John Barnett is a worship leader and songwriter living in the backwoods of Montana – He and his wife Marie are pioneers in the modern worship movement, writing many of the classic worship songs sung by the church around the world – most notably, “Holy and Anointed One” (John) and “Breathe” (Marie)
John has a brand new record, Never Look Back, due out in early November – check it out HERE
1. What’s your main instrument, make and model – because we’re all gear heads…
That’s a tough one. My main instrument is the guitar but I do play a mean “hunt-n-peck” piano. There is a guitar in every room of our house except the bathrooms. I usually go through seasons with different guitars, usually according to my moods. These days I have been playing a 1967 Gibson J160E and a Gold Tone round neck resonator mainly. I also pick up my 1972 Guild G37 from time to time. Having said all that I’d guess my “main” guitar would be a Santa Cruz model D. (which I am currently trying to re-humidify).
2. What makes a great worship song?
Another tough question that to me begs other questions. A great song from who’s perspective? To me, the only view of art that isn’t subjective is God’s view. I say that because knowing my likes and dislikes and tendency to embrace different songs accordingly, I try to be slow to respond to whether a song is “good” or even “great”. That is from a musical and stylistic standpoint. When it comes to a “worship” song, first I would try to determine the context. Is it for personal worship or for corporate worship in a congregational application? There are some songs with all the obvious traits of a “great song” that go around the world. Singable, great melody, memorable lyrics etc. That is just a song that works well in crossing denominational and cultural barriers. Since I tend to look at the quality of a worship song in light of the church and all it’s differences both minute and large, I think a great song is one that reaches out into all the church and secondly that it is a song that LASTS. For years the top CCLI songs used by churches changed very little at a time. These days it is as constant a shift as the pop charts. There are just so many worship songs being written today.
There is also the influence of Christian radio. Radio has never been known to be a bastion for creativity. In my opinion there are some amazing songs that people who fill their worship catalog from mainly the radio will never hear. That is a sad condition. Another horror is that there are people who look at the top CCLI songs and try and write songs like them in attempts to “succeed” as writers. These days I just don’t know anymore. I just try and keep my part of the yard clean.
3. Why is songwriting in the local church such a big deal?
I’ve always thought that embracing, supporting and encouraging writers in the local church was important. That’s how I learned.
I think it’s important for a few reasons.
First, it is the people that God has placed and gifted in a local body to express in a unique away the things that He is doing in that local church. For too long, from pastors to prophets and everything in between have been able to express what they felt God is saying, doing and teaching to a local church. God has placed writers, singers, musicians, in fact all the arts to facilitate a response back to God for all he has done. Who better to represent the tribe than members of the tribe?
Second, it is a place of both nurturing and accountability for the arts. Church isn’t just a gig for musicians, nor is it to be a gig for pastors. In an ideal situation it forces pastors and artists together to work for the common goal, that being the glory of God and the shepherding of the flock.
Third, songs document what God has done. They are milestones to His faithfulness. Reminders that we can go back to, not in some sappy or hyper romanticized feeling but as faith builders to encourage and help us through various situations.
4. What are some of your musical influences?
That would be a pretty long list, especially since I’ve been listening to music for a long time. When I was a kid I would steal my sister’s Beach Boys records and listen to them over and over. Especially the ballads. The Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel and anything Spector produced. Neil Young, Poco, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, all that country rock stuff.
There was a lot of music I liked, but I don’t know how much it influenced me. I still remember the first time I put Neil Young’s album “After The Goldrush” on the record player. It was like “game on”. In looking back I think that record had more influence over the direction I would go in music more than anything else.
5. Where do your songs come from? What inspires you to write?
In the end, I hope they come from God. The problem with saying that is that it implies or could be used to imply some sort of infallibility. What I mean by that statement is that through Gods gifting, calling & leading, through experience, patience and maturity, I’ve learned to recognize when I have the unction or if you’d like to call it “anointing” to write something. When I’m not in that “place” I am still constantly “listening”. A passage of the Bible might spark it or something said in a sermon. Meditating on the nature of God he’s revealed in creation or simply a conversation with a child. Through all these things and more God can speak to us and inspire us. I try to make sure that God is never out of the artistic process. Like I said, I can be inspired by many things. Sometimes switching from a nice acoustic guitar to picking up a dusty sounding old guitar can spark something just by it’s tone. Sometimes plugging my Tele into a couple AC30s and turning them up does the trick. I’ve written songs in the front of a work truck writing the words down on a piece of cardboard and singing to myself. I’ve written songs digging ditches and crawling through attics. I look for inspiration whenever and wherever it comes. Sometimes I even sit down and intentionally write! I’ve always tried to avoid some formula or program that I might become dependant upon at some point. Those things are beneficial (programs etc), but after a few hundred songs I’m more relaxed about the whole process. That’s just me though because everybody has to work out what works best for them.
6. What is your writing process like? Revisions and edits?
I have notebooks, journals, scraps of paper and even church bulletins with lyrical ideas on them. I even have a bunch of “stickies” on my computer full of tidbits of songs. I have so many of them that when I sit down to write I always have some sort of starting point. Kind of a “review”. Having so much to start with I rarely start out with a guitar and a blank piece of paper and start writing. Sometimes when an idea comes to mind I’ll grab a guitar and the closest thing that pencil lead will stick to and start writing. If I am writing just lyrics, I try to write with consistent syllables in the lines and usually have some sort of tempo in my head. That consistency in the initial process helps a lot when working out melodies and chords.
There are times as well when I will sit down with a guitar or at the piano with no expectation of writing. It’s a good way to just enjoy an instrument. In my opinion, if the only time you pick up an instrument to “work” then it just becomes a tool. If you play it to express yourself, it becomes a part of you. Big difference. It is in those moments that I often discover what my heart wants to say instead of just what my head wants to say. Again, big difference. When that happens I can write because there is something that I really want to say.
As far as revisions and edits go they are usually things like having a consistent thought or fixing lyrical problems. If a word doesn’t “sing” well in that situation what would be a word I could us that would mean the same thing and be a better fit. If I think that I can say something better with just a “pickup” note I’ll change it. For myself, I don’t have a problem with every line not being perfectly matched (syllables, rhyme). It makes it sound more “human” to me and less robotic.
7. What do you do when you get stuck?
The first thing I do when I get stuck, I mean really stuck not just working something out is to get up and walk away. It’s a song not a midterm examination. I always want to be at peace with the process. If the issue I’m stuck on is lyrics, I have more than enough backlog to pull from. There is always something I can fit in but more often than not I end up with “filler” and in the end I’m not so happy about it anyway. If it’s a chord problem my experience tells me that I have a melody problem as well. So I just walk away and go do something completely unrelated to music. After awhile when I am a little more relaxed then I’ll come back and work on a song. Repeat process as necessary. Another thing that really helps is to sit down with a pen and paper and write out what the song is “about”. What is it I’m trying to say? How can I expand on a concept? An example would be if a song was about the cross. Then I’d sit down and write about it. Pick up a Bible and read about it. Pick up some theology books and read about it. Lyrics, whether simple or complex can become trite and cliché not from overuse, but because we have forgotten what they mean. So, digging into the content of a song can unveil deeper insight into what I’m trying to say.
That will usually get the wheel out of the ditch.
8. Do you ever co-write? If so, what’s that process like?
I have only co-written a few times. I’m trying to figure out how to do that more these days. Of the few times I have done it, it has been more relational that intentional. For example. One song that I wrote with Chris Lizotte called “Weight Of The World” came from a phrase that Chris was singing at church during a ministry time, “and it all falls down, the weight of the world, and it all falls down on Jesus”. One Sunday, after church I sat at home and began playing and singing that part over and over. It really moved me! Within a couple hours I had written the verses and some lyrics for the bridge. I called Chris and went over to his house to play him what I had so far. We came up with chords and melody for the bridge, tweaked a few chords and melody lines in the verses and then made a demo. Chris eventually recorded that song virtually the same as we had worked it out that day. I think the total time from the end of church that day to tracking the demo was less than 8 hours. If it only worked that way all the time!
Another song that happened in a similar way, because of relationship is a song called “All Is Well”. In November, 2010 when we were recording the basic tracks for Never Look Back, during some down time I sat down with Ryan Delmore to show him a song I was working on. I had the first verse and “B” section and some scribbled ideas for the second verse but nothing I was happy with. Casey Corum was in the control room and I called him in as well. We grabbed some guitars and just started singing it, at least the part I had. Then it was “now what do we say”? We jotted every suggestion down, working through ideas then playing it all the way through from the beginning as we made changes. In a couple hours we had the second verse and second “B” part. It was done.
One other that I just remembered as I have been typing this is a song that me and David Ruis put together. David was visiting last summer to hang out and do some demos of Christmas songs he wanted to record. I had to go outside to do some work and as I passed the piano I sat a paper on top and told David “these are some words for a Christmas song I’ve been working on”.
After an hour or so I came back inside and David looks at me and says “dude, listen to this”. He had turned that sheet of words I left on the piano into a song. We tweaked it some and then recorded it. Deciding that the key was wrong, we retracked it in a different key. The last thing on my mind was that he’d grab that paper from the piano and write something from it!
Co-writing is fun and rewarding with the right people.
9. How do you balance the purely artistic side of songwriting with accessibility – poetic lyrics, singable melody, a groove you can feel, and theological substance?
I guess it’s a benefit for me being a guy who predominantly writes “worship songs for churches” that I’m not complicated. My musical influences are pretty simple. Since I write mostly on a guitar and sing the melody with about a 5 note vocal range my melodies end up being pretty simple too! I joke that all my songs are written in 4/4, 4 chords and 4 notes! I love metaphors, analogies, types, allegories, all that. It’s a great feeling when you come up with that one line that “speaks volumes”. There is in fact a tension between all those things you mentioned. And I’ve discovered that even if you are careful there will always be somebody that says “I don’t get it”. And example from my experience would be a song I wrote with the line in it “and the lightening strikes in the same place twice”. To me it made perfect sense in the song and that phrase is one I had heard all my life referring to the chances of something bad happening twice in a row. In my mind the first chapter of the book Job is a perfect example of that. I was just trying to express a really, really, really bad day! I actually had a guy say that since he was on the West Coast that people wouldn’t understand that. Maybe I should have said that an earthquake strikes twice! And that is nothing compared to the uproar that other people have received over their songs. That’s just the way the deal works. I don’t try to be provocative for the sake of it. I don’t try to be poetic for the sake of it. I don’t shy away from them either. Having done this a long time I am pretty aware of the grids that songs have to fit through in different denominations and parts of the church. I try to be true to my expression, be doctrinally sound and always remember a quote I once heard, “when you write worship songs, remember that you are putting words in peoples mouths to sing to God”. That kinda simplifies things for me. For others, they might feel trapped by that and need a greater expression. I’m sure that can cause some tension.
10. Have you always considered yourself a songwriter or was there a moment when you went from being a worship leader to a worship leader who writes songs?
That change was gradual for me. I’m not sure there was one point in time when I recognized it. I think that once I started writing it seemed like something I had a knack for and I just kept doing it. I would hear new songs come out and like them but for some they wouldn’t express whatever the song was saying in a way that worked for me so I would write something that I was comfortable with. Among my peers writing songs for Vineyard those early days I always felt like the most unqualified person there. I was a worship leader that wrote a few songs from time to time! But I was also blessed to be at a church where I could write songs and teach them at church without being challenged by the pastor with some notion that I was just trying to promote myself. Only once in 20 years can I remember my pastor telling me he didn’t think a song was not “working”. Usually if they weren’t working either I would know or Marie would tell me! These days I lead worship at a little church in the country with 20-30 people. No big stage, no sound system to speak of, no video production, no parking attendants, no glitz, glamour or hurrah, just some people trying to live their lives following Jesus. That and I write songs! Those are things that I do but not who I am. At some point in my life I might stop doing one or the other or both. I don’t want to find myself in a place that I don’t know who I am.