David Ash
Secrets of Great Songwriting

WAW: Fatherhood, the presence of God in the midst of suffering… are you aware of the seasons you’re in when you write?

Matt: Bono said, ‘I preach what I need to hear’ and that’s true of my writing. These are the things I need to hear from God. There are at least four songs on this new album that have the same theme as Blessed Be Your Name and You Never Let Go. There’s a rewrite of It Is Well With My Soul and lines like ‘the greater the storm the louder our song’. I was fighting it at first, thinking that I can’t keep on writing songs on the same theme. But when I remembered the Bono quote I decided that this was where I’m at, that I’m not writing ethereal, conceptual songs, but real songs that mean something to me right now. So I let myself keep on writing about it.

WAW: What’s the oldest song you’ve written that you still like to use?

Matt: It’s probably The Heart Of Worship. I hadn’t led it much over the last few years, but we brought it back this year at Passion conference for an acoustic session. It was beautiful and also funny to me that some of the people in the room weren’t even born when I wrote it!

WAW: How significant was the song’s back story to its longevity?

Matt: I always feel a personal connection to it and it never gets old. You’re always needing a heart adjustment, to think about what worship is, who it is for. The Father’s Song we revisit now and again too and I still lead Never Let Go a lot. It was written in an intense moment in our life and I’ve never grown tired of it. Some songs don’t grow old to you because the themes don’t grow old.

WAW: When do you think that songwriting really made sense for you?

Matt: When I started co-writing. I used to not write with anyone else at all, and when I did it never really clicked. But ten years ago I got into the mode of taking it more seriously, investing in the relationships.

I had to learn how to invest. Friendship is huge because you have to create an environment where people can share their best ideas as well as their silly ideas that they just want to check. Those are the things that often turn into the best songs. But if people don’t feel safe they’re going to hold back their best. So you have to create trust and encourage vulnerability.

There are music towns around the world where you can write with someone in the morning and someone else in the afternoon, but that to me feels like speed dating. Maybe something good will come out, who knows, but I want the long term friendships. It hit me when Paul McCartney said that every time he sat down to write with John Lennon there wasn’t one time when they didn’t come away with a song. They were both great writers on their own, but something else happened when they got together.

So I started to wonder who the people might be in my life like that, and it turned out that the main one was Jonas Myrin. We had been friends for years and never wrote together, but when we did it was clear that we go further together. I first wrote with Chris Tomlin backstage at a church in Anaheim in 2001. That counts for a lot when you sit in a room and you have over a decade of friendship, knowing someone’s strengths, someone’s weaknesses, knowing when to lean on someone’s gifts.

It has reached the point when there are times when I don’t even write melody beforehand when I’m going to write with those guys because I know that the three of us will come up with something better. I just concentrate on the lyrics.

And I’ll keep specific ideas for specific writers. With Our God, Jonas and I were half way through it and it had sat on my computer for ten months. I didn’t know how to finish it but when I was songwriting with Chris one day I thought ‘he’ll know how to finish it’, So I checked that Jonas was OK with it and asked Chris to look at the song. I knew that he would have the missing piece that would make the song more congregational. Straight away he saw what was needed, we adjusted a few things and filled in the gaps.

WAW: How have you got better at songwriting?

Matt: I’ve realised that consensus is one of the most helpful types of feedback, though you probably shouldn’t use your congregation as guinea pigs. I get feedback from all sorts of people, including church leaders, pastors, my wife and other worship leaders. You start to get a sense of what’s rising to the top.

So get feedback from people you trust and get it from more than one or two people. Especially if it’s something you don’t agree with. Be humble and take it to another couple of people and see if they agree.

Taken from an interview with We Are Worship - 17/06/2015