope is clearly resonating with people. Noting that Brian Johnson has been leading this song at Bethel since he co-wrote it with you, “Living Hope” is also speaking to congregations. Before you became known as Phil Wickham the recording artist, you effectively grew up leading worship at your home church and other congregations in Southern California. The context for this record is different in that you are once again leading worship at a church and many of the songs reflect your response to being an active part of a worship team. Can you trace the steps of how this happened?
[Phil Wickham] There’s a church called Harvest Christian Fellowship, and the pastors name is Greg Laurie. He’s an amazing evangelist, and he does this thing called the Harvest Crusade every year at Anaheim stadium. Millions of people have responded to the Gospel through Greg’s ministry. Growing up in Southern California, I’ve been a part of those events for a long time. I remember being at the first one when I was five years old and my parents actually sang at it. So, full circle, I am now the worship leader at these events. About two years ago, the church asked if I wanted to be a part of the normal worship community gathering at their services. After some prayer, I agreed.
So, about two times a month I lead worship at Harvest Christian Fellowship. I thought it would be cool to be home a little more, to team up with Greg a little, but then this really special thing happened in my heart where I started loving the people and this community and I started to want to write songs for the community. For the first time since I was in high school I was one of the regular worship leaders for a local church. My whole life since I graduated from high school has been traveling and on the road and touring and being a worship leader for the greater church. But having a community in mind when I wrote “Living Hope” or some of the other songs on the record, I wondered if it would work at Harvest. The writing process of this record went from, “What is my expression and what is God showing me?” to, “What is God doing in our local church, what songs are we looking to sing, what kind of scriptures are we going over?” and it was so refreshing and life-giving.
We’ve probably been doing nine of the songs on the new record at Harvest for the last year, and they’ve been tried and true. To have a group of people where I could bring in these new songs and see what worked and what didn’t, was so good. This record, more than any other, is a corporate worship record. It’s been so cool to have these new songs for our church; songs like “Living Hope” and “Christ is Risen” and “Great Things” among several others. I can’t wait to see how God chooses to use these songs outside of my local church. If there was anything different about writing and recording this album, it was that it was more of a community effort than a personal, artistic effort.
[WM] The YouTube video for “This Is Amazing Grace” came out on November 13, 2013! That song is still #3 on the CCLI Top 100, and with the exception of “The Lion and the Lamb”, it is the only up-tempo song in their top ten. Looking from ‘the inside out’ as the songwriter, be it the words, melody, tempo, and/or the anointing, why do think this song continues to speak to so many people?
[Phil] In a way I feel like you just answered it. The words, the melody, the anointing – that thing that’s outside of our control where God just chooses to breathe. The story of that song is such an accident, and I love that about it. It’s not a ‘wake up from a dream with words and melodies on my tongue just singing out in a spiritual realm and writing’; it was the opposite of that. It was just me and my buddy hanging out in Nashville talking about the grace of God. We were supposed to write a song but we ended up hanging the whole time. So, with about fifteen minutes left we wrote this quick chorus, and the chorus of “This is Amazing Grace” just flowed out. I didn’t think twice about it. We wrote the chorus and the bridge and kind of had the melody and some random verse lyrics. I forgot about that song, and three years later someone sent me the MP3 of me singing that song with an acoustic guitar into my computer. It was Jeremy Riddle from Bethel Church, and he said, “Hey, we’re recording an album later this week and we’re looking for one more song. We think this is it, do you mind if we rewrite some of the verses and put it on our new record?” Honestly, I was like, “I can’t even remember writing this song, so thank you for even wanting to use it. Do whatever you want.”
So, it was a really roundabout way of God using this little moment with two buddies in Nashville years ago. Not trying to write a hit or write a song that our churches would sing, but just in response to kind of getting blown away by the grace of God. I liken it to the story of the five loaves and the two fish where this boy has these five loaves and two fish, and there are 5,000 men there plus women and children who haven’t eaten all day. The logical thing to say is go and let them feed themselves, send them off to town so they can get something to eat, but Jesus has another idea. This little boy brings the loaves of bread and fish to Jesus to offer some to him, and Jesus links arms with this boy to meet the needs of this whole crowd. Alone that little boy with his offering would have been barely enough to feed one family, but when tied to Jesus that offering was multiplied and overflowing, and I feel like that’s what God wants to do with us. He wants to link arms with us and take the little things that we have to meet the massive needs of our church communities. We can’t do it on our own, but if we do stuff unto Him to bless His heart, He can take those offerings of purity and multiply them beyond what we thought was possible. And that’s what I see in “This is Amazing Grace”.
[WM] “Living Hope” was co-written with you and Brian Johnson, and no surprise it is a beautiful song. Akin to receiving a special gift on Christmas Day, as a songwriter, musician, and worshipper, how much are you waiting for ‘the one’ to come along, and is there any kind of internal tension as you’re waiting for it to appear?
[Phil] I definitely haven’t passed that level of humanity, You are kind of always looking for those songs with that unexplainable intangible ‘x-factor’, ‘extra-anointing’, or ‘God- breathed’ moment, and that’s the chase – to find those songs that are like “Wow!” There have been songs where I thought, “This is so special, I can hear churches singing this” and then it’s one of the least popular songs on the record and it falls to the wayside. You just never know in the long run what that intangible anointing, what God is going to breathe into a song beyond your own influence.
The more you write, the more you get this instinct where you go, “OK, we stumbled onto something that is unique. It doesn’t feel like we’re just trying to write a song anymore, it feels like there’s an extra amount of anointing and Holy Spirit in the moment.” You learn to recognize and chase after that. The search and the challenge to find that and the digging it takes. Those moments of excavating, like someone looking for dinosaur bones when you just see a toe sticking out of the dirt and think, “We might have just found something special here!” Once in a while songs feel like that. It could even be just one line, one idea, or vision that God puts in your heart. You know what the song is supposed to be, the truth that it’s supposed to carry, and have a clear vision for the end result.
In every song that has stood the test of time for me, there is always the moment of Holy Spirit inspiration. I call it the anchor of the song. This part of the song will never die or be rewritten. This is the part that the whole song is going to revolve around. Then I try to bring it to life for everyone else as much as it is alive for me in that moment. For every song… there is a certain amount of “We’ve stumbled on something really special here, let’s keep running towards it!” and also, “This isn’t quite right. This verse isn’t quite right, lets rewrite it. Ok the chorus isn’t as good as the verses now, let’s rewrite that!” I think there are equal amounts, if not more, perspiration than inspiration.
The more you write, the more your instinct grows to know when you have something special. That’s what makes me want to sit down at the piano, it’s what keeps me writing. When you stumble into those moments they’re so unique and special and far between, that it’s a constant chase for that moment and that new idea and new way of viewing God. In the back of your mind you think that it could be something that your church will roar out and sing, and I try not to quiet that voice, I use it to propel me forward and to keep going down that road, “What is in this moment that is making me feel that this could be a song that people connect with?”
[WM] A moment ago you mentioned that the piano is one of the instruments you write from. Cannons has a number of signature instrumental lines. Did you write those, and if so on what instrument?
[Phil] My producer, Pete Kipley, and I came up with almost every musical thing on that whole record, just me and him in the studio. Obviously, we brought in a drummer but I think he played bass and I played most of the guitars and we just cranked it out. A lot of error, so glad you can just press ‘Stop’ and ‘Delete’ nowadays because I definitely need that in the studio. I came up with a lot of those parts – melodies have always come easily to me, it’s the lyrics that I need to sweat over!
[WM] You had nodes, had surgery, and sing as good or better than you ever have. What advice do you have for vocalists, in terms of do’s and don’ts, so they don’t hurt their voices?
[Phil] This is giant and so simple, but for some reason so many singers don’t do it – be religious about warming up. I’ve got a 12-minute warm up on my phone and I do it any time before I sing and it has changed my singing. It helps so much, gets me ready to go and keeps my endurance up. Another thing I’ve begun to do is warm down. I find that sometimes I’ll get off stage and my voice is hoarse and I’m hacking. If I just take five or ten minutes to sort of do the warm up from the end – start high and get down to the low hums, I find at the end of that my voice is no longer hoarse. So, warm up and warm down, so practical.
One thing I needed to learn ever since I was a thirteen-year-old kid leading worship, I would get on stage and feel like, “I’m going to go for it!”, so first song out of the gate I’m at ten out of ten, singing as hard and loud as I could. I’ve found that not doing that is beneficial in so many ways. To keep yourself at that seventy percent will allow you to last through a set – or three services on a Sunday morning. Just to temper your whole output will enhance your endurance. It will also actually sound better. When you listen back to recordings of yourself you think if you’re holding back it’s not going to sound as good or be as passionate, but when you compare the two you realize, “Wow, I was going way too strong in that passionate one, and this one where I’m tempering myself sounds way better”. It’ll also be easier to take for those listening. You can tell when someone is just trying so hard, it’s kind of distracting. So just chill out, let the band and the PA do their thing, warm up, sing the song and save those ten out of ten moments for the octave up moment on “King of My Heart” or a song like that when it just lifts the whole room.
[WM] What is your favorite Bible verse and why?
[Phil] There’s an amazing one for every season! Lately, I’ve been resting in this amazing truth in 1st John where it says, “See what great love the Father has lavished upon us that we should be called the children of God.” I think there are some beautiful songs that have come out recently – “Good Good Father” and “Who You Say I Am”– all talking about our identity. I love that. I think this is the biggest identity verse in the Bible maybe. That we’re not born as humans, as children of God we’re born as love by God, born as a part of His creation. Being His child is something that God has purchased for us on the Cross, and a thing that we can freely step into. It’s a free gift, and it takes stepping into that gift for God to look at us as Thanksgiving dinner / Christmas morning family, you know? He welcomes us into his house, not as guests, but saying, “I want you to be heirs of everything I own and everything I am; you come into the family with Me and be a part of this family that is going to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.” There is so much to unpack in that verse, but ultimately just that God would call himself our Father and that He would look at us as His children. And maybe it’s because I have four kids now, but that verse just exploded in my heart.
[WM] What advice do you have for worship musicians and teams on deepening their personal relationship with Jesus?
[Phil] I think there are two things I would respond to that with. Practically, if you want to deepen your relationship with Jesus you need to clarify your view of Jesus. And the clearest way we can get a clear view of the Father’s heart through Jesus is by opening up the scriptures and reading about what He’s done and said. How He’s treated people, the kind of things He despised, the kind of things He loved.
Something we all struggle with, especially nowadays, is making time for anything. It seems like life just flies by. To prioritize getting to know Jesus and keeping a clear view of Him in our heart takes intentionality and time, and it is so worthwhile. When we have a clear view of Jesus, I believe that what we’re really doing at the base level of worship is bonding to the revelation of God. As God shows himself to us, He shows himself to be full of love, compassion, grace and kindness. So many amazing things that our response to this God who is so full of goodness is to say, “God we love you, God we worship you, God we trust you.” The more clearly we see Him the more we love Him, the more we trust him, the deeper we worship Him, the more contagious our love for Him is.
So, to get a clear view of God we need to focus on Jesus. He’s the clearest view of God we have ever been given. All that being said, I think just opening up the scriptures and having the stories and the words of Jesus resonating in our hearts and bring that to the stage with us and letting that contagious response run through the crowd and affect your church, to make people burn on fire for Him.
[WM] What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
[Phil] If you’re a musician, my advice would be practice. I’ve found that with people who put their heart and soul into something and also have a gift, eventually the good stuff rises to the top. I’m not much of a chef, but I think there’s some kind of cooking analogy in there, where if you boil something, stuff rises to the top, the good parts. I think that with talent and gifting, you first have to put feet to your face, so to speak, and put time in and practice. But if there’s the gifting there and it’s invested in, I think it’ll rise to the top and you’ll get opportunities to share that gifting.
If you take that further, the advice I give to worship musicians is anytime you have an opportunity to lead, serve, or to be a part of a worship band is great. Obviously practice and know your stuff, but there is nothing sweeter, more refreshing, and more useable than a heart that’s ready to serve. You go to God incarnate, Jesus, and you see that when He came into a room with the twelve disciples at this really special Passover dinner, where He deserves the most honor and to be served, He comes into the room with a rag around his waist like a servant, with a bowl of water and a washcloth to wash his disciples feet. So, for you guys who are taking the stage to lead, whether you’re a worship leader or playing drums, our responsibility is to come into those moments saying, “How can I serve this moment? How can I serve the people in front of me and bless the heart of the Father?” Even if that means dying to your own tastes and ideas of what it should be; maybe you have to die to that to really serve. I would say put on a servant’s heart.
[WM] What are the most life-giving words that someone has spoken over you and how did they impact your life?
[Phil] Goodness. The thing that popped into my mind was when my wife said that she would marry me (laughing)! That she said, “I love you and I want to be with you forever.” That’s maybe the most life-giving sentence I’ve ever heard. Or, maybe at the altar when she said, “I do.” You could even boil it down to those two words. So life affirming that such an amazing woman would want to be my support, that I could support her, and that we would go through life together. I don’t think any other two words out of anybody else’s mouth have affected my life more than my wife saying, “I do.”
[WM] What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are?
[Phil] I think I’m still overcoming it… two or three things come to mind. I’ve got a close group of friends and we open up or ask each other the hard questions. Just as everybody has a specific gifting, a unique personality and things they’re great at, everyone also has chinks in their armor. And it seems that arrows are continually getting thrown right at that chink. I feel like that in my life.
There are some things that are really difficult for other people that have been easy for me and then there are other things that I struggle with. I find that If I let that chink in my armor be seen and I stop putting it into the hands of God and try to take care of it myself – or I give into fear, that is the place that I keep getting hit.
I’d say one of them is assessing my value in what other people think about me. I remember when I lost my voice a few years ago, I had to get surgery on my voice and there was a possibility I would never really sing again on the road. When the doctor told me that it was going to be intense and a lot of rehab and hopefully I can get back to singing again, right then I just thought, “Man I feel so lost.” That’s how I prove my worth. People come and sing with me and tell me I’m doing a good job. They buy tickets, they clap for me and it feels like I’m worth something – I’m secure, I’m doing a good job. To lose the thing that makes me feel like I’m worth something made me feel really lost. In that I realized how I’m putting so much of my self-worth and identity in the things I’ve accomplished and the things I can do or have done. When those were stripped away I realized how fleeting those things are. In that was a beautiful moment where God really spoke to my identity, “Hey Phil, I’m the maker of the stars, I’m the Savior of hearts, and I am the Father to my children and I call myself the Father to you. You are my child and I am your Father. That’s the biggest identity you have and you can rest in it.” For the first time, I started resting in this idea that before I’m a musician or a singer, no matter what the iTunes comments say under my new record, I am a child of God. I think that is so freeing when we start to truly believe that. I would say that’s one thing that even after these amazing moments of realizing who I am, if I’m not intentionally pursuing the heart of God and understanding His heart for me I can slip right back into feeling like I have to prove myself. That insecurity, rooted in pride, saying I have to prove myself, I’d say that’s a struggle I have.
Another thing is balance. People ask how I balance my work life, personal life, family life, and spiritual life. The answer is that I have no idea. Sometimes we hit it right on the
money and sometimes we don’t. I’ve found it’s not something you learn and say, “Great, I’ve got balance!” It’s more like a guy on a tightrope who’s got to keep moving forward and keep making adjustments. So long as my wife and I are doing it together, it seems like our support together is our biggest way of combating imbalance.