IAN WHITE is a pioneer both in quality praise and worship music and in 'going it alone' without the marketing hype of Britain's praise and worship industry. He talked to Peter Bate.
In an era when the praise and worship music emerging from the charismatic renewal has become a successful industry and where a few companies seemingly control an endless conveyor belt of often sub-standard albums and songbooks, Scotland's Ian White with skill and integrity bucks the system. For one thing his music has always had the highest quality and since becoming a full-time itinerant musician in 1985 has seen his album series of 'Psalms set to music' acknowledged as one of the most important contributions to Christian music history.
Secondly, Ian has risen to a position of international prominence with a recent album in America's Hosanna! Music series and several of his songs turning up on Warner Alliance's new Tapestry' albums without any leg-ups from the 'evangelical mafia', the movers and shakers in Britain's Bible weeks and Christian media. And thirdly Ian has shunned the frequent offers of contracts with the Words and Kingsway's in favour of his own tiny company Little Misty Music, yet still managed to get into Christian bookstores and has now reached international prominence.
I caught up with Ian, days before he was due to fly off to the States, at his office in Perth. Born in Ayrshire in 1956 Ian White's rise to the heights of the Christian praise and worship scene has been far from easy and definitely not meteoric. Ian remembered: "When I was young I was the typical annoying kid at school who was good at guitar. I was converted in 1978 and soon got a chance to join a worship band formed by Dave Pope which included such talented artists as Sheila Walsh, Ray Goudie (the founder of Christian supergroup Heartbeat) and Chris Eaton."
However, rather than remain in this setup and gain experience and a good reputation Ian felt a calling into church leadership and decided to return to Aberdeen University to do a divinity degree. Yet, instead of putting his music on the back-burner Ian's time at university was to radically reaffirm his calling into praise and worship music. Ian recalls a particular weekend in 1983 which redirected his thinking with regards to his future:
"I felt God speak to me very powerfully. I felt I'd experienced God in a new way, the power of his Holy Spirit, and just felt a real refreshing in my Christian life." As Ian shared this experience with friends Ray and Nancy Goudie, God's purpose for his life became clearer. "They laid hands on me and prayed for me and they said: 'Ian, we believe that God is going to have you write praise music, we believe that this has been a new release and we are going to pray that something starts new as a result of this experience.'
About four or five days later I just opened my Bible and said: 'Okay, I've been prayed over, I'll step out in faith' and I just read through a Psalm and tried to catch the spirit of it." Ian's decision to write music based on the Psalms was fostered by his studies. "I'd been very impressed when I was in church history class hearing the teachers say that lots of hymn writers had been men who'd really known their Bibles well and that their hymns always tried to express scriptural truths.
So I just started off with the Psalms." Having finished his degree in 1984 seeking to catch the original spirit of the Psalmists Ian set about eighty of the Psalms to music. "Not thinking whether or not it was going to be congregationally singable, all I was trying to do was to try and catch something that would convey either the frustration or the joy or whatever was in the original Psalm. I suppose the whole thinking was to forget about the Hebrew type of music and just using the music I've grown up with try and catch something of the spirit of God's word." Bar three of the Psalms on 'Psalms Volume Six' (Psalms 1, 137 and 139) all of the songs on the 'Psalms' albums were written in this period. Unable to find a role in the Church of Scotland as a full-time musician Ian and his wife Carol moved to Perth where Ian worked for Scripture Union for a year.
It was at this stage that they took a brave and potentially dangerous step forming their own record company, Little Misty Music, releasing 'Psalms Volume One' in 1985. With the rise of such praise and worship giants as Word and Kingsway Ian admitted that getting established was not easy: "It's been quite hard going in lots of ways, it wasn't just my own reputation as a singer that we were struggling for but to actually get accepted in the retail market because we were a new label." However, in the long run this seems to have benefited Ian as 'Psalms' volumes one to six and his other recordings on the Little Misty label have retained a distinct flavour of their own which stands out strongly alongside many of the big companies' more predictable praise and worship attempts.
A major factor behind the successful sales of the 'Psalms' recordings was, and still is, Ian's commitment to performing concerts year in, year out to as many people as possible, wherever possible. The sight of a worship leader extensively touring the country is an unusual phenomenon and one which praise and worship punters have warmed to, meaning that in the past few years Ian has performed up to two hundred concerts each year as well as completing tours of India, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. It is in a concert type setting that Ian finds that he is able to lead worship most comfortably actively encouraging audience participation. "They're not just 'pure' concerts with everyone clapping after every song," Ian explained. "There is always an element in them of leading a congregation into the presence of God which I think is the essence of worship leading.
I see the audience there and something in me always rises up and I want them to be experiencing God and I want them to sing to the Lord. I actually think: 'God's good, I'm excited by these people and I'd love to get them to join in praise with me.' So that has always been a part of what I've done." Although Ian occasionally tours with a band he prefers to perform solo. This preference is due in part to the underpayment of Christian artists by concert promoters but also stems back further to an incident in Ian's youth.
"I remember when I was sixteen going into the Caledonian Hotel in Ayr seeing Rory Gallagher. I paid eighty pence to see him and just was mesmerised. I always cite that as an early influence. I think it's funny how influences go very deep, it's like something imprints very deeply in your mind and I think I see that in my music particularly in the way I still do a lot of my work solo." Ian continued: "In Glasgow on Thursday I did a one thousand seater and it went down a storm and a part of the actual handling and embracing of a large audience on my own does stem back to being impressed by Rory Gallagher and others." Due to Ian's commitment to touring coupled with last year's release of a praise and worship album in the Hosanna! Music series distributed throughout Britain by Word this year has been one where Ian has established himself south of the border.
"I think in England this year there has been a little bit of a breakthrough happening. We're supplying over four hundred shops now and almost every month more shops are writing in. We don't do the plugging thing as successfully as Kingsway and Word do, we don't have people on the road for us which in many ways shows the strength of the thing, that we've succeeded and we're growing with very little on the ground plugging." Ian's rising popularity in areas other than Scotland does seem to make the "Kendrick of the North" tag seem a bit improper. I asked Ian for his feelings on this comparison: "Obviously, it's a great compliment in terms of the impact that Graham's songs have had on the world church. I've always considered him my bigger brother or uncle or something.
We've known each other as acquaintances since back in 1979 when I was just a wee guitar player in Dave Pope's band and we've bumped into each other here and there over the years. I think the way that God has used his songs is incredible. There are differences and similarities so I have to take it as a compliment. The basic thing is that Graham's as well known up here as he is anywhere else." Increasingly, Christians are beginning to realise the impact that effective praise and worship can have on the life of the church, to the extent that a few churches are employing part-time or full-time worship leaders. Despite his hectic touring duties Ian is a member of a small independent church in Ayr and he has been involved with its praise and worship. "In 1989 I took a year off the road and became the worship leader in the church for the whole year, just leading worship every week.
It was a good time in some ways but it was a confirmation to me that my place is on the road and I certainly don't intend doing that again for a while. I really felt that the church opinion by the end of the year was: 'Yes, that's fine Ian, we have enjoyed having you but we really feel that your work is going to be itinerant.'" In every other aspect Ian remains rooted in his local church who support him in the most practical of ways.
"Margaret, who lives round the corner, puts a lovely freshly baked cake in my bread bin if I've been away for three weeks - I come back and there is a little note saying 'There's a nice apple pie for your coming home'. So, it comes down to that; that is what I call real church ministry!" At this moment in time it could be said that Ian has reached the crossroads of his musical career. The original notion of recording seven 'Psalms' volumes has been dismissed.
"I think my figure of seven was more in my own head to have a nice biblical number!" Ian admitted. Ian and Carol are going to have their first child in February so Ian is not going to tour abroad next year although he is planning to continue to perform extensively throughout Britain. "My diary is already full for next year," Ian sighed. Recording-wise, Ian is hoping to do an album for Kingsway's 'Worship Leaders' series which should be released next autumn. But what of his long term future? "I did a song for Billy Graham last year called "The Cross Is Still There" and if I find that my writing moves in the direction of good hymn type ballads then maybe if I build up a dozen of those type and calibre of songs that would be an obvious next step; but that's too far to ' say." Finally, as someone in the centre of the praise and worship scene I asked for Ian's views on the explosion of Christian worship music over the last few years which the major companies seem to have exploited resulting sometimes banal standards. "It's the in any sphere where people in companies perceive that something is popular. If a toy manufacturer perceives that dolls with red hair are popular then there will be six different dolls with red hair all coming out and sadly there has been that sort of commercial thinking coming into Christian music where every label says:
'Well, for the last five years praise and worship has been the flavour of the month so we must really go for it'. I think there has been a bit of a glut and maybe now it is going to calm down. My only excuse I suppose is that I was at the beginning of it. In '84 I was dreaming of a series of 'Psalms' tapes and even though we haven't done anything like the numbers that the big boys have done I think we've played a part. Our albums hopefully haven't just tried to copy the others - they have, for better or worse, a kind of feeling of their own.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.