Tony Cummings reports on one of the most creatively sharp songsmiths in modern worship, IAN YATES
As every believer knows, the Church is currently caught up in a modern worship revolution. Once, in the Victorian era, hymn books were published in their millions to meet the needs of congregations. Today though, it is modern worship recordings which, propelled by the Internet, sweep out in floods to the worshipping multitudes. These songs of adoration and proclamation emanate from huge multi-national corporations and cash rich megachurches but also thousands of "independent artist" singer/songwriters who begin to dream that the songs they've penned to be sung in their churches may resonate with believers far afield and make a low-budget recording or two.
Ian Yates from Liverpool is a worship leader who doesn't really fit either of these worship song sources. He doesn't have a contract with a big record company or music publisher, a megachurch platform or access to Spring Harvest and Passion-type events. But neither is Ian a naive beginner who thinks a set of bedroom-recorded demos will make much impact even if offered for free or sold on iTunes. Ian is a worship songwriter who has spent years honing his craft and through a long and fruitful partnership with producer/engineer Trevor Michael's 7Core Music has managed to make some of the best, both in terms of song and performance, modern worship albums. Releases like 2010's 'The Hope And The Glory', 2012's 'Good News' and now 2016's 'Awaken To Love' are each 10 square creatively sharp celebrations of divine love. Intriguingly, this most skilled of songwriters has, on his latest album, taken a bold step in recording a cover, not of a Redman or a Hillsong, but of a song of his Liverpool youth from the Beatles song book. How Lennon/McCartney's "All You Need Is Love' ended up on a worship album was just one of the topics that broadcaster Chris Mountford talked to Ian about when he visited Cross Rhythms.
Ian admitted, "It's definitely a risk covering a Beatles' song. And putting it on a worship album, wow that's really crazy! Years ago, there was a 24/7 prayer room set up in Strawberry Fields so there's a little connection there. I used to do a lot of worship events, prayer events there and I was involved in a lot of prayer ministry in Liverpool. About four years ago I was in a prayer meeting with some really close friends who were praying and God just started bringing 'All You Need Is Love' to our hearts. There were four of us who simultaneously felt that song, which was a bit weird. So it kind of became a special little anthem. As we were putting the songs together I kind of demoed a version and played it to Trev and he was like 'let's do it.' I said, 'Are you sure?' It's a Beatles' song but for me it's very simple: all you need is love, but there's so much to that and it can mean so much to so many different people - as a Christian, as believers we believe God is love. So if all we need is love that means all we need is God."
Ian continued, "We changed it a little bit. It's a bit slower. The melody is pretty much the same but a few of the chords in the verse are a bit different. Originally we had a spoken word part on it as well but we weren't allowed to put that on it. We had permission to record the song but not to add - you can't add anything to a Beatles' song. The reaction to the song on 'Awaken To Love' has been really positive. There was one reviewer who wasn't sure why it was on the album. But on the whole it's been really, really positive."
Talking of reviewers, Chris mentioned that 'Awaken To Love', like previous Yates albums, had received Cross Rhythms the coveted 10 square accolade. Cross Rhythms weren't always so generous to Ian. He remembered, "When I was 18 or 19 I was in a band called Seraphim. We did our first project, sent it to Cross Rhythms and it got a four out of 10. I think at the time we were quite naive. We thought it was the best thing ever. It's the first thing you've created and you think wow! This is amazing, and you put all your passion into it. You haven't got much experience in that field. Looking back it was a great learning curve and a great step towards going forward. Everyone's got to make the first project."
Ian got his first guitar when he was about 15 years old. He said rather ruefully, "I was inspired by Guns And Roses back in the day. Then I went to a Delirious? gig and for me that moment was just amazing. To hear this great music and feel the tangible presence of God kind of really inspired me. I kind of grew up in the church. When I was seven we moved to Liverpool from Birmingham and about 12 years ago the pastor of the church went to Cambodia to do some mission work and they asked my dad to take over. So he's pastor now. Anyway, after that Delirious? gig I learnt the guitar, got the opportunity to play at church in the band - somehow they let me do that - and then I started writing songs. I think it's kind of my way of expressing my relationship with God, just my thought processes at the time."
Continued Ian, "I wouldn't say I'm the best songwriter in the world but that's a process, learning your craft like anything in life, any job. As you keep going, keep writing hopefully the songs get stronger so looking back it's quite funny. There's a funny story actually; a lady in my church went to a charity shop and saw a load of CDs in the corner so she thought she'd buy them. They were five pounds for about 20 and she was listening and she found that Seraphim CD was in there, didn't know it was me and put it on and said 'oh, that sounds like a really bad Ian Yates,' which is really funny. Over the last few years just meeting some really great songwriters as well has helped my craft. I wrote a song with Matt Redman and that whole process with him has just been really amazing."
So why does Ian make music? "If I'm really honest there are two reasons; one is probably my expression of worship to God, thankfulness to God. The other is my belief that if you can capture the heart of God in that music, it's really powerful. Over the years, the stories we've heard have been amazing and it kind of keeps me going. A few years ago there was a story about a lady who had depression and every time she felt depression coming on she'd put on one of my songs and keep it going until the depression left her. And I thought, wow, what a privilege to be able to write a song that helped that person in that situation. There's been quite a few stories over the years."
Ian works long and hard at his music. When he's not touring with his band of musicians (who worship at different churches across Liverpool and Bootle) and recording his singles and albums he leads worship at his father's church a couple of times a month and heads up the worship team; records occasional EDM projects with his 7Core Music friend Trevor Michael under the name The Neon Ambience; and plays a key role in the critically-acclaimed aggregation sponsored by the Elim denomination, Elim Sound. Said Ian, "I head up Elim Sound with Sam Blake and a few other guys. A big part for us is training, inspiring people to develop in worship. Not just in excellence in music but in prophetic hearing from God, you know, what's God saying; and worship being a lifestyle rather than just singing a few songs on a Sunday morning."
Ian is married to Kate and they are the proud parents of two little boys, Jackson who is two and Elijah who is three months. Said Ian, "Becoming a dad was a huge thing for me. With my first son I remember the first few months just holding him and having these incredible God moments where I'd look at him and I'd have this overwhelming love for my son. I remember one day just thinking he's not doing anything for me. He's not performing but I've just got this huge love for my son. I felt God was saying if you love your little boy this much, how much more do I love you? And that kind of wrecked me. It was probably a year of constant moments like that. Wow, if I love my son this much how much more does God love me and God love us. So that was a big inspiration for this record. And I think inspiration-wise a number of the songs on this album are from God's perspective, God singing over us. I think that was partly from becoming a dad but also some of my experiences over the last 18 months, going through this period of should I give up doing this music thing. It was quite hard - how do I pay the bills, how do we do this as a family. One song is called 'Dream Again'. I was kind of on the verge of saying I've had enough and I felt God was saying I understand, it's time to dream again. It just sparked it again in me to say let's dream again for my city Liverpool. I want to see lives changed and also dream again for the songs that they will impact lives. I think that kind of message is for everybody. There are so many people who have got dreams or got these desires, not just in music but anything, and we give up so easily if life's tough. But I really felt God was saying dream again and take that message to people who have got these dreams. I meet a lot of people who have dreams and don't really do anything or stop because they feel like they've failed or fear holds them back. If we've got a God-given desire or dream I think God is saying go for it, really go for it.
"I had a couple of really amazing God moments. There was one where I was at an event in Liverpool Cathedral. Before the event it was quite stressful. The set up didn't go too well and my head wasn't really with it and then we went off to pray. If I'm being totally honest I didn't really want to be in the prayer meeting, my head wasn't there, I was stressing 'is it going to work? What's the sound going to be like?' All these silly things that we think. Everyone in the group prayed and it came to my turn and I knew everyone was waiting for me to pray so I prayed something. The guy who was going to speak that evening said, 'Ian, what you've just said is what I'm going to preach about.' I was like, wow, ok. Then when he preached it was like God speaking to me - 'Don't dream again for your city, dream again for your songs.' A couple of months later we had a national Elim conference. On the last day in the sung worship time one of the leaders got on the platform and stopped the worship and prophesied over our team which was amazing and then the whole conference prayed for us. There was a moment within that where it seemed God was saying, 'This is what I've called you to do.' For me and another guy, Joel, who was going through some stuff at the time, it was a massive God moment."
The first single from 'Awaken To Love' and something of a hit on Cross Rhythms radio was "High Wire". Ian spoke about the song, "I wrote 'High Wire' with my friend Nick Herbert. Nick's an amazing songwriter, he's written lots of great songs. I'd got this song that had already gone through a few versions and Nick really loved the vibe. He had this title 'High Wire' for a while and then the song just started to take shape. The whole idea really is similar to what we've been talking about. As we go on our journey with God, as we pursue these dreams and desires or pursue whatever is on our hearts, it can feel like we're walking on a high wire sometimes and you're like whoa, how are we going to get across? It's a song about trusting in God in that time. Over my life, time and time again learning to trust God, it just seems to be a recurring theme, so that's what the song's about.
One of the many outstanding tracks on 'Awaken To love' is the stripped down "He Has Never Left You". Explained the worship leader, "Different friends around me were saying it would be really cool if you did something more low key and my wife said do something more stripped back, so this is one of the songs that came out in the end of that process. Within the album there's this theme of God never leaving us. There is also a song called 'Not Alone'. The bridge is actually from some liturgy from years ago and the theme is a lot of the time we can think that God is far away, or we have to do something to get close to God, or draw near to God. For me, a few years ago, a huge part of my journey was kind of this understanding that I am in union with God. In this song I'm saying if we are one with Christ that means he will never leave us, even though we might feel it sometimes, we might feel that God is far away. We might do something that makes us feel that God is far away but actually he said he will never leave us, he'll never forsake us. That's the heartbeat behind it."
Ian finished his interview with Chris with the admission "I like to dream." He continued, "My hopes and dreams are that these songs can really impact lives. Whether that's a couple of people or whatever, just knowing if these songs can really help people through a time or changes their life in some way that is the big hope and the big dream. Obviously, I'd love the songs to go wider, to be heard by as many people as possible but that's out of our hands in one way. Just trusting God in this. Recently there was a great event in Liverpool called The Turning. I don't know if you heard about a guy in Reading, Yinka, who saw 2000 people saved in a couple of weeks. [He and his team] came to Liverpool and they saw like 700 people in a couple of weeks on the streets make a commitment which was amazing. And he gave me a word: make sure you keep worship the focus. I think doing what I do, I never did this to become famous or for money or anything like that. The reality is to make records and to live it costs and you have to promote yourself, you have to do all those kind of things. Sometimes all that can get in the way but actually keep in mind what your focus is, on worshipping God. I'm doing this for him and hopefully people can be inspired and encouraged by these songs."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.