How To Begin Encouraging & Mentoring Songwriters

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

U.S. Writer Mark Twain

Let Twain be Twain and Shakespeare be Shakespeare

When a songwriter mentors or encourage another, the temptation is to remake them in our image, or the image of someone else in our ministry, band or organization. Whatever else you do, remember to treat each artist as an  individual, with individual skills, desires and experiences. Encourage them to write songs that honor God and serve the congregation, but inspire them to find their own voice, too.

Some of us will write long hymns and some will write short choruses. The legendary book editor Maxwell Perkins once said,

“If you have a Mark Twain, don’t try to make him into a Shakespeare or make a Shakespeare into a Mark Twain.”

A few months after joining Sojourn Church in 2004, I gave several song demos to Worship Pastor Mike Cosper. Mike invited me to lunch a short time later, where we discussed my songs, worship, music and Sojourn’s vision. Mike thought the songs I’d sent him were okay but sensed something was missing.

Although the lyrics reflected my heart and — to the best of my ability at the time – strong theology, they were my attempt at the Sojourn “sound” of 2004, which largely meant the songwriting style of our first worship writer, Jeremy Quillo. Jeremy’s style is simple and accessible. His lyrics are typically unmetered but tightly structured inside catchy chord progressions.

I knew how to mimic Jeremy’s style but couldn’t really inhabit it. When Jeremy strove for “simple” he hit “simple.” When I strove for the same simplicity I hit “simplistic.”

Mike Cosper discerned my true “voice” during that lunch meeting. He witnessed my animation when I talked about hymns, Dylan and gospel music, and noted that he hadn’t heard any echoes of hymns, Dylan or gospel music in my demos. And he discerned that this was because I thought I needed to leave my influences behind in order to write praise and worship music.

Mike said, “You can write hymns and folk ballads at Sojourn. You can give me three or four verses without a chorus – that’s what Watts, Wesley, Newton and Steele gave the Church, and it worked out pretty well. You can write gospel music themes of struggle, the cross, our longing for heaven and the Second Coming. Or you can write praise choruses, or verse-chorus-verse rock songs. You can write whatever you want, as long as it’s biblical, it’s well-crafted and it’s true to yourself and your community.”

The weight lifted from me. Being free to write verse-verse-verse songs like “Lead Us Back” ironically made me feel free to write verse-chorus-verse songs that didn’t sound like a second-rate version of someone else’s style. Today, as I mentor songwriters I remember the lesson of this lunch, so I can resist the temptation to remake them in my image but rather to help writers find their voice and adapt any advice to their own style.

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