Keith Getty is widely recognized as one of the premier modern Christian hymn writers. His compositions are sung in Christian congregations around the world. And one of his most well-known hymns, In Christ Alone, was featured at the enthronement of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury. Keith recently released his first live album with his wife and cowriter, Kristyn Getty, Keith & Kristyn Getty – Live at The Gospel Coalition (Modern and Traditional Hymns).
Nicholas Zork: Thanks for sitting down to talk. You recently released an album, Live at The Gospel Coalition, which was recorded live at the 2013 National Conference of that organization. I really enjoyed listening to the recording. I thought it had great effervescence and energy. Congregational song is often recorded live, but this was your first live project. So what inspired you to take that leap?
Keith Getty: Well, I think we should have done it many years earlier. We wanted to be sure we had a good partner. And The Gospel Coalition, while it doesn’t claim to embrace everyone, represents a group of young leaders—70% of whom are under 45—who are orthodox Bible Christians and looking for depth. So at that level, we share more than enough commonality that we could grow old with them. I look at songs in the same way as I look at relationships—in the same way as I look at companies that we’ve started. And that is, “Can we do this for 30 years?” And if we can, we’ll start it; and if we can’t, we won’t.
NZ: So the partnership was primary rather than the idea of making a live album?
KG: We wanted to make a live album, but we wanted to put that in the context of something else. I mean, we’re doing a concert here in New York tonight. But far more important to us is introducing our hymns to the churches and leaders who are here, which is why we hosted a lunch earlier today for local church leaders. The concert is really to give people a taste and to build for the future.
NZ: The prospect of doing a live recording—was that intimidating? Exciting? Both?
KG: Honestly, I never even noticed. My wife and I just did our usual thing, and the guys captured it. Kristyn re-recorded a few of the vocals for clarity, but almost all of what you hear is what they caught live.
NZ: We talked about the song, In Christ Alone, a little earlier. And, of course, that’s on this recording as well. Recently, it was chosen to be sung at the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury. When you heard that your hymn had been selected, what thoughts went through your mind?
KG: It was just a huge honor that it was used. But it is also an honor to know that the young church leaders we met in Detroit yesterday—who haven’t gotten their church to as many as 30 yet—are using it. That’s what it was written for. We’re thrilled that it’s used, wherever it’s used. I’m a classical musician by origin. So it was great to hear the pipe organist of the (Canterbury) Cathedral do his version, which actually was closer to how I would have arranged it. I’ve simplified my chords for contemporary band purposes. He actually played almost in the chords I would have written it. And, of course, it was a spectacular arrangement, and the acoustics were great. On the other hand, it also reminded me that the majority of people in the world who sing In Christ Alone sing it without music. The role of the song is to help people understand the Gospel. And to me that’s a greater privilege—that in China and India and South America people are singing it without any music and learning the Gospel through it.
NZ: When you write, what context do you have in mind? I suspect you’re not thinking about the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But what context do you imagine? Or, do you just write out of your personal experience?
KG: In terms of melodies, I’m always imagining a large group wanting to sing. The soundtrack of my upbringing was a classical one, not a pop one. So when I try to write a pop song or a CCM [contemporary Christian music] song or a country song, it sometimes feels like I’m trying too hard. Whereas when I write congregationally—while I know it isn’t what’s “cool” today—it comes more naturally. It’s that thing Steve Jobs articulated about creativity being the combination of your experiences. Well, I’m an Irish Presbyterian classical musician, who grew up in a home where all we listened to was church music. So however my music comes out and however out of kilter it is with what is cool today, it does work in a congregational context. That’s the good and bad of my creative DNA. [laughs]
NZ: Have you always, since you began writing music, written hymns? Was there a time at which you shifted your focus toward hymnody?
KG: I’ve written music for most of my life. But I thought I was more of an orchestral writer because that’s what I did. I studied classical guitar and flute and piano and then conducting. So my heroes were the likes of Henry Mancini, conductors who wrote and arranged music. In my 20s, my living was earned as an orchestrator. But in my spare time, my hymns were my kind of protest music. In some ways, they were a protest against where church music was going. In other ways they represented a genuine desire for something that was a companion to modern worship music. And those hymns ended up becoming my most distinctive voice. As an arranger, I think I’ll always be a bad Henry Mancini. Do you know what I mean? Whereas as a hymn writer—writing the way I wanted to write, not expecting to ever see any grand returns—out of that came my sort of original voice. Does that make sense?
NZ: [nods in agreement]
KG: I got married to Kristyn at 29, and she helped me think about life. And at 30, I quit the music industry and said, “I’m gonna write hymns and be a steward of them from here on in.”
NZ: Would it be fair to say that there’s a tension you’ve experienced between writing music as an art form—as a liturgical art form—and creating it as a commodity for the marketplace?
KG: There’s always tension for anyone. There are broad level tensions. Music and business have always been uncomfortable companions. Business and religion have been uncomfortable companions. And religion and music have been, at times, uncomfortable companions. So trying to put the three together and expecting a happy result is not very realistic. But I’ve never tried to write a worship song as a commodity. I try to write a great song for a congregation and not what the industry wants. I’ve tried to write, asking, “How can I make everyone in this room stand taller, breathe deeper, and be excited to sing, and clench their fists, and raise their hands, and sing louder?” And that’s what we’re trying to achieve in our songs.
NZ: And I suspect that the realities of the music industry are challenging not only for those who write hymns but who want to create other types of music that may or may not meet the expectations of the corporate music business.
KG: I think, ultimately, business is the organization of our priorities. Each of us has to work at what our priorities are. I don’t think any artist should try and write something they don’t believe in. We have to be excited about the art we’re producing. And then we have to find the best way to fund the rest of it.
NZ: You mentioned carving out some time to write this year. With the busyness of life, touring, new additions to your family—congratulations, by the way—
KG: Thank you
NZ: —how to make time to create?
KG: Over the years we’ve made choices. We have a rule that we only tour a limited number of weeks a year. So that does create quite a lot of freedom. We live in Nashville, and we spend a few months in the summer in our house on the coast of Ireland. Becoming parents has changed every part of our lives in richer, fuller and more exhausting ways! We have had to become more organized and prioritize our time more effectively. We have enjoyed how these new life experiences inspire fresh creativity as we continue our focus on writing hymns and stewarding them.
NZ: Two final questions. First, when you write, what is your starting point? Is it a biblical text, a melodic idea? Does it vary?
KG: We’re the melodic way around. So we go melody first. I know the vast majority go lyrics first, don’t they?
NZ: I’m not sure, but I know a lot do.
KG: Most of the time it seems to be that the proactive one goes first. Kristyn and Stuart [Townend]: I think they’re the real geniuses in our partnership. What they bring is a much more unique contribution to our work. But their rule is that they won’t start until I have a melody that’s worth writing to. They torture me. So I have to go through months of just writing and writing and writing. I usually have pretty strong ideas about what I want the song to be about. All the songs are co-credited, you’ll notice; they’re not word-music splits. But effectively, it’s my music and their words. I don’t have the poetic arts that they do. I sometimes write the lyric myself, but they always change the entire thing.
NZ: And finally, you mention a revision process. How do you know when a hymn is finished?
KG: How do you know? [laughs]
NZ: [shrugs] That’s why I’m asking you? [laughs]
KG: I’m asking you. I wanna know! [laughs] Well, at the end of the day, it’s just a temporal art form, isn’t it? The old joke is, “which came first, the music or the lyrics?” And the answer is, “the phone call.” I think you have to create deadlines. Some of our songs have come easily. With In Christ Alone, Stuart heard the melody and said, “I want to write this.” He wrote the lyrics and sent them to me. I thought they were OK, but they’ve worked! [laughs] With The Power of the Cross, Stuart took 15 months. He wrote 17 different verses. To my pastor friends, I say, “You’re lucky because you’ve got the privilege that Sunday’s coming. You’ve got a fixed deadline, and by lunchtime you’re done! But their art form is, for the most part, a short-term art form. It is for this moment in space, time and history. A sermon’s power is its power to speak at that moment. A song’s power is its ability to speak beyond a single moment.