Chris McClarney is still serving the church and writing about the one whose love never fails. I had the opportunity to catch up with Chris and hear more about his family, his ministry, and what God is doing in his life.
Worship Musician: Your first release on a label was entitled, Introducing Chris McClarney. How would you introduce yourself?
Chris McClarney: Oh man, I’m a worship leader in a church with three kids and a wife. I’m really just a regular guy that somehow ended up doing music for a living. I’m happy…I feel like the luckiest guy alive. I get to wake up to something that I love to do everyday, which is amazing. I’m so blessed, some days it doesn’t feel fair. I get to do stuff that I feel that I was made to do. It’s a good feeling!
WM: You’re married with kids?
Chris: Yes! We’ve been married thirteen and a half years! Our kids are now 12, 10, and 3. All girls! Aliya is the oldest, Ceili is in the middle, and the baby is Charlotte (but everyone calls her “Charlie”).
WM: Your father was a youth minister…for you, what were some of the positives and negatives of growing up like that?
Chris: Yes, dad was a Southern Baptist Youth Pastor. So, I grew up in church in the South. My grandparents, great-grandparents…who knows how far back, all are from the Nashville area. My parents met each other here in Nashville and moved away to Atlanta and had me. Then, we moved from Atlanta to Louisville, Kentucky, back to Atlanta, to Birmingham, and to Huntsville. We finally moved back to Nashville when I was ten.
I think one of the biggest positives was just growing up with a love for the local church. Every time the doors were open, we were usually there. Negatives are….Everybody kind of ends up getting hurt by the church. You know, people who are in full-time ministry, which was the case for dad and mom, too. Trying to walk through that and not become bitter or jaded because churches are full of regular people that make mistakes. It’s difficult to try to navigate that without turning your back on the church. I guess I was a “good kid” though; I never had one of those weird “falling away” stages. Maybe I’m the weird one…I never really rebelled (laughing). Maybe I should have gotten that out of my system!
WM: When did music start for you?
Chris: I was singing from an early age; I always loved to sing. I’ve seen videos of myself singing at the age of 4 or 5. There were so many opportunities to sing in church…church choir, youth choir. I grew up doing that and then when I was about fourteen years old, I was in a small group at a church here in Nashville. Somebody asked if anyone knew how to lead worship for the small group and I said, “I do.” I had never led worship… it can’t be that hard, right? (this is what I’m telling myself)! You’re just singing songs and playing a few chords – It can’t be that hard. And…it turns out, it’s not that hard! You just play a few chords and sing songs! So, I was fourteen and started leading worship for that small group and that grew into me leading worship for the youth group when I was about sixteen or so. I had some really wonderful guys that mentored me like Benji Cowart and Travis Cottrell. They’re both great songwriters… they kind of took me out with them and let me lead and learn. Benji was in college when I was in high school. So, when he left, I took his place as youth worship leader. Our youth group was really big. I bet we had 300-400 youth. It was kind of like leading worship for a little church. I learned a lot in that season of life and grew a ton. I tried to get “regular” jobs, and seemed I always ended up back in church work!
When I was eighteen, I decided I wanted to chase down a record deal. I started looking around and had some serious talks with some record labels. I remember one talk in particular…I just had this feeling like, “I don’t know if I want to make worship records.” I was eighteen; I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had been reading in Scripture, “Whatever you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done unto me.” I knew I wanted to do something for the Lord and do something in ministry. So, (back to that meeting) I was like, “Let me think about it.” Again, this meeting was pretty serious, I mean like we might actually be able to work out a record deal. On the way home, I got a call from a buddy who was doing a worship night. It just so happened to be at an inner-city ministry here in Nashville. They did their little talk in the middle of the worship night where they explain how they give out food to the poor. It really moved me and I moved down there for three years. I quit music altogether and just served the poor of Nashville. It was hard work . . . kind of never ending. Helping guys that had drug issues, alcoholics, and the poorest of the poor. We were right in the inner city of Nashville. I lived there for like two-and-a-half or three years, which is crazy. But, I met my wife down there. We decided we would get married and take a break from church work.
We were married for about a week and a church called me and asked me if I would lead worship one weekend. I talked with my wife and she said, “Yeah, you should do it.” It was her home church that she grew up in. So, I led one week and they asked if I could lead one more week…and then, ten years went by! Yeah, I was on staff there for ten years…a church called Grace Center here in Franklin.
In the middle of all of that, I felt like God said to make a worship CD. But, you know how God sounds like YOU talking to yourself? I was like, “God is this really You?” I really felt like He wanted me to make a record and I prayed, “God, if it’s You, then provide the money because I don’t want to go in debt over this.” You know, I had kind of laid down music biz altogether. And, true story, a guy emailed me like two days after that prayer and said, “God told me to give you money, what do you need money for?” And I said, “Well, I need guitar strings at church…we need drum heads…” And, honestly, I was trying to come up with something funny – it wasn’t even spiritual, I was just going to put a big number on there. I didn’t expect he would send anything over a hundred bucks or so. And I said, “Or, if you’ll give me $15,000 I’ll make a record.” And the guy mailed me Fifteen Thousand Dollars! I was like, “Oh my gosh, I guess I’m making a worship record now!”
So, I started diving in and writing songs for my church and for the record.
I would write songs and upload them to MySpace. (Side Story) I had been friends for a long time with the folks from Jesus Culture, Brian and Jen Johnson…we were MySpace friends and they would listen to the songs I uploaded there…and Chris Quilala lived in their basement at the time and he would hear the songs as well. Chris called me up one day and asked if he could record one of these songs. I was like, “Yeah, that would be awesome!” So, he recorded “Your Love Is Everything” for an early Jesus Culture record. Soon, I went out there and did worship with them for a conference. They asked me to play a new song…the only other new song I had was a song called “Your Love Never Fails” which, they ended up recording for their next record and they used that as the record title as well. I finally finished that record that I had started on my own and then all these record labels were looking for deals… This was all outside of anything that I knew about. I was just trying to follow God. Something funny about all of this, after Jesus Culture recorded “Your Love Never Fails,” the record was out for about a year before I ever applied for a copyright on that song!
WM: What guitar are you playing most? Any special processors?
Chris: For a while now my biggest go-to guitar has been a 1966 Gibson J45. It’s kind of my baby. Lately, I’ve been on the prowl for something that I can travel with and not be scared (of damaging it). The problem is, I just really like old guitars; there’s just nothing like ‘em. Recently, I did get my hands on a Yamaha that I really like and I also got an Avalon that is just gorgeous, I mean, it’s almost too nice! I’m scared to take it out anywhere! Now, in my old Gibson, I have an L.R. Baggs M1 sound-hole pickup and I’ve also got a K & K system under the bridge with a stereo out. So, if I use a tip-ring-sleeve cable, then I can access both of them. But, I really never do that. I just end up using only the Baggs. I don’t run it through anything, I just run it dry. On that old guitar, I never change strings (I laughed). If I break a string, I just change that one string, which is normally the G or D string. That guitar really needs a fret job right now! I’m pretty old-school rock-n-roll. If it was up to me, we’d be using floor wedges still and everyone would be off click. I just hate that stuff. You know, in Jesus Culture, we use tracks on the road a lot, but at my church, we don’t use tracks. I’m definitely old-school. I’m like, floor wedges…let’s just make some music together. Let it be raw and fun!
WM: Do you play any other instruments?
Chris: Yeah, I play keys. I do a whole lot of writing on keys. I prefer real pianos when I play. I have a little upright Yamaha that has been amazing. I’ve probably written a ton of songs on that thing! It was an anniversary gift from my wife. I do play a little electric guitar, but not much. When I do, I have a little slim-line Tele that I play.
For a while I have been collecting vintage drums. I played drums in high school, by that I mean in marching band (so never cool!). But, I love drums and started collecting…me and my brother-in-law have built a round-badge Gretsch kit and a ‘60’s Ludwig kit, and now I have a Rogers kit I’ve been working on. I really love old stuff!
WM: Can you give advice on developing the “hook” for a song?
Chris: The way that I write often comes directly out of worship times. So, if we’re in worship at church and we get to the end of a song, sometimes I’ll just keep playing the same chords over and over and I’ll sing like the “cliff-notes” version of whatever we’ve been feeling in the moment. So, for instance on “Your Love Never Fails” we got to the end of “This Is The Air I Breathe” and there’s this little vamp at the end where you just play these same chords over and over. I was thinking about how desperate we worship God and I just began to sing, “’Cause You make all things work together for our good.” We sang it over and over for a long time. It was that little nugget or “hook” that I took and wrote a song around. I knew it worked because we just worshiped with it. On the latest record, there are a few that happened like that. One was “Beauty for Ashes.” I don’t remember what exactly we were playing when that happened, but we got to the end and in the moment just sang, “You give us beauty for ashes.” It was powerful and I decided to write a song around that. And, now what I’ll do is just do that at home. Where I’ll just start worshiping and sing a new song. The scripture that says, “God inhabits the praises of His people,” the word for “praises” there actually means spontaneous praises. He inhabits those new songs that we make up; there’s something special about those. So, I’ll just sit at my house and make stuff up. The cool part about it is there’s no pressure. Nobody cares if the words rhyme. Then, something might move and work outside of my home. I’ll take that and maybe try it out at church. Especially serving in the same church all the time, you can easily slip stuff in and they are willing to go with you. We’re talking only like thirty seconds or a minute and just try out a new chorus and see how they respond.
WM: Tell us more about your writing process.
Chris: You know, just take something that inspires you. Like a little hook or something you feel that is a new discovery. It’s those that you really work around the craft of songwriting. I’ll go through seasons where I write every day, even if I don’t feel like it. It is a genuine skill-set like carpentry or anything. So, I’ll go through seasons where I just try to hone that and get better at the crafting of songs. Then, hopefully when the inspiration comes, I’ll write better songs.
WM: Last January you were part of the Night of Worship at NAMM. I was so moved by “God of Miracles” that I wrote about it in the March issue of WM Magazine. Tell me about that song and the rest of the new project.
Chris: Yeah, that song in particular… I mean, I feel like everywhere I go I’m meeting people that are in tough places. Maybe they just lost a loved one or they just found out that they have cancer or their family member has cancer. It’s tough. How do you have the right song that gives people hope for the fact that God is able to move and do things that are outside of our understanding and the fact that God does care about us in the little things? How do we sing for people that need hope and are not patronizing to people who have just lost someone to cancer? So, I sat down and just kept trying to focus on writing a song that gives people hope. Like in the bridge it says, “This world is shaking, but He can’t be shaken.” It’s like… let’s not just give that “pat-on-the-back” answer. You know, “God is in control.” I mean, He IS in control, but by acknowledging that bad things DO happen, it doesn’t mean that God is any less good, or any less God, or any less in control. I think people come to church hurting and…that was kind of the “head-space” I was in for that song. So, basically I was trying to write something for those who are facing hardship or coming out of it. That song, in particular, took about two years or so to write. Even up to the night before I sang it for the record, I was changing lyrics in the verses.
WM: What other song from that project do you really hold dear?
Chris: Well, that whole record was such a blast to make. We did it all with the Jesus Culture band, which was such a fun thing. I mean, we played a lot together, but this was our first time to actually record. So, basically, that record is a Jesus Culture record, but with me singing instead of Chris or Kim. I think we had so much fun doing that…it turned into me singing “Everything and Nothing Less” on the actual Jesus Culture record. That song was special. At that time, I was at the end of my rope, song-writing-wise. I had used all of my ideas and I had a co-write scheduled with this guy from Austin, Texas. I had never met him and I was so worried about the whole thing. I didn’t want to look like I was unprepared, so I put my phone on my dresser while I was getting dressed and just started to hum stuff in hopes that I could like play it and act like I had an idea ready and then he would have something better that we could work on. So, I’m getting dressed and I just sang the first thing that came to mind in the moment. I was thinking…I was all out and had given God everything, So, I kind of hummed this, like “everything and nothing less…. My best.” I took that to the write and we ended up writing around that. We got about halfway though and then I sat with Jason Ingram, just a killer songwriter. Jason and I re-wrote the chorus and wrote a bridge for it. The whole song is about giving God our everything.
WM: I saw you post recently that you recorded with Chris Tomlin. Tell us about that.
Chris: Yeah! I wrote this song called “Yes and Amen” with the Housefires guys. It’ll be on the new Housefires record and Chris also decided to record it. He called and asked if I would come sing some BGV’s on it. I probably made some sort of joke like, “Let me pray about it.” (laughs).
WM: There are SO many readers of Worship Musician Magazine who desire to write songs for the church. They may be hitting a wall or have reached a plateau, or maybe can’t get the first word or note written. Will you speak directly to those folks with a word of encouragement?
Chris: Probably the best would be for me to tell a story. I was wanting to write a worship song. This was the tail end of getting ready for my first record. I wanted to write. I sat down in my church office…had multiple guitars out and capos…anything I could make new sounds with and notebooks and highlighters and all the gear you needed. I had Bible dictionaries and a thesaurus. I was going to write a song that day and I was pumped. I wanted to write the next big worship song! In that moment, I prayed this prayer and my thought was, “What if we had the songs they sing in Heaven?” I was like, “Lord, give me the songs of Heaven.” I felt God show up in that moment and half of me was scared; it was really the most real He had ever been to me. I didn’t hear the audible voice of God, but whatever is right below that, I just heard God say, “Chris, I already have the songs of Heaven. What I really want are the songs of Chris!” It was like a brick hit me in the chest and I just wept. I realized in that moment that the songs are not external things that you go looking for…like if you can just discover this right combination of words that you can put together or these notes out there that you can organize in some way… There is something that God has put inside of you that He wants you to let out and give back to Him. It’s that thing that I find myself trying to chase now. I ask myself, “How can I figure out what my song is and how can I let it out?” You know, I think part of that is trying to figure out who we are as worship leaders and worship musicians. We kind of live out our Christian walk in front of people, which is weird sometimes. You start to be a version of yourself that you think people like the most. I did that for twenty-something years and lately I’ve been saying, “Who is it that You’ve made me to be, Lord?”