My Stephen Altrogge Interview: Writing Principles, Musical Influences, Pastoral Wisdom

by Bobby Gilles

in Interviews,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Stephen Altrogge in the recording studio

Stephen Altrogge in the recording studio

Stephen Altrogge is a husband, father, pastor, songwriter, musician and author of several books. He’s contributed as a songwriter and vocalist on multiple Sovereign Grace records, including the father-son album In A Little While with his father Mark Altrogge. Stephen and Mark also write together on their popular blog The Blazing Center.

Kristen and I are honored to have him as our guest on My Song In The Night. His answers to my questions below should be a big help to you if you’re a writer, pastor, musician or someone who benefits from the work of writers, pastors and musicians. So, all of you.

Bobby Gilles: Your bio on The Blazing Center says that one of your main jobs is to shine your dad’s shoes. Also, that you drink lots of coffee. Do you ever spill coffee on your dad’s shoes?

Stephen Altrogge: No. Believe it or not I’m actually a bit of a neat freak. Clutter stresses me out. If I spill something I try to get it cleaned up pretty quickly.

Gilles: Seriously, you’ve followed in your dad’s footsteps in becoming a pastor, singer and writer. What do you say, pastorally, to people who maybe don’t have any good “father” stories to tell, who had a bad father or who never knew their father?

Sovereign Grace's "In A Little While," featuring Mark & Stephen Altrogge

Sovereign Grace's "In A Little While," featuring Mark & Stephen Altrogge

Altrogge: Wow, thanks for that wonderfully smooth transition from the ridiculous to the serious. I would say first of all that I’m so sorry that they never had the opportunity to know their father. I can’t imagine how painful that must have been. I would also say, at the risk of sounding trite, that God can be the father that they never had. God can meet them in ways that no human father ever can. God can heal the wounds inflicted by their earthly father. God delights in them even though their earthly father never did. I would also encourage them to not let their terrible experience with their earthly father shape their view of their heavenly Father.

Gilles: Well said.  In fact you’ve said, sung or written so many good words, full of biblical truth, and skillfully crafted. Do you follow certain techniques or principles of writing, regardless of whether you’re working on a book, song or blog post?

Altrogge: Yes I do. One of my big principles is that I’m okay with writing trash. To be good at writing anything, you need to do it a lot. In the process of doing it a lot, you’re bound to write a lot of total garbage. So I’ve written lots of lame songs, sentences, and blog posts. And that’s okay. I think I’ve written some decent ones too. Some people get so hung up on being perfect that they never finish anything.

So just write! It doesn’t have to be great. Once you have it down on paper you can fix it. But if you don’t get anything on paper you can’t even work with it. So I always encourage people to just get started and not to worry about the quality. The more you write, the more the quality will improve.

I also try to read a lot and listen to a ton of music. I subscribe to a bazillion blogs and read tons of books and listen to all kinds of different music. As I write this I’m listening to “Foster the People”. Earlier I was listening to the soundtrack to “Alice in Wonderland”. The more you take in the more ideas you will have.

So take in a lot, put out a lot, and throw away a lot.

Game Day For The Glory Of God by Stephen Altrogge book cover

A must-read for sports fans & athletes

Gilles: You have been fairly outspoken on Twitter about not liking country music. I like country music. So does Russell Moore. Would you care to find a tag team partner and settle this in the ring with us at Wrestlemania?

Altrogge: I don’t really think that I need a partner. From what I understand, Russell Moore is a bit on the shortish side. I’ve even heard rumors that he might be a Hobbit. I happen to be a skilled Jedi. So I think I’m good.

Gilles: Who are some of your musical influences, and what have you learned from them?

Altrogge: Coldplay, the Beatles, Matt Redman, Mumford and Sons, the Police, Mutemath. I’d say that the main thing I’ve learned is that a good song is good no matter what the production and a bad song can’t be saved by good production. When I listen to the Police, they have a distinctly 80’s sound. But their songs are just incredible. So if you’re going to write songs, make sure that they’re good songs. Don’t count on the music or the production to save you.

Gilles: You’ve done a lot of song co-writing, and of course you and your dad run The Blazing Center together. Do you find it easier or more difficult to collaborate? Do you have any tips for writers who want to learn how to collaborate more effectively?

Altrogge: Well…it depends. Sometimes collaboration can be hugely helpful and can push you in ways that you would never go. Other times it can be more of a hindrance. I think it depends on who you are collaborating with. If you are collaborating with someone who has a completely different idea of what is cool, you might run into some problems. But if you can find someone who pushes you in the right way, it can be awesome. So I would suggest trying to find somebody that you work well with.

Gilles: What do you find more challenging: to work with an existing hymn text or Puritan prayer like you did on “Whatever My God Ordains Is Right,” and “All That I Need,” or writing a song from scratch, like “Hope Has Come”?

Altrogge: I wouldn’t really say that either one is easier for me. To write a song, I need to have a concrete idea to work around. Sometimes a hymn provides that concrete idea. Other times it will just come to me.

Gilles: The “Behold Our God” verses (from the Sovereign Grace album Risen) contain very metrically precise lines. Was that dictated by the music or did the lyrics come first?

Altrogge: If I remember correctly, they came together. I was working with Ryan, Jon, and Megan Baird, and I think Ryan was playing something on the piano. I think I started singing over top of him. It just developed from there. Bairds, if I’m remembering this wrong, please forgive me. Just make sure I get my share of the royalties.

Gilles: Your latest book is Game Day For The Glory Of God. I love how you teach us to enjoy sports without making an idol out of them, and also how watch, play and discuss sports for the glory of God. Can we agree together that American football is superior to soccer, or is this going to be like the country music schism between us?

Altrogge: First of all, my latest book is The Greener Grass Conspiracy.

Gilles: Oh. Um. Oops. I haven’t read that one yet but it is on my list. Soon.

Altrogge: That’s okay. I won’t hold it against you. And yes, American football is superior to soccer. Far superior.

Follow Stephen Altrogge on Twitter

But only if you follow Bobby Gilles on Twitter, too.

Previous post:

Next post: