Ian White spoke to DOUGIE ADAM. He looked back on 20 years of involvement in the UK's Christian music scene from recording his popular 'Psalms' series to his groundbreaking 'Pre-Revival Days' album.
In some senses Ian White IS the Christian music scene in Scotland. Any respectable Scottish Christian bookshop carries a good selection of the 18 albums he has released since 1985, plus a few of his music books. Somewhere on their wall a poster almost inevitably advertises an Ian White concert happening in a church near you. "I've toured like an idiot, non-stop. I've done between 150 to 200 concerts every year," he quips. These days lan's concert schedule is truly international, but he doesn't like talking at length about his travels. When I enquire about them he is very matter of fact, "I have done six tours of New Zealand, I've been in India twice, Africa once. I've been in America seven times just doing little things, small tours, and I've been in most European countries. But everything has always remained small for me. I'm still largely a one-man band, one singer in front of a couple of hundred people and just trying to minister and see people being touched by that."
One of the first traits that comes through speaking to Ian White is how this so-gifted singer, songwriter and worship leader frequently downplays his achievements. He jokes about how falling in love with music interfered with his academic progress. "I was top of my class in first year at high school and then it all went to pot because I got involved with the music department. My music teacher used to come and call me out of maths, which was just glorious, but I was never ever distinguished in any prizes or awards academically ever again!" Except for earning two degrees from Aberdeen University that is!
At several points during our interview I had to cajole him to say a bit more or be more positive about his work. I was surprised. In concert he seems very upbeat, confident and always ready to share a story or two before going on to his next song. He points out that Scripture warns us about the dangers of blowing our own trumpet and feels musicians often come across in a pretentious way when describing their work. Sometimes other Christians can thoughtlessly put a bad spin on a musical brother's life and work. "People are sometimes more interested when they hear about you going to foreign places," he concedes, "but it can sound a bit like boasting. You sit at party and you mention you've been in Israel or Germany, and I've said that as part of my work and I haven't meant to boast in the slightest but then someone says 'Oooh hark! Listen to him! Israel! Germany! Aren't we a jetsetter?' The consequence of that reaction is you play things down."
The logical place to begin any analysis of lan's career is his six volume series on the Psalms. Those recordings built his reputation as a songwriter, recording artist and performer. "The first three volumes were the ones that started to filter into the shops around Britain and get into the best-seller lists. At the time they just seemed to catch people's imagination and generated a lot of interest." That's not to say they were easy albums to make. Ian explains, "The area I always struggled most with, and still do, is the actual making and production of albums. I have never been a laid-back enjoyer of making albums. I am always a bit intense about it all. I thought that if I worked hard on those 'Psalms' albums and I poured myself into them with limited budgets then people would enjoy listening to the results. The strange thing is those albums have had an amazingly long shelf life." When he began 'Psalms' did he think he would end up going full time and still be recording 15 years later? "I think I had a feeling that I had something special, I didn't know where it would go, but I had Christian people around me who's opinions I valued who seemed to reckon that there was something special about those songs."
I point out that his 'Psalms' series concluded in 1992 and
enquire whether he had any worries about what was next after
"Definitely! I didn't know what was going to happen and didn't know whether it was all going to wrap up. I suppose it was really the success of the 'Faith Story' album in 1994 that really encouraged me to keep going." Once again this was not an easy album to record. "It started off as a series of songs which I hoped would be a real encouragement to people in their walk of faith saying, 'keep on going' even when things are difficult. I ended up with a bit of a difficulty myself through it and was diagnosed with having depression. People might not think it if they see me and catch me in an up mood, but I'm prone to depression. The songs on 'Faith Story' came out of some very dark times. I really tried to testify through that album to God's help in that difficult situation. I've probably had more letters from people over the years saying that when things were tough for them the songs from 'Faith Story' really helped them through. There is one particular song on 'Faith Story' which I didn't write, a song called 'Giving You All Of My Heart', and a lot of people have asked for that song to be played in concert. I'm very thankful to Andy Cowan for sending me a demo of that song."
Another album he happily mentions is 'Forgiveness'. "Chris Eaton and I attempted to make a modern-sounding album. It was recorded in a top studio in Glasgow. It's quite raw, there's lots of space, not too many synthesisers. It's just got electric guitar, drums and bass, organ and some good backing vocals. It's got a good feel about it. Tony Cummings raved about it, and gave it 10 out of 10 but it still got rotten sales in the shops! But, plug, plug, we still have copies here at Little Misty Music! I believe that for a studio project and for the songs on it we did a good job on that album."
Once Ian has explained his reticence about referring to his travels it emerges he has had his fair share of excitement and even danger abroad. "Getting to play in different places is so exciting. Seeing the variety of different cultures. India, for example, just hits you with colour. It's a very sad place in lots of ways. Poverty is huge, everyone's heard about that. What hits you is, even the poorest people, the way they dress, the way they walk. My wife Carol and I have wonderfully enjoyed our visits in India. The first time I played in Bombay I was standing in a half-open concert hall with 600 people sitting in front. I was doing a little children's song The Noah Song' and I could see Carol sitting laughing. Later on she explained that during the song a dog walked across the back of the stage followed by a rat. Then a bird flew straight over my head, and the audience just didn't blink! While I mention it, Indian Christians are suffering terribly and are under a lot of persecution." With sadness in his voice he adds, "I don't think we'll be going back for a while.
"I was almost kidnapped in Lagos once. Some crook had overheard me talking about being a musician when I had been at the airport, followed me into the hotel and pretended to be the driver of the guy who was going to be picking me up the next day. He tried to get me into the car with all my belongings. It was straightforward crookery and I would probably have been taken up a side street and bumped over the head which has happened several times in Lagos. So fellow travellers be warned!
"I've got great friends in Germany though I don't speak a word of
German. I have to sing in English but I try and speak very clearly and
thoroughly enjoy that. The American thing has never really happened
for me. I've had several near misses but I'm very excited because
later in the year I'm going to be sharing at a conference in October.
I'm going to be leading a worship conference alongside Stuart Townend
and Matt Redman in Nashville. Our material is going out together on
the EMI Christian Worship label in America. So that's very, very
The CD booklet for 'Pre-Revival Days' mentions a recent experience in Armenia. "The connection with Armenia is a Christian charity called Christian Solidarity Worldwide and I was invited to visit a small part of Armenia called Nagorno Karabakh. The song 'Healing Love' was a very moving experience for me. I had just written it and it has lines in it about bones going dry and new life going back into dry bones. And the thrill of singing this in a beautiful Orthodox church with a group of children, all of whom had suffered greatly - many of them had lost one or both parents - and to see children out of a war situation come back and sing and take a Scottish song and translate it into Armenian was very moving. I suppose I really want to be thankful for the ways all these foreign experiences have been a gift to me. People word it as if it is the artist going there and giving something to them but I've always come back from every visit to India, Africa or Armenia feeling people have given to me and I've been the richer for it. So I'm thrilled about the chance to do this."
Dougie: Aren't the majority of your songs aimed at helping
Christians worship God, as opposed to explaining the Gospel to the
unconverted, I ask Ian.
Yes, but the atmosphere at the concerts is in itself evangelistic and I have seen a lot of people become Christians over the years. People write to me and say they brought their auntie or their friend to a concert and they were so impressed by the atmosphere at the concert that it led to the beginning of something. Many people have become Christians, I know not always directly at the concerts. I believe in the evangelism of the feeling that God is among you in a worship context."
I ask Ian about the process of songwriting. "A lot of my writing goes back to the fact that for me songwriting is an act of worship and I was meant to write about specifically Christian things. Since the 'Psalms' project, on several occasions, simple things like conversations with individuals really seem to move me. I met a lady called Teresa, who was an older lady who had obviously suffered greatly with drug and alcohol abuse during her life but she had a real openness to God. I found myself being moved by her story. She said one line which seemed to come out with great humility, 'I don't really feel I can come close to God, I can only borrow God's will,' like she couldn't afford to buy it. I found myself waking early the next morning and writing a little song for her. The first line begins by saying, 'You say that you borrow his will just for a day or a week afraid that you'll fail.' I end up saying, 'But Teresa it wasn't your hands that bled, it was the hands of Christ, we receive his love, we don't have to buy it.'
"Another case was a new song 'Encounter' on the new
'Pre-Revival Days' album. I think that song is one of my favourite
"It really came from my heart after hearing a sermon. The word 'encounter' really just seemed to hit me. And I thought 'Yeah! This is what we should be doing, coming into a place of worship to encounter God.' But I come before God in prayer feeling pretty much a wreck half the time. The song starts off apparently negatively saying, 'I come and my prayers feel weak and a bit of a mess.' Then it ends up saying, 'But I look to the cross and I remember the deed and the price that was paid.' I hope that the song, for the listener, lifts them into realising that God is for us, and God does love us."
Ian is excited about his 'Pre-Revival Days' album. "The whole thing has regenerated things for me again. It's a full album, 13 tracks of completely congregational songs. The songs are very, very accessible songs." Remarkably, it wasn't an album which he set out to record. Ian joked during an interview with Stuart Townend that he never seemed able to write congregational worship songs, and then, at the next writing session he started doing just that. Shortly after, Stuart invited him to contribute to an album in Kingsway's 'Worship Together1 series, even though he didn't write traditional worship songs. To Stuart's surprise Ian announced that he had just penned five suitable songs and these were featured on their 'Send Revival' release.
Ian assumed that with that album out in the shops the story of
those songs would end there. But he got another phone call. This time
he was informed that EMI in America had heard his contribution to the
Kingsway release and loved his songs and wanted more.
And quickly! It was left to Ian to write more songs and to assemble a band quickly and record them in front of a worshipping congregation in accordance with the American's wishes. Despite the fact that it was now in the 'peak' of a Scottish summer, and everyone was on holiday, Ian managed to pull everything together.
"Almost every day now we're getting calls to our office from people saying that they are finding the songs really usable in worship situations. Even including all the 'Psalms' albums, 'Pre-Revival Days' is the first album that I've done that is totally congregationally usable. The songs have actually come out through my own worship times. I have distinct memories of writing 'You Are Merciful To Me'. Of being on my own in a private worship time just thanking God for his mercy to me. I feel I've messed up so many times - all of us have, and we need to realise that God is still there for us. I wrote the line, 'Every day my disobedience grieves your loving heart but then redeeming love comes through and causes me to worship you.' My worship to God comes out of a sense that his faithfulness to me means he is committed to making the best of my mistakes because he loves me.
"The song 'Pre-Revival Days' was sparked off by the thought that, particularly in Scotland, we are not in revival yet. I don't like artificial talk of 'revival, revival, revival' when it isn't there. What I believe we actually have is a pre-revival situation. More people than ever before are genuinely desiring to see the things of God coming to the fore, to see churches growing in numbers again. But they are meeting in small groups. It's prayer groups that are on the increase like little Upper Room groups -I'm thinking of the experience before the Day of Pentecost. The experience of writing the actual song was a real lesson in obedience, just trying to hear God's voice. At the end of a busy day, about nine o'clock at night, my wife and I sat down to watch a film and I got a little nudge or a little inner voice saying, 'No, just go and play' and so I went upstairs to write. Within a couple of hours I had the whole song, words and music, and came back down the stairs. Carol was finishing watching the film and she asked, 'How have you got on?' I said, 'I've written a song. I think it's a good one.' After the film finished I played it to her and she was excited about it.
"Healing Love" and "The Mystery Of God" were written after reading a book by charismatic Catholic healer Francis MacNutt. Last summer he came to Perth for a healing conference. I had been invited to lead the worship and felt I would like to write a couple of songs especially for that conference. So I read his book and found myself reading lines about this wonderful man who had been used greatly by God. As an offering to God I started a couple of little songs about healing. The line 'Let us bow before the mystery of God' came directly from his book. He was speaking about how everyone involved in a healing ministry cannot determine why one person is healed and another person isn't. Eventually, we just have to bow before the mystery of God. I think part of worship is always going to be mystery.
"I love to bring in Scripture in song and 'Worshipping The Living God' has already taken off in the Scottish churches - people love singing it in church and find it very easy to pick up. The words in the verse come from the tenth chapter in Hebrews which speaks about the temple curtain tearing in two at the moment Jesus died, opening the way for us to enter in with confidence: let us approach God with confidence then, in full assurance.' It then goes on to say, 'Let's not stop meeting together as the day...,' we don't know when the final day is but we do know it's coming closer so let's love one another and keep meeting together. So all these verses from Hebrews 10 I tried to build into a little song. Part of the art of good worship songwriting is being very succinct, getting the thought into just a few lines. If people saw how I go about writing a song - I'm often scribbling down about six verses and then sitting back and thinking to myself, 'Right, I've got to try and get all information in the six verses into three or even two verses now!' I've made a habit of that over the years and have that as part of the song-writing craft - where you could get away with three verses I try to get it down to two and make the verses more intense and try not to say the same things twice, try to say it once well and then move on and use the next line to say something else. I once heard someone speak about a great preacher and they commented that every line was like a nail being hammered in. You could feel the effect of each line. I think good songwriting is not waffle, waffle, one good line. Every line should make a point and say something, so the listener thinks 'Oh, great line, great line.' Having said that, there is no substitution for a few lines of repetition on the chorus and you have to have that!"
EMI have now told Ian that they've pencilled in the American release 'Pre-Revival Days' before the end of the year. His taste for live worship albums has clearly been whetted. "I'm hoping to record another live album in the second half of the year 2000 and I'm already starting to think about songs for that. I think I would like to focus on the worship side of things for a while."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.