Slow Songs are Best – A Revelation about Writing

So I’ve just realised something. As you read this, you might find yourself thinking, ‘He is not very quick.’ And that’s ok, in fact, that’s kind of the point.

As a songwriter, I have moved through various phases. I began writing pop songs that were meant to make you tap your toe and buy albums (and think I was cool). Then I moved into writing spiritual songs that were meant to connect with your soul and make you think more deeply about life. Then I began to toy with writing congregational songs, first in the mode of the contemporary worship anthem, and more recently, small scale folky songs for average congregations. Since then I have moved into a new space without abandoning my congregational work, of writing folk, story songs, but that doesn’t really come into this reflection.

What got me thinking was reflecting on the congregational songs that I have written that have actually worked, in that A) I have wanted to share them with people, and B) people have wanted to sing them when I’m no longer with them (for argument’s sake let’s just agree that regardless of A) and B) that in general the lyrics are worthwhile and melodies are within the range of the normal human). It is humbling to reflect that out of the dozens of songs I have written for congregational worship, only a handful seem to have had any real traction. Perhaps I ought to find it comforting that Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, wrote over 6000 hymns, and only 50 or so of those exist in modern hymnbooks. That’s less than a 1% strike-rate!

But in truth I already knew about Wesley. What I wanted to know was, was there anything in common across those songs that had connected with people? And as I reflected on that small list, I realised that there was. It was the length of time I spent on them. Its not that they all took a long time to actually write the song, quite the opposite for the most part. Its that I spent a lot of time before I started writing, sitting with the idea before I ever picked up my guitar or a pen and paper. Let me explain with some examples.

Christ before me is one of my better known congregational songs. It is a paraphrase of part of an ancient Christian prayer called ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. The words that became the song were a part of my life for well over a year before I tried to form a song out of them. The full story is here. Suffice to say I had been writing these words out in my journal, on the back of envelopes, and in the front cover of whatever book I was reading for a considerable time before a melody began to form around them.

Korowai Tapu is another song that has connected with people, and somewhat helpfully, I enjoy leading it! It grew out of an invitation from Te Aka Puaho, the Maori Synod of the Presbyterian Church in Aotearoa NZ to write a song celebrating the new sacred cloak (Korowai Tapu) that would be presented to the Moderator. Of course I said ‘yes’ because I don’t get asked to write that many songs, but once the conversation was over I realised I had no idea how to start. How do you write a song of worship about a cloak? I stayed with no idea for months, but I never let the idea go. It wasn’t until I heard a friend praying for another event with another set of people that God would ‘cast Your Korowai Tapu around us all’ – that I had to excuse myself as a melody had arrived in my head at the same time those words did. It helped that I had heard the story of Thomas MacKenzie the day before, and it finally all came together. There was a long gestation, then a sudden realisation of the song, and it was worth the wait.

There are a few other examples I could give (not that many to be honest, but they do all bear the same hallmarks of a long lead in) but perhaps my best congregational song to date is Beneath the Southern Cross, which I co-wrote with Cate Williams in 2014. I knew I wanted to write a song for the upcoming General Assembly where I would be leading worship. I wanted to write something that celebrated the coming together of different strands under the same God, that we might find unity in diversity, rather than trying to enforce conformity on one another. I knew this for most of the year leading into the Assembly, but I didn’t have a song til mid September when the gathering was in October. I’m realising that it was this long period of musing, wondering and false starts that gave the song its depth. It had been pondered over.

With each of these songs, because of the length of time I had been thinking about them, waiting for them and aware of the need for them, I had in fact, invested myself in them, before they even existed. I wasn’t prepared to accept that they were merely, ‘ok’. I wanted them to be as good as they could be. So when a producer friend told me that the chorus of Beneath the Southern Cross was good, but he just couldn’t hear a congregation singing the verses, I went away and completely rewrote the melody.

I contrast this experience to other congregational songs I have written where the idea has come to me quickly, or a request has been made with some time pressure. I sit down, I write a song. Its ok. That’s fine. I found that just ‘ok’ is fine, especially when you only came up with the idea of writing it that morning. And I find on reflection that I didn’t seem to mind if the song wasn’t all that compelling, because the inspiration had only settled in me at a surface level. It hadn’t had the time to sink below the level of ‘Ooo that’s interesting’ to ‘flip, this really matters.’ in me. In those first moments after writing a song there is often a sense of delight in its newness and relief in its existence. Often that can blind you to its faults. In songs like this I realised that I would look for the first idea that came to me, rather than the best idea, which might take longer to find.

I have realised that the longer I sit with an idea, the more it takes hold of me. The words take on flesh as I roll them round in my mind, as I wrestle with them in conversation, as I walk away from the piano in a huff knowing that’s not it! I become committed to the song, as if its a child of mine, wanting to see it thrive, rather than wanting to merely see it off my ‘to-do’ list, or on a track list.

After more than a decade of writing songs for the church, I have realised that for most of it I’ve been in too much of a hurry. My challenge for the next decade is to stay with ideas longer, to sit with them quietly like old friends, until a song peeps its head around the door and enters, unhurried and unbidden.

To put it brutally simply, bad songs are rushed from inception to existence so quickly, that no one, not even the creator cares that much about them (and I should know). Good songs linger and wonder. They are loved and agonised over and then, seemingly in their own time, emerge.

What might that look like for you?

  • Thanks for the article, Malcolm.
    The ones that take time also keep speaking over the years to the songwriter, ministering in unexpected ways. There’s one long Christmas poem that I wrote, over 12 months, many years ago, which moves me to tears every time I speak it.

    February 7, 2019
  • Cheryl Harray

    Thanks Malcs… a great description of the creative process which I have experienced in church banner making. The ones that had me stumped and were wrestled with in design and unpicked and unpicked! became my favourites and continued to speak, maybe for others too? Creatives in many fields will identify with you. Looking forward to your next slow song….when it is ready to emerge! Take your time

    February 8, 2019

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.