Harmony is the key to 1st Worship Arts EP
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Little did they know, when they sat together in their very first Grand Canyon University class last August, that fate had brought them together to create a friendship that would produce beautiful music.
But looking back on it now, Desiree Aguilar and Jessi Sams realize there was something special going on, something too big for mere human beings to comprehend. “I don’t even remember really meeting you,” Sams said, motioning to Aguilar. “I remember you just, like, being there.”
And then they discovered that they were in several other classes together.
And then they kept winding up on group projects.
And then these two freshmen in the Center for Worship Arts in the College of Theology got a homework assignment this semester to write an original song.
“We found many similarities in our own lives and what we were going through, and that goes back to just coming to Grand Canyon,” Sams said.
And then they teamed up to write this …
When it seems all hope is gone
When I feel my faith is shaking
When my heart can’t find a song
‘Cause it can’t get past the breaking
I lift my eyes and see
Lord you’ve been singing over me.
Those are the opening lines performed by Aguilar, who wrote and sang lead on “Follow You,” an original track on “Canyon Worship.” The GCU Center for Worship Arts’ first extended play includes two other songs that are remakes: All Sons & Daughters’ “Christ in Me,” sung by Maddison Harris, and Tim Timmons’ “Christ Be All Around Me,” sung by Tanner Krenz.
“Canyon Worship” initially is being released on iTunes. To buy it, click here. The special pre-release price is $1.99 Monday; on Tuesday it will be $2.97. For a video of how “Canyon Worship” was produced, see above.
Already the subject of a rave industry review, it has been a whirlwind experience for the students but particularly Aguilar and Sams, who never dreamed seven months ago that they soon would be collaborating on such a monumental achievement.
Aguilar, a 29-year-old from Anthem, said she wanted to enroll at GCU 10 years earlier but couldn’t afford college, and then her finances and strength were further sapped by an undiagnosed medical issue. For five months, she didn’t know what was wrong with her, and once doctors got an inkling, it took a year to treat it. “I gave up the dream of a lot of things because I was walking through so much,” she said.
She has recovered but hasn’t been able to shake one of the medication’s side effects — panic attacks. Despite it all, her amazing voice shows no sense of quivering in “Follow You,” and she has found some positives in the experience.
“Had I not had these medical issues and panic/anxiety issues, I might not have grown to where I am, I might not have matured in the same way, and I definitely wouldn’t have the testimony,” she said. “I can genuinely say that although I would never wish anyone to have them, I am glad that I have had them because it has made me closer to God in a way that is indescribable.”
She is better able to afford GCU after receiving a privately funded scholarship she hadn’t known about until after she was accepted. “It was as if God was saying, ‘Here’s the door, walk through it, go ahead,’” she said.
Sams’ story is one of similar destiny. The 19-year-old Albuquerque native wanted to study ministry at another university but applied to be a digital design major at GCU because the Worship Arts program hadn’t been announced. When she was accepted and met with her adviser, her schedule inadvertently was filled with Worship Arts classes. She happily accepted them.
“Some people call me ‘The Glitch,’” she said, laughing. “It was very clear at that point that God had handpicked me.”
Through the valley of the shadow
Through the doubt and through the sorrow
I will follow you
I will follow you
I’ll set my mind on things above
Remember I’m not who I was
And I will follow you
I will follow you.
The “valley of the shadow” line is from Psalm 23:4, which begins, “Even though I will walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” They wanted something from Scripture that got across the idea of getting through a difficult time. Sams thought of the verse.
“It’s kind of like the Arizona mountains — it’s iconic,” Aguilar said. “No matter whether you’re down in the valley or you’re on the mountaintop, your song should be the same, your heart should be the same. But God is always on the top.”
It’s all about “obedience, following Him despite your circumstances,” Sams said.
They had the makings of a song. Enter Bart Millard, the Worship Arts director, and Jeff Pardo, a producer who has a long list of credits with Grammy Award winners and other prominent musicians. Millard’s interest is a given, but Pardo’s enthusiasm was as inspirational as it was infectious.
“I honestly think the project because of him is just so much better than it could have been because we could have gotten someone who doesn’t care so much,” Aguilar said. “He was super encouraging, but he also knew what God wanted in the heart of the song, and he was able to pull out of each song individually what we needed to have the right confidence or the right sound or the right expression. He was able to help us do that to the best of our ability.”
Pardo did that with what he likes to call his “Sing It Again Booth,” as in, “That was really great, but sing it again.” He splices together the best portions from five to six takes of each song because, he said, “Rarely is someone going to give their best performance of the whole song at one time.”
In addition to having Aguilar, Harris and Krenz come to his Nashville, Tenn., studio, Pardo made two trips to GCU to capture the backup vocals. The whole experience is one he wants to repeat.
“They were awesome,” he said. “Their energy, creativity and optimism were refreshing to me. It felt so good just to be around young, optimistic people.”
Part of the enjoyment for him was the fact that the students so openly welcomed his prodding. That doesn’t always happen with established artists.
“Artists and producers feed off each other,” he said. “When I have them do it again, it’s not out of the spirit of, ‘This is not good enough.’ It’s, ‘I believe in you.’ And that’s true whether you’re working with college students or multiple Grammy Award winners.”
Come and rest my love
All the work is done
The cross was enough
The cross is enough
You are not your shame
Redeemed is your name
The cross was enough
The cross is enough.
That’s how the song ends. The idea came from Millard, who suggested that it would be a good touch to write a verse showing how God would sound talking back to you. He also is one of the backup vocalists.
“When he speaks, you tend to listen,” Aguilar said. “It’s wisdom, for sure.”
But Aguilar emphasized that all three songs on “Canyon Worship” are a huge victory for a program finishing its first year and looking ahead to having a new state-of-the-art recording studio in August.
“One of the coolest things,” she said, “is watching everybody’s hard work and effort in the entire program. Everybody wanted to be able to have a song done. You hope that everybody will still be good with it knowing that only a couple of people get to do it. But it was really cool to see everybody come together and be really supportive and genuinely be happy.
“We have grown, especially this semester, by leaps and bounds in all sorts of areas — in musicality, in friendships, in confidence, in maturity, oh my goodness. It’s encouraging because we’re just like, ‘Man, what is it going to be like next year when we have our own building, our own space, our own recording studio?’”
“Follow You” is, quite simply, the vocalization of all those good vibes. As Sams put it, “Even though we all know this is for the glory of God, there’s still that hesitance, like, ‘Am I good enough? Can I do this?’ There’s no greater confirmation than this song. This was just the outpouring of our hearts.”
And the outpouring has only just begun. John Frederick, the Worship Arts coordinator, said this is the first of regular releases, especially when the new recording studio is in place. “Follow You” was the only original song in this production simply because there wasn’t time to do more.
“This won’t be a rare thing,” he said. “The students have done a lot more great songs.”
More of them were on display in the second Worship Songwriters Showcase Monday night in Thunderground, and there no doubt will be more stories like “Follow You” in the future. Fate has an amazing sense of rhythm, and it’s just getting its voice warmed up in the GCU Worship Arts program.
Contact Rick Vacek at 602-639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.