Songwriters Showcase returns with range of voices
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
Kyleigh Almich was going to major in something else but felt a tug from God to switch to the Worship Arts program a week before she arrived at Grand Canyon University.
It was odd, since she never had written a worship song in her life. Only the music. Never the lyrics.
Edwin Lopez already was majoring in something else at another university, which also was odd, considering that he’s the son of a pastor and is a worship leader and youth leader at his West Valley church. Then he took three years off from school because he didn’t think he had the right mindset for it.
But he kept getting these emails from GCU inviting him to consider applying. He prayed on it, was accepted and, within weeks, was in the Worship Arts program and employed in the GCU Recording Studio. The blessings didn’t stop there, as you’ll see below.
Theirs were just two of the stories Monday night at the Fall Songwriters Showcase 2021, which was back on the Canyon 49 Grill patio for the first time after two years of cancellations and pandemic-induced Zoom sessions. (Here’s a slideshow.)
A stunningly outstanding group of freshmen – five of them, representing one-third of the 15 pieces – joined the more experienced students to perform song after inviting song, all of them candidates for the Canyon Worship 2022 album. There even was a first-year student, Will Christian, managing the sound adroitly.
Every single song – and songwriter – has a story. Here’s a rundown, with an asterisk (*) after the name of each freshman and a double asterisk (**) after the name of each performer who has had a song on a Canyon Worship album.
Note how many are about overcoming hardship with God’s guidance:
Jessica Serff* (“Empty Spaces”) — She was going to be a firefighter, and then an injury at the academy led her to the Worship Arts program.
Anna Salmon (“The Road Less Traveled”) — Her strong rendition is based on the idea that, even when walking in the heart of destruction, God is with us; He is our righteousness and salvation, and our identity is in Christ.
Tim Hesman (“Bring My Heart to You”) — God gives peace and healing in hardship; his sister passed away when he was younger, and this is a reflection of how God gave the family peace beyond understanding.
Trina Beecher, Edwin Lopez, Alex Ramirez (“Here (I Will Be)”) — Their impromptu writing session grew out of spontaneous worship; they wanted to write a rare minor key worship song.
Baraka Shekanena* (“Burdens to Bear”) — He has been a songwriter for years, and his keyboard skills are stunning – so is the fact that he’s a drummer for the Worship team at Chapel. He wrote this song in South Korea while the Calvin University Gospel Choir was on tour.
Amanda Riffe** (“I Will Praise You”) — Based on Psalm 27, it’s a remembrance of her songwriting mentor and home church worship pastor, who died recently. The two of them previously had written a song called “Dwell.”
Isabella Gomes* (“Adoration”) — She wrote it during the pandemic and in the middle of moving. The song talks about how much God loves and adores us in Christ.
Raymond Hess* (“Euphoria”) — He wrote, recorded, mixed and mastered the song in five hours, building it around the beat. His “Welcome to the land of euphoria” lyric is catchy, and he got the audience to participate in the happiness with a “hey, hey, hey, hey” response.
Kyleigh Almich* (“Heaven Is Here”) — Not only is it her first song; she wrote it on the day of the submission deadline.
Austin Bratton** (“Your Work Alone”) — Like Almich, he wrote it on the day of the submission deadline, but unlike her, Bratton is an experienced songwriter and has been on Canyon Worship. The song is about how God is worthy of all credit for salvation — it is His work in us.
Anthony Dickinson and Baraka Shekanena* (“Where Were You”) — Each of them wrote half the song without knowing the other was working on a song. But when they discovered each other’s work, the two halves fit.
Nicole Swartz** (“Wild Ones”) — A T-shirt inspired her to think outside the box and write a song about how Christians don’t live by the beaten path – the world sees followers of Jesus as radical and foolish.
Edwin Lopez, Madison Russell**, Victoria Gutierrez and Colter Bonaroti (“Sometimes”) — It started with a bass groove by Gutierrez, and the other three helped build around the bass line. They wanted to have a funkier vibe for a worship song.
Madison Russell** (“Always a Reason”) — Inspired by the story of the prodigal son, it speaks of the celebration resulting from the father and son reuniting.
Nicole Jasperse** (“Most Precious”) — The lyrics explain that no one understands us like God does. We don’t even know our own hearts, but God knows and loves us.
That’s quite a mix of newcomers and veterans, but no one was less experienced at song lyrics than Almich. She had long felt defeated by songwriting. It was for “other people,” she said.
But then one day as she sat in class, she asked herself a simple question: “Who am I to think that God can’t speak to me also?” Just like that, a melody popped into her head, and she was off and running – and writing. The encouragement that is typical of the Recording Studio atmosphere inspired her further.
“I call it my ‘God moment song,’” she said. “It’s definitely something that I had no intention of doing, but I understand that those are when the best things happen. It was a good, reassuring moment from God. I honestly can’t explain it. It happened by the grace of God.”
A “God moment” led her to the Worship Arts program in the first place. The Northglenn, Colorado, native is a worship leader at her church and couldn’t help but notice that people kept asking her whether she was going to study worship arts at GCU.
“I felt like the Lord was speaking to me, saying, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to do this forever,’” she said. “I prayed so hard that night. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed about something harder, which is weird to say because I’ve lost quite a few loved ones in my lifetime.
“I changed it the next morning, and the amount of stress that left my body … I finally was comfortable, knowing I can pursue my lifelong dream of not only being a musician but being someone who gets to bring glory to God as their career. Now that I’m here, there’s nothing I can see myself doing except for this. I want to be a musician forever.”
Lopez had a similar moment in the Recording Studio a few months after he arrived at GCU last year.
He was comfortable staying in the background at first. “School was always a place where I could hide and be no one,” he said.
Lopez missed the application deadline for the Worship team at Chapel – a team that has a lot of Worship Arts students, for obvious reasons. But Eric Johnson, the studio’s manager, saw his talent and, during the Worship team auditions in the Studio, convinced Spiritual Life Worship Manager Jared Ulrich to add one more name to the list: Edwin Lopez.
Lopez, who had performed at small festivals and in restaurants but never in a venue as large as GCU Arena, had one hour to learn a song. He left the rest in God’s hands.
“I’ll do what I do,” he told himself, “and I will be OK either way because I know God has control no matter what the outcome is.”
Soon after the auditions, Ulrich and his team came to Johnson’s office and said of Lopez, “Oh my gosh, this guy’s amazing.”
And now look what has happened in his senior year. Now he’s one of the lead singers at Chapel. Now he’s collaborating with other top Worship Arts students, such as Madison Russell, on songs. Now he’s … wait a minute, it’s not him at all, in his mind.
“I’ve really just been following God on everything, from the moment I applied to where I am now,” he said. “I’ve just been listening and asking God, ‘Open doors or close them. I’m open, I’m willing, I’m ready.’ Every time I would hesitate, He would throw a door open and I would walk through. I wasn’t going to fight it.”
Dr. Randall Downs, Worship Arts Coordinator for the College of Theology, also likes the way the students are letting God work through them in another way – they’re feeling comfortable with trying out new sounds and genres.
“It shows how they’re stretching as songwriters, as musicians, people from different backgrounds, musically, coming together, writing together,” he said. “It’s just really neat.”
But no one could top Almich’s first-timer story. And that got Downs thinking about the first song he ever wrote.
“It wouldn’t be worthy of being up here, that’s for sure,” he said, pointing to the stage.
But that’s where the “God moment” comes in. Maybe all these newcomers, all these different sounds, all these masterpieces are part of something much bigger.
Maybe they aren’t odd at all.