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interview: mike obrien

This weeks guest interview is with Mike Obrien – husband, father, worship pastor, songwriter, producer, engineer, studio owner and all around good dude. Mike is the worship pastor at Vineyard Community Church in Marietta, Georgia and is a Worship Task Force leader for Vineyard USA, serving the Southeast region. You can check out Mike’s studio, Lucko Sound Studio, HERE.

I.W. – What’s your main instrument – make and model please? (cause we’re all gear-heads!)

M.O. – Primarily I play a 2003 Gibson Advanced Jumbo, Cordoba Classical, and Gretsch Country Gentleman. I also have a Maple Valley Hammer Dulcimer that get’s lots of work around the holidays.

I.W. -What makes a great worship song?

M.O. – Technically: Syllabic alignment coupled with singable melodies. Good Theology. Soft rhymes.
Creatively: Saying cliche phrases in a fresh way. A great worship song Inspires me to love God more. A great worship song shows me a fresh revelation of God.

I.W. – Why is songwriting in the local church such a big deal?

M.O. – Giving creatives permission to reflect what they are learning in their own local church encourages the worship teams, the congregation, and the teachers. Making new original songs in church breathes life into services like nothing else.

I.W. – Who are some of your musical influences?

M.O. – I love simple vocal jazz from the mid century like Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald, it’s very emotional and not overly technical. Folksy singer-songwriters like Rich Mullins, Sarah Harmer, Iron and Wine, David Gray, and Ryan Adams really speak to me as well. My guilty pleasure list includes Imogen Heap and Foster the People.

I.W. – Where do your songs come from? What inspires you to write?

M.O. – A while back I felt like God told me he wanted me to write when I had my green space with him. I journal, read, pray, and then write. The inspiration often times comes from unfinished ideas that are in my songwriting book. Sometimes i hear a chord progression or groove and I want to rip off and I get excited to put my own feel on it.

I.W. – What’s your writing process like? Revisions and edits?

M.O. – I often times just start thowing ideas all over the place with no refinment. From that mess I ually find one theme to run with and then start crafting a verse and/or chrous around that theme. Sometimes revisions and rewrites happen over the course of 2-3 years.

I.W. – What do you do when you get stuck?

M.O. – I usually give up and go to something else. If there is deadline looming I will just press in or schedule a co-wrtiing session.

I.W. – Do you ever co-write? If so, what’s that process like?

M.O. – Yes, I am increasingly co-writing more and more. I schedule 2-3 hour appointments with writers. One person brings an idea and then we contribute to that idea. More often than not, I have a song that is 90% done and the other writer helps me with grammar, emotion, alignment.

I.W. – How do you balance the purely artistic side of songwriting with accessibility – poetic lyrics, singable melody, a groove you can feel, and theological substance?

M.O. – I normally err on the side of accessibility exclusively in songs. I am learning that “accessible” is actually a much smaller target than I originally thought. I grieve many artistic urges in my worship songs realizing that a majority of the people just won’t get where I am going. I’ve been thinking lots about nursery rhymes and how powerful they are in culture…. I would like to write more worship songs that are as assessable as those nursery rhymes.

I.W. – 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?

M.O. – I wrote songs about 10 minutes after I learned the piano. Writing came first, then worship leading. When I write now it’s about 95% for worship.

appetite

Life is big enough that you can pretty much find whatever your looking for. Everyday presents reasons to be encouraged and reasons to be depressed. There’s enough trouble and delight, rhyme and reason, laughter and tears to quench whatever thirst we have developed within ourselves. I say ‘developed’ because in a very real sense we are all products of the culture we live in and we have all developed a taste for a particular kind of life. Most of us really like cynicism, probably more than we love pizza and mom’s fried pork chops that she used to make every monday night.

While this thought is relevant across several aspects of life, it is especially relevant to worship leaders and songwriters who are literally writing the language that the church sings, shaping the church’s ability to see life and God, developing the church’s appetite for a particular kind of life. This is no small thing. Duh.

Just because culture has developed a taste for something doesn’t mean that its a good thing, that as writers we should feed it, even though it sort of comes naturally and will win us a compliment or two. Sometimes great writing is writing that stretches our church. Now, to be clear, by ‘stretching’, I don’t mean having license to beat up our churches or to write something ‘edgy’ for the sake of being edgy. That’s just stupid. But many of us serve in congregations that need a bite or two of something new.

Look at what’s being sung at your church. Now consider what’s not being sung. Is it time to learn how to cook up something new?


Peace!

Adam

the party doesn’t have to stop

The party doesn’t have to stop. I know that all the rules say that eventually every party has an end – that if the party didn’t stop there would be no ‘baseline’, no way to distinguish between ‘party’ and ‘non-party’ days, regular and special. The whole metric would be shot.

Would we even like Fridays anymore?

First off, people will always like Fridays, because everyone knows that the sun always shines on Friday, and that the birds always sing on Friday, and The Cure has that really great song about being in love on Friday. No need to worry, Fridays are safe.

But back to the issue at hand, a party that doesn’t have to stop. I bring it up because Easter is one such party, yet the church pretty much packs up the celebration before it’s had a chance to break loose, well before anyone looses their inhibitions and begins to get new ideas about life.

This resurrection thing isn’t simply about not going to hell (and by-the-way, that’s pretty good, worth celebrating even) it’s about new creation! Resurrection is about how God has already begun to raise up, restore, and recreate all of creation, with the evidence being his son Jesus.

I owe a great deal of this understanding to N.T. Wright. If you haven’t read his book Surprised by Hope, do it! I wept all the way through!

Even the small details of the resurrection accounts point to the fact that something much larger than what most of us have ever considered is taking place. For instance, in John’s gospel, Mary goes to Jesus’ tomb and finds it empty, only to have the resurrected Jesus speak to her. John points out that Mary thought it was the gardener. This is not a throw away line! It is a prophetic echo of the very first garden where the first man, Adam, was placed to “garden”, thrive and live with God. Here, the ‘last Adam’ is gardening alright – he’s tending to ‘new creation’. In the first garden the woman was deceived. In the garden of new creation the woman, Mary, was the first to experience, firsthand, the revelation of the resurrected Jesus! More could be said, but for brevity’s sake we’ll stop there.

Now, we’re living in God’s new world where the party has only started. Jesus, as Paul points out, is the ‘first fruits’, a sure sign that the full crop is just ahead. We have reason to celebrate, and not just on Easter morning, but all year long!

I know the sophisticated may roll their eyes and think this is all just a bit naive, just a bit idealistic, just a bit sophomoric, but if Jesus is really alive (and I, for one, believe that he is) we have an unending reason to celebrate! As a pastor, I have often been puzzled by a church mentality that places so much emphasis on Easter Sunday, as a stand alone event, and then largely goes on as though nothing really happened, or is happening, or will surely happen!

My feeling is that it’s time to participate with new creation by celebrating all the more! Why spend 40 days on lent, and one piddly morning on Easter? Why not imagine and envision what some of the possibilities of new creation might be, and then, just go ahead and live in them. Let the yeast work it’s way through the dough. Why not have some people over for a really over-the-top dinner after Easter Sunday, and celebrate the dinner that we will one day share with Jesus himself at the marriage supper of the Lamb?

On the earth as in heaven!

Amen!

Adam

when nothing happens…

Holy Saturday, the great sabbath when Jesus quite literally did nothing – he was dead after all. And this was not some sort of ‘metaphoric death’. He was dead. He was not in a trance. He was not in an altered state. He wasn’t cryogenically frozen. He was dead. Room temperature.

So what?

While the death of Jesus is important, central even, to the resurrection – this wasn’t some sort of ancient Penn and Teller act. He was really dead, and then, the power of God raised him up, forever alive!

But before we get to resurrection Sunday let’s not just skip right over Holy Saturday, it has something for us. You see there are times when it seems like nothing is happening – when the life of God is far from us and we, like Jesus are alone in a tomb. But the story of Holy Saturday is one of not loosing heart, of trusting God even in the darkness, even in the silence, even in the face of unrelenting death.

Just because it looks like nothing is happening, it doesn’t mean that nothing is happening!

1 Peter 3:19
After being made alive,[d] he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—

1 Peter 4:6
For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead

A couple strange scriptures, along with church tradition, the apostles creed to be specific, hold that on Saturday Jesus descended to hell, conquering the devil and taking his power before ascending to Paradise. Now that’s quite a lot.

If you are in the dark, take heart! If God seems silent, hold on! If nothing seems to be happening, get ready – Sunday is right around the corner!

Peace!

Adam

good friday – lost in the truth

It’s Good Friday, the day that Jesus, the most innocent person who ever lived, was murdered. I reread all the gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion this week, and, once again, have been reminded just how horrible and unfair and sad those last few days of Jesus’ life were.

Truth is, people were just flat out deceived. It’s shocking how many people had face-to-face encounters with Jesus yet came to the conclusion that crucifixion was the appropriate choice. That’s a sobering thought for me, considering that many of the people who drew these conclusions were ‘religious professionals’, men who had given their whole lives to studying the scriptures.

And it wasn’t just the religious elite, it was those with political power as well, namely Pilate. I find it interesting that the two places that Americans, both democrat and republican, tend to put their trust, religion and government, were both completely blind and complicate in Jesus’ death.

Now I realize that we all crucified Jesus, and that, somehow, because of our sinfulness, and in spite of our blindness, this was the Fathers plan to remedy a situation that had veered considerably off course – count me as thankful. But before we get lost in the truth it would do us good to slow down and consider not only our sinfulness, but our blindness as well.

Most of us are in touch and somewhat aware of our general ‘sinfulness’, but largely unaware of our blindness to the things of God. It seems that the disciples missed it, the religious leaders missed it, and the government certainly missed it, though Jesus wasn’t necessarily hiding anything. All this leads me back to prayer –

“God, open my eyes – let me see Jesus.”

Peace!

Adam

how to catch a ghost

How does a person go about catching a ghost? It’s a problematic venture for sure. First off, there’s the question of their actual existence, but once you cross that hurdle the real trouble begins – ghosts are non-physical, often invisible, a presence that can be felt, but not necessarily a presence you can grab hold of. Ghosts are sporadic, showing up in the oddest moments, usually when something important needs to be accomplished or in a moment of weakness, but never when one is looking and never when the t.v. cameras are rolling. In any case they haunt. One encounter, however brief that encounter may be, can linger, wafting through ones mind and body for days, if not years.

Of course I’m not talking about ghosts. I haven’t suddenly decided to change the direction of this blog to the paranormal, though, I sometimes feel that my life is slightly more “para” than “normal”.

The real question here is – how does a songwriter catch a melody?

Melody is at least 1/3 of the song, with the other 2/3 being the lyric and the groove. But more than non-mathematic song fractions, melody is the soul of the song – the hypodermic needle injecting the medicine right into the heart. Melody is the ghostlike “truth” – you can’t see it, you can’t grab it or hold it, but it can grab you and you absolutely know when you are under its influence.

The trouble with melodies is that, like ghosts, they almost never appear when you are out looking for them. They come from behind. They almost always surprise. They bubble up from hidden, interior reservoirs, ones you didn’t even know that you had.

The really great ones hate your guitar, and your piano too. The really great ones only seem to come out while your driving in your car and your wife or mother is calling on your cell phone.

You see, we’ve all got well-worn melodic paths that we have carved through the underbrush of the song jungle. Every time we pick up our guitar, or sit at the piano, we just trot down a path we’ve been a hundred times. I mean, it’s easy. You don’t get lost. It’s perfectly safe, and usually, perfectly boring.

I don’t have a tons of advice but here’s a couple thoughts:

1) Put down the guitar for a bit.
2) “Try” a little less.
3) The really good ones are the ones that catch you.
4) Keep the iPhone voice recorder handy and document, document, document.
5) My best stuff happens in the shower, on the riding mower, and while I’m ironing my shirts.

Who else has been haunted lately? How do you catch your melody ghosts?

Peace!

Adam



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