Cody Still never knew country music was in his wheelhouse.
“I’m from a small, rural area. I grew up listening to country. But I didn’t think of my songs as having a country sound. I guess I leaned toward that and never realized it,” said Still, a senior ministry student who’s one of six artists featured on the recently released “Fully Known,” the third EP in The Grand Collective series produced by Grand Canyon University’s Center for Worship Arts.
Although he didn’t realize his song sounded a bit country, his producers on the album, fellow Worship Arts students Will Christian and Cooper Mather, knew it.
Mather, especially, “was able to pull out those elements, which was really cool,” said Still.
It’s that kind of back-and-forth artistic synergy born of those collaborations that make for the secret sauce behind The Grand Collective, when students placed in a room together make musical magic and are given a lot more free reign over their creative leanings.
The Grand Collective is unique in that students are more a part of that behind-the-scenes secret sauce than they are on other GCU album projects.
Each release in the series is almost entirely in the hands of students. They write the songs. Student musicians and vocalists perform on them. Student producers produce them, and an executive leadership team of department alumni, GCU Recording Studio staff and Center for Worship Arts students select the songs. A whole village works on various aspects to create the final cuts for the EP. About 40 students, staff and alumni in the College of Theology are involved.
Planning for the musical compilation began in the fall semester, with students working on “Fully Known” all through spring.
“At the beginning of the year, they promoted it to encourage all the students to write songs,” said Still. “… I submitted one, then kind of forgot about it. Then I got an email.”
His contribution, titled “All Authority,” was included, along with “Sculpted” by Kyleigh Almich and Shailen Stewart, “Search Me” by Ashley Rider, “Tasted and Seen” by Nicole Jasperse and “I Belong to You” by Madison Russell.
Still was inspired by a passage in the Book of Mark.
“I noticed a theme. Everyone was asking by what authority Jesus did the things He did. It struck a chord with me. … In a day or two, I wrote the song and got a friend who helped me record a demo for it.”
Then he dropped in on the Songwriters Guild’s Songwriters Night, designed so student artists can get feedback on their work.
Still made a few adjustments, and a few months later, his newly minted song is inspiring listeners on a newly minted EP.
“For me, even though I’ve written songs for a while, that was the first one I took all the way through producing through a studio,” he said of all the connections to amazing instrumentalists and other skilled people who helped him turn his seed of a song into a fully blossoming artistic work. “… It was cool to make that dream, and what I wrote, become a reality.”
What’s neat about all those skilled people, said Recording Lab Coordinator Joseph Vaught, who oversaw the project alongside Recording Studio Manager Eric Johnson, are the hidden gems in the program that emerge because of these collaborations.
“Students are like, ‘Wow! The drums on that song are so good. Who played them?’ It’s maybe a name they all have classes with and didn’t necessarily know they were so talented in a specific area,” Vaught said. “Maybe they always saw this person as an audio engineer. It’s like, ‘Wait, you play drums, too?’”
Because of those connections, students return to the artists they worked with on The Grand Collective and say, “'Hey, now I’m doing a solo project, will you play on it?’ Those connections kind of bring people out of their shells and push them to have to be bragged on,” Vaught said.
Another major connection in this musical effort was between the College of Theology and the College of Arts and Media. Their collaboration has been instrumental.
Two years ago, Johnson and Vaught approached Sheila Schumacher, Director of Digital Design Programs, and asked her if she would find value in getting her department’s students involved in the project.
Assistant professor Jared Trask answered the call.
His graphic design class designed cover art for the album. They packaged 24 images into a professional portfolio for their client, The Grand Collective, and the executive leadership team chose the one that rose to the top.
That collaboration evolved this year to include the College of Arts and Media’s social media classes, led by instructor Sophia Zaft, and associate adjunct professor Patricia Perigo’s Photography Club students.
The result: media day.
On a Saturday, student photographers and social media producers descended on the GCU Recording Studio, taking headshots and group photos and filming video content. Social media groups were assigned specific songs and created promotional materials around those songs.
“They basically wove this project into their curriculum, and they latched onto it like no other assignment and really made it special,” Johnson said.
Vaught added of the 30 or so College of Arts and Media students involved in the collaboration, “It was really fun just seeing their students operate really professionally and treat us as a normal client. For a lot of them, you could definitely tell it wasn’t just an assignment for them. They cared about the project.”
Madison Russell also cared a lot about the project as one of its songwriters.
While Still is part of The Grand Collective for the first time, Russell has been involved since the first EP three years ago.
“The culture of this project is just really collaborative,” she said.
With the Canyon Worship albums, the other big project released by the Center for Worship Arts, students work with nonstudent producers and don’t work with each other as much. But everything is much more student-focused on this project: “Everyone’s doing it together,” she said. “ … For the most part we all know each other, and we’re all friends.”
What she loved about this third release in the series is how all the songs seem to meld so well together.
“I feel they’re based on the same central theme of being fully known by the Lord, how He knows us better than everyone else and how we can depend on Him for everything. The relationships we have with Him is what sustain us,” she said.
“All the songs on it are really meaningful to me. … They ministered to my heart.”