I thought it would be fun to provide a couple of thoughts behind some of the songs that make up my new EP, Invitation. So over the next week or so I will try to sit down regularly to write a song story! And seeing as You Are With Me is the first song on the EP, I thought it a reasonable place to start!
Writing ‘Scripture Songs’
As you may have figured from listening to it, the song is based strongly on Psalm 23. I love songs that use particular passages in a very clear way; Graham Kendrick’s ‘To You O Lord’ springs to mind as a wonderful working of Psalm 25. ‘Strength Will Rise’ is another popular one, by Brenton Brown and Ken Riley, based on the end of Isaiah 40. I’ve had a go with others too – More Than Conquerors is another one, based on the end of Romans 8. And to whet your appetites, there is another co-write in the pipeline based on a passage from the book of Ephesians – but I will say no more at this stage!
As far as Psalm 23 goes, though, not a few others have had a go at setting this one to music themselves. Apart from a famous hymn version, there’s Keith Green’s working, and Stuart Townend’s brilliant adaptation with a memorable, repeating tune and a lovely chorus with a counter-melody – the best in my opinion! I also discovered recently William Matthews’ take on it which contains a breath-taking, heartfelt hands-in-the-air chorus – and a great guitar riff! And not to forget a poetic look at the psalm from JJ Heller called ‘All I Need’. Israel Houghton too made extensive use of the end of the psalm on his solo album The Power of One.
All of which leads me to scratch my head and wonder why on earth I thought I should have a go as well, when there were so many great versions out there already! And I think I was aware of this at the time. Ultimately, I think I concluded that as Psalm 23 was obviously fertile ground for modern song writing, it wouldn’t do any harm for me to try my plough here and see if I too could harvest anything. Each writer had brought out a different overriding theme: Keith Green’s arrangement dramatised the song in a manner almost stage-worthy; Townend brought out the enduring theme of trust in that wonderful chorus; JJ Heller centred on the theme of provision that comes from the opening of the psalm; and William Matthews captured a nice snapshot of the whole thing, capitalising on the final statements in his chorus, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all my days…”.
I saw an opportunity to turn this into an exercise, if nothing else, to see what I as a writer could bring out of it. As it turned out, I developed quite a clear idea.
It’s About The Journey
For the first time I saw the sense of ‘journey’ that the psalm takes us on. I didn’t want to make this so obvious that it became crass, but I definitely wanted to try and let the song take that journey too. Thus, for one thing, the musical arrangement that we devised for the EP version carried quite a lot of momentum, with its strong off-beat guitar pattern – I’m thinking of those kind of ‘steam-train rolling’ country songs – you know what I mean! The bass also took up a ‘walking’ pattern at various climaxes.
But more than that, I let the words communicate that journey clearly, with each section moving the subject on: ‘The Lord is my shepherd…he makes me lie down…he guides me in pathways of goodness…’ with the chorus looking at that most crucial part of the journey, and highlighting another theme that arises in the psalm: ‘And if my path should descend through the valley of death, I will not fear because You are with me here.’
The journey involves difficulty, but his promise to never leave us nor forsake us is true in Psalm 23 as well! ‘Lord you are my Shepherd…I know you are always near…and even with enemies closing in, you lay on a feast and you pour out your oil of anointing…’
Finally I wound up with a sense of what happens while we’re on the journey – ‘…as he leads, I find that his goodness and great lovingkindness will follow me…’ – and where we’re headed: ‘And I will go on to the end of my days, coming to dwell in the wonderful house of the Lord always…’