Tony Cummings reports on the hit-making worship songsmith CHRIS MCCLARNEY
Nashville-based Chris McClarney is a singer, songwriter and worship leader who has recently been catapulted to the Christian music big time through one song. Chris' powerful worship anthem "Your Love Never Fails" has, since its inclusion as the title track on the 2008 album by the California-based Jesus Culture youth movement, become one of the most popular songs in America's churches. Search for the song on YouTube and you'll find page after page of videos showing just how far the song has reached. Now a major move is underway to establish McClarney as a top selling artist as well as a composer. In November of last year Kingsway Music released in Britain the rather bizarrely titled EP 'Introducing Chris McClarney'. Why bizarre? Well, in 2008 Kingsway had issued a McClarney album 'Love Never Fails'. Broadcaster/journalist Mike Rimmer met up with Chris when he was over in Eastbourne ministering at the Mission Worship conference. Wasn't calling your second release 'Introducing. . .' a strange idea? "It wasn't my idea," exclaimed Chris. "My idea was to release a 'Greatest Hits' album first. But they didn't like that. Kingsway thought that people should get to know me. It is a little backwards, but I don't know if a lot of people have heard my first record. I put together and funded 'Love Never Fails' myself."
Chris spoke about his early years. "I was a youth pastor's kid, and we moved about every year and a half - all in the south east of the US. When I was about 12 we moved to Nashville and quit moving. My dad got a little burnt out with ministry; we moved to Nashville and he became a school teacher."
Unlike the stereotypical testimony, Chris didn't go through a spell of rebellion in his teenage years. He said, "I'm a bit of a prude: I feel like there's never been a moment in my life when I haven't been madly in love with Jesus, from a young age. I never went through the weird rebellious time. There was a time I actually tried to rebel. It was a failure. I remember the first day of middle school I decided, 'I'm going to start cursing today'. It just didn't work. I tried, I couldn't put the words together, and it just didn't feel right. That was my only attempt. It was hard at times, but I think I built relationships around other things, like music."
While still at school Chris began to take piano lessons. "I took lessons for a while. It was my first instrument, just poking around and playing whatever Amy Grant or Michael Smith song was on the radio at the time. I taught myself how to do it that way."
In 2002 Chris became worship leader at the Grace Center church in Nashville. He explained, "We've grown from a small church to a medium church. I've been there for about seven years, and when I showed up there were about 250 people. We're close to the 700 or 1000 mark now. The real good part about the church is the fact that the leadership there is really great, they allow me to be myself, and they're real sensitive to the Lord doing his thing during worship. If God's doing something, then sometimes we just stay in a song a little extra long, or we keep worshipping, as opposed to feeling the necessity to stick with the thing we had scheduled to happen that day. It's real laid back and it's great fun."
Being located in music city, Nashville has meant that Grace Center is never short of musicians. Enthused Chris, "Over the last seven years I've try to do a good job of building a real team of young guys and older guys, and girls - building a team so we can maintain some kind of continuity in worship. There's something about when you have a team of people that grow together: the drummer knows what I'm going to do, and I know what the electric guitar player's going to do. Even more so lately, as the church grows, we've come up with creative ways to add more people in that group. What used to be a real tight group of maybe 10 musicians, we've had to figure out ways to allow other people to be a part of that group."
Chris spoke about his groundbreaking song "Your Love Never Fails": "I feel it is a song for right now - especially given the climate of struggle economically and politically. It reflects all of the craziness that happens in normal life. This song says, 'I know all things work together for my good'. When we do it at church it really goes somewhere."
The worship leader explained how his 'Love Never Fails' album came about: "I wanted to record the whole project a long time ago. I'll be 30 this year, that's pretty old: it feels like a big milestone. When I was 18 I was pursuing a record deal. In the middle of that I had a realisation that, 'I don't know if making records is going to change the world'. So I went on this finding me mission, and the way that led me was I sold most of what I owned and I moved to this inner-city mission in Nashville. I worked there for three years, the hardest three years of my life. I quit the music business. Fastfoward, years later, I felt like God said, 'I want you to record now', and I said, 'No'. God sounds like me in my own head sometimes, so I'm always like, 'How do I know that's you and not me coming up with the good idea?' I kind of had that argument with God: 'I don't want to record. How do I know this isn't me talking to myself?' So I told him, 'I definitely don't want to go into debt making a record. If you give me the money, I'll record.' That week I got an email from someone that said, 'God told me to give you money. What do you need money for?' I just pulled the number out of the air and said, 'If you give me $15,000 I'll make a record'. He sent a cheque the next day. We recorded in two days at the Sound Kitchen in Franklin, a little bit south of Nashville. The way we recorded, I wanted to do a real live thing. We did it in the studio, but we got all the guys together and we all played at the same time; we were separated by some glass walls, but we could see each other, and the music that's on the record is really what happened in that moment between guys that were playing."
Chris spoke about how he first encountered John Hartley, the British-born musician who had left the UK scene as half of the duo Phil & John to forge a new career as a Nashville-based songwriter and producer. Chris remembered, "I was at some sandwich shop or something in Nashville and John walked up and said, 'Are you Chris McClarney?' I was just honoured that someone with a British accent knew my name. We talked for a few minutes and we got to know each other. He had some family and friends who were going to our church, so he stopped by not too long after that, and he seemed to like the church and started coming regularly. We got to know each other better after that."
Chris went on to explain how he teamed up with Hartley for the 'Introducing. . .' EP. "There were two songs on my debut album that I wasn't completely happy with. I kept going back to them, saying, 'I really want to re-record these two songs', 'Your Love Never Fails' and 'Your Love Is Everything'. Those songs had been such a big part of the ministry in the church that I'd been doing, and other churches had been doing the songs. I wanted to do a better job of making the songs. So I went and asked John if he would help me re-record these two songs - because I really don't know what I'm doing when it comes to recording in a studio. John said, 'Of course I'll help you'. So we went in and recorded the two songs again. I got the guys that I play with at church every Sunday, and we'd been playing the songs for a couple of years now. It was a really special thing to bring them in, it was my family. When Kingsway heard them, they said, 'Let's build an EP around those'."
Chris continued, "John Hartley is great. We actually collaborated on the song 'Across The Universe'; he wrote that with me as well as Aaron Keyes. Through the whole process John was such an easy guy to work with. Every worship leader that comes through Nashville comes and stays with him. He doesn't have his TV on a lot: you go over there, it's real peaceful, he has it set up to worship and write. We go over there, we write, and talk about life. None of it is high pressure."