By Kevin Sparkman, CCMMagazine.com
It's been two years since the release of Hillsong UNITED’s Empires, but it hasn’t really seemed like it. They’ve been everywhere: The Today Show, GRAMMY and Dove Awards, all over the charts (radio, sales…all of the time), leading worship at the LA Forum, headlining OUTCRY, and gracing the silver screen with Let Hope Rise, to name a very short-list.
With all of the Empires dust still being kicked up, there’s no time to record and release a studio album of entirely new material, right? Wrong. In addition to Wonder dropping a mere 25-months later, this release may very well be the band’s Sgt. Pepper’s to its own Revolver (or Abbey Road, or The White Album, which ever No. 2 you prefer). Beyond the merits of their own discography, we’re willing to bet that this body of work may serve as the soundtrack to an awakening of a renewed God-perspective on a global level.
From the initial vibrant notes of “Wonder” to the choral outro on “Rain / Reign,” the album has the feel of an encyclopedic work, yet opens an extremely wide and accessible door for listeners to feel safe and free in exploring the God of the universe they may forgotten, or perhaps, never knew? “What’s the story of Jesus?” as you’ll read the bands members have asked themselves.
“So, it’s an evangelistic worship record?” Try not to think in such complicated terms—so, is it time for us all to take a big step back? Perhaps we need an album like Wonder in such confusing times as these? Have we found ourselves standing on earth and asking, “Could this get any worse?” Maybe it’s completely okay to be left with more questions than answers, leading our hearts to more seeking than settling?
We certainly had many questions to ask the majority front man-and-“gal” (as she humbly calls herself) of Hillsong UNITED, Joel Houston and Taya Smith, in this CCM Magazine cover interview.
CCM Magazine: Musically, we were struck with how much of a celebratory and energetic timbre Wonder immediately embodies. What’s behind the current sounds you’re producing?
Joel Houston: To be honest, it was a very natural thing, and it’s been the journey. I’ve always hoped that whatever we’re doing is honest, true, and particular to maybe where we’re at, where the world is, or where things are in life. When we sat down and really started thinking about the album, it was at the end of last year, and obviously you didn’t have to look too far or think too hard to see that the world has been, and is now, in a very interesting place. There’s a lot of tension, animosity, and confusion, I guess, and a lot of it just comes from different world views—different perspectives.
I think, in that kind of atmosphere, the challenge for us was asking, “What’s the God-perspective in this,” and, “What is the role of art, music and, in particular, worship?” Songs are designed, I guess, purely to create and help that communion between soul and spirit with the God who created it—in a way that’s true and honest. So, there was also a lot of asking, “What’s the story of Jesus? What’s the message we have as Christians, here and now? And why is it…?” Sometimes I feel like we get surprised by what’s happening in the world, as if it doesn’t line up with what Jesus or what God promised, and yet the Word of God in the gospel is full of end times, so it was from those places we began to write the songs.
It was all very natural, the songs kind-of wrote themselves in a way that just seemed right, and we went back to music that we loved. Rather than getting too swept up in, “What’s the new sound,” or, “How is this going to be different,” we started by going back to the places where we fell in love with music—and why we fell in love with God. Coming back to that kind-of, to be honest, childlike trust and wonder in who He is, what He says, and what He’s doing, and it manifested itself in such a way that it has. It was something that flowed from a more organic place of just pressing into our own relationships with God.
Taya Smith: I’m coming from the perspective of one of the worship leaders, I didn’t write any [of these] songs, but like you said, straight-away as soon as you listen to the songs they do sound happy and upbeat—there is a victorious feeling running throughout this whole album. I, for one, am so stoked about that.
Our last album felt very deep, and very rich. I know when the guys are writing these songs they give everything, holding nothing back—I know that after singing songs like, “Even When It Hurts.” For me to sing that honestly it comes from a real place of when I did go through some personal stuff and truthfully hurt like hell. When we came out of finishing the Empires album and tour, I was kind of like, “Woo-hoo, we made it. …let’s [sing] joy!”
When getting into the new songs, like “Wonder,” that’s when I really got my chance to sit for a moment and allow God to speak to my heart about the season that we’ve just been through and maybe the stuff we’re walking in to. I was like, “God, I want that deep joy and to be able to honestly sing [about that], as well.” I felt like He said, “I don’t just bring you through things to then leave you to just move on. Whatever you go through, that’s the foundational platform for the next theme. You’re going to stand on that.” When you’re singing deep joy, that has to come from a deep place.
CCM: Joel, you mentioned “childlike faith…” A universal attribute of children is their innate ability to ask questions. What kinds of questions or conversations do you hope Wonder will foster?
JH: That’s a great question. I’ve got a 3-and-a-half year-old son, and every time I’m with him I observe the way he looks at the world. I’ll be sitting there, with cable news floating around in the background, and he’s just having the time of his life playing with Batman. You know? And I’m like, “When did we lose the wonder?” We get so swept up in all this “stuff,” not to say it’s not important, [some of it] is absolutely important. It’s just that we often like to try and box our ideas into a polarized world-view, where we’re too concerned with how it affects our here-and-now, and that doesn’t help or change anything. [That causes us] to miss the beauty of Jesus’ message and what He’s saying and doing, and what hope we have in living [by His example].
You know, when I look at Jesus and how He responded to people, He was the guy in the middle. He was the guy in the middle of the cross. He was the guy in the middle of the transfiguration. Everything about Him is about standing in the middle. I think sometimes we position ourselves on the cross, and we go, “Well, which thief are we?” And that’s if we’re being humble. And I often think that the problem with the world is of perspective and preference and feeling like, because of our world-view or the way things look from where we stand, that means that someone on the other side is wrong or is an enemy.
I just don’t see that with Jesus. I don’t see that in the Word of God. I don’t believe that. I believe that Jesus represents a paradoxical truth that is transcendent of both ends of the spectrum that reveals to whoever—wherever they might stand or what they believe, think, or feel—a different way of looking at the world, a different way of looking at themselves, a different way of looking at the future.
Maybe it’s foolish to presume that songs can change that, but I do believe that songs can point people to Jesus. I do believe that songs can have a subversive way of breaking down the walls and constructs that we put up to kind-of protect our way of thinking or protects our way of being, that hopefully can open our eyes from the inside out to see something that is more beautiful and something that is more true. At the deepest level, that’s probably the desire behind the music and songs on Wonder.
The best thing we can do to serve the message is actually to just get out of the way, but to also keep pointing people to it. That’s a paradox in and of itself. That’s the challenge of being a worship leader, or anybody who’s on a platform representing God, is to be bold in where you stand and what you’re called to do. To be a witness, but to also go, “Hey, hey—look at me. Now, look at Him.”
TS: That was the question that the boys asked, “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘wonder?’” I was like, “It’s such a beautiful word. A pretty, short word.” Then they were like, “Okay, what does it mean?” When I think about wonder, I look at the sky. I love colors and I love to think that every single combination of colors are what God put there. Like a sunrise, He paints it. That always fills me with wonder. Then, I also feel like in a child whenever I look up at the sky because even though I’m a tall gal here on earth, I realize just how little I really am. That awakens within me a childlike wonder.
Read more of this article in the online issue of CCM Magazine.com