Mike Rimmer flew to Belfast to meet up with 'Days of Elijah' composer ROBIN MARK
With the release of Robin Mark's 'East Of The River', it was time for me to get on a plane and head over to Belfast to chat to Ireland's most famous worship leader and songwriter. In his office at Christian Fellowship Church, Robin grabs a long pole and hooks open a skylight to let in some fresh air. It's a warm summer day and we're relaxing together for a chat.
The last time we met it was at Chez Mark and Mark was still a businessman balancing the work of his company with the ministry of writing songs and leading worship. These days, music is all he does and every time a church in America sings "These Are The Days Of Elijah", a little credit drip feeds into the Robin Mark bank account. "It's good news for me!" he laughs. "Keep singing it! That's the way it works with CCLI. And actually I think right across the board, all the modern hymn writers and songwriters in the church, I think that when it comes down to it, that's where they have their basic income and everything else is on top of that. So it has freed a lot of people up actually. It's tremendous."
He reflects on the changes, "It's been good. I don't think I could have done it a few years ago because I think I would have fallen into the trap of trying to write as many songs as possible and contacting different people and, 'Would you sing this song from my album?' That type of thing. Which is okay, and that's the way the industry works, but it just puts an edge on you so you start to lose your focus and I didn't want to lose my focus."
"Days Of Elijah" is probably his biggest "hit" as he observes, "To be honest, 'Elijah' has been well accepted and used right across the world. It's something like 42 different languages. It's in Inuit would you believe?! One of the Inuit languages or dialects. It's been translated into about six or seven different dialects of Indonesian, whatever that is!" he laughs, "so we get all this stuff from around the world. People are singing it the lengths and breadths of the world. And 'From Sea To Shining Sea', it's been tremendous!"
Robin gets lots of people asking about "Elijah" so his website has the whole explanation of the song. "I always say to people, look, it takes a long time to explain it. You need to look at the website. But it's a song of hope. That's what it is. That God never changes really. And that how he dealt with men of God and women of God in ancient times is exactly the same way as he deals now. And that's the whole context of the thing. But you need to go to the website!"
I wonder if he ever gets sick of playing it? "I did a thing recently in Canada," he responds. "It was a conference. And the first session of the conference, where I was leading worship, we ran out of time and I didn't do it. I sat down afterwards and I thought, do you know, that's the first time that I haven't done 'Days Of Elijah' for an event. And it felt really quite good!" he laughs. But he didn't get away with it! He explains, "The guy that was running the conference scolded me a little bit and said, 'Oh no, you've got to! It's the song that people want to sing!' So it's a big song, not just for me, but for other people. So in that respect I think I keep on singing it and not get fed up with it. It's been good to me has old 'Elijah'."
'East Of The River' is the new album and the title works on a number of different levels for Robin. "I was born in East Belfast," he confesses. "To be honest, I was raised in East Belfast. So my formative years and our church is on the east side of the river. But while I was doing this album, a lot of the stuff I was doing in my own private study was to do with Genesis. And how when man fell, Genesis says that there was a garden planted and a river ran through the middle of it. And then when Adam and Eve were sent out, they were sent out east of the garden, or east of the river. I was trying to look at, theologically, the whole context of where we are and where man is in the sense of his relationship with God. I used the phrase that we were 'east of the river', that we were that side. So it's from that as well."
He continues, "And then some of the songs were inspired and grew out of a concert we did in February 2006. That was held in the new Odyssey Arena. We had this humongous crowd of people out at it. It was a great night. I think the biggest worship concert in Belfast's history, size-wise, in terms of people coming out for just that purpose. So that was a big deal. And it's east of the river as well! So there's three layers, but that's it. And I like the title as well. It's intriguing!"
Meeting Robin Mark, there's one thing that becomes immediately obvious, he can certainly talk! I suggest he's kissed the Blarney Stone! "I've talked a bit!" he admits, "I've never actually kissed the Blarney Stone. It's only tourists that do that. But I'm afraid I talk too much and too long sometimes, you know?!" he laughs.
On the new album Mark has written some songs with Paul Baloche. The American worship leader seems to be getting around a bit and writing with a number of different Brits. "I like Paul," says Robin. "I met him a long time ago at an event in America. I brought him over to Belfast. We had him over in 2004. He's a great man. He's very, very kind actually because I had the four songs essentially written and then we got together. A couple of them he changed one word in, but I said, 'No, you made the change so I want to include you if that's okay?' But he's a good guy to write with. He's very creative and very able, and also a very decent chap. And I think that's why he ends up writing with Matt and he's written with Graham Kendrick, and he's written with a few others."
He clearly holds Baloche with great affection. He continues, "He is a sweetheart, and we'll see him from time to time. I've been at his home in Texas, and that's where we did the writing, which was very nice. His place overlooks a lake, so it's very creative. As I said to him, 'Anybody could write in this sort of surrounding Paul!' I had the songs essentially all there and then said, 'What do you think?' I tried once starting from scratch with someone saying, 'Let's write.' And we just looked at each other for an hour, and then went for coffee and forgot about it!"
I observe that it helps to turn up with ideas. "And that's the key I think," he observes, "and we'll do it again. When we finished it he said, 'Why don't we get together again with just some ideas and let's put them together?' So we'll try it."
Robin Mark has had a hidden career that a lot of people aren't aware of or people have forgotten about. Because I can remember before he was really known as a worship leader he was a singer/songwriter! "Well sort of." he pauses to admit, "Many, many, many, many, many, many years ago. I learned my craft, I suppose, in a Christian rock band in the really early '80s, possibly even late '70s. And you wouldn't have heard of them and you're very fortunate not to have heard of them Mike!" He laughs, "The band was called Undercover, and they should have remained so because we weren't particularly good! We started off doing cover songs of Larry Norman-type stuff. And then we realised that we couldn't quite hack that, and so it fell upon me to write some new songs for the band. And actually I firmly believe that was God's training. That's where I learnt to create a song, present it to the band, and them all to fall about laughing because of its awfulness, you know," he laughs, "and then create one and them say, 'Well, that's alright up until here.' So I learnt the dynamics of being an open songwriter rather than writing in your room. You present it to a band. It's a traumatic experience. I still feel sorry for people out there with bands these days, just getting those songs out! And so that taught me a lot."
He continues, "When I started to lead worship, as I did in a small group setting for four or five years, that was the first time I'd ever actually written a song that had a worship feel to it. So there was this sort of crossover point. I would write some other songs in the very, very early days that were about children or about relationships or whatever. There's still a few of those about."
On 'East Of The River', there is "Central Station" which is a good example of a song in that older style even though the song is only four years old. Robin shares, "The Integrity guys were very good, because they have a very tight genre and they say, 'Well this is worship songs'. But the producer, Paul Mills, really pressed them and said, 'No, this is the sort of stuff that you've ignored, because he does this stuff.' So they put it out there. It is a true story in the context of what happened. I did pass this guy and I recognised him. He was just your sort of long hair, big beard, the coat with the rope round his waist holding it together. I looked at him and I thought, I know him! And I looked again and then he looked back at me and I looked away, and I looked again and he looked back at me on the way past. And as he passed I thought, I know who that is! The guy's name was Sam actually, and I remembered him from my primary school. He'd obviously changed a lot and I thought, my word, what's happened?! But of course I didn't want to go near him because he was a vagrant. And so I went on. And then of course. . . always with me!. . . too late you become convicted that you should have done something. And it just occurred to me that Jesus wouldn't have done that. He would have come right out, sat him down, bought him a coffee and said, 'What happened Sam? How did you get to this point?' So I remember I said at the time, if I ever see him again I'll make an effort to go and say, 'Look, I think I know you. I think you were in my school.' And he might go, 'Rrrrrrr!' And chase me away! So that's where the song came from and it's a true story. I think it's something that we all need as Christians, you know? We need to remember that we have a treasure in an earthen vessel, you know? And there are these other empty little earthen vessels wandering around who don't have that treasure. It doesn't cost much to buy somebody a coffee and to share your story and then leave it at that, rather then walking past."
Looking around his office, Robin has a couple of gold discs for previous releases. There's one for 'Mandate' and there's one for 'Revival In Belfast'. He's also got an American Dove Award for Inspirational Album Of The Year. These are encouragements for past albums but what does Robin hope to achieve with "East Of The River"? It's his first album in a while so what is he hoping that listeners will get from it? "I suppose above everything I hope that they're blessed by it." He responds simply, "I know that sounds a bit standard singer/writer-type fodder but I do. It HAS been a while, and part of that while has been this issue over it: I wanted to get back as best I could to the place of making sure that I was writing because I wanted to write, not because I had a deadline to meet or anything. So I had no deadlines to meet. There was no contractual demands. I'd gone beyond that."
He continues, "So, slowly but surely the songs unfolded and I saved them up and I worked with them. Some were a complete thing. And then one of the things for me is that most albums have a theme, and this album's theme generally is right back to the root truths of our beliefs. In one respect you say, well that's very simplistic; but in another respect, sometimes we need to go back and remind ourselves that Christ DID open the gates of heaven and made the way clear for us to enter in. That we have something to say to the world and that the world has something to hear from us, and that Christ is the hope for this generation and this nation. So in the first part I hope people will be blessed. I hope they enjoy it. I've got to be honest with you, everybody that puts out anything hopes that people buy it. So far so good!"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.