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How Can You Write a Song About That?

I began my songwriting career like most people of my generation, imitating The Beatles. Later on, when it became clear to me that I was more interested in writing songs than becoming a recording artist I began finding other outlets for my music.

My first consistent paying work as a songwriter was working as a writer of theme songs and underscore music for television. It was during this time that I received vital experience and on the job training about how to write about virtually anything and do it quickly.

I distinctly remember one directive. “We need a game show theme. It has to be a combination of Bon Jovi meets Spike Lee.  And we need to have it by noon tomorrow.” Everything is always urgent in show biz!

My TV writing experience served me well later on when I signed a staff publishing songwriting deal. No matter the artist, the style of music needed, or the demands of the time frame, I was ready to go!

In 1993 I signed with Starsong and began writing in the genre of Contemporary Christian music. Thus began a ten- year stretch where I had the privilege of working with some incredible songwriters, singers, and musicians and having hundreds of my songs recorded. Only later would I realize in retrospect that God had been assembling the team that would become Music for the Soul.

Less than two years into my first CCM staff songwriting contract, Not too Far from Here a song I’d co-written with Ty Lacy was sung at the memorial service in Oklahoma City following the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. Later, one of my staff writing buddies came back from visiting Oklahoma City, his hometown. He’d reported that over dinner someone had said to him, “Tell your friend he will never know what that song meant to our city.”

I had not written a song about that…a bombing. And yet it had spoken into a situation that was truly beyond words. The experience gave me a new appreciation for the power of a song to be an agent of healing.

I have had the great pleasure of teaching at a number of songwriting retreats and seminars over the years. I began Music for the Soul during a ten-year stint as a guest clinician for Write about Jesus. The people who attend the conference are there to learn the craft of songwriting and also to learn how to write songs that make a difference. Accordingly I was frequently asked, “How do you write a song about that?”

As a result I started offering two classes at the seminar. One was called, of course, How Do You Write a Song about That?  The other was called Ministry without Permission. Since pretty much everything we do at Music for the Soul swims upstream of the culture, not to mention much of the church at large, I felt it was important to talk about what it means to take initiative without waiting for the approval of ‘the establishment.’

In other words, it’s important to write songs that tell difficult truths, even if they make some people uncomfortable. It’s also important to tell the truth even if you meet resistance in the marketplace.

I decided I was going to make the leap from being a contemporary Christian music staff writer and start Music for the Soul because I had experienced unwillingness by many in the Christian music industry to tackle difficult issues.

On one occasion while a staff writer at Word Music I had just read a book called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. It described in great detail the epidemic of young girls starving themselves and causing self-harm like cutting.

I went to the department responsible for putting materials into the churches every year and told them I wanted to do a project to help young girls understand their worth through God eyes. The head of the department said, “The churches only want Christmas and Easter.”

After that disappointing response I reflected on the last Gospel Music Association week I had attended at the Nashville Convention Center. In referring to the abundance of leather at the event somebody had rhetorically asked, “How many cows had to die for all these people to look this cool?” I realized that in all the videos the young Christian artists were ‘beautiful people.’ I even learned of two artists who lost recording deals for being overweight.

All of this pushed me in the direction of forming a music organization that would tell the truth about difficult issues whether it was what the churches wanted to buy or not – what the radio wanted to play or not.  Eventually Music for the Soul would release a recording called Tell Me What You See: Hope for Those Overcoming an Eating Disorder.

To create our content we interviewed five young ladies who had recovered from an eating disorder and included their testimonies on the CD. We also had the input of Dr. Linda Mintle, Constance Rhodes of Finding-Balance, and Dr. Gregg Jantz of The Center in creating content that would prove therapeutic for young women struggling with body image issues. When it was time to record all of the songs were performed by women.

The recording, partially sponsored by the treatment center Remuda Ranch, was lauded for “taking risks” and called “pure holy ground,” “fiercely courageous,” and “deeply inspiring,” by professionals working to heal disordered eating clients.  One woman, encouraged by Tell Me What You See during her healing process, called the CD  “a beacon and a life raft.”

The project helped educate others about the insidious nature of an eating disorder.  A Celebrate Recovery training coach said, “I didn’t understand the pain and anxiety of these women until I listened to the words on the CD of those who have believed the lies and paid the cost to become “beautiful.”

The truth is you can write a song about literally anything. Our catalog, developed now over a period of twenty years, demonstrates this convincingly.

The songs aren’t as much about abuse, addiction, grief or any of the topics we’ve targeted with our projects as much as they’re about emotions, mental processes, and interpersonal interaction as we respond to the challenges we face. It is through this very human lens that we are able engage listeners with songs that meet them at their point of need in the midst of life’s most challenging circumstances.

We have no way of knowing who will ultimately hear the songs we write and record. But we can be sure the audience will include a broad diversity of listeners with a wide array of experiences.

The very first project we created for Music for the Soul proves this point. Within just a few months of our incorporation the wife of our chairman of the board of directors was diagnosed with breast cancer in the seventh month of her first pregnancy.  I was driving to a meeting when the phrase “no one has ever been more beautiful to me” landed in my head as a complete thought. The song is written from the perspective of a spouse who wants to encourage his wife who is in pain.

The second song on the project Wildest Ride on Earth is from the point of view of a woman who is going through the cancer journey and compares the experience to being on a roller coaster ride that she has to take alone. But here is the thing – neither of the songs mentions cancer. They both emphasize the feelings brought about by having the disease in their lives.

This approach has allowed the songs to also be meaningful to people facing other life challenges. One woman wrote to tell us that she had a scar on her neck from throat surgery. For years she had worn turtlenecks to hide it from view, even though she lived in a hot weather climate. Upon hearing More Beautiful she said, “I threw my turtlenecks away.”

As we initially began to share what we were doing people would often say, “Oh, I get it.  You’re doing music for niche issues.”  What we have found, however, is that everyone has been touched by several of the issues covered in our catalog, sometimes without even realizing it.

For example, you may or may not have someone in your immediate family who has had breast cancer. But you know someone at work, or someone in your extended family, or someone at your house of worship, or someone on your street, or someone at your gym or…you get the idea. These issues are all around us and affect many more people than we might at first realize.

That has certainly been the case with suicide grief. Chaos of the Heart has been one of our most consistently ordered pieces since its creation. It hurts every time an order comes in for this project because of the agony and heartbreak it represents.

The American Association of Suicidology endorsed this project that deals honestly with the conflicting feelings caused by the suicide death of a loved one. It also addresses the response of the church, which far too often has compounded the pain with bad theology. The piece also deals candidly with the anger one can feel toward God in the wake of the suicide of a loved one.

Later on we created a recording dealing with grief in general. When someone passes away the usual response is to send a card and/or flowers. Therapists have told me that, on average, it takes sixteen months for a person to work through the stages of grief once. Though certainly well meaning, flowers die in a few days and after a week or so on the dresser or the mantle most cards wind up in a drawer.

Research has shown that the average church family falls away after just a few weeks. Following the death of a loved one most companies give a person one week or less before expecting them to return to work. For all of these reasons our goal was to create something that could be revisited by a grieving person as often as necessary to help process the loss and bring solace.

The resulting piece, Drink Deep, deals honestly with the pain of loss, offering songs that speak for the listener when the ache is beyond words. We packaged it in condolence card so that it could be delivered in a familiar format.

We took a very unique approach in recording the project. Since grief is so deeply felt in a very personal way we wanted to create an intimate experience. Accordingly, we assembled a small combo including a piano player, a bass player performing on an upright acoustic bass, and a drummer using brushes. We wanted to make it feel like the songs could be taking place in the listener’s living room.

Then we brought in one male vocalist and one female vocalist to serve as guides on the grief journey. The two singers open with a duet and then take turns walking the listener compassionately through the emotional landscape of loss.

For a few of the songs we added a nylon string guitar and a string quartet to add some different texture. The result is a profoundly comforting recording that Joseph Northcut of GriefShare calls “a wonderful tool that penetrates deep within my soul!

Sometimes grief and loss don’t take as obvious of a form. When my wife and I learned of the diagnosis of Spina Bifida for our son in utero we had to grieve the loss of the expectation of a healthy child. The  project Whole in the Sight of God was in response to that experience.

After hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005 we received a call asking us what we were going to do for hurricane survivors. When I responded to the caller that we didn’t have the budget to do a record for the hurricane, his immediate response was to send $30,000. That was the first of many miracles that took place as we began to walk through the process of responding to the grief and loss of thousands whose lives had been rent asunder by the storm.

Larnelle HarrisLisa Bevill, and Scott Krippayne were among the Christian artists who responded to our calls to contribute their vocal talents to the project that would come to be called After the Storm. The exact songs and spoken word pieces we needed to complete the record starting showing up without us even asking – in our email inbox and in our post office box. We went to Centennial Park in Nashville, Tennessee and spoke to evacuees as they arrived from New Orleans.  Some of their incredible stories grace the recording.

It was the words of one man among the evacuees who had lost everything that prompted the song Where is the Ground? He had said that phrase to my associate Sue and me as he described looking out the second story window of a building and seeing nothing but water. The song that emerged was about rebuilding in the face of a devastating loss. It provides no answers. It is simply present with the listener and assures them that God is present as well.

Of course an event like a hurricane not only creates loss for those who experience it. It is also a traumatic event. In many of life’s most painful events grief and trauma are combined. That was certainly what I discovered in working on the project Mercy Great Enough: Finding Hope after Abortion.

First let me state unequivocally that Music for the Soul is emphatically apolitical. As my friend Rick Goad said to me the first day I met him, “When Jesus fed the 5,000 he didn’t ask if they were Republicans or Democrats. He said, ‘The people are hungry. Feed them.’ ” Accordingly, at Music for the Soul we don’t pay any attention to political affiliation. To paraphrase Rick, “The people are hurting, offer them healing and hope.”

An avid reader, I usually devour books. But Forbidden Grief: The Unexpected Pain of Abortion by Theresa Burke is quite possibly the most painful book I have ever read. I couldn’t even do a whole chapter in one sitting. It was agonizing reading about the many women living with residual trauma from abortion and the significant and debilitating impact it can have for years to come.

One of the most surprising things to learn was the impact it often has on men. Greg Hasek has counseled men in this area for several years. He told me, “Abortion is the most shameful issue for men even more so than pornography. In all my years of counseling I have never had a man be able to tell me about an abortion in his past and look me in the eye at the same time. They always look at the floor.”

I realized we were stepping into a topic burdened by ardent political passion on both sides and excruciating personal pain for many of those who had lived it. According to the Guttmacher Institute one-quarter of American women will have an abortion before the age of forty-five. According to the Christian counselors I spoke with the numbers among Christians were no different. So I knew the audience for whom this was not a rhetorical question was much larger than might be imagined.

In writing songs about “that,” no matter what the “that” is, it has always been my position that Music for the Soul come to issues of deep pain with one central message.

God loves you.

Contained within that is the good news that we are not alone. God loves us right where we are. The compassion and healing of Christ is available to all. There is no shame so great that we can be separated from God. Shame died on the cross. We are forgiven.

That was the prevailing tone of the project and gave rise to deeply honest songs like What NowStain Upon My Heart, and I Wasn’t There. For those who have remorse over an abortion in their past it is our hope that Mercy Great Enough can be part of healing their pain and helping them move forward in freedom.

My first experience with writing a song dealing with trauma came several years earlier when Joyce Boaz from Gift from Within contacted me. In the aftermath of 9/11 she was counseling police officers and first responders.  She asked me if I could write a song that would honor this population for their courage and service. To assist me in understanding the perspective of these officers I asked her to send me some case studies.

As I read the horrific experiences of these men and women I wondered how on earth they could see the things they saw and then go home at the end of the day to their families and have a normal life. I simmered on these stories for several weeks and then one morning the song Heroes Unsung began to come to life. Upon its completion we were invited to share the song at the National Peace Officers Memorial event in Washington DC. It was our first live performance ever. We had the honor of following President George W. Bush on the program singing to 10,000 police officers and the families of those who had lost loved ones in the line of duty during the previous year.

I’ve been asked many times how I can spend so much time working with such painful issues and not carry the vicarious pain of others into my own life. The best analogy I can give is that our catalog is like a closet that has several coats in it. Each one is a coat of pain. For every project it is necessary that we put on that coat of pain and wear it for a while. We have to understand the issue as best we can from the inside out.

Once that project is over we take the coat of pain off and hang it back in the closet. We don’t forget it. We have learned from it and had our compassion stretched and our hearts expanded. We still know it is there. But we don’t have to wear it literally every day.

There are lots of tears and lots of prayers. But the work created and the deep friendships formed are ultimately so rewarding that they easily overshadow the challenge of exploring the pain.

The truth is that any songwriter worth his or her salt will tell you that you have to be willing to rip your chest open and throw your heart out on the table in order to write something that is going to matter to anyone else. You’ve got to drill down to those universal core emotions or a song will not move the listener from A to B.

Of all the projects we have done the one that affected me most was Somebody’s Daughter: A Journey to Freedom from Pornography. Surprisingly, however this was one of the projects for which the songs were the easiest to write. Why? Because this issue was affecting someone I cared about.

With recent developments like the #Me Too movement it may seem like old news that we are living in a pornified culture.
But the truth is that many people, especially parents, still have no idea how truly damaging pornography is.

The brain science is now irrefutable and horrifying.

If you don’t feel like combing through research there are three blog posts we’ve shared about the issue: The ‘Gun’ Control Nobody is Talking AboutYou Can’t Care About Sex Trafficking, and I’ll Know it When I See It.

When I co-wrote the song Somebody’s Daughter with my friend John I was not writing for a project. I was writing it to help a friend save his marriage and his family. There was no way I could’ve known that it would turn into a full length music CD, then a one-hour documentary that would eventually be seen by millions. Especially since the initial response from many churches was “We don’t have that problem here.”

The song Is It Me on the project proved especially powerful for both women and men. In the song the woman is wondering what was lacking in her that caused her husband to look for satisfaction in pixels. She asks with tender vulnerability, “Was I not enough for you?” Then in the middle of the song it sounds like a plane is crashing and suddenly she splits into two voices.  One is an enraged voice screaming, “How could you do this to me?!  I hate you!!” while at the same time a soft voice pleads, “Who’s going to comfort me now?” and “I need you to hold me.”

“I thought I was going insane,” one woman wrote to me, “until I heard Is it Me.”  Woman after woman has confirmed that the song has been a validation and an acknowledgement of the pain they’ve suffered. For many men it has been a wake up call, showing them the extent of the pain their betrayal has caused the woman in their life.

Like all of our projects Somebody’s Daughter does not stay in the pain but moves in an arc through the steps of recovery and healing finally arriving at freedom. John Mandeville’s song and music video that close the project, entitled simply Free, captures the hope of deliverance with aching beauty.

Unlike our other projects the end of production for Somebody’s Daughter was not the end of the issue for us creatively. We wound up doing an awareness campaign called She’s Somebody’s Daughter that eventually spun off into its own ministry. Early in that campaign we recorded The Apology, a song from the perspective of men taking responsibility for their role in creating a culture that objectifies women.

Finally, in response to a movie that romanticized and popularized the sadistic debasement of women I wrote a piece called Fifty Prayers for our sons and daughters.

After dealing with such a dark topic we were looking for something completely different to which to turn our attention. That’s how we arrived at the topic of home caregiving.

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP an estimated forty-four million Americans age eighteen and older provide unpaid assistance and support to older people and adults with disabilities who live in the community. While at first a project about caregiving might seem warm and fuzzy by comparison to issues like abortion remorse, suicide grief, and pornography addiction what we came to find out is that this is an issue that is quietly, relentlessly devastating millions of lives. In fact home caregivers are the fastest growing demographic in America and according to they are not faring well.

Over forty percent of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression and depressed caregivers are more likely to have coexisting anxiety disorders, substance abuse or dependence, and chronic disease. So, what started out as a nice project to comfort people loving a family member turned into a serious and thorough attempt to encourage and provide support for people doing an exhaustive and often thankless job.

We were fortunate in the creation of Dignity: Songs and Stories for Caregivers to have the consulting expertise of Shelly Beach.

Beach, author of two excellent books on caregiving and a frequent contributor to caregiving websites, cared for her father, her mother, and her father-in-law in her home all at the same time. That’s how she became an expert! She, and others with extensive experience as home caregivers, guided us through the process to touch on the issue from a variety of angles.

Perhaps the most difficult song to write on the record was the song I’m Gonna Lose You. At the time my dad was caring for my mother who had a terminal blood disease. The song deals with the fact that no matter how good a job a caregiver does, usually the end result is that the one they have cared for will die – a dubious reward for all the hard work to be sure. I think writing the hard truths like this might be the most important thing we do. A woman named Deborah wrote to me about I’m Gonna Lose You after her thirty-six year old daughter had passed from cancer. “The wonderful thing about this song, which I have now listened to many times, is that it even ministers to the caregiver long after the loss. It reassures me that even though I did my best to take care of my daughter, there was nothing I could do to keep her from leaving. It is, indeed, healing music for the soul, and I thank you for it.”

Another project was suggested to me by friend Regie Hamm. We were at lunch one day and he said “Steve, why don’t you do something a little lighter?” I asked him what he had in mind and he replied, “Have you ever thought about doing something about adoption?”

My ears perked up right away. Regie is the father of two adopted children and his story is an extraordinary one documented in his book Angels and Idols. The title is a nod to two important events in his life. First, the daughter he and his wife Yolanda adopted from China turned out to have an extremely rare condition known as Angelman’s Syndrome.

Second, he won the American Idol song contest with the song The Time of My Life. The song, recorded by 2008 Idol winner David Cook sold over one million digital downloads.

Regie and I got together a few weeks later at his house and begin working on a song that would eventually be called Under My Skin. We decided to ask only musicians who had adopted children to play on the record. Then we decided to interview them and wound up with a documentary and music video. It is indeed “a little lighter,” but still a very serious topic.

When we debuted the song on the Chris Fabry show on the Moody Radio Network a woman named Elizabeth called in to say she had been in the process of adopting and had been having doubts about whether she should go through with it. She said, “I turned on my car radio and this song was playing and it meant the world to me.” Regie encouraged her “You’re about to change the world for somebody.”

The thing about writing songs about “that” is that you get to participate with people in the most important moments of their lives. A therapist referred to Music for the Soul as “The Red Cross for the heart.”

What I know is this. We will weep with those who weep. We will rejoice with those who rejoice. And in between we will get down in the muck and mire of the most difficult, messy, and painful experiences people face. And then we will sing to them. We will sing understanding. We will sing hope. We will sing healing.

We will sing songs about “that.”

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