Ruby Davies reports on international singer, songwriter, producer and worship leader TOM READ
The most recent record by international singer, songwriter and producer Tom Read is an ambitious exploration of lament. While most modern worship songwriters avoid dark and challenging subjects, unlike the ancient Psalmists, Tom, who five years ago relocated from Hong Kong to Oxford, has taken a bold approach to an often misunderstood creative expression. Tom is of course no raw music beginner. His 2012 album 'Compass', released in both Mandarin and English, reached number one on the iTunes album charts in Hong Kong and top 100 in the UK and US. But now the EP 'Lament' has been released to help this most incisive of songwriters to process his feelings of anxiety and grief.
He told Cross Rhythms' Tony Cummings, "I think 'Lament' is addressing something that's perhaps a little bit different in the area of worship. People have kind of found that interesting. I'd say for the most part I've had quite a few people say, 'I've not heard songs perhaps addressing things in this way much in the Christian market and in the worship market and it's really good to hear some of these themes.'"
Read's mother sadly passed away a couple of years ago and, during that difficult time, he discovered a lack of songs acknowledging grief. "I think the biggest motivating factor for me was the things that I've gone through over the past few years. In particular, my mother passed away a couple of years ago and she had Alzheimer's and that was a really hard time for me. I found during that time that worship was quite difficult in church, because a lot of the songs, even if they are speaking truth, sometimes it's not really what I'm needing at that moment. What I'm needing sometimes is just acknowledgment, someone to kind of understand. I want to be able to call out to God and say, 'God, this is really hard.' I feel like perhaps a lot of the songs that we sing in church sort of want to take you immediately to the place of 'everything is going to be okay' rather than allowing you to simply say 'this isn't okay at the moment but I'm still here, bringing it to you God.' So that's how I felt in those times. I did notice that a lot of the songs wanted to mention that life is hard but kind of gloss over it and get straight to the good part. It's not that I want to dwell in the dark side or dwell in feelings of sadness but I think there are times where you need to acknowledge that life is hard and that things haven't gone well and you can't just suddenly jump to 'everything is going to be okay.' You need to sit there and you need to ask the questions and you need to wrestle with those feelings and wrestle even with God. 'Why has this happened God?' and allow for that kind of stuff. If you look through the psalms and things like that there is a lot of that happening but it's not necessarily happening in our churches in our weekly worship services."
Each song on 'Lament' comes together to tell Read's story of grief, questioning God and restoring his faith. "I don't think an individual song necessarily needs to tell the entire story. If you look at a worship set, typically you might have five or six songs in there. I think it wouldn't hurt to have one song out of those five or six that is simply a heart cry, a lament, an acknowledgment that things can be hard and things don't always go the way we want them to go. Then the next songs can continue on that story and say but God is still faithful and that I'm still going to praise you."
Writing the album was therefore a way for Read to process his grief. "Over the last few years I've just been writing; I'm a songwriter and a producer and so I've been writing just what was on my heart. I use songwriting as a way to deal with what's going on in my life. So I didn't necessarily even write these songs with the church in mind, I just wrote for myself and to kind of help me through what I was dealing with. Then over the period of four or five years of me writing I kind of came to the point where I wanted to put something out and I had these five songs that really sort of sat together and summed up what I felt like would be a great collection of songs. As I was looking at them they really all do sum this idea of lament and like you say, I haven't really seen much out there in the worship movement that addresses lament full on."
The attention-grabbing cover image, of what seems to be paint dripping down Read's face, has created a bit of comment. "The idea behind it, it's supposed to be a sort of shocking, striking image when you look at it. There are a few different layers in it but the blue and the green, the blue in particular represents that sadness, if you will. We talk about when we have these feelings of sadness you're feeling blue. So it's got the colouring there that represents that. But if you look closely, within those colours there are hints of yellows and pinks and other colours coming through underneath. For me, what it represents is that lament isn't just by itself. Lament actually leads to hope and lament leads to beauty. It's like that 'beauty from ashes' idea. So I wanted this cover to represent that even though we have these times that that's not the end of the story and that actually underneath the layers there is beauty that comes through. Some of the songs on the EP talk about that. The other thing is that if you kind of glance at it, it looks a little bit like a mask. Obviously one of the songs on the record is called 'Mask'. So it's that dual meaning, representing that sometimes it feels like we are wearing a mask and as we worship, that mask needs to come off, which is why it's kind of dripping down, it's like the mask is being removed. And also, as we lament, I think through that process it allows us to deal and it allows us to heal, which is why it's dripping off. It's actually coming off; it's not staying on. So that was kind of the feeling behind the artwork. I did want something that would catch people's attention and make them think."
Read spoke about the first single to be released off the EP, "Dead Things To Life". "This was a song that I wrote a few years ago with some of the guys from Worship Central and they actually released it a few years ago. The story behind this song is quite a personal one for me. Some friends of mine were trying to have a baby and they were having trouble, then they finally got pregnant. Obviously they were excited but when they went to have their first scan, it wasn't good news. The doctor basically said to them 'there are major problems with the foetus and we don't think the foetus is going to survive. Medically our opinion is that you should terminate this pregnancy, rather than trying to carry it'. They went away and prayed and felt 'God, we've been trying to get pregnant and we've just gotten pregnant, so we're just going to carry this pregnancy full term no matter what happens and we're going to pray and hope that we're going to carry the pregnancy through'.
"So they prayed and our whole church prayed, and amazingly nine months later this baby boy was born. It was quite miraculous because all of the things that the doctors thought were going to be wrong with him, he didn't really have those problems. He had some slight problems, but they said he was going to have a heart problem, he didn't. They said he was going to be brain dead, he wasn't. Effectively he was a pretty healthy young boy. What struck me about that was that in the world's eyes, in medical eyes, that was a dead situation. They said there's no hope here. But my friends believed, prayed and thought where things seem like they are dead, God can actually breathe his life into those areas. I remember as we were praying I was praying like, 'God, would you breathe your life into this situation' and that's kind of where the idea to the 'Dead Things To Life' concept comes around. When things seem lost or it seems like there is no hope, God can breathe life into dead situations. Obviously it doesn't always have to be this exact scenario but there can be tons of things where this applies, whether it be a dream you have in life or a relationship you feel is dead or any part of you that you feel is a dead area, just kind of a prayer that God would breathe his life into those areas."
Read spoke about his decision to become a member of the renowned St Aldates Church in Oxford. "I grew up in Hong Kong; I had been there for many years. I was worship pastor for 10 years at a church in Hong Kong. I had been doing this ministry job for quite a long time so I just felt that it would be a good time to take a break. So I took a one-year break with the intention of going back to Hong Kong. We came to Oxford, which is where we have some family, for a one-year break. I think it was one of those things where I guess we had our plans but God had his plans. So our plan was to go back to Hong Kong, but I think once we got to Oxford on our one-year break we really felt God speaking saying, 'It's a new season for you, time to do something new, in a different place.' We kind of unexpectedly after a year, stayed here and now we've been here for five years. It's quite a change but we're really enjoying it."
Despite growing up in Hong Kong and the success of the Mandarin language version of the 'Compass' album there, Read admitted, "Full disclosure: I don't actually speak Mandarin. I was given the phonetic pinyin to sing on that album. Obviously, it is more difficult. My wife speaks Chinese."
Read is in the enviable position of making a living out of music. He explained, "I do songwriting and music production full time and I do that with both Christian artists and non-Christian. Right now we're doing a project with St Aldates where we do one song a month and we're putting that up on the website, just songs that we have written. But I'm doing that voluntary, I'm not on staff. I do lead worship though once a month there. I also do some songwriting and production in the mainstream world as well, that's kind of what I'm doing full time now.
"I work primarily with artists that have either just signed or are in the process of signing a record deal and so their stuff hasn't been released yet. I'm sort of like working on new material for them to help their first releases. So you won't have heard anything yet, but hopefully watch this space and you will. From someone getting label interest to getting a record deal to actually releasing their first album can be years. You do have to have a lot of patience I think, in this line of work that I'm in because you do a lot of songwriting and a lot of production but you don't necessarily see everything getting released, or it can take a while for you to see the fruits of that I suppose."
Read hinted that his next project after 'Lament' will explore more positive emotions. "I've been able to build up to the point where I can do this full time and so a mixture of releasing my own things but also working for other people, writing for other people and producing for other people, which I really enjoy doing. I think for myself, I'd love to follow this record up with another one that's perhaps on another theme, whether it be something as obvious as 'joy' or another theme where I'm able to explore part of human emotion or part of the human process, things that we go through and feel. Also perhaps to bring some lightness. I have had some people question, why am I so down or am I depressed? It's not that at all. It's just that I think you have got to be faithful to where the journey takes you and where the songwriting process takes me, and that's where I have been the last few years but that doesn't mean that that's where I'll stay. I think that there is a natural progression on from that and I would love to explore a new area in the coming year."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.