Artist Interviews
Chris Tomlin - November 22nd, 2002


During the National Youth Workers Covention in Nashville, the three of us from our church (myself, Lee Ann and Sally) sat down with Chris for a little while to talk. Lee Ann is the youth director at our church (I'm her assistant), and Sally is a volunteer who mostly works with our various praise bands.


Mickey: Tell me about your setup – guitars, effects, tunings, etc…

My setup is gonna be pretty uneventful. My favorite guitar is a Collings. They’re made in Austin, Texas. Man, it’s an amazing guitar. I think it’s the most fantastic guitar. You can go to collingsguitars.com. They’re hand-made. There’s no assembly line. You’re not gonna find them in a Guitar Center or anything like that, you’ll just find them in specialty shops. On their website they have a place where they tell you what cities you can find them in. It’s the most fantastic guitar. I like it because I live in Austin now, and they’re based in Austin. I just run it through a tuner, and that’s all you need.

Mickey: How about weird tunings you do or anything?

The coolest thing everybody asks me is the capo setup. I use a cut capo, which a friend of mine, Billy Foote, who wrote the song “You Are My King (Amazing Love)”. He showed me how to do that. It’s been around a long time, that idea. It’s an open tuning. Kyser now makes the capo. It’s not out yet – I think it comes out in February. What it is basically is holding an E Sustained chord down, on the second fret. So it’s holding the A, D, G strings down, so low E, and high E and B strings are open. So it’s like you’re holding an E Sustained – it’s open E tuning without having to retune your guitar. Anytime you use two, I’m just changing the key. (side note from Mickey: You can turn a standard Kyser capo upside-down to achive this)

Mickey: And you play most of your songs like that?

Oh no. Probably three or four like that.

Mickey: What all have you written? It get’s a little confusing with all of the Passion stuff the songs get somewhat mixed together.

Forever, which Michael W. Smith made pretty popular. The Wonderful Cross, We Fall Down, Be Glorified, Enough, Famous One, Kindness. A song called America, which was on the WOW Hits CD. I’m trying to think of the most popular songs… We’ve written tons of other songs that are brand new on our new record.

Mickey: Now who is “we”?

Jesse and I – bass player and I write. We’ve been writing together for six years, been playing together for six years. I’ve been doing it for 12 years, playing and singing.

Mickey: How old are you?

30. So I started right out of high school. Just me and my acoustic for five years, six years. Really cool. Then God just opened up those doors in an amazing way. I write most everything – I have the idea, then Jesse is the finisher – he helps me finish it.

Mickey: How did you get involved with Passion?

Louie and I were buddies before Passion started – Louie Giglio.

Mickey: Where did you meet him? He was down in Texas for a while, right?

In Texas, yeah. He was in Baylor, leading a Bible study called “choice”. We had been doing stuff for about a year or two together, and became really good friends. The Passion vision was birthed in him through God, and I got to join on with it from the very start in ’97.

Mickey: David Crowder hooked up with you guys down there too, right?

Crowder hooked up with us about a year and a half ago.

Mickey: Are you on SixSteps (Louie’s record label)?

Yep.

Mickey: How do you develop your set list?

That’s a great question. No one asks that question. It’s a good question to ask. The best way to describe how not to do it is how most people do it. It’s like, “What songs did we do last week? Let’s not do them.” and “We’ve done that song three times in a row – surely we can’t do it again.”. That’s the wrong way. Another wrong way is to just go down the line and do the hits – the worship hits. And another way is the couple songs that people are nagging us about. There’s always that one lady in church every Sunday like “When are you gonna play Shout To The Lord or I Could Sing Of Your Love Forever?”.

I think a great way of doing a set – and this is like elementary – but life-changing for some people, is pray. Another way is to look at your songs and think “Are these songs God-focused or man-focused?”. It’s basic English language. Am I singing “You” or “He”? A lot of times we’re doing that. We’re saying “God, You are the Great One”, and the next song we’re saying “He is…”. It loses focus. Those are things to think about. To me, the most important is that God-focused-ness of a song. Or is it man-focused? Not that man-focused songs are wrong, but in our world today we can tend to lean too much that way, because we’re pretty self-centered in like “everything that God does is for me” and “Lord, help me, help me, help me”. And that’s fine, because the Psalms are full of that. David was in trouble, and was like “Help me, help me out here”. But, if you’re gonna lean toward one way, lean on what songs are focused on God. Why do you think “Shout To The Lord” is the biggest song in the history of the world in Christian Music? Because it’s all about Him, and God is like “I’m gonna have people sing that, all over the world, because it’s all about Me”. His number one goal is His own worship, and people think his number one goal is us. The truth is, Jesus said “everything is done for the Father’s glory”, and we get in on it – thank God we get in on it. But his chief end is His worship, because He knows that’s best for us.

As leaders, I think we need to lead people that way. So that’s what I think about when I put a set together. I look at it, and I’m going “where am I leading people?”, and also, it’s a huge responsibility when you’re doing a set list because through music you’re giving people what they understand of God. Messages are great, sermons are great, but no one remembers them. But you remember a song. Because it’s music, and it gets in your soul. I think of Charles Wesley and John Wesley. Both amazing pillars of the church. John was probably one of the greatest preachers that every walked the earth, and his brother Charles was a hymn writer. You probably can’t get up and quote a John Wesley sermon, but everyone can sing a Charles Wesley hymn. So that’s what you’re really passing down is what people know of God, what people learn of God. So with your sets, it’s important that you really saying “What am I showing people of God?”. Am I just showing that he’s really lovey-dovey, or am I showing the whole thing – that’s He’s holy, and He can’t stand sin, that He is wrathful, that He is just, that He is fair, and that He has mercy and grace. Over the course of a year at my church, am I giving people a big picture of God? That’s what I try to do.

Mickey: How about here? Do you get full reign of your set list?

Yeah, you get a time limit. When you’re here, there’s so much going on, they say “We’ve got a 30 minute block here – do whatever you want”.

Mickey: What’s your inspiration for songs that you write?

Mostly scripture. “Forever” came from Psalm 136. Revelation 4 was “We Fall Down”. It actually says “They fall down before Him, they lay their crowns before Him, and they never stop singing Holy, Holy, Holy”. Just trying to take ideas from scripture, and also I think that songwriters just need to be aware of what’s around them. People say things, you see something on TV or on the news. If you’re aware, then songs come. If you see an amazing sunset, and you’re aware of it, it might spark something. Most of us go through life not aware of much. Scripture is number one.

Mickey: How about the songs themselves? You have the lyrics, but how about the rest? Do you just kinda feel where it goes?

To quote a great songwriter of our time, Willie Nelson, he said that “Melodies are always in the air. You just gotta listen for them and pull them out.” I like that. It’s kinda weird, but it’s true. For me, melodies just come. I just start singing out melodies, I grab my guitar, strike a chord, and just start singing a melody. I write songs for congregations, so I’m always thinking, “is this the melody?”, can people who have no rhythm, no musical ability, can they grab onto this melody, is it easy to sing, or is it really hard? Not that you should do that all the time, but for me, most of the time, that’s how I do it. And to write a simple song like that, people think “Aww, that’s easy”. No, that’s the hardest one – to write something really simple, but say something profound, in just five lines.

Mickey: Do you feel sorta limited that needs to be fairly straightforward and simple?

No, that’s what I love to do.

Mickey: Do you write other music?

Oh yeah. Tons. A lot of country music.

Mickey: Are you gonna record any of it?

I haven’t been asked.

Mickey: What have you listened to lately?

I really love David Gray. The melodies are so good, so clever. Of course U2, that’s the biggest influence on most anyone today. I hate to say it, because everybody says U2, but they’re just the best. I like the way they sound, their lyrics are amazing.

Lee Ann: I’ve heard people say that this new praise and worship thing will end, because it’s boring musically. The musicians say it’s not as intricate, so they think it’s just a fad and it’s gonna go away, because the “real” musicians will win, and they’ll go to something else.

I’ve got so much to say about that. (laugh). That’s called music pride. You think of all of the great songs that have been passed down – they’re three chords. Any song that’s really complicated – the popular culture, they don’t get it. It’s not gonna be passed down through the ages. I think of John Denver, “Country Roads” – three chords. I’ve been all over the world, I can play that song anywhere in the entire world, people know it. That’s just music pride. I think that the simpler it is, the more it hits people. I’m trying to write songs for people, not for myself. So, I really want people to enjoy them. And then they can take it and play it, and then someone that just knows five chords can take it and play it at their church, and it just keeps living on.

Lee Ann: I know three chords so far… (laugh)

I don’t know who said it, but it’s actually etched on the wall of the Country Music Hall of Fame, right on the outside, it says “Great music is simply three chords and the truth”. Think of U2 for example. We play about 10 U2 songs just for fun during sound check, and there isn’t any of them that has more than four chords. They’re just simple. I think it frustrates people – they’re like “why can’t I write a song that simple?”

Mickey: What do you think of the whole worship movement lately? Do you see a downside?

I think it’s exciting. We call it the “modern worship movement”, which I think makes God laugh, because He’s like “it’s nothing modern to me, there’s been worship since creation”. Worship will continue, worship isn’t going anywhere. As long as God is God it’s not going anywhere. The style will change – in 10 years it will be a new style. But I think it’s just exciting because people feel the freedom. Generations feel the freedom to play the music they know, and they’re more excited about it now, because there’s freedom opened up. That’s all we do. We’re not trying to be inventive, we’re not trying to be edgy, we’re just playing the music that we know. In 10 years it’s gonna be a different sound. Styles will change, but the spirit will not.

Sally: How do you maintain freshness in your personal life, so it doesn’t feel like a job?

I just remind myself that it’s a calling. This isn’t anything I ever set a 10 year plan to do. I went to college to become a doctor, and God just kept opening up doors for me to play and write songs. I mean yeah, I’ve played “Forever” forever – every night of my life since I wrote it five years ago.

Mickey: Do you get sick of it?

No, I don’t. I love to play it, every time. It can be easy to get into just cruising along. For me, the testimony is that God is placing amazing people around me that really pull me to what I’ve been called to do, always encouraging me, always calling me, always talking about it. So it’s always in the forefront. They’ll let me know if they see me slacking off, so I’ve been blessed in that way. I don’t have a lot of “yes” people around me. (laugh)

 

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