Trinity has a vibrant legacy of songwriters and musicians who contribute their gifts to leading us in worship week in and week out. We wanted to hear from some of these folks to get a sense for what that process is like and how their work serves the church. This is the first in a two part series. Today’s interviewees are Alyssa Werner and Julia de Boer.
Can you walk us through your songwriting process? What inspires you, where do you start, and how do the pieces come together?
JdB: Writing (songs) is a bit of an accident for me. The first time I sat down to write was nothing more than an attempt to remember something I learned on the river about the way God works. Some phrases that stood out in the midst of that lesson felt poetic, so I decided to try my hand at a little poetry. Honestly, it was not the greatest poem, but writing it flipped a switch in my brain that would not shut off for almost two years. There are two ways in which these songs come to be, and these ways are separated by whether they are written to fulfill a request, such as for a Sunday anthem, or personal.
Because the text is given to me and it is typically a tight time frame, I find writing anthems to be fascinating challenges. To make it easier on myself, I typically choose an existing hymn melody to work with to help with rhythm and metering. This choice is usually made after I have read the text given to me and wondered how in the world a song is supposed to come out of that. Passages like this remind me to begin with prayer, because a song coming out of a list of cups feels impossible. Psalms, narratives, genealogies, prophesies, this particular inventory – all of these present their own challenges, but a text always starts with prayer that God will work some sort of miracle and ends by sending it off with prayer, in the case of this song, that the last two lines will ring true come Sunday.
AW: While I feel like I can be poignant with words, I don’t think poetry is a strong suit of mine. I really enjoy collaborating with others–putting their poetry to music that matches the tone of the words, the liturgical season, and the scheduled musicians.
Do you worry about your own personality being a distraction as you write and lead? How do you fight against that or fight against other insecurities?
JdB: Honestly, I struggle less with what personality might come through and more with what others may learn about me that I really want to hide. I still struggle with how to fight this, but choosing to let go and praying that God will use any of that to benefit the church is about the only way I know how.
AW: When I was in high school and learning to lead worship at my youth group, I think I learned to fight against my personality being a distraction by just sticking to the lyrics of the song. In some ways, I think my personality doesn’t show up as I’m leading music in the service because I stick to the music so much.
How do you experience personal worship as you write? How has God grown your faith and love for his church through your participation as a worshipper and worship leader?
JdB: Not all writing begins with a request for an anthem text, and as much as I can describe what it took to write a particular anthem, I have a hard time finding a process in writing anything else. However, as I have looked back into some of my (relatively) older writing, I noticed two common themes: they are either prayers I did not know how to speak or I was preaching to myself. These are typically more thematic, rarely focused on a specific text, and there was little conscious effort put into cross-referencing. I am barely beginning to realize that this was one method God used in a dark time to remind me of his goodness and faithfulness, and were frequently the only way I was able to use words to pray in a dark time. I still used familiar and loved hymn melodies for the rhyming and metering, but there is no formula for putting to words the cries of the heart. To read many of these is uncomfortable; they feel forced into a meter are lacking in poetic beauty. But that type of beauty was not the point, which is a fact I need to remember. Mixed among the clumsy texts, however, are a few I recall and return to when, as one of them states, “my soul forgets that I’m his child…” Because this has helped me, I would encourage especially those who struggle to pray to write down in any manner – journaling, poetry, scatter charts (I’m not kidding there) – what they are trying to pray. I believe that is where I had to start: writing just to find the words, and writing to remember who God is and who I am before him.
Do you have any tips for how the congregation can participate more fully in the worship process?
AW: Because the songs we have in our rotation are lyrically dense, and especially during this season where we don’t have printed worship guides with the lyrics to return to for meditating, I’d recommend memorizing songs. Luke has made some playlists available on Spotify and other platforms for this very purpose!