With the advent of his first independently released album and amidst a busy and varied schedule, Brighton-based worship leader PAUL OAKLEY spoke to Lins Honeyman.
It is with the pressing business of Paul's new album 'Antiphony' in mind that I asked the Brighton-based worship man about his current release and what its title actually means. "Antiphony is a type of praise characterised by call and response," explains Paul. "It would have been used in the temple in the Old Testament, in the Psalms and may still be used in some more traditional church services today. This album is really my gift of songs to the Church - my call to worship."
It is typical of Paul to take something so ancient yet engrained in spirituality and reveal it in a vital and modern way. There is a real feeling that 'Antiphony' was a labour of love for Paul and this is shown in his passion for each of the songs on the album. "My favourite track is probably 'Praise You' - it's really full of energy and was an immediate hit at our church in Brighton. It came about when I was lost for words and overflowing with praise and almost tripping over myself to praise him. I guess it's like if you're in love with someone and you find yourself running out of words to express that. For example, sometimes all I can say to my wife is `I love you, I love you, I love you' because nothing else really does it!"
The release of 'Antiphony' is his first independent release away from the stables of Survivor Records. "Everything's all above board with Survivor," Paul assured me. "I just felt that I was ready to do a self-funded album. I discussed distribution with them and they suggested putting it out in conjunction with one of my previous releases. I prayed about it a lot and felt that the album really needed a life of its own."
"Chris (Spring, the album's engineer/producer) and I really took our time over it - it took about a year to make," Paul explains. "This way there were no release date pressures. The danger is that if you take too much over it you can end up losing the focus but I think we kept on it." Most of the album was recorded at Oilville in London and at Chris Spring's Treaclebeard Studios in Chelmsford. I wondered if there were any moments that stood out. "We mastered the album at Abbey Road and, with Chris being a serious Beatles fan, he had to go into the famous Studio Two. He ended up playing 'Lady Madonna' on the Mrs Mills piano they used in the original recording."
Aside from the music, the cover work is perhaps the most inventive and intriguing to have been featured on an Oakley release to date. Within its double-sided six leafed spread we see a sketched couple embracing whilst another, more gaunt, figure holds his hands heavenward with mouth agog. In amongst this are various numbers and letters which, when asked for some sort of spiritual symbolism, Paul alluded to the fact that these digits are merely taken from the manual guide diagram of the typewriter further on in the sleeve! Nonetheless, the inlay card carries a sense of unexplainable mystery and draws the listener in, wanting answers even before the disc is inserted into player.
"I wasn't sure at first if the album cover would work. I loved Eddie Green's picture straight away but felt it was a bit unsafe for a worship album. However, I really feel it adds to the call and response theme. That man reaching up is desperate for God."
Far from 'Antiphony' taking up all of his time, it appears that Paul is still able to offer his gifts to his local church at Church of Christ the King in Brighton. Paul leads worship there twice a month and is on the rota with none other than the likes of Stuart Townend, Kate Simmonds, Phatfish and, up until recently, Matt Redman. Apart from collaborating with Kate Simmonds on her last album and the possibility of doing some co-writing with Townend, there unfortunately appears to be no supergroup formation in the offing, although they do sometimes all lead worship together.
I asked Paul how he keeps his walk with God fresh and his commitment to his family in check. "I have strange devotional times," he confesses. "When I started out I was not a competent musician and as a result I didn't include any existing worship songs in my quiet times - I just sang whatever came out or sometimes just sang in the spirit over a couple of chords. Occasionally songs would come out of it.
"From a family point of view, my wife and I have regular discussion times regarding tour dates and other matters. We make joint decisions on the number of times I travel and we have a limit to the amount of time that I am away. Within the church, our whole family is involved in a thing called Inter Generation Cells which involves everyone of every age in learning to live in God's love and developing his gifts." I put it to Paul that the challenge would be maintaining a freshness in the way he leads worship and the material he uses for this purpose. "Keeping it fresh for others is completely dependant on my own walk with God," he explains. "If you keep your walk with God fresh and you keep yourself in line with him, this will overflow into the way you lead worship."
"I have had some incredible times with God, both alone and corporately. During a large worship event we led in Toronto, many people saw a cloud of glory descend and people were healed and saved. We must have played the same song for about 40 minutes and we ended up just playing instrumentally as people became filled with the Spirit." Having won gold discs for "Jesus Lover Of My Soul" and "Jesus Friend Of Sinners", it appears that the sense of serving God in the midst of the Holy Spirit is what Paul lives for and almost pales even the most prestigious earthly award into insignificance.
Perhaps most recognised for the aforementioned two songs, it is evident that the Paul is much more than just a songwriter and worship leader. Amongst the many irons in the fire of Paul's ministry are a clothing brand, a teaching vocation and a heartfelt devotion to his local church and family. Says Paul, "I have a real heart for evangelism too and have also been asked to take teaching seminars where I teach on subjects such as songwriting and worship theology. The most recent invitation is to teach at the Toronto Airport Fellowship and I have been involved in Worship Together seminars, the Freshwind Youth Conference and other church related stuff."
Amidst his many gifts and time constraints, there has been the recent launch of Unafraid Clothing, which was named primarily after the title of the `Unafraid' album which saw Paul tackle his back catalogue live and acoustic. "Unafraid Clothing came out of wanting to make a prophetic statement for the youth as a means of provoking us to share our faith more openly. I have lived with the word 'unafraid' for some time now - firstly when I did the unplugged album - and then doing a few more gigs in front of more non-Christian audience and then taking the line 'I will choose to wear your name' from my song 'Unafraid And Unashamed.'"
In addition, Paul ventures to Canada at least twice a year to teach and lead worship and sometimes just to share fellowship with friends he has made whilst being there. "I really feel that Canada has been a God appointment," Paul explains. "I didn't push any doors - they just opened." A breakthrough into Europe and the USA are also planned, together with events closer to home such as a possibility of taking the new album on the road in late autumn and participating in stadium youth events at Dunfermline Athletic and Notts County football grounds in the summer.
And then there is also the planned inclusion of "Jesus Friend Of Sinners" in the up and coming Harrison Ford movie The Wrong Element which is due for release in October. "Basically, a woman in one of the scenes stumbles into a Pentecostal Church where a big gospel choir are singing the song!" Paul explains. "It has always been a secret ambition of mine to have a song in a film and I had been praying about it for a long time but I have absolutely no idea how it came about."
I asked Paul what, with seven albums and a wealth of experience behind him, he would say to Christian musicians starting out? "The advice is just go for it and be yourself. Find your own style and do it as soon as you can. Let God do his unique thing through you and maintain your walk with God. If it goes pear-shaped, it's probably God in the midst of it saying that the time might not be right."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.