Manchester's acclaimed worship man JONATHAN OGDEN was quizzed by Tony Cummings
Having just returned from an extensive tour of Asia, singer/songwriter Jonathan Ogden spoke to Cross Rhythms so we could catch up on his post-Covid years.
Tony: How has the pandemic and the streaming era affected your music ministry?
Jonathan: The pandemic certainly affected my music ministry in a big way. I was actually on tour with Rivers & Robots at the time and so it brought that to an abrupt halt. And I had to figure out how to do what I do from home. It seemed the natural thing to do was to start writing again and so I ended up making my EP 'Songs From Home' but I also started to record simple worship sessions and upload them on YouTube. I was just sitting in my bedroom and trying to worship the Lord there. And I found comfort in the simple worship songs that reminded me of times with friends in home groups or small prayer meetings. I really longed for that. And I think those worship sessions I put on YouTube really connected with people too and were what people needed to hear at that point. Several of those sessions have over a million views and have become some of my most watched videos on my channel. Even now that the pandemic is over and I'm touring again, I've met so many people who discovered my music through those sessions. And people still listen to them for quiet times, study sessions and background music. It's really an honour to think that I got to be a part of helping facilitate those moments with the Lord for people all around the world.
It brought a lot of clarity too. I think taking a break from your regular routine allows you to step back and think about what you're doing and whether it's really where you want to be. I ended up making some big changes at that time, including finishing Rivers & Robots and going more into a focus of writing, recording and producing as a solo artist, as well as for other artists. I realised that really, crafting a song and helping others to capture their song is one of my main goals and passions.
Tony: Are you still in close contact with the guys in Rivers
& Robots? Give me a golden memory of your years with the
Jonathan: Yes! We're a bit more spread out these days, as my drummer Caleb is now living back home in Malaysia. But I still had him join me for my solo tour this year! I think I just loved how DIY the band was. We ended up with some opportunities we'd never dreamed of, and the chance to travel the world and make music that points people to Jesus. I really had no idea it would reach so many and be a blessing to people the world over. But the whole time we were really just figuring things out as we went along. A lot of googling things and trying to learn how to be our own booking agents, managers, promoters and admin department! It might have looked more polished on the surface but it was a very grassroots operation! One of my favourite memories was using the warehouse space at my workplace to rehearse after work hours. We couldn't figure out how to turn the lights on and so we'd just gradually play until it got so dark we couldn't see anything. We wrote our biggest song "Shepherd Of My Soul" in one of those sessions. I still have a video recording where you can barely make out anything because it was so dark. But we were enjoying being creative! We really thought that song would be too much for people because it had so many sections and tempo changes and we just kept adding more parts to it but we were pleased to know people enjoyed it as much as we enjoyed writing it.
Tony: The tracks "Far Away", "Love Never Ends", "This House" and "Living Water" have all received plenty of play on Cross Rhythms radio. Tell me a bit about each of them.
Jonathan: "Far Away": Sometimes a verse or a truth about the Lord just sticks out to me and when I write, it's my way of processing that and helping it to sink in. "Far Away" is really about the faithfulness of God. It's actually the opposite of what the title itself says, because the full line is "You're not far away, You are with me here and now". I wrote that song to try and tear down the lie I often believe that I can be 'far from God' or distant from him. But, as the Bible says, nothing can separate us from the love of God. Even when I feel distant, he isn't far away. He doesn't distance himself from us. It was a very lo-fi recording, experimenting with just keeping a drum loop going and the strumming acoustic guitar chords into my USB microphone. It was probably one of my first songs combining a lot of samples with acoustic guitar.
"Love That Never Ends": This is another song that I wrote to remind myself of the truth of Scripture. Almost every line in the song is taken from a Psalm or a Bible verse, some of it word for word. I can be so forgetful sometimes and get stuck in my own head about things, and so I like to write these kinds of songs to bring me back to the truth over and over again. It's part of the 'Songs From Home' EP, which is almost entirely acoustic but I wanted to have at least one song with a few more production elements and a slight pop feel. So even though the guitar itself is recorded very simply, I layered it with drum machine samples and 808 bass hits, which draw more from trap and R&B genres. I loved combining those styles together. It felt like a real bedroom pop song.
"This Love": I remember writing this song on my dining room table with just my laptop. I was looping different drum samples and making a kind of disco beat, then using a very '80s synth to play the chord progression over the top. Even with those two elements I knew it was going to be a really fun, catchy song, and a melody came to me straight away. I recorded it with the voice memos app on my phone and sent it to my friend Sammie Lee who I knew would enjoy this kind of style, and he's also a talented producer. Before long, we were texting different ideas back and forth, different musical elements, samples, ideas for new melodies, and it finally all came together. I knew that lyrically it had to be something celebratory because the production and melody was so much fun. And so I just wrote lyrics that were a joyful celebration of the love of God. I think all of us are searching for something to satisfy the deepest desires of our souls, and this song is really about the joy of finding the love of God and realising, "this is what I have been looking for all this time".
"Living Water": I remember feeling really burnt out and dry in my walk with God. I'm a pastor's kid, so I've grown up in church, very familiar with what I should believe and all the truth I'm supposed to know. But a few years back I just found myself feeling really low and I couldn't put my finger on why. I was praying and asking God to show me what was going on and why I felt this way, and didn't seem to have the same passion as I did before. And the phrase 'living water' came to mind. And with it, just a deep knowing that I had to return to the simple things of just sitting with Jesus, spending time in his word and in prayer. It sounds almost too simple but I realised that I'd just become distracted over time - little things that steal my energy and my focus and keep me from pursuing the main thing. And knowing that every other 'water' that the world can try and give will only leave us thirsting again, but the living water of life found in relationship with Jesus was the only thing that will never run out. So the song is a prayer song about that restless searching that happens within our soul, and recognising the need for Living Water. I co-wrote the song with my friend Gideon Lim who also makes music as GIID. He is a much better pianist than me and studied a lot more genres and so we had a lot of fun on the musicality of this song. We just kept adding variations to the chord progression and key changes and all kinds of things that just made my musician brain very happy. I then reached out to my friend Sam Ock to produce the song because I knew that he would be able to capture the style perfectly. He has worked on all kinds of songs from hip-hop, to R&B and K-Pop and his style just added so much to the song.
Tony: Tell me a bit about the kind of live performances you are now doing.
Jonathan: I've recently been touring the 'Future Forever' album, although it's really a tour of my whole back catalogue. I very rarely go on tour as a solo artist. I really didn't think I would ever tour again, I was fully expecting to just dive into writing and recording and letting that be enough. But there was something about the message of this album that I felt was important to be able to present in a concert format where we can have visuals, and have people immersed in the whole experience to really grasp what this album is about. It's a message of the return of Jesus and the hope that we can find in the coming Kingdom. It might seem like a very forward-looking thing but I truly believe it can bring hope to us right now, and help us make sense of the present time with its pain and struggles. I wanted this tour to be an experience that people would come to and leave refreshed, full of hope, inspiration and courage to keep going in their journey with the Lord. It was my first time touring with such a big team. I brought two of my good friends to play in the band, some friends to help me organise and sort out logistics and then my own sound and lighting tech who helped us to just create the same experience everywhere we went. I knew that seeing as I don't tour often, if I was going to tour, I wanted to make it something special. And I think we managed to do that. Looking back at the footage it really seemed like something I'd dreamed of. It felt worshipful, creative and immersive all at once. I don't know if more tour dates are coming in the future or if that was it, but I'm really happy with what we achieved together, by God's grace!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.