by: Ian Andrew Nelson
Note: Since this interview was conducted, Phil's voice underwent a severe strain and he currently is unable to sing until his voice is healed. See the update on his surgery below. Please join the rest of the Socality family in praying for Phil's voice to recover quickly and be healed completely.
A few weeks ago I got to catch up with my friend Phil Wickham at an event in Portland, Oregon. We got to talk music, life, and being an artist. Here’s some of our conversation …
So how did you first get interested in music?
(Laugh) That’s kind of a funny question. Because I feel like, at some level, everyone is born with an interest in music.
But I guess what got me into it personally is I grew up in a very musical home, and a very spiritual home, as you know—my parents are worship leaders. My dad’s a great guitarist and my mom’s a singer, which is actually what brought them together as a couple. They played in this band together back in the day, when Christian music was called “Jesus Music.”
So that was my upbringing: growing up in a house where music and worship went hand-in-hand. It was definitely a normal thing to see my mom and dad around the house working on music together, so it seemed second nature to pick up a guitar and start playing it and even get on a stage at my youth group and lead worship, because it’s just what my family did. Evan, my brother, had been leading worship for years before I even started. So it was definitely passed on from my family.
Who are some of your musical and creative inspirations?
Growing up, I think a very important one for me was a band called Delirious? And I’ve heard a lot of guys from my generation who are worship leaders also say the same thing. I think it’s because they were that example at the time of what it meant to make the kind of music where you don’t put any restrictions on what it means for music to be considered “worship music.” I think it was around the time when the latest revolution of worship music was more of the choir and Maranatha praise band that my parents were listening to and getting their songs from. It used to be that “that’s just what worship music was”—but Delirious? made worship become whatever kind of music you’re proud of, and excited about in your community—as long as the lyrics are lifted up in the name of God and done in a way where people can encounter Him. I think they were just an example of loving the music, and loving Jesus, and letting that combination create a moment where people can encounter God.
And there’s a lot of other bands growing up who inspired me. It’s a list of bands that I’m sure lots of people liked: like Radiohead, Coldplay, U2, Keane, Aqualung. That’s what I listened to all the time. I’ve always been very drawn to front men who could command an audience—where you felt like the singer believed every word he was singing. I think Bono is that, of course. Or Freddie Mercury from Queen. I also listen to performances by Brandon Flowers who is the front man for The Killers—just the way that he delivers a song.
I think there’s a lot of bands, like Radio Head and Coldplay for example, who use lyrics more like it’s just a means to and end—almost solely to create a mood. And that’s fine, and I love some of those kinds of artists, but I’m especially drawn to a front man where the lyrics are not just a means to an end, but are the driving force behind the song, and it’s all about the lyrics delivering a story that you deeply believe in. And it made me want to do that, only with my faith.
Tell us a little bit about your songwriting process.
Yeah, well it’s changed over the years. For a long time, there wasn’t really a “process.” For a long time, it would come from playing hours in my room, where I would just stumble across certain chords or certain melodies as I was thinking of different bands I liked who I could copy. So I would stumble across something I liked, and then write a song about it.
But then I went through a phase where I would create the music first, and get a whole song from beginning to end, just creating a mood solely with music—and then I would add the lyrics and melodies after that. Which I think is a great way to write music.
Lately though, I feel like I work best when I set a goal of what a song should be, and usually that goal is set out of a moment of inspiration. Whether I feel like it’s something that God shows me through His Word, or through a friend, or through marriage or kids or relationships—those moments, I think for anyone who walks with God—you know those moments where it’s from Him and it hits you a certain way, or you are filled with joy or it moves you to have glassy eyes.
An example of a song like that for me is a song called The Ascension, which is the title track of my new record. The idea comes from The Psalms of Ascent in the Psalms; there’s 15 of them in the Bible. And one of them talks about, “Let us go up to the mountain of God, let us sit in His presence …” And different scholars have different takes on what it may have meant back then for people in those days to sing a song of ascent. Some think that when you sang it, it was the priests who were singing as they went up the steps of the temple. Others think it was communities of people in Israel, from Galilee and all over, who would travel to Jerusalem for different feasts—they would come and worship together, remember what God has done, and hope in His presence there at the temple. And as these communities were walking together on these ascents, they would sing these songs together that they all knew, whether it was a little kid or an old man. And one time it just hit me in a moment, whether God Himself put it in my head or just let me imagine it, I don’t know—but I got this vision in my head where I pictured a bunch of people getting excited about God and climbing a mountain to get into His presence.
And in a spiritual way, that’s what I want all the songs on my album to do. In that moment, I had this vision in my mind of people running up a mountain to be in the presence of God, and I wanted that to be a song called The Ascension. And once I had an inspiration, and a goal, and a title—then I chased down the rest of what all of that means for writing a song.
After the moment of inspiration, then everything else in the songwriting process becomes a logical, personal wrestling session of creativity. I start making lists, even a spreadsheet, tracking “What does it mean to ascend?” So I make a list: it’s running up the mountain, holy mountain, start of something special, excitement, anticipation, confidence, etc. After the very inspirational moment takes place in my heart, I try to let my head catch up and put words to it in a logical order and sort out all of the ideas associated with it. And sometimes you just have to “push through” the creative process at that point.
Official Music Video from Phil Wickham performing "This Is Amazing Grace" from his album, The Ascension. Music video by Phil Wickham performing This Is Amazing Grace. (C) 2013 Phil Wickham
How do you reconcile God’s call to authentic worship with the requirements of your job to be on a stage performing for people, night-in and night-out? Does it ever get difficult to remain genuine in your worship, as an artist?
Um, yeah. But I guess when you break down what worship really is, it’s on and off of the stage. And I think that’s a question that all of us have to answer, whether you’re a musician or not. Personally though, I really do love travelling and playing music. There’s definitely moments for me, since it’s my job, where authenticity can get difficult.
But part of the nature of my job is that every time I get up there and get to use the gifts God has given me, I genuinely want something special to happen. I want God to reveal Himself, to make Himself known, to do special things in people’s hearts. I know that for me, and for others, even for what you do as a pastor, Ian—even in the moments where you’re sick or don’t feel like getting up in front of people and you have to push through it—it’s still a deeply satisfying kind of work. Where every time you get to think, “Wow, God actually just used me. I may have even gotten to be a catalyst for God doing something in someone else’s life.”
And for me, because I really do feel so deeply called to try to create those moments for people, and facilitate them, I think that with that calling—when those moments happen—it’s constant fuel to the fire for keeping my passionate worship alive, and not letting my personal passion fizzle out. So it doesn’t really get old for me. The travelling gets old, the being away from family gets old, maybe even singing the same songs over and over again—but what keeps it all fresh for me, and what keeps my worship sincere, is that I really believe in this amazing God, and I really believe that when people get together to worship Him, something amazing happens.
I remember when I was just starting, and I was a worship leader who was opening up for some big-name bands, and no one had heard of me. And lots of people would ask, “So, are you a worship leader or are you an artist?” And I say, “Does there have to be a difference?” Why can’t you be an artist who plays with emotion and at the same time lead people in worshipping God? Because worship leading is both horizontal and vertical. You are pouring yourself out to people as an artist, wanting to share your story and encourage them, but it’s all for the purpose of helping people worship and focus on God in that moment. In my opinion, that’s what it means to be a worship artist.
Thanks so much for your time, man. Always good to hang out. Last question: We have a ton of musicians, artists and creatives who are involved with the Socality community. What’s one small piece of advice that you would give to aspiring artists and creatives?
Work really hard, and stay humble. Work like crazy to get as good as you can get at what you do to do it with excellence. But then never think that you’re ever too good for anything or anyone.