Let's be perfectly frank. It's been years since the news that Maranatha! Music have got a new worship album out would create much excitement. But the new album in the MARANATHA THE NEW JESUS MUSIC series is a stone classic. Mike Rimmer reports.
Sometimes when you listen to the huge quantities of worship product which saturate the British Christian music market, it's possible to despair at the identikit nature of it all. The fact that "worship" music has become a separate style is something that has puzzled me for a long time especially when so many worship albums leave me indifferent. Imagine my surprise then when a new Maranatha album plopped onto my doormat and grabbed my attention like no other worship album before it! I just had to hunt out Carla White, its producer.
Carla White's background was working with Vineyard as a production assistant to Randy Rigby and Tom Davis. She describes her work then, "I was Randy's assistant when Vineyard was just getting started as a music company. I listened to all the incoming songs and found people that no one had ever heard of before, like Randy and Terri Butler, who have written a lot of good worship songs, I used to play tapes and people didn't know who the artists were. I helped find a lot of the great songs that put the Vineyard name on the board, like 'We Exalt Your Name' by Andy Park." The experience of listening to a lot of worship material and helping to find songs acted as an excellent grounding for Carla as we will discover later.
The idea for the sound of 'Come As You Are' came from Carla's own vision. "I guess my vision was to produce a record that sounded authentic, believable," Carla explains, "that would compel people to want to worship God. What makes it a little different was that I wasn't trying to make it sound like worship music. I didn't go in with the mindset that this was a worship album which sounds like a Hosanna or Maranatha tape. I just went in thinking, I'm a Christian, I like to worship. And if I was worshipping this might be the kind of music I'd like to hear. I wasn't really going in with the pre-conceived ideas of what worship has to sound like."
I wonder whether Carla could identify that worship albums seem to have developed into a musical genre of their own? "Of what I've heard," she considers, "there seems to be a worship music style, although I do hear worship leaders whose style isn't like that, but they're usually not the main artists.
Commercially there seems to be a certain style. I think it's great for the people who like it - that market has definitely been saturated and needs have been met. But I also think that there must be other areas that haven't been met. There are a lot of people who don't listen to worship music so maybe they feel isolated from worship."
Steve Miller's book, The Contemporary Christian Music Debate, talked about the need for the church to worship using styles of music that were familiar to the people they are trying to attract. I ask Carla why so much of today's "contemporary" worship music was often a long musical journey away from the popular music of our day. "I don't know! I'm not a worship music historian and I don't listen to it that much. My influences aren't from that kind of music so that's why my record doesn't sound like a 'typical' worship record. I think when the Jesus Movement started; worship music was the music people were listening to. I have friends who played in bars on weekends then in church on Sundays who played the same kind of music. But I think once it started getting popular in the church everyone started copying that same sound, which has evolved a little bit since then!"
Carla's own musical influences are wide: "The Beatles were the group I liked the most. But I also like really good songs from all different artists - from Carole King to Lenny Kravitz to Winona Judd! I like Kevin Prosch's music. The Pretenders, David Bowie, Teenage Fan Club, Fleetwood Mac, Blur." Looking at that list, perhaps it isn't so surprising that Carla White has produced an album which sounds remarkably different from the standard worship fare! We go on to talk about the current state of worship recordings and I muse that I cannot understand why everything has to be so safe. Carla suggests, "People in the church are afraid to go with anything new and so they're suspicious. Not just in music but in anything. Instead of believing that God will lead them in all truth, I think they're more obsessed with the devil deceiving them. I think there's a lot of envy as well. As Christians, we should be the ones who have the best music, the best art; we should be making the world come to us, because we worship the Creator of everything."
In that sort of climate I wonder whether the Church instead of encouraging creativity, hindered innovation. Carla has strong opinions on the subject. She replies, "It's easy to think that the difficulty has come from external things around us. I sometimes feel like a victim to other people's opinions. The real obstacles within myself are that people may not approve. They may think I'm rebellious. The Lord showed me that I was serving an idol of appearances of how I would look to everyone else. That came up a lot at the studio with the music. I didn't think of how the sons were songs to God but what other people would think about them. We choose to allow what we think others are going to think to hold us back instead of going with what God's put in us. I realised I trusted in myself more than I trusted in God. Whenever I get in a situation where I want to take a risk, I don't even trust him to comfort me if I get hurt in it."
The sound of the album is definitely innovative and different, particularly when it is put within the context of other releases by the Maranatha label. I wonder whether in the recording of the album she felt out on a limb. "I don't feel like I'm trying to do anything big," responds Carla. "It happened more when I played it to people. Musicians would come in to play their part and be surprised that it was a Maranatha worship record! That's where I became more conscious of what I was doing, but I didn't do it to go out on a limb. There's a part of me that wants people to like it and to go 'I get it!' Some of that is just for the flesh - me wanting affirmation. Then there's the other part of me that just wants people to worship God and I don't really care about opinions. There's a war between the flesh and the spirit. Because nobody's ever done anything like this before, there is that fear in me that no one will like it. For the Church, there's a fear also in liking something that's different. In my heart I think there's a void in worship for people who don't like the stuff that's out there."
'Come As You Are' will certainly broaden the horizons of worship music because it is so far from the colour by numbers albums that swamp the scene; her involvement with the project began with an approach from Steve Zarit, the former General Manager of Vineyard Ministries. Maranatha had approached him because they wanted him to produce a new, different type of worship album. He called Carla, as she recalls, "He actually called me looking for songs, because I'd worked for him at Vineyard and he knew I was a songwriter. I asked him who was producing the record and he wasn't sure. So I asked him if he would be open to a woman producer and he said, 'Sure, if they're good!' He was surprised that I was a producer. We started meeting and listening to songs then he decided I should be the one to do it."
Carla had previously produced some children's albums for Vineyard but I wonder whether she felt comfortable producing this album. She responds, "The only thing that feels unusual is being in the studio and telling a bunch of men what to do! It feels a bit awkward because it's not a position that women are normally in. But I found all the musicians to be extremely professional. I feel totally at home producing in the studio." Carla's experience of searching for songs whilst at Vineyard was excellent preparation for getting the best songs. Although herself a songwriter, she chose to hunt elsewhere for material. "I wrote 'At Your Feet'," says Carla. "I co-wrote 'Cover Me' with Chris Lizotte and the second verse of 'It's You'. The rest of the time I looked out for good worship songs."
So what does Carla look for in a worship song? "For me, it has to hit me," responds Carla. "I think, 'Can I sing this to God?' That's it lyrically. And melodically, it has to go somewhere. It has to be a well-crafted song that is authentic. I didn't have complete freedom in choosing all the songs on the album, but I got to have a big say in it. I want to live in reality and worship in reality. In church I heard people singing, 'You're all I want'. I remember thinking there was something wrong with me because I could barely concentrate on God during the song. When I'm singing something it needs to be truthful and come from my heart."
The album is packed with impressive tunes and heartfelt performances and it was with trepidation that I ask Carla to name her favourite songs. After a pause for thought she responds, '"Cover Me' because I love the way my husband Tim's voice sounds. I tried to imagine a guy sitting in a castle where it's really cold, playing an acoustic guitar and he's really broken before God. Although he knew God's presence was there, he didn't feel it. He'd just seen the wickedness of his heart and realised why he had a Saviour. I love the way Maria McKee sings on it. It has a haunting sound. I really like 'There Is No One Who Is Like You' that Holland Davis wrote. I like the background vocals and the melody. I can imagine being in heaven before God where there really is no distraction."
It is interesting that Carla's approach was to record the songs as closely to the original demos as possible. There was good reason for this, as she explains: "Almost all the songs were done for demos of the artists who sent them in. They captured themselves with the songs. I've often noticed that on worship albums very rarely do the songs ever sound like they do on the demos! When a producer gets a song he changes it so much that maybe they lose some of the authenticity and simplicity of the writing. When the album was finished there wasn't even time to put on another instrument or vocal part. I wanted to present the songs so that people could hear the songs and not the slick production that would take away from the song. So the unpolished production was quite deliberate. There are even some vocal notes in there that aren't the best."
Not that you'd notice, I reflect as I listen again to the album while writing this feature. One song causes me to pause my frantic word processing every time I reach it on the tape - Milton Carroll's "Still Waters". There is something delicate in its delivery, something so peaceful in the spirit of the song. How did Carla hear the song? She explains: "I was on Milton's worship team at the Stadium Vineyard. He's a really good songwriter. Originally they were going to call the album 'Still Waters', from a song that vineyard had put out. I called Milton up and asked him to write me a song called 'Still Waters' for the album. His demo sounded very country so I changed the chords to sound more mysterious. My friend Marnie sang it. The whole song is just one take! Marnie was crying as she was singing it. Her voice cracks in places. Real emotion!"
The song that will probably attract the greatest amount of attention is "At Your Feet", one of Carla's own songs. I ask her to tell me how she conceived the song. "I sat down and wrote it just before Chris Lizotte came over to write with me," remembers Carla. "I played him the song but didn't know what else to do with it. He said, 'It's done! It's amazing!' Then Maria McKee heard my demo and I'd asked her if she'd sing on it. I played her a lot of other songs but when she heard 'At Your Feet' she wanted to sing it. I didn't picture her doing that but I guess she did! It's a very simple song I was thinking that everything that's holy, lovely and beautiful is what he is."
Apart from her mainstream solo projects, McKee was last spotted duetting with Chris Lizotte on his excellent 'Long Time Coming' album. So how did Carla persuade the "real gone kid" to sing on her album? The answer is simpler than you'd expect! "I asked her!" Carla replies. "She's one of my best friends and she's really encouraging with different musical things that I wanted to do. In fact, she also said she was interested in writing a song, but all the songs had already been picked for the album and she was in the middle of her tour. It took her four hours just to get to the studio to sing on the album. It was a big sacrifice for her. She works in some of the best studios in the world and then she comes into this humble little studio at John Schreiner's house in Laguna Beach. It was great working with her. She really liked the songs. I was glad she was singing my song because she has that passion in her voice which makes it believable and real. That's what I was trying to go for."
And that's what Carla White has achieved! Something authentic and real. A worship experience in Spirit and Truth. As for Carla's future? "I'd like to do more production, I'd like to produce artists either in the USA or in Europe." She shouldn't be short of offers! 'Come As You Are' deserves to influence and change the direction of worship music helping to break the genre out of its current over-produced plastic conveyor belt state into something truthful, exciting and innovative to touch all those who want to worship rather than catering to the commercial safety of the middle of the road. Worship experiences which are this good deserve long loud applause.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.