If there was a Godfather of the Re:Tuned hymns movement, it would be Kevin Twit. Kevin is a Reformed University Fellowship pastor, a musician, and a songwriter. He is also the founder of Indelible Grace, the ministry that sprang from RUF and taught a generation to love and appreciate the often-neglected hymns of the faith.
When I first heard Indelible Grace in 2004, I thought, “This is allowed? We can write new tunes for old hymns?” It is much more common now, largely because of the Indelible Grace albums, their RUF Hymnbook, touring (led by iGrace artist Matthew Smith) and lectures and workshops.
Kevin has taught several times at Sojourn Music songwriting workshops, so I knew he’d be a fantastic guest in the My Song In The Night interview series. And a new Indelible Grace album is on the horizon as well, with a Kickstarter campaign. You can learn about it here, as well as Kevin’s advice on working with hymns and the Indelible Grace writing and recording process:
Bobby Gilles: Before Indelible Grace came along, most “modern hymn” records I heard were attempts to stick with the most well-known tunes for hymns but then just add electric guitars and driving rock rhythm. How and why did you come up with the idea of taking something like “And Can It Be,” “Arise My Soul, Arise” or “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” and come up with a completely new melody?
Kevin Twit: Well, Indelible Grace did not come up with the idea. It was being done in RUF (Reformed University Fellowship) groups and there were some other examples of this sort of thing, most notably James Ward’s version of “Rock of Ages.” More specifically, for “Arise My Soul” I wrote a new tune at a World Harvest Mission Sonship Conference (the last one Jack Miller led) after we tried to sing the tune in the hymnal and I felt it was not a good fit with the text. But many of the other Indelible Grace hymns were texts we discovered in old hymnals that had no tunes and so we needed to come up with a tune to sing these words we had found. In the early days we sang a lot of texts to Come Thou Fount’s traditional tune – but gradually more and more of the texts we liked and were using regularly had tunes written for them.
Bobby Gilles: Is there a benefit to a church doing, say, both the standard tune and the Indelible Grace tune of a song like “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go?”
Kevin Twit: I believe there is. I think there are more emotional nuances in a hymn text than any tune can bring out. Also, sometimes the hymn with traditional tune can cause people to zone out and not really listen to the words. A new tune can bring a fresh hearing to a text.
Bobby Gilles: As a tune writer, do previous tunes for a specific text influence you in any way? Do you prefer not to know/listen to previous tunes?
Kevin Twit: Sometimes I have written a new tune because I felt the old tune either wasn’t a good fit for the text or felt it would be difficult for us to sing and play with typical RUF instruments like a couple guitars. I am a Berklee grad, so I can pull off traditional tunes with chords changing on every beat, but that would be asking too much from many of the guitarists who lead worship in RUF groups. But honestly, I really am trying to find texts that have dropped out of use for the most part and so I am looking for texts in old hymnals without music in them.
Bobby Gilles: You’ve said before that worship is formative, and it matters what we think. What about the argument that hymns are dry, that there isn’t enough emotion or subjective response compared to contemporary praise choruses?
Kevin Twit: It depends on the hymns. There are hymns (and Psalms) that directly address God, and also ones that are more of an exhortation to other believers. I believe the best hymns have a good marriage between objective truth and subjective response. “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” is a great example. In the first half of every stanza you get doctrinal truth, but in the 2nd half of the stanza you get the subjective response. But in the last verse all 4 lines are response – a great effect Watts uses there.
My concern with some praise choruses is they are almost completely our response without any preaching of the gospel to our hearts. But I also believe even these songs can be used judiciously in a service as long as there are songs giving us solid meat to chew on as well.
Bobby Gilles: You’ve talked before about how a song isn’t automatically good just because it’s old or because some people call it a hymn — “In The Garden” for example. How do you find a good hymn text? What qualities do you look for?
Kevin Twit: Right. “In The Garden” is technically a “gospel song” rather than a hymn. There are a lot of old hymns that are dreadful, and for various reasons. Some are theologically in error. Some are just cliché-ridden drivel. But many of these have dropped out of use. These days I am often sifting through the complete poetical works of the various hymnwriters and so I do come upon their bad hymns more regularly in those kinds of sources.
For me, (and I’m borrowing from the great hymnwriter James Montgomery here), a good hymn text has a striking first line. It needs to be immediately accessible the first time you sing it, not too poetically obtuse and opaque. But it needs to bring new insights when you sing it over and over again. This is a very tricky balance to achieve by the way. It’s very rare for a great poet to be a great hymnwriter.
Bobby Gilles: Do you worry that the well might run dry, so to speak? That between Indelible Grace and many of the other artists and churches who are bringing back the old hymns, we’ll run out of all the good ones?
Kevin Twit: Not really. I do wish everyone wouldn’t keep rewriting the same texts over and over – unless they feel the tune someone else wrote just didn’t cut it. But there are thousands of texts. I have particularly been drawn to German texts lately – there are so many more interesting meters which can inspire fresh tunes. There have been many translations of German hymns, but I guess if I run out I can always try to learn German myself!
Bobby Gilles: You’ve mentored many artists who have contributed to Indelible Grace projects and also have become well known for their own recordings, like Sandra McCracken and Matthew Perryman Jones. Do you think their work with hymn texts has benefitted their own writing?
Kevin Twit: Well I think the hymns have benefitted them and so at the very least that has benefitted their writing! But yes, I definitely think they have drawn inspiration from the great poetry and imagery of the great hymns.
Bobby Gilles: With so many artists being involved, how do the Indelible Grace projects come together? Do you all write and arrange together, like at a retreat, or does everyone come up with material separately and submit their songs to you?
Kevin Twit: Well, I kind of make a new project when the time feels right. Since I am a pastor to college students, that time is usually in the summer! I am constantly reading through hymnbooks and looking for interesting texts. Often I will sing melody ideas into my phone when I first read a text and then save those ideas.
When it is time for a new CD I start gathering together all those ideas and work on them. I also send out word to the Indelible Grace artists, and my students, that they should send me any new stuff they have. For every CD I generally will have 40-50 songs I am considering and usually my wife Wendy and I will wrestle with them and cull the list down to about 20. Then we will bring in some to the Indelible Grace artists to give us their opinion. And then we try to sing all the “contender” songs with my college students and the iGrace artists.
I’ve thought a retreat would be a really cool thing to do sometime – but everyone has kids now, so that could be quite the logistic challenge!
Bobby Gilles: Do you give assignments to specific individuals?
Kevin Twit: Actually I have done that. Sometimes I have given packets of texts to several artists to work on. I asked Sandra McCracken to write a tune for a specific text for this new project. I also got one of my recent RUF graduates, Blake Mundell, to write tunes to two specific texts that I sent him.
Bobby Gilles: You’ve just launched a Kickstarter campaign. Tell me about this new project.
Kevin Twit: We are raising money for Indelible Grace VI. We have all the songs picked out and we are going into the studio on June 4th to begin recording. Kickstarter is a great platform to help connect with the people who really have believed in, and supported this movement, and involve them in the project while we are working on it. I love supporting Kickstarter projects myself because I love to get updates as the project is progressing, but also because I feel it is a way to send a tangible message of encouragement to the artists I support.
We at Indelible Grace have always enjoyed being independent and not dependent on any record company telling us what to do. Kickstarter helps independent artists connect with their fans to be the patrons of the art – and I think that is a great thing. We are thankful for your helping spread the word Bobby.
And I hope we have come up with some cool rewards for people to check out. Also, we are promising that as soon as we reach our funding goal we will put our Live Hymn Sing album up on Noisetrade for a week for people to download it for free! I think that should be a cool incentive for people to spread the word and help make some music available to everyone for free.