Second of a series previewing Canyon Worship 2018, which will be available for $9.99 on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Shazam and in the Lope Shop on campus beginning Monday, Sept. 10.
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Every music album needs a good first song, of course, and the people who managed and produced Canyon Worship 2018 were in tune with “Rhythm” right from the start.
“It’s just upbeat and makes you want to dance,” said Eric Johnson, manager of the GCU Recording Studio and coordinator for the latest album by Center for Worship Arts students at Grand Canyon University.
But here’s what’s really interesting: Russell, the only student to write two songs chosen for the album, was trying to put together a song that sounded like nothing he had ever done before. First, he came up with the verse. Then, out came “Rhythm,” which he calls “more of a poppy song with just a little hint of gospel.”
The song’s message:
“I got inspired by a book I was reading and by some messages I heard about identity. So often the world tries to tell who you are. I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to listen to who God says I am, and I’m going to live the life that He’s called me to live, and nothing’s going to stop that. You can throw whatever you want at me, but I’m holding strong to that, marching to the beat that He’s drumming.’”
Canyon Worship 2018 is scheduled to be released Monday, and Chapel attendees can get a free mini-preview of the album that day when Russell sings “Rhythm” at 11:15 a.m. in GCU Arena.
But GCU Today readers don’t have to wait until then to find out more. Over the next three days, we’ll profile three songwriters a day and detail how their songs came to be.
Following are an inside look at Russell’s other song, “Come to Me,” and the work of two repeat Canyon Worship contributors, Katie Brown and Kristyn Marie.
Johnson described Russell’s other entry, “Come to Me,” as “introspective and worshipful – it makes you want to put your hands up.”
There’s irony in that: That also describes the way Russell was feeling when he wrote the song during his freshman year. Here’s how it happened:
“We had a songwriting project that was due at midnight, and it was about 10 o’clock and I had completely forgotten everything. I was having a lot of anxiety about what the future would hold – I wasn’t sure if I could continue with the school year.
“The song was supposed to be based on a passage in Scripture. I fully intended to just write a song as fast as I could. The first verse I grabbed was Matthew 11:28 – ‘But come to Me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.’ I started writing as fast as I could on that.
“All the stress I was having, I had to put that aside and spend time in God’s presence and ask Him to give me the comfort and give me the strength. I felt the Lord speaking to me and saying, ‘Hey, lay your head down here. You have comfort, you have a place of rest, you have a place of hiding.
“That became the song – it was written in a matter of minutes. ‘Just come to Me, and I’ll give you everything you need. Tomorrow’s not promised; nobody would say it’s a good day or good circumstances. But even if it’s the worst, you still have Me.’”
The fact that Russell found his way to GCU is a miracle in and of itself. The North Little Rock, Ark., native first heard of the University when he attended a worship conference in Florida with his dad, but he didn’t commit to a college right away. A few months later, he found himself without any viable options – but remembered the feeling he got from GCU representatives at that conference.
“I didn’t have a plan anymore, and God put it (GCU) back in my heart,” he said. “I signed on before I set foot on the campus.”
He has continued to feel God’s hand.
“Absolutely, 100 percent, especially with ‘Come to Me,’” he said. “That was in no way, shape or form my intention or doing. It was literally just an outpour of worship time in a hectic and stressful season. Most of the songs I’ve done are not my doing.”
Brown is so talented, she’d be a top pick if the co-producers used a draft to decide which students’ songs they want to do. Smiley worked with her last year, and this time it was Geoff Hunker’s turn.
Brown had two songs on Canyon Worship 2017 and is in the mix this year for “Goes Before,” which, she said, is written from the perspective that we are restricted by time but “God has been in the past and also knows the future and created all of it.”
“There is a piece that comes from that knowledge and understanding that He is in control of my future and He is leading me in it, and I don’t have to strive to create my own, but He is always with me and walking in front of me, so I can follow Him,” she said.
“It’s different because I think it’s less focused on myself, it elevates His sovereignty and is less a prayer and more congregational. It’s a song that a lot of people could sing together to proclaim that truth.”
The Peoria native is fresh off a summer doing an internship at a church in Santa Ana, Calif., and is back for her senior year at GCU, where she serves as one of the leaders on the Worship Team – the three bands that perform at Chapel.
“I really like that the album has gone toward congregational worship because I think it would be really cool to incorporate some of the songs in Chapel and in The Gathering, and that is something we can do now,” she said. “I also think there’s still a lot of variety within the artists, and so it’s still not one specific genre, but all the songs have the possibility that they could be done in church.”
Brown’s goal after she graduates: She wants to start a music school for foster children. If and when that happens, they no doubt will enjoy her instruction as much as her producers enjoy her work.
“Make Yourself Known” was called “Searching for Your Heart” when Marie first wrote it during her sophomore year for a group assignment to produce a hymn-style song, then refined it in conjunction with two other students.
Based on David’s biblical journey, “each verse tells a different story of someone’s journey of coming to Christ and laying their burdens at Jesus’ feet,” she said.
Smiley thought it needed a chorus, so they carved that out of the third verse and changed the name of the song. Voila.
“It didn’t take too long – just one session with Billy and we wrapped it up,” she said.
Marie, who also writes country music and estimates that she has crafted at least 50 full songs, released an EP, “Find Me,” last spring.
“I do have different writing processes for worship music versus secular music,” she said. “Country music is more like a story – personal. With the worship, I start off with the theme or one line I want to say and from there just build a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Marie has thought about moving to Nashville and trying to start a music career, but her heart also feels tugged by something else she loves: She is a student worker in Event Services at GCU and is looking at having the best of both worlds — going into event planning and doing music on the side, maybe as a volunteer at a church. Her minor is in advertising and graphic design.
“Even though I’m not doing this for my career, I still feel like I learned so much about myself, so much about God, so much about music,” she said.
Like David, she’s on the journey.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
GCU Today: Coming soon: Canyon Worship shines bright