Songwriter Interviews

Randy Stonehill

by Dan MacIntosh

Share this post

Back in 1971, when Randy Stonehill released his first album, Born Twice (with a little financial help from Pat Boone), "Christian rock" was a new term to some, and an evil trend to others. People take it for granted that Christians can make beat-heavy spiritual music. However, along with rebels like Larry Norman, Daniel Amos and a few brave others, Stonehill helped pioneer the style we now call Contemporary Christian music.

Stonehill expresses his faith in widely varying emotional extremes. The same man who can – and oftentimes does – go on silly, comedic tangents in concert, was commissioned to write the very heartfelt "Who Will Save the Children" for Compassion International.

Anyone who can reveal so many different sides of his personality through song must also be a pretty good songwriter. And Randy is one of the great ones. What follows is a journey into the sometimes funny, many times sad, but always fascinating mind of Randy Stonehill.
Randy Stonehill: Good to connect with you again. I guess last time we talked, we had dinner together in Seal Beach and talked about Mark Heard.

Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts) That's right. I talked to you in your music room in Seal Beach. And yeah, it was around the time that you had recorded that album with Mark producing. This time, I'd like to get into the nuts and bolts of how you do what you do. Having seen you quite a few times in concert, you can be really spontaneous as far as the way you perform your songs. And so I wonder if songs ever spring from, say, you're performing and you come up with a riff, and afterwards you think, That sounds like it could be a song. And I'm wondering if there are any songs that you've written that kind of had that sort of genesis?

Randy: Those are few and far between. But yeah, I can say that there have been a few times where I'm just warming up during a sound check before a concert, and I'll start playing something that then sticks in my mind and sparks me, and later on I'll take it back to the drawing board and see what develops. But some of the most intriguing experiences for me as a writer have been when I got the feeling that songs have been dropped in my lap. For instance, there's a song called "Passing Stranger" that I wrote as a young Christian. I was playing, I think, for a youth group in the San Fernando Valley in the early '70s. It ended up on Born Twice, so it was a very early '70s. This idea came to me on stage, and I actually wrote it as I sang on stage, and they happened to be recording the concert. So the recording of that song ended up on my first record. That's surreal and a gift from God. I wouldn't say it was one of my best songs, but it actually came out in cohesive form and we kept it as it was.

Songfacts: Don't you wish they all came that easy?

Randy: (laughs) Oh, yes, my brother. That reminds me of something else. But I'll tell you the other things that have been interesting along those lines are when I've gotten song ideas in my sleep and they've awakened me, and then I've turned on the lamp on the nightstand by the bed, and scribbled down the idea or sung it into a cassette deck that I would keep at the bedside. And then later on, when I was completely lucid, I would check out the idea and watch it develop into a full-fledged song.

Songfacts: I imagine that most of the time, though, there are at least some blood, sweat, and tears that go into creating songs. Can you think of songs that really took a lot of work, but I imagine were worth all of the time and effort?

Randy: I would say the majority of songs are like that. There have been a lot of them that I've really had to scratch my chin and think over and squint hard at. But I find that usually a song will start with a kernel of inspiration, just because of life that you've lived, and it'll percolate up from your subconscious, or there's something that touches your heart and you think, Now, that's a song title, or that's a story that needs to be told.

But I think as a younger, less disciplined guy, I really did not enjoy the blood, sweat, and tears process. As I got older, I recognized the call to try to strive for excellence as a craftsman. And I started to enjoy the sense of God honoring that my efforts and my perspiration, by watching the pieces of a song come together, are like the pieces of a puzzle. Like a shark circling it's prey. A shark will come by and he'll taste his prey by just rubbing up against it. They taste kind of through their skin. And then he'll keep circling until the circles get smaller and smaller, and then he achieves his goal. So over the years I've enjoyed that process of saying, I know this is worth writing. I'm onto the basic idea.

What song in particular I do remember really toiling with was "Who Will Save the Children?" I wasn't commissioned, I wasn't paid for it, but I was asked by Compassion International. After I got involved with Compassion in 1982, I was asked to write a song that could stand as sort of a theme song for them. I remember going on a much-needed vacation to Hawaii, but right before I left, my manager, Ray Ware, said, "There's a deadline for this, because they want to utilize it for various things. So if you could have that finished up by the end of your vacation that would be great." And I said, "Ray! I'm on vacation, man. I don't want to work." And he said, "Randy, just try to take a little time each day, see what you can do." So I would sit out on the balcony of this hotel on the island of Kauai overlooking the water, and every day for an hour or two I would chip away at this idea. And it was important to me, because I have such respect for Compassion International, and I just wanted it to be right. And man, I chipped and I honed and I edited, and I just worked on this thing like chipping away at some kind of a sculpture.

And at the end of several days, it was completed. When I showed it to Compassion International, they looked at me and they said, "Buddy, this is really powerful, and it's kind of spooky in a wonderful way, because we don't know how you could articulate the picture of life in the Third World without us ever having taken you there."

Songfacts: You hadn't visited yet?

Randy: No, it was before my first visit. They said, "Man, you just nailed this with such passion and clarity, we don't know how you did that." To me, that's humbling, and also I believe that it's one of the few songs of my entire career where I had the sense that God, perhaps, was breathing on it.

Songfacts: I was thinking as you were telling the story that maybe part of what made it so difficult for you was that this was not just another song to sing. This had a bigger purpose than just entertaining or educating. And as a songwriter, you probably don't have a lot of songs that have all that built into them.

Randy: Yeah. I'm usually not that intentional in an intellectual way about what I do. It's been said that the best directive for a songwriter is to write about what you know. And I usually just write from my heart about something that I have seen or something that I've experienced that has moved me. And as Paul Simon, one of my songwriting heroes, once said, you start out with what could be the initial inspiration, and then let the song take its own course.

Songfacts: And do you find that to be true in most cases, that the songs do take their own course?

Randy: Yeah. And you have to give them room to do that. That's how you're going to get something that's emotionally authentic and that's musically fresh. I try to find a balance between following the muse, if you will, and also being a good steward as a craftsman. So the structure holds together and it's just not some meandering, because I think you'd have to be as good as Bob Dylan for it to be a meandering affair that actually works.

Songfacts: He can get away with it, because he's just so doggone smart.

Randy: Yeah. And I tip my hat to him and to other writers that I consider really special. Because to me the mark of a good song is that it takes the listener into its world for three or four minutes. It takes the listener into its world and moves the heart, as well as at the same time painting lyrical pictures in the listener's head.

Songfacts: I want to talk a little bit about my favorite album of yours, and that's Wonderama which you collaborated with Terry Taylor on. I wonder if it's possible to describe what happens when you two get together. There's so many great songs from that album.

Randy: First of all, I have to say that that's a special relationship to both of us. But if I speak for myself, I have to say it's always been a delight and very rewarding, because I think he's a genius, frankly. And so when you sit down across the coffee table with him, it's such a joy to explore the theme of a song and to watch this guy's creative gift kick into gear. And that inspires me in a deep way and I think it frees up my own creative abilities. So then we find each other on this sort of song's adventure and bouncing lines back and forth. He's just so darn good that it's always very colorful and really rewarding.

There's a funny story about Wonderama, that I think of now, because when I first brought him in on the project, he came over to the house with his guitar and we sat down together. I showed him a few songs that I had already written, like "Rachel Delevoryas" and "Sing in Portuguese," and "Mice and Men" and some other things. And we started talking about the direction of the record. I think the first thing we wrote together on that project was "Lantern in the Snow." And it was so funny, because this is the idea I had: if Keith Richards went to Snow White's house for Christmas, it's got to have this whimsical thing, the guitar part's got to be right, it's got to have that little feel of the Stones doing "Ruby Tuesday" or "Back Street Girl" or something. And he just got it immediately. And it was just such a joyous experience for both of us. I was surprised at the end of the afternoon, as he was packing up his guitar, he said, "Man, I really enjoyed this, and frankly, I don't do this." I said, "What?" He said, "I never sit down, even with someone in the band, and co-write." I said, "You're kidding me." He said, "No. Jerry Chamberlain will bring an idea to the table. We might kick it around a little in band rehearsal, and then I'll take it home and I'll work on it. We'll go to our separate corners, and that's how we create it." Because he hit upon something about songwriting that I think is important and true, and that is it's kind of a naked, vulnerable experience to just open your heart and put these ideas on the table in front of somebody else. And for that to be productive, there has to be a mutual sense of trust and respect so that you can be transparent enough to risk putting an idea on the table that might not work or might not be as good as the other guy's.

But we learned that that's an important process. You have to just be willing to lay it all down. Because even if an idea is not the best one, it very well can spark the other person to get the correct line. So we might go, "Oh, no, no. You know what? I don't think that's completely in focus, but what it does is it steers me to this. It made me think of this." So you have to be willing to be vulnerable and not hold back for fear of someone saying, "Buddy, that's stupid, man. That idea's lame, that ain't gonna work."

And so I was really honored that he respected my work enough that he would come and embrace that experience for one of the first times in his own career.

Songfacts: It sparks a question: do you do that often, where you sit down with another writer, instead of just taking an idea and going to a private place and creating something out of it?

Randy: Yeah. Especially over the past ten years or so. And part of the impetus for that was my relationship with Janie West, who is a savvy music publisher in Nashville and she graciously opened doors for me to collaborate with some of the country writers in town. And these guys are excellent craftsmen; in that town, especially, that's just how you do it. So I found that to be a challenge and a growth experience to work in that arena with guys who have had success getting their songs cut by various country artists. And beyond that, I have enjoyed the collaborative adventure with some other writers of my ilk, if you will. I'm thinking of guys like the late great Mark Heard, who is, I think, one of the best writers of the last century.

And I'm trying to think of a few other names. Dave Perkins used to write things in the '80s. He co-wrote "Under the Rug" with me and some other things from Wild Frontier.

I'm really enjoying that experience as we speak. I've done a lot of writing with Phil Keaggy, which is just a total joy. As a musician, he's an embarrassment of riches. But he really tends to tip his hat to me when it comes to the lyrical chores. We balance out each other really, really well. And I'm enjoying the process right now with a writer named Buck Storm, who is a worship leader in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and it's one of those really unexpected happy relationships where we found that we bounce off each other so well that we're halfway through co-writing and producing a record right now.

Songfacts: Is this a worship album?

Randy: No. He's a worship leader, but he's also just a very thoughtful songwriter in the alt/country/Jackson Browne style.

Songfacts: This is a very productive period for you, because Spirit Walk is still relatively new.

Randy: That's true. Spirit Walk came together piecemeal, so it was actually completed back in January of this year. It wasn't really officially released. We didn't put the artwork together and didn't really have the time or the resources to do the completing stages of it until the fall. So it only officially surfaced in late September.

Songfacts: One of the things that really struck me about it - and there are definitely some rock and roll moments - but I heard a lot of soul music in it. And I know that you've touched upon that a little bit over the years. But to me it's the most soulful record that I can recall in a long time from you. Have you had an inner Aretha Franklin that's always been there and hasn't really come out up until this point, or has only shown up in a few places?

Randy: Yeah, I would say that's true. Some of the songwriting with Mike Pachelli really brought that to the surface, because he pointed it out. He said, "Randy, I love your singing, because I always hear a primal sexuality and a heart cry in the way you sing. We should really tap that to balance out this record, so it doesn't slip into a place of being too docile or too introspective. Let's put some heat into the project and let you exercise that soulful part of your ability." So he's the guy that spurred me on to that and I think it came out sounding authentic. It was like he would smile at me and say, "See? I told you." (Laughs) Plus, we may be middle-aged men, but we ain't too old to rock.

Songfacts: Absolutely. Tell me a little bit about this new project. Is it at a point where you can get an idea of what it looks like when it's all done?

Randy: Yeah. It's starting to come into shape. We got to know each other during the Songs for Israel project that was a collaborative event with Bob Bennett and Phil Keaggy, as well.

Songfacts: Bob Bennett's another one of those guys that we could talk all night about, huh?

Randy: Oh, yeah. What a delightful, insightful guy. We've gotten to know each other better over these past few years, and I look forward to sitting down and writing with him, as well.

Songfacts: Oh, do. Please. Please do that.

Randy: Yeah, we have both looked at each other and said we need to do this.

Songfacts: Good.

Randy: But Buck Storm was involved in that project. And he contacted me shortly thereafter and he said, "Hey, listen, man. Would you be open to exploring the possibility of some co-writing if I was to shoot some stuff across via computer and have you give it a listen?" And I said, "Sure." And he did just that. I really was struck by the power and intelligence of his work. And the first thing we created, the first thing we co-wrote, was a follow-up to the Songs for Israel project. It's a big anthemic number called "We Are Here." And it's a call for the church to be unified in praying for Israel. As Buck and I looked at the direction the material was taking, he said, "You know, Randy, I think the thing that's going to make this project cohesive, I think the thing that's calling to our hearts, is to put together a body of work that inspires and awakens the church to recognize that prophecy is being fulfilled in our time. This is an extremely exciting time and Israel is, in God's view, the center of the universe. So why don't we write songs that resonate with that theme without making this project too pointed." We wanted to create a full project that resonated with that theme and that could be the appropriate follow-up to Songs For Israel, but without being so specific that it seemed redundant.

Anyway, we just finished a song together called "Bones," and it's about Ezekiel 37 - I think - that scripture about the bones, which is actually Israel rising again. We're going to enjoy watching the rest of the pieces come together for this.

Songfacts: One more song I want to talk about. I've heard you perform this song live, but I've never heard the story behind it. Keith Green gets part of writing credit for "Your Love Broke Through." I think you wrote it with Keith and with Phil Keaggy, right?

Randy: You're close. "Your Love Broke Through" was actually a collaboration with Keith Green and Todd Fishkind, who was a musician and a friend in our circle back in the mid-'70s. And this is one of the songs that just makes you smile and look up at heaven, because it's one that just seems to have God's fingerprints on it. And the story really speaks to that.

Keith called me up in the middle of a busy afternoon in 1976. He said, "Randy, Todd Fishkind came over to do some co-writing, and he played me the most beautiful chorus melody I think I have ever head. And then he looked at me and he said, 'Oh, buddy, I forgot, I've got a doctor's appointment and I've got to go. So do you like this?'" And Keith said, "Man, I just lit up. I said, 'Todd, I love it.' He said, 'Okay, well, why don't you work some more on the verse melody and maybe we'll get back to it later.'" And Keith said, "Randy, you've got to come over right now, because I'm working on the verse melody, but God told me" - I started laughing to myself, it's like how are you going to argue with that? - "God told me you're the guy that's going to write the lyrics. He's going to do mighty things with it. It's going to go all around the world." And now he's shouting on the phone, I'm holding the phone back and reaching for my aspirin. Oh my gosh, this guy is like a force of nature.

But you just did not say no to Mr. Green. Because he was so brilliant and he was so passionate about his friends and about Jesus that I said, "Okay, okay, calm down. Consider switching to decaf." Man, I tell you. "Okay, I'll come over. I'll come over." But this is so funny, because as I was going to hang up the phone, I could hear him shouting. So I put the phone back up to my ear, and I said, "Keith, what are you doing?" He said, "Listen, I want you to hear the melody right now so you can start thinking about the lyric." He was so excited. I said, "Keith, I live a half mile from you. Let me just get in my car and come over." He said, "No, just smash the phone up really close to your ear." He just insisted. I just said, "Okay, okay." Because you just had to acquiesce to his enthusiasm.

So I put the phone up really close to my ear. He took the other end of the phone and put it up on top of his upright piano. And then he started playing this melody. And my jaw just dropped. And then he brought the phone back down to his mouth and he said, "Praise God. Isn't that beautiful?" And he wasn't bragging. You could just hear in his voice that he sensed there was something very special going on. I said, "Man, that really is wonderful." He said, "Okay, come over right now." And click. He hung up before I could say goodbye.

So I got in the car, I drove to the house, and as I pulled up into the driveway you could hear the music wafting out onto the front lawn. Which is interesting, because his music room is all the way at the back of the house. But he was wailing and flailing, and it was so intense that you could hear the music even if you were standing on the front lawn. So I walked up to the porch, and Melody opened the screen door, and she had this kind of sweet, bemused look on her face. She hugged me hello and she pointed down the hall, and she said, "He's waaaiiittting." We loved him, but he was so unique and he could be like a bull in a china shop. He was like a hurricane you almost had to brace yourself for.

So I said, "Yeah, I can hear him." And I felt like saying, "Tie a rope around my waist, I'm going in. If the rope goes slack, you call my mama." And I walked down the hall, I opened the music room door, and there he was, with his eyes closed and his head thrown back, and he's just wailing away on the melody. And when he sensed that there was someone in the room, he opened his eyes, he spun around on the piano bench, he grabbed a yellow legal pad and a pen, and he looked at me and just said, "Okay, so go ahead." And I just said, "Keith." It's so aggravating and endearing at the same time. He was so excited and he believed in me so much and he believed in the vision so much that he just dispensed with all social niceties.

So I looked at him and I said, "Okay, buddy, look. I'll round out the conversation for you. Yes, it's good to see you, too. No, I don't need a cup of coffee. Yes, I've been fine." And he looked at me and said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So go ahead." He was staring at me with these big puppy dog eyes. It was so funny. So I sat down and I said, "Okay, well, look. It will help me if you play me some of the melody." So he started playing the verse melody and he was constantly whipping his head in my direction so he could make sure that I was getting it and was tracking with him. He was going (singing), "la da da la da da" - and he'd look at me like this little eager kid.

But as he was playing the melody, I heard these lyrics coming to me. And I stopped him and I said, "All right, what about this? (singing) "Like a foolish dreamer trying to build a highway to the sky," his arms shot up in the air and he went, "Yeeess! Praise God! See? I knew you were the guy!"

Songfacts: It's like you scored a touchdown or something.

Randy: Yeah. But it was so funny; it was so intense and cool. He just knew that he knew, and he didn't want to waste a moment. I ended up writing most of the lyrics to that song that afternoon; he just trapped me in the music room for about three hours, I couldn't even go to the bathroom. He'd just go, "No, no, no, come on, you're on it, you're on it. How's the second verse go?" And he's throwing a line or two from time to time, but basically he was just staring at me with a yellow legal pad and a pen, and a big smile on his face. And then he'd go, "yes!" and he'd play some more of the music, and he's go, "Yeah! That's good!"

So finally around 5 o'clock, I said, "Keith, I'm going home now. And do you know why?" And he said, "Um, no, why?" And I said, "Because you're not the boss of me. I'm going to go and I'm going to have dinner now." But he was so sweet. He said, "Oh. Okay. Well if you get any more lyric ideas on your way home, call me right when you get there." And I said, "Yes, Keith. I love you." And he went, "Yeah, I love you too, man, okay, call me."

Songfacts: What I love about that story is that I never got a chance to see Keith perform, but I certainly heard from people how intense he could be. The musical side of him shows me a side that I really never pictured. And it's nice to know there was that little boy in him that just loved to create. Because I think of him almost like a modern day John the Baptist, kind of giving out the harsh news, the cold hard truth. But there was another side that you got to experience.

Randy: I felt blessed and honored to be his friend. And he was such a combination of things - I guess as we all are. But with him it was magnified times 100. He was very opinionated; he was insecure, like all musicians tend to be. But he had such spiritual hunger and vision, and also he very much wanted to be accepted. He wanted to be your friend. Then when he became a believer, I've never seen anyone so relieved to find out where hope lived than Keith Green. And because of that, he really did have this John the Baptist sort of zealot dynamic. Even in the midst of his own growing pains as a young man and as a young Christian, I'm certain that that passion was generated by the Holy Spirit.

As we talk about Keith and his gifting and his vision, I have to say, especially in regards to this song, he spoke prophetically. Because he told me on the phone before I ever started working on the song, he said, "Randy, God is going to do mighty things with this song, and it's going to go all around the world." And after we wrote it and then he did the first recording of it, we watched in delight and in amazement as God did take it all around the world. It became a Top Ten hit in Australia, it opened ministry doors for me all the way down to the bottom of the world. It was recorded again and again down through the years over and over by various artists and it's still being re-recorded to this day. I'm convinced that was not because Keith and I were so talented or cool, but I really do believe that God in his largesse allowed two young Christians to frame in music that pivotal moment in a person's journey when the wind of the spirit comes blowing in and God's love breaks through.

Songfacts: Randy, it's an honor to be able to talk to you. I'm quite impressed by your memory, that you remember when I was a much younger, much less experienced writer, and you took me into your home and you were very patient with me as I was learning my craft. So I appreciate that.

Randy: Thank you. That's my reasonable service. I've been grateful for people that have been patient with me down through the years as I was learning my craft. It was not an arduous task.

We spoke with Randy Stonehill on December 7, 2011. Pick up Spirit Walk and learn more at randystonehill.com.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 4

  • Joz Jonlin from Kansas City, MoI mentioned lunch with Randy in your Terry Taylor interview page. We spent a great deal of time talking about Keith Green and Melody. Randy spoke at length about about them before they were Christians and after their conversion. Seeing Randy's face as we spoke about them was magical. When Randy speaks of Keith, you can really feel the love he had for him and his depth of loss since the crash. There will never be another like Keith, or for that matter, like Randy.
  • Scott Bachmann from Travelers Rest, South CarolinaA brilliant singer-songwriter, and an underrated guitarist. Definitely an inspiriation to me over the past 35+ years. His Welcome to Paradise album from 1976 will stand forever as a classic.
  • Mark from Good QuestionAmazing interview. I grew up listening to these guys. And I just discovered that Stonehill wrote one of my favorite Larry Norman songs. In my early days, this music, among other's, provided crucial inspiration. 'Church' often lacks significant inspiration for youth. Music, on the other hand, for better or worse, often provides the youth with what the blandness of modern life cannot.

    These older guys (the originator's of 'contemporary' Christian music) need to do something like the Beatle's Anthology, before we're all gone. I say that because I see commentor's on youtube bashing Norman, who I was always hoping to meet at Cornerstone festival, but never did. I guess people think musicians are all saintly souls or some kind of icons. Maybe they weren't around when this music began in the 60's-70's.

    Only Jesus can set men free.
  • Will KrugerGreat interview and insight into one of the best song writers of our era. Certainly an inspiration to me through the years!
see more comments

Rush: Album by Album - A Conversation With Martin PopoffSong Writing

A talk with Martin Popoff about his latest book on Rush and how he assessed the thousands of albums he reviewed.

Mike Rutherford (Genesis, Mike + The Mechanics)Songwriter Interviews

Mike talks about the "Silent Running" storyline and "Land Of Confusion" in the age of Trump.

Taylor DayneSongwriter Interviews

Taylor talks about "The Machine" - the hits, the videos and Clive Davis.

Elton JohnFact or Fiction

Does he have beef with Gaga? Is he Sean Lennon's godfather? See if you can tell fact from fiction in the Elton John edition.

Leslie West of MountainSongwriter Interviews

From the cowbell on "Mississippi Queen" to recording with The Who when they got the wrong Felix, stories from one of rock's master craftsmen.

Charlie DanielsSongwriter Interviews

Charlie discusses the songs that made him a Southern Rock icon, and settles the Devil vs. Johnny argument once and for all.