GCU celebrates release of Canyon Worship 2021
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Grand Canyon University students rave about the opportunity to work with producer Geoff Hunker on the annual Canyon Worship album.
And they should. The founder and lead singer of Satellites & Sirens and Creative Arts Pastor of Compass Christian Church in Chandler is as knowledgeable as he is respected in the Christian music world.
But they’re not the only ones who treasure this arrangement.
“I love being able to work with the students,” he said. “I’ve spent most of my life trying to do music in some way, shape or form, and people have always come alongside me and tried to help me do what I do the best that I can.
“The students are in a place in their life where they’re ready to learn and they’re open to hear, and so it’s always a blast to be part of that.”
Thanks to that relationship with Hunker and fellow producer Dave Willey, Canyon Worship 2021 figures to make even more noise on the Christian music scene. It was released Monday on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music and also is available in the Lope Shop. The hoopla included Amanda Riffe singing her song from the album, “Take Up My Cross,” before Chapel.
Hunker has been working with these students for five years, long enough to watch some of them grow from unsure freshmen to accomplished seniors.
“The first year they come in really green – maybe it’s the first song they’ve written,” he said. “And then you get to the fourth record, and they’re graduating and they’ve got a job at a church and they’re asking me about that. It’s cool to be able to speak into so many aspects of what they’re doing and to watch them grow and walk with them through it.”
Why does it work so well? Here’s how Hunker’s input into “By Grace through Faith” impressed the song’s author, Austin Bratton:
“He leads but lets us co-lead with him. It’s very much a discipleship. They’re trying to make you a better artist.”
But it’s not a one-way street. Hunker benefits as much as they do.
“It’s something that I need,” he said. “I need this kind of outlet, to do something a little bit different and not be the boss necessarily but just be the teacher.”
Eric Johnson, Manager of the GCU Recording Studio, sets the recording schedule and makes sure Hunker and Willey have the space to maximize their productivity. Then he watches with delight as the students learn from the teacher.
“It’s an excellent representation of our students’ ability to write great songs and our community’s ability to make great recordings,” Johnson said. “Clearly, it shows Geoff and Dave’s production acumen. It shows our students’ musical abilities.
“And I think one of the neatest aspects about producing the Canyon Worship album year over year is the way the students grow through the process and get to experience songwriting and recording at a level that they’ve never experienced before. It’s always a growth process, and you can just see it as it’s unfolding.”
Constructive criticism is an important part of the growth process.
“We don’t hold back feedback when we’re working on songs,” Hunker said. “A lot of times, there will be situations where we’ll say, ‘This song is a really great song. I think it could be better if you could tackle this lyric or this melody in this chorus. It could make this song feel even better than it already does.’
“And then we put it in their court. We’ve given you some feedback; now you go work this out. But it’s their baby.”
As a result, Canyon Worship 2020 earned more than 300,000 streams. Johnson called that “hockey stick growth” from previous years.
The CW 2021 songs by Riffe and Bratton were released in the last month and a half and already have been streamed more than 75,000 times. The number of monthly listeners (28,000-plus) figures to jump significantly now that the entire album has been released.
None of it surprises Hunker.
“They always say, when you’re building culture it takes three to five years,” he said. “You’re starting to see that. I think they’ve started to see that the consistency of what they’re doing is starting to pay off.”
But the ultimate payoff is for the students who get to pick Hunker’s brain. Bratton, for example, took the producers’ suggestion and rewrote some lyrics this year. There’s only one goal in mind, he said:
“How can we make this better? Let’s see if we can do this together, and let’s see if you can learn something from it.”
In other words, it’s about guidance, not glory. The glory is reserved for God in these songs, and the students all say they treasure that even more.
But if they can learn from two industry pros on their way to careers as songwriters or worship pastors, all the better. Maybe someday they’ll do the same for an aspiring student artist and start out by saying, “I remember what Geoff Hunker used to tell me …”
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].
GCU Today: The music of Canyon Worship is all grown up