Tomlin leads worship locally, at Passion City Church in Atlanta, along with Louie Giglio and Christy Nockels, as well as nationally on a grand scale with Passion events. He is also a member of the Compassionart organization, a charity founded by Martin Smith (and Smith's wife, Anna) formerly of the band Delirious?
You can take the man out of Texas, but you can't remove all the Texan from the man. Tomlin may not write and sing like a country music guy, but as he explains, he certainly cut his teeth on down home country tunes.
Chris Tomlin: Yeah. It has really become that. I love that. Not just anybody, but I have a good group of guys that I really enjoy writing with, and we write a lot of songs together. Guys who really seem to get it. We all have the same heart of writing songs for the church, and really being open-handed and saying, "Lord, take these songs and do whatever you want." I think it makes the song better, stronger, when you have some really amazing songwriters around you and you're in it together. There's strength in it.
Songfacts: One of the times that I saw you perform, Louie Giglio spoke, and I notice that he's also a frequent collaborator of yours. I know what a great speaker he is, but I don't really see his musical side. But you do. Tell me a little bit about his musical personality, maybe that side that we don't see of him.
Chris: He's got a really great gift when it comes to lyrics. As far as words, that's his gifting. He has great, inspiring thoughts. As a pastor, as a leader, and a communicator, it's a great vision. So when he sets out a vision for something, we just run with it in songs. Sometimes he comes and has been throwing a lyric around in his head, or it'll be in his journal, and that's how a lot of his songs have come. "I Lift My Hands," the single from our latest record, is a perfect example, something that came from him and I took it and crafted a song around the idea.
Songfacts: Does he come to you with ideas and say, "Chris, I've got this great idea for a song and I've got some ideas, can you help me complete it?"
Chris: No, it's usually me saying, "Hey, man, do you have any ideas?" Because he never pushes any ideas along to me. But it's usually, "Hey, man, anything kind of bubbled up?" And usually there's something in there. I try to come to him a few times a year.
Songfacts: So he's your go-to guy, then, in a lot of ways?
Chris: Yeah. Matt Redman, Jason Ingram, Matt Maher, there are some guys that have really, over the last couple of years, I've started writing a lot of songs with, and just really enjoy that process with these guys.
Songfacts: Do songs generally come quickly for you?
Chris: They don't. Every song is a different kind of process. On this latest record, which spans the time of about 12 years, "We Fall Down" was the first song that I published and started finding its way around the churches, and that was a song that came really, really fast. And the song "Forever," which was an early song of mine, it took – no pun intended – forever to write that song. It was just such a labor of love, really. Others come quicker, but I have a perfectionist mentality, so I always rewrite: I can make the verse better, okay, now I can make the chorus better. I usually don't just write something and throw it out there. It goes through a lot of different channels for me.
Songfacts: The song "How Great is Our God" is a song that the collection is titled after. Do you remember any stories about writing that song, as far as where the ideas came from and what that experience was like?
I remember I had the song, I thought it was finished. I didn't have a bridge to the song, and I met Ed Cash who produced that record it was on. First time meeting him and talking to him about maybe producing my new record. And I remember he picks his guitar up and and says, "This 'How Great is Our God' song, I think it's pretty good, but it's not finished." And I'm like, "What are you talking about? Who do you think you are?" And I remember him grabbing his guitar. I believe it was something about, "What if you do something like this?" And I remember he just started singing, "You're the name above all names, you are worthy of our praise." And it's really good, but when you open up and let somebody else sneak in, it just makes it better. So that's when we knew it was taking it to another level.
Songfacts: It's interesting that it's oftentimes sung as a medley with "How Great Thou Art." That's quite an honor, because that's a wonderful song, as well.
Chris: Yeah. That song has such staying power. That song has been through many generations now of the church and it's really cool when you hear those two together, they're saying the same thing.
Songfacts: In a sense, you're like a modern day hymn writer. Does that sit well with you, or do you think of yourself more as a pop guy?
Chris: The thing I'm most proud of is the songs that find their way in the church. I don't know if any of them will last down the way, but what I do strive for is playing a song people can sing. I love that songs find their way on the radio, as well. I think it can be both. I was pushing for that years ago and I just kept being turned down when I'd sing songs to radio. They were like, "We don't play worship songs." I sent "Forever" and I sent "Enough," and "Famous One," and they just didn't get any traction. There wasn't this cohesion between what was happening in the church and what was happening on the radio. But now it's completely shifted. So I'm not trying to write a pop song that lasts for three months. I really want to write things that find their way into church.
Songfacts: I read somewhere that you learned to play guitar by playing along with Willie Nelson records. Is that true?
Chris: Yeah. Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Alabama, that was my early-early childhood music. I loved it. That's what my dad listened to, I just loved it. And so my first song I learned to play on guitar I think was "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain," or "On The Road Again," those kind of songs.
Songfacts: So let me ask you, is there a country guy deep inside there somewhere?
Chris: Yeah. You don't have to dig too deep. It's right under the skin.
Songfacts: So you grew up in Texas - did your dad want you to become a country singer rather than what you've become?
Chris: No, no. Dad was like, "This guitar thing is a hobby, son. You need a real job." He was very proud of my music, of course, but never saw this being like a career or anything. And I think he would prefer what I do way over country music.
Songfacts: So one of the songs that you do, "God of this City," was not one that you wrote. What made you decide to record it?
Chris: There's a couple songs on there - "Indescribable" is the same way. "God of this City" is a song that I heard when I was in Ireland playing at this worship night in Belfast. There was this band who played there before us named Bluetree who played the song. It was their song in their church that they'd written and it just caught me. Just went, "Wow, what is that?" We were taking doing a Passion with our Passion venture; we were going to do these cities around the country and going to these different cities, Dallas, Boston, L.A., Chicago, some of the major cities of the US, and I knew this would be a great song to sing over these cities. Then a world tour was going to be coming up and I knew singing over these cities in the world would be amazing. So I asked, "This song has come out of you guys, could I record it and take it with us for Passion?" And they were like, "Yeah, man, we'd love that." It's amazing to hear it here in the United States. It's become such a theme song. Especially in tough times, this song becomes a rallying cry.
Songfacts: Tell me the story behind the song, "I Will Rise."
Songfacts: You're talking about songs that give people hope, and during these difficult economic times, you must find that it must be gratifying that when you perform and when you do these shows with these worship songs, it gives people a chance to forget about whatever it is that's bringing them down. Do you feel almost like God is using you in a special way during these difficult times to raise people's spirits?
Chris: I love touring and I love going to these cities, and being able to see people, and they're just lifted up and refreshed and encouraged by the hope that's in God. Life throws these struggles - life is unfair, it throws cheap arrows at us a lot of times. And I think just acknowledging that, and also that greater is our hope that we have in God and who he is and the joy that cannot be taken away by cancer, by economic hard times, by any of those things. The deep, deep joy that comes through God. Hopefully these songs are part of remembering that and reminding ourselves of that. A tool to connect with God in that way.
Songfacts: Well, Chris, you have a wonderful calling. And I have to admit sometimes I'm really jealous that you get to do what you do. So don't ever take for granted the special gift.
Chris: Oh, I don't. I'm blown away by these things. And it's just incredible God has used these songs and these years of ministry, and I look forward to many years to come.
We spoke with Chris Tomlin on December 12, 2011. Get more at christomlin.com.
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