The music of Canyon Worship is all grown up

June 15, 2021 / by / 1 Comment

The student artists of Canyon Worship 2021 (from left): Nicole Jasperse, Madison Russell, Austin Bratton, Amanda Riffe, Joseph Vaught, Emma Mondello, Nicole Swartz, Nicole Raum and Chandler Blue. Not pictured: Elaina Marchegger. (Photo by Elizabeth Tinajero)

First of a series featuring the 10 student artists who wrote the songs for Canyon Worship 2021, scheduled to be released in September. Today: Amanda Riffe.

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

It’s fun to watch the Canyon Worship albums mature. It’s even more fun to watch the student artists mature right along with the music.

The sixth edition of the annual accomplishment by the Worship Arts program had to be completed by March because the on-campus schedule for the spring semester at Grand Canyon University was two weeks shorter than usual, courtesy of the pandemic.

But the quality of the 10 songs is still consistent with previous releases thanks to the work of producers Geoff Hunker and Dave Willey and, of course, the original work of the students.

“The student personalities and interests are so varied, I’m surprised every year by what they create,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology. “Of course, their experience changes. As students in the program get older, they mature.”

That development is reflected in senior Amanda Riffe, the leadoff singer on the album for the second consecutive year. Her “Be Alright” from Canyon Worship 2020 received more than 200,000 views on Spotify, and now she’s back with “Take Up My Cross” – but she’s not the same person she was a year ago.

“I feel like life is the same, but I feel like I’ve changed a lot,” she said. “Everybody had a decision during quarantine of, ‘How are we going to use this time?’

“For me, I took it as a time to do all the things that I always said I was too busy for – working out, eating better, spending more time with my family and people who give me life, spending time with God in a way that’s not trying to get something from Him but just dwelling with Him, and spending more time thinking about my music. Just developing the gifts that God has given me.

Amanda Riffe made good use of her time alone during the pandemic. (Photo by Elizabeth Tinajero)

“I think it has given me a fresh perspective on school because once you change your mind, your life changes. By developing my character more, I was able to walk into situations and wasn’t disappointed because I knew that God was in whatever we were doing.”

One thing that hasn’t changed about Riffe is her ability to write a song. She estimates that she wrote about 20 of them in the last year and recorded 10 of them, including a single she released in October.

But you’d never know she’s so accomplished. It’s not her style to make a big deal out of it.

“When you talk to her, you don’t realize her gift as a songwriter and a performer because she’s just a very humble individual,” said Dr. Randall Downs, Worship Arts Coordinator for the College of Theology.

Said Eric Johnson, GCU Recording Studio Manager, “Amanda continues to light up the worship culture at GCU. She has accomplished so much during her time at GCU with the Worship Arts program, Canyon Worship and the GCU Worship team. She has worked hard for her songs, and her work has produced excellent results.  

“Her song style is upbeat and memorable.  She writes the kinds of songs that make you wake up humming the chorus.”

In addition to “Be Alright,” Riffe’s work on previous Canyon Worship albums includes “Isaiah 55” in 2019 and “Come What May” and “You Don’t Turn from Me” (with Chris Calderon) in 2020.

The inspiration for “Take Up My Cross” was a discussion in Riffe’s Christian Worldview class about Matthew 16:24-25, which reads:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me will find it.”  

Geoff Hunker

The chorus for the song popped into her head during the classroom conversation, and during a break 10 minutes later she sang it into her cellphone. Just like that, she had the makings of another song.

“It’s just crazy how it happens in the most random places sometimes,” she said. “A lot of it does happen sitting in class or sitting in Chapel or in church. I’ll hear a line and I’m like, ‘Oh, I really like that.’ That’s exactly what happened with ‘Take Up My Cross.’ It just kind of hit me, and I had the whole song.”

The setup in the GCU Recording Studio is equally efficient. Johnson puts together the schedule and makes sure Hunker and Willey have everything they need, and the students and producers take it from there.

“It’s a labor of love to do this year over year and produce consistently high quality results,” Johnson said. “That’s due in no small part to Geoff and Dave producing the project. They just have a way with music, and they also have a way with the students. They love our students. They’ve consistently shown that, and the students love them, too.”

No question about that.

“I’m really lucky to have this studio and to have people who are willing to answer my questions and invest,” Riffe said. “Just to have experiences like this and just to get in the studio has been really cool and always gets me excited.”

The excitement has reverberated across the Christian music community thanks in part to the Marketing with Wisdom partnership, which Downs initiated last year to increase the promotion and distribution of the albums.

But that’s where the maturity factor comes in.

“It’s just the snowball effect,” Downs said. “You consistently put out an album every year, you pick up new followers every year, and now that we’re working with Marketing with Wisdom, it’s just going to grow.”

He envisions a time down the road when the views for a Canyon Worship song will far exceed 200,000-plus. But first things first: Canyon Worship 2021 will add more quality to the collection and give churches more options for their song lists.

“I think this album is going to be huge,” Downs said. “As far as the listeners’ appreciation for it, receptivity of it, it’s going to hit all the marks that people are wanting to hear from Canyon Worship albums.”

Said Hiles, “I think it’s going to be a fun ride this year.”

And the fun never gets old for the student artists. In so many ways, Canyon Worship has come of age.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


Related content from previous Canyon Worship albums:

GCU Today: Canyon Worship finds God amid struggles of 2020

GCU Today: Get ready for better than ever Canyon Worship

GCU Today: They’re all in this together on Canyon Worship

GCU Today: Students, genres band together in Canyon Worship

GCU Today: ‘Amazing’ Canyon Worship album released


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One Response
  1. Scott Fehrenbacher

    Congratulations to the entire worship team for their sixth album! I was just reminiscing about the journey we had to create and release the first one. I can’t wait to hear it.
    Scott Fehrenbacher

    Jul.05.2021 at 4:32 pm
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