Shelly E. Johnson, writer of the hit song “Power Of The Cross”, releases her new album Your Kingdom Come to stores in a few weeks, on September 23rd. I recently had the privilege of interviewing her via email, as we discussed the upcoming album, what she hopes listeners will experience when hearing these 12 new worship songs, and her goals and plans for the rest of 2014 and 2015. Check out the interview below.
1. It’s been 4 years between full albums and 2 years since you last released a project; can you tell us how recording these 12 new songs has been for you, and what God has been teaching you throughout this process?
God called me to ministry when I was 14 years old, after my daddy died from cancer. It was through that experience that God began inspiring me to write songs. Back then, those songs were what I consider “artist songs” — that is, songs that express the ramblings and feelings of my own heart and mind, and were written for the sole purpose of sharing my experiences in the hope that they would encourage and inspire others to grow closer to Christ. Every album I’ve previously recorded has fallen in that category. BUT…all of that has changed dramatically in the last couple years.
In the last couple years, God has ignited a fire in my heart for His Church — His Bride — to see her thrive and become unified, and to see her be transformed through the Gospel and through worship. Thus, it has become a deep passion of mine to write new worship anthems for His Church. That is not something to be taken lightly. It’s one thing to be a songwriter of just any kind of song; but when you’re writing songs for the Church, you are taking on a HUGE responsibility. You are essentially putting words on the lips of the Bride of Christ. That is something that requires great thought, intentionality, care and practice.
For me, this album is not only a turning point for my ministry, but the launching pad for what I believe is the work God has called me to do here on this earth. This album Your Kingdom Come is an album for the Church, filled with new songs of worship for the Bride to sing and use in our worship experiences. I’ve had the joy of introducing several of these new songs to my church family at Woodstock, where I serve on staff as a worship leader, and their response to these songs played an integral role in the song selection process for this album. Every person involved with making this album — my co-writers, the musicians who played on the album, my producer Michael Farren, my label/publisher LifeWay Worship — every one of those people are what I call “Kingdom People”. Their greatest passion and goal in life is to make Jesus famous, by resourcing the Church with content and songs that will spark courage in the hearts of the people who walk in our churches and encourage the Body of Christ.
People walk into our churches after having dealt with all kinds of hardships and stresses in their everyday lives throughout the week. Thus, the songs we sing when we gather as God’s people should spark courage in our hearts, should remind us of the great Truths of His word, those timeless Truths upon which we build our lives, the Truths that remind us of how faithful God is and why we hope in Him. When we sing, we remember how faithful He’s been and we find the strength to keep pressing into the unknown future ahead of us, knowing He will continue to be faithful. I want to write songs that strengthen people’s trust in Jesus. This album is the beginning of a new season of ministry for me, a season that is completely focused on serving His Church and equipping Her with courage and hope.
2. How was working with Michael Farren of Pocket Full of Rocks, and can you tell us the highlight of recording this new album?
Michael is such an encourager. My favorite part of making this album with him was all the side conversations that happened while we were waiting on files to upload, waiting for sessions to start, etc. While Michael is an insanely talented musician in his own right, it’s not his musical talent that is his greatest quality; it’s his heart. He’s a great listener, and he gives great advice. He said things throughout our times together that both challenged me and inspired me. He’s the type of person that makes you feel stronger, and while we were making this album we had many of what I would call “life-giving” conversations. He’s the real deal, and it was truly an honor to partner with him on this album. He’s also a crazy dude, and we laughed A LOT.
3. What is the one thing that you hope listeners can gain when they hear Your Kingdom Come? What can you hope listeners can hear and experience- if there is one song listeners should check out first, what would it be?
I hope listeners are filled with courage when they listen to this album. I pray that the lyrics in these songs will remind listeners of how great God is, what He’s done for us, and how much He loves us. I would say the title track “Kingdom Come” encompasses the heart behind this entire album. We have two choices in life: to build our own kingdom, or to build God’s Kingdom. If we choose the first, we will experience stress, frustration, emptiness and never fulfill God’s purpose for our lives. But if we choose the latter, we will find no greater joy, peace, fulfillment and purpose than when we are pouring all our resources, time, talent and energy into seeking God first and striving to build His Kingdom. Based on Matthew 6, “Kingdom Come” is a simple prayer, a declaration of the Church that we will seek first His Kingdom: “Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your Name. Your Kingdom Come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.
4. The album contains some of my favourite songs from yourself, inclusive of the title track, “The Power Of The Cross”, “You Deserve”, “Passion Of Our Hearts” and “Church Arise”; what did each of the 12 songs mean to you as you were recording it? Has there been a recent song that has been ministering to people on the road, and what are some of the encouraging stories you have heard from the impact of your songs (on any of your albums you’ve recorded, or on this upcoming album)?
Thus far, the song that stands out the most from this new album, based on what people have shared with me from the road, is track #12 “Overwhelmed”. It is a song of gratitude. There’s nothing profound or theologically deep about it – it’s just a simple love song to Jesus, saying “thank you” for everything He’s done. Gratitude is a powerful thing, and it seems to be resonating with others. I have received so many emails and messages about that song in particular.
5. Were there any difficult songs to write, sing or even record, either because they were based on personal experiences of yourself or others? What has God used to speak to you more- the songs that were easiest to write or the hardest?
I would say “Overwhelmed” speaks to me the most. It is my heart spilled out. Every time I sing it, I am convicted to have a spirit of gratitude and to live more fully in that gratitude, as opposed to always asking God for things. There is so much power in taking time to stop and say “thank you” to Jesus. The message of that song continues to change me and convict me to be grateful, in EVERY circumstance.
Another song that really speaks to me is “Open Hands”. That song challenges me to let go and to trust God. It was one of my favorite ones to write.
6. For those who may not have listened to your style of music before, who would you say you sound similar to at the moment, in the CCM or worship industry, so that you can reassure listeners that they want to hear your music? Personally, I reckon you sound similar to Natalie Grant, Christy Nockels and Meredith Andrews vocally and musically!
Well, that is very kind! I’m a fan of all those gals’ music. To be honest, I have never been a fan of this question. I don’t really think about it or make comparisons. I just be me. I write whatever God puts in my heart to write, and I sing with the voice He gave me. Maybe it’s just me, but I think of other artists in the context of who they are, not who else they sound like. I think each artist brings something unique.
7. Both musically and lyrically, how does Your Kingdom Come capture the experiences of yourself throughout the last few years of your musical journey? As you move into what God is calling you into next in your Christian music career; is there anything you hold onto that God has spoken into your life?
See #1 And the thing I hold on to most is this: “Be faithful”. It’s easy to always be looking ahead to the next step and to become so consumed with what’s “next”, that we miss what God has for us right this moment. If we are faithful with little, God can entrust us with more. He will work out all the details of life – my role is to be faithful with what He’s given me, and entrust everything to Him.
8. Are there any artists/writers/producers you would like to collaborate and compose music with in the future (maybe for a Christmas project or hymns project)? Who were your favourite artists you admired and looked up to musically in your earlier years, and is there any artist or band that you admire within the music industry currently?
As far as collaborating, I would love to work with Ed Cash as producer on a project. I’ve heard so many great things, and love his work. As far as who I looked up to, throughout my teenage years, Nichole Nordeman was more of an influence on me than any other artist. I had every album and knew every song she released. I appreciated how skillfully she crafted lyrics and how she could express the difficult and complicated things of life with such beauty, poetry and simplicity.
Nowadays, the artist I probably look up to the most are Irish hymnwriters Keith & Kristyn Getty, writers of “In Christ Alone” and many other modern hymns the Church is singing. I had the joy of going out on tour with them Fall 2013, and got to see night after night how God is using them and their songs to strengthen and unify His Church. I have so much respect for them, what they do, and how they do it. They are truly an inspiration.
9. Who do you look up to in the music industry (CCM, or mainstream), either as a spiritual mentor, or someone you ask advice from? If anyone reading this interview wants to move into the music industry, what would you say to them as advice- how would you succeed in the industry, especially worship, with your values intact?
I’ve been blessed over the years to cross paths with some amazing people. It’s hard to narrow it down to just one person – I have many mentors in both music industry world, as well as ministry world. The one who stands out the most to me is a man by the name of Dennis Worley, the worship pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church in the Nashville area. He has been a true mentor to me for several years now, giving me books to read, meeting with me regularly to talk life & ministry, and sending me articles and other random things along the way to breathe life and encouragement into me.
The person I go to most for advice is my sweet husband, Jack. He is eight years older than me, and I am grateful to be able to say he is the greatest leader I know. He loves me the way Christ loves His Church, and there is no one on the planet that I admire and respect more than him. He has been my steady rock throughout this crazy journey, and I have gained so much wisdom from seeking His counsel and His advice over the years. He has a way of looking at situations that is very different from how I would look at them, and having that kind of perspective is so helpful when navigating uncharted territory. I am truly blessed to not only be married to my best friend, but to walk through life with someone who is so kind, patient, unselfish and wise.
My advice to someone wanting to pursue this: Work hard and be faithful. Pursuing a dream is hard work. Very hard work. It’s waking up early, going hard all day, and working late. It’s never giving up. It’s continuing to push ahead and stay positive when door after door slams in your face. It’s trusting God when you have no idea what He’s doing, and nothing seems to be making sense. It’s looking at whatever task He’s put right in front of you, and giving it everything you have, doing your best work, and doing it for His glory and no other reason. It’s being faithful with what He’s given you today, instead of dwelling on what you wish He would give you tomorrow.
10. What is your songwriting process, and what do you think theologically makes a great worship song? Which songwriters and worship leaders do you admire for their craft, and which songwriters do you think have strengthened your songwriting abilities, that you would encourage us to listen to their music (if they are indeed a music artist as well!)?
My songwriting process changes depending on who I’m writing with – there is no set formula or method. Sometimes a song will just fall out of the sky and I’ll write it in 5 or 6 minutes. Other times, I’ll get an idea one day and won’t flesh it out for months. Some of the people I write with, I get on Skype and we video chat and exchange ideas, take some time away to live with it on our own, and then reconvene on another day and finish it. Other times I’ll get in a room with some people and we’ll write an entire song in 2 or 3 hours. It just depends on the song and who I’m working with.
I admire the obvious ones like Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman and Jason Ingram, mostly because of the amount of content they have provided for the Church over the last decade. Such a steady stream of great songs. That is something to be respected.
But the writers I respect most are Keith & Kristyn Getty, whom I mentioned in #8. I have written a few songs with them so I’ve seen and experienced their process firsthand. Their songs are so theologically rich, full of Truth, and tell the Gospel story so clearly and so beautifully. I came to love their songs before I ever knew who they were or met them personally, because of how their lyrics grabbed me and moved me to worship. So much of modern worship music is focused on the “feeling” side, rather than the “information” side. Meaning, we have so many songs that describe how we feel about God, how He feels about us, etc. But we don’t always hear songs that tell us WHY we should feel that way or WHY He loves us, what He did, how He saved us, etc. We need more songs that tell the Story. Because it’s the Gospel story that gives us reason to sing. It’s that Story that inspires us to worship. That is what the Gettys do so well. They give worshippers a chance to sing the Gospel story, which in turn moves people to worship on a deeper, richer level.
11. Any artists you have toured with in the last few years that have impacted your life the most? Any new tours you are excited for in 2014 and beyond? Any artists you’d like to tour with but haven’t yet?
See #8 I am excited about touring this new album! I can’t wait to share these new songs with churches around the country. I would love to tour with Chris Tomlin and/or the Passion crew someday – that would be epic.
12. Which of your new songs are you the most excited for in terms of playing it live at concerts? Has there ever been a song that you have sung in concerts that you didn’t think would have the impact that it currently does? Or has there been a song where you thought should’ve had the impact that it currently doesn’t? What has God shown you through both/either circumstance?
“Kingdom Come” right now is a favorite. I’ve been leading that for the past year or so at my home church, and upon the release of this new album will be introducing to churches all over. It’s a powerful message and musically powerful and catchy as well – it’s fun to do.
I was not expecting “Overwhelmed” to have the impact that it is having on people. When I wrote that song, I thought it was just a song for me, a love song between me and Jesus. I never really thought other people would hear it. But the first time I showed it to someone, the response was overwhelming and it has just spread from there. The album isn’t even out yet, and that is by far the song I’ve received the most response from thus far.
13. For anyone who is reading this interview and is feeling discouraged or down, either because of something in their life currently or something spoken over them, what can you say to them?
“Trust your life to the God who created you, for He will never fail you” (1 Peter 4:19).
That pretty much answers that, haha
14. Is there anything in your life that keeps you grounded and places things in perspective as you travel and create music? Is there any song, or Bible verse, or even famous quote that reminds you about why you do what you do and why you chose music as a career and ministry?
My assurance of God’s calling on my life, and my passion for His Church. I know without a doubt that I am doing what God has called me to do, and I am passionate to see His Church thrive and become unified. Those two things are what keep me going on the rough days, the frustrating days, the confusing days. If I think about that, and I am still discouraged, then I repeat the above Scripture (1 Peter 4:19) to myself, and that pretty much expels all fear or worry.
15. Is there a song that you wished you wrote or recorded, and if you had to pick one song that you are listening to now that describes your walk with Jesus (doesn’t have to be your own), what would it be?
Not really. I’m grateful for each song God has given me, and I’m always pushing myself to become a better songwriter. There’s a new song releasing Sept 9 called “Christ Be Everything” that I wrote with a couple friends that completely describes my walk with Jesus right now. It’s a prayer that Christ would be everything to me, above anything or anyone else. I’m excited for people to hear that song and begin singing it in their Churches.
16. Is there anything else that you would like to add that hasn’t been covered in this interview yet, such as what you do in your free time, and whether you watch TV, or sports? Any parting words, and encouragements that will impact the readers of this interview? How can fans stay connected with you via social media?
In my free time, I spend time with my husband Jack. That’s my favorite thing to do. He’s my best friend and I love being around him. He makes my heart happy and brings such joy and light to my life. We enjoy traveling and seeing all the sights around the world, watching sports, going out to eat to fun places and taking walks. And we are huge Downton Abbey fans.
One thing I get asked a lot is “What does the E. stand for in your name?” My maiden name was Shelly Edwards. As I mentioned earlier, I lost my daddy to cancer when I was 14 years old. He and I were very close, and it was through his sickness that God birthed songwriting in me and upon his death that God called me to this music ministry. When I got married, my last name of “Edwards” became my middle name and my new last name became Johnson. When it came time to do an album, I wanted some way to keep the Edwards in there since my dad was such a huge part of my story and my calling to ministry. So I decided to follow in Michael W. Smith’s footsteps and go with a middle initial. Keeping the middle initial “E” was a way to honor my dad and keep his memory alive in my music from that point forward, thus the name “Shelly E. Johnson”.
People can follow me online here:
Twitter & Instagram: @shellyejohnson
Be sure to check out Shelly E. Johnson’s new album Your Kingdom Come releasing September 23rd. Til then, check out the music video of the title track “Your Kingdom Come” below, as well as the behind the scenes video of the heart of the album.