Rend Collective: Celebrating in song
With their third studio album being released on St Patrick's Day - 17 March - I caught up with Rend Collective lead singer Chris Llewellyn.
For those of you who haven't heard 'The Art of Celebration' yet, it does seem to have a new emphasis in the songs so I asked Chris about it and whether he felt there was one track that sums up their new focus:
"We had a kind of theological breakthrough as a band this year that sparked the concept behind the whole record: seriousness isn't a spiritual gift ... but joy is! The album centres on the theme of choosing joy and celebration in all seasons and we tried to make it sound like that – to sound like fun.
"The album is designed to be experienced as a whole – it's a concept album – but if we were to pick out a track that captures the ethos it has to be the opener 'Joy'. I love that the first line of the album is 'we're choosing celebration'. Worship and celebration always begins with a choice."
Rend Collective are probably best known for their uptempo songs, such as 'Build Your Kingdom Here' and their version of 'Be Thou (You Are) My Vision', so I found it interesting that, while it is called 'The Art of Celebration', there are quite a few contemplative tracks on the album.
"The approach to the record was extremely deliberate – it was certainly intentional. We didn't want to get the idea across that by celebration we just meant happy songs for happy, shiny people. Celebration is about finding a reason to sing in all circumstances and it can be a contemplative thing. Our album is a call to the broken, hurting and cynical to cling to the promise that 'the joy of The Lord is our strength'."
Despite him describing it as a concept album, I asked Chris if he had a personal, favourite song.
"Choosing between your songs is a little like choosing between your children! That said I gravitate towards 'More than Conquerors', just because of the massive scale of the music and lyrics. It's an epic!"
There is naturally still a strong folk feel to the music on this new album, so we spoke about that style lending itself to celebratory worship.
"Anyone who has seen the Leonardo Dicaprio classic 'Titanic' remembers the scene on the bottom of the ship, where the Irish are having a blue collar folk party and everyone's having the best of times: our shows are a little like that!
"Folk music and celebration go hand in hand but we definitely don't stay within the tidy genre categories created for us. We are a celebration band – not a folk band – and so we are free to use elements of rock, synth pop and dance. We love folk but we aren't stuck in it!"
Having watched many Rend Collective gigs I know that they like to push the boundaries as far as the instruments they bring on stage, so what was the most unusual instrument on this new album?
"We used any instrument that we thought communicated joy and celebration for this record. Everything from old-fashioned rock 'n' roll guitars, the Irish bouzouki, to the ukulele to Gareth's homemade weapon of mass celebration, 'The Jingling Johnny'. It's hard to know what wins the prize here but I'll just say there is video evidence of me wearing a pair of leather brogues on my hands as a percussion instrument..."
Rend Collective have always talked about being a 'collective', a bunch of friends, rather than a band, and this is reflected in the way they write their songs.
"We have a collaborative approach. Every song is co-written and I think this best reflects how we are meant to work as a body, as a church. We are better when we're together and healthier in community. This is true in artistic endeavors as much as spiritual ones."
We then moved on to talk about the fact that Rend Collective have been spending a lot of time in the States in recent years, so I asked Chris how they came to make the decision to settle there for the time being.
"In 2011 we got the invitation from Chris Tomlin to join him on the road for a few months and it kind of blew our minds! After that tour we spent a lot of time praying and wrestling with the idea of leaving friends and family to pursue the band full-time. We felt confirmation that we could almost ironically best spread our message of small-time community in the one of the biggest countries in the world. We have been officially based in Atlanta since the beginning of 2013 and have seen so much of God's favour."
Rend Collective have toured with some big 'names' since being in the States – such as Chris Tomlin, MercyMe, Francis Chan and Louie Giglio. Knowing that Rend Collective have always advocated the authentic, small, local expression of church, I asked Chris to comment on how that fitted in with their ethos of wanting to steer away from becoming 'entertainment' on a stage and keeping faith authentic.
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"I don't think it was ever part of our ethos to fear the big stage but it definitely is a part of ethos to fear becoming fake when we're on it! If we can communicate the message of the band to people, to encourage community, authenticity and honesty, we'll use whatever platform is available to us."
I pushed Chris a little further to comment on whether they have been surprised at the direction God has taken the band in, and what they've learned from those situations – and people.
"We have definitely been surprised! I think we entered into this ministry with the assumption that only the small things were authentic and that mega-church was inherently wrong. Our time on the road has shown us that there are good people in every part of the church and that unity is not the same as uniformity."
The band has a pretty gruelling timetable of touring, so I wondered how the individuals keep their spiritual life fresh.
"I don't know that there's a cool new answer to this question! It is tough but the simple discipline of a quiet time of Bible reading and prayer maintains a healthy spiritual life. I'm not saying that always happens but we feel it as a group when it isn't happening!"
The band has always remained faithful to the approach they feel best expresses their worship to God. So how have they all coped with the hype that has come in recent years, as that band's popularity has soared in the UK – and skyrocketed in the States?
"The community within the band is a real source of humility: we all know how uncool we are! Success is so fickle and unstable – so we don't really lean on it as a source of security. Accountable community that loves you but knows you aren't cool is the remedy to ego!"
I wondered whether the pressure that comes from such hype makes it more difficult as far as songwriting is concerned. I've been struck, when listening to the new album, that there is a lot of scripture in there so I wondered whether they now feel the weight of responsibility as their songs are sung in churches around the world.
"We definitely feel responsible to resource the Church with solid, theologically healthy music and a message that matters. Songs influence church theology as much as the preaching so it's critical that theology influences our lyrics more than rhyme scheme. We want to communicate more than music but the themes of community and celebration."
Chris recently got married and founding band members Ali and Gareth have had their first child – Arthur. That must change the dynamics of the band so how have they managed to work out family life within such a crazy lifestyle?
"It's too early to tell! To be honest at this point it's so natural. We have always been more of a family than a band and as it expands it feels like the original dream of community and family is being realised. It's not very rock 'n' roll with all the baby stuff everywhere but it's raw and it's real: I prefer that."
We went on to talk about the fact that, in the past, money was extremely tight for them. I asked how they have maintained the balance between wanting to serve the Church, serve the poor and have enough to live on.
"I think if you put the Church and the poor first the money thing usually works itself out. We have a song called 'The Cost' on our second album and it explains the idea that our calling is to something costly: we have to lose our lives to find them, as Jesus says.
"Fortunately the days of checking down the back of the van seats for McDonalds money seem to be behind us but it's still a sacrifice: we aren't rock stars and we experience little home comfort. We are people who earn a normal wage, who tithe and who sponsor Compassion kids. And that's a blessing."
We drew our conversation to a close talking about the fact that one of the new songs, 'My Lighthouse' has already been played on Radio 2 and there is further interest in it. I asked Chris how they feel about the possibility of reaching the secular charts.
"I think we are amused by it as an idea. We are still absolutely first and foremost a church worship band so it's not a core part of our mission. That said good worship music isn't just for the religious and if nothing else it's great to think that we might represent the Church engaging with culture without compromising in any way.
"We're making no lyric changes to this worship song, and we wrote it with only the Church in mind. We have no desire to be One Direction but it's all harmless fun. And I guess fun is our new message after all!"