Russell leads the way on album, with other students

Madison Russell has four songs on Canyon Worship 2022, befitting her ability to compose her own music as well as collaborate. (Photo by Elizabeth Tinajero)

Fourth in a series

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

One of the neat things about the Grand Canyon University Recording Studio is its inclusive atmosphere.

And when students want to work together on worship music, they always like to include Madison Russell.

Why? It’s obvious from the roster of songs on Canyon Worship 2022. Of the four collaborations, Russell had a hand in three of them. She also has a solo on the album, “Always a Reason.”

But her three-year evolution from Harrison Russell’s sister to established star of the Worship Arts program also makes it clear. Her work has made the album every time she’s tried, but now it’s on the same high level her brother reached before he graduated in 2019.

“Madison’s entries into the Canyon Worship album have demonstrated a level of seasoning that she has acquired over her time,” Recording Studio Manager Eric Johnson said. “Since her first song submission to now, the character of the songs has gotten deeper, the stories that she’s telling are stronger and her vocal quality is as good as any star out there on the circuit.

“I think she’s starting to understand her own level of talent. Others are gravitating to her and her music.”

Russell is grateful that they gravitate because of how much it has helped her. She usually plays the guitar when she’s writing a song, but creating with other musicians allows her to just think about lyrics.

“I think that’s helped me develop in my lyric-writing skills – I’m not so focused on chords and the melody,” she said. “I’ve definitely developed some new friendships. I’ve loved getting to meet some of the freshmen and sophomores this year.”

But she also has worked a lot with juniors and seniors, as was the case with her three collaborations on the album. “Sometimes,” for example, features Russell with Edwin Lopez, Colter Bonaroti and Victoria Gutierrez.

“That’s a talented quartet of people,” said Dr. Randall Downs, Coordinator of the Worship Arts program. “I’ve done some band shows recently, and Colter has played keys with me. Edwin’s voice is unbelievable.”

She also took part in the making of “The Real Thing” with Bonaroti, Gutierrez and Nicole Jasperse and “I’m Yours” with Gutierrez, Jasperse and Annabelle Butcher.

“It’s very inspiring, working with people who are further along in the journey and getting their feedback,” Russell said. “It helps mold you and shape you as a songwriter.”

Russell's singing is as notable as her songwriting. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

“Always a Reason” is based on one of Russell’s favorite biblical parables, the prodigal son. 

“It starts off really mellow, with the son deciding to leave and make his own decisions,” she said. “I describe that season of his life, how he was at his lowest point and trying to make decisions without his father.

“I really love the part where the father sees him from a distance as he’s making his way back to his house. The father runs and meets him and wraps his arms around him and says, ‘Welcome home. Let’s get this man a ring and a robe and let’s throw a party, because what was lost has now been found.’

“I love it. It’s really joy-filled and just describes the life of every believer – at one point they were lost and then they were found. Jesus turned our whole lives around.”

Downs lauded the work of producers Geoff Hunker and Dave Willey in adding extra elements to the song, such as a choir in the background.

“Such a pretty song,” Downs said. “It’s got a soulful vibe to it. Madison has one of the smoothest voices that I’ve heard. Very effortless voice.

“I love the message of that song, that we live our lives with gratitude, and I think that’s really communicated pretty clearly through that song. I think that’s going to be one that people are really going to enjoy.”

Russell sings with the Worship team at Chapel. 

Russell also is front and center in another key spiritual element of the campus culture: Chapel. She loves the team vibe.

“Our Worship team is a family,” she said. “There is something so significant about leading worship with people that you know. You love them and you deeply care about each other. They’re my closest friends.

“It’s a spiritual battle when you’re leading worship, and you have to have a united front and be of one accord. The opportunity to lead the student body – it’s something I don’t carry lightly.”

She has been applying that attitude since elementary school, when she first started leading worship.

“I think it’s just separating in your mind, ‘Right now, this is about the Lord.’ There might be a crowd full of people I know and recognize, but I think that makes it even better because corporate worship is serving the Lord but it’s also serving each other.

“It’s great to look out and make eye contact and recognize we’re doing this together, we’re serving the King together. It’s great to look out on Monday mornings and see my friends.”

Russell leads worship at Dream City Church in Glendale, where Harrison is the worship director, but she doesn’t know what her future looks like, exactly, as she enters her senior year.

She knows this much, though:

“I want to do worship ministry for the rest of my life. I don’t know, necessarily, if that will be as a volunteer or as a career, but I love songwriting as well.”

For now, she’s happy to have one more year of collaboration in the Recording Studio. Harrison’s sister is all grown up.

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


Canyon Worship 2022 is scheduled to be released Sept. 9 on Spotify, Amazon Music and Apple Music. It will be available in the iTunes Store.


Related content:

GCU Today: Canyon Worship 2022 is in step with collaboration

GCU Today: Fearlessness propelled ascent to Canyon Worship

GCU Today: Freshman's talent is the talk of Canyon Worship


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(Moses addressed Israel, reminding them of God's deliverance of them from Egypt, and His commands given to them:) "You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out (from bondage and delivered you.). The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear." (Deuteronomy 7:19)

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