Tony Cummings reports on PHIL WICKHAM, the Californian worship leader whose record label debut is creating a buzz Stateside.
One of the intriguing developments in today's Christian music scene is the emergence of new artists whose fathers were groundbreaking musicians in the first wave of Jesus music in the '70s. We've already had ZOEgirl's Alisa Girard, whose dad is Chuck Girard of Love Song and Jacob, Joshua and Solomon Olds whose father Jerome Olds was a member of Mylon & Broken Heart. Now rock artist and worship leader Phil Wickham has emerged. Both Phil's parents were members of the '70s Jesus music bands The Way and Parable. Now Phil is receiving accolades for his self-titled rock worship album. It was after moving from Orange County to San Diego that Phil found himself, like his parents, inexorably drawn into music ministry. Phil's junior high youth pastor took notice of the talented young musician who was showing such prowess on guitar. Phil was asked if he wanted to lead worship. A little reluctant at first, Phil accepted his pastor's invitation. "When I started leading worship when I was 12, the Lord just really started blessing it with the junior high group," says Phil. "Kids were singing and I found that I really loved doing it."
The crunch time for the singer/songwriter came after seven years. He told CCM magazine, "I remember a four month period at 19 when I had different paths to consider - going to college, joining a church staff, ministering with music - and I had no idea which was I was supposed to go. I think, in my heart, I always wanted to be a career musician; but I also knew that the Lord's plan was best."
Throwing himself whole-heartedly into ministry with the Calvary Chapel stream of churches it wasn't long before people who'd heard Phil play his songs asked him when he planned to release a CD. "I was like 'Are you kidding me? No way,' Phil recalls. "Then the Lord just brought different people in my life to show me what it means to minister, what it means to lead worship - just the transparency of self and coming forward in faith and knowing that the Lord is there. There were awesome lessons that I was going to use the rest of my life. And when I finally had in the neighbourhood of 20 songs, my dad was like, 'You should record a CD.'"
Still a little sceptical on how everything would turn out, Phil recorded his first independent disc, 'Give You My World', in a small home studio. The response to the album was exceptional. Cross Rhythms reviewer Heather Marsden enthused about a style that was "very evocative of bands like Jars Of Clay and Lifehouse" with a "strong worship style to his songwriting and emotional vocals would make the album sit nicely alongside a Matt Redman CD." Certainly Joe Public seemed to agree with such enthusiasm and 'Give You My World' went on to become one of the biggest selling independent Christian albums of the last few years. Says Phil, "It did really well. Every Christian label in Nashville and Seattle were giving me calls just a few months after it came out and I held off for a long time not knowing if that was what I was supposed to do. But it just felt as though the Lord was moving in that direction so I went and started meeting people and seeing where the Lord would open and close doors. I didn't feel like it was exactly perfect. I didn't have complete peace about anything. I was excited and I thought that this was where the Lord was wanting me to go but I really didn't know for sure and so I made some demos for some songs that are actually on my new CD now. They got in the hands of Bart Millard and Pete Kipley - Bart Millard's the lead singer with MercyMe and Pete Kipley's a pretty well known producer and songwriter in Nashville. They had started a record label called Simple Records, a part of INO Records. Their vision of Simple Records is ministry-minded first and foremost. Their artists are all about serving the Lord and connecting people with God through their music. Secondly, they do it with quality and do not cut any corners. I think that it was just a good fit with me and them, and they have very similar hearts and minds and visions. So I signed with them."
Phil's Simple Records debut is a creative tour-de-force. Explains Phil, "It was all done in Nashville. We had a friend of mine from LA who's a great bass player and producer called Eli Thompson. He came out and played bass 'cos he was actually touring around Nashville at this time. We also had a young 19 year old German from Dallas who's in another band come and play drums 'cos we just wanted guys who are outside the Nashville box who would just kind of bring something from their own background, their own standpoints. I played all the rest of the guitars and the keyboards and there's a cello or two on there which another guy played."
Recording was a pretty time-consuming process. Remembers Phil, "There'd be days when I'd just spend hours and hours nailing a vocal and knowing I could do it better and doing it again and finally getting something that I feel like was up to par with what I wanted to do. But for the most part it was an incredible time and I can't wait to do it again. Pete Kipley who produced the record has become such a good friend, almost a kind of older brother to me and just how we'd read through the Word together in the mornings and just get our eyes focussed on God at the beginning and have so much fun, coming into the studio and not knowing exactly what we're going to do but picking up guitars, picking up microphones and arranging songs, it was an incredible process."
The 'Phil Wickham' album, released in the USA in April, has received considerable critical acclaim. Raved Cross Rhythms Jeremy Chalmers, "As far as the style of the music goes you might suggest a Coldplay or a Chris Tomlin. But in truth there's much which is exhilaratingly fresh. In the midst of all this talent, it's not the music that made the impact but the lyrics. Phil shows us a level of wisdom and understanding that speaks not of religion but of relationship with Jesus. Such wisdom doesn't come with age (as he shows) but comes with experience. Reading the lyrics filled me with excitement and a hunger for intimacy with the King of all Kings."
More adventurous British Christian music lovers will have experienced Phil's powerful ministry at Creation Fest - the annual free Christian music fest held in Woolacombe, Devon. Phil's regular appearances there show that unlike the dominant perspective of Nashville marketing men there are still American musicians who view the UK as a mission field rather than a market to be exploited. Speaking about the Creation Fest Phil says, "It's an incredible experience every time and it's actually like a vacation for me. I get to wind down, play once or twice every night and just hang out with people and get in the Word. It's just been incredible."
Such a simple, ministry-focus is refreshing indeed. Clearly the mentoring of those Jesus music pioneering parents has borne fruit.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.