Although the Psalms were originally written to be sung, that art has been lost in today’s Christian church. Wendell Kimbrough is bringing it back.
The folk singer/songwriter is on a mission to write a modern-day hymn for each of the 150 psalms. As the worship director and artist-in-residence for his church in Alabama, Wendell writes a new psalm each week for his congregation to sing. The result is a growing collection of sing-able hymns that capture the emotional power of the psalms.
Read our interview with Wendell below to learn more about his unique approach to hymn-writing.
Emily Cardé: How did you get started writing music?
Wendell Kimbrough: About 10 years ago I moved to Washington, D.C., a year after graduating from college. I’d been writing songs for a little while at that point, and I had a group of friends who just really encouraged me to start sharing my music. It was in D.C. that I started playing shows and I put together my first album.
But honestly, I’ve been writing music since I was a kid, even when I was really young and just learning to play the piano. I think in the third piano recital of my life, my teacher let me play an original composition. So I’ve always wanted to write music and I’ve always been trying to.
Ethan Weitz: You’ve got a record coming out this month, called Psalms We Sing Together. Tell us about that.
Wendell: Psalms We Sing Together is an album of sing-able psalms that have come out of my writing for our congregation here in Alabama. Part of my job as the worship pastor for my church is to write a new song each week that is based on a psalm for that week.
I like to say these are songs that were born out of a congregation and built for congregational use. And it’s not like we wrote the songs by committee, but my congregation has helped me to figure out which psalms really worked, which ones they could really sing. And because I’m writing a new one every week, they don’t have to be polite. If they don’t like one they don’t have to be nice about it. But I know when one really resonates with people, because they’ll seek me out and tell me how much they appreciated it.
So these are sing-able modern worship songs and hymns that will help congregations sing the psalms in their corporate worship. Hence the name Psalms We Sing Together.
Emily: You have previously released a couple of singer-songwriter style records, but now you’re shifting gears a little with Psalms We Sing Together. What inspired this record and this shift in focus?
Wendell: When I first started putting music out, I was writing for just a general audience, outside of the church. And I still really believe that that is important work. I believe that all goodness, all beauty, and all truth come from God; and if you are in the work of making goodness, truth, or beauty, then you’re serving God—whether you are stamping Jesus’ name on it or not. And I think it’s pretty important for Christians to be making art that can be appreciated by people who don’t go to church.
But I think for me, it was more of a refining of my own sense of calling. I love the church, and I really want church to be a place where music is rich It’s really sad when church music sucks.
Church should be a place where we’re able to come in and get in touch with what’s real in us, and get in touch with what’s real in the world—which is that God is Lord and he is present. As we go through life, we tend to numb ourselves and we lose touch with ourselves and with God. And coming to church is kind of like a homecoming to reality. So it’s really important that church music helps us feel our feelings and be real with God. And more and more I think that’s what the psalms were given to us for and that’s why churches need to be singing the psalms.
The problem is, if you’re a church and you want to sing the psalms, there aren’t a lot of contemporary sing-able versions of the psalms. So you can say, “Oh, we need to sing the psalms,” but we have very few sing-able versions of the psalms that are in a modern idiom—in terms of both the text, the lyrical expression, and melodies that are accessible to a modern audience. So this is what I’m passionate about now.
I believe that all goodness, all beauty, and all truth come from God; and if you are in the work of making goodness, truth, or beauty, then you’re serving God—whether you are stamping Jesus’ name on it or not.
Ethan: Can you give us a little insight into your creative process for Psalms We Sing Together?
Wendell: I’m excited about this, because I’ve really found the sweet spot in my creative process over the last couple of years. I used to just write when the inspiration struck me. But now, as a worship leader at my church, I have a weekly deadline with a new song to write every week. So that forces me to be more process-oriented about it.
A couple of years ago, I read an article and that really helped me with this. The article basically said: when you’re trying to be creative, commit to the process rather than focusing on outcome. So rather than saying “I’ve got to produce this kind of product” and then just telling yourself to do it, commit to working through your steps and forget about what the end result is going to look like—the results will take care of themselves. And that’s really been the case for me.
I give myself either a morning or an afternoon with a psalm. I’ll print out the text and take it into the sanctuary at our church. I’ll sit there with the text and I’ll read it out loud, and try to read it with emotion, as if I was a public reader or a theater student. I try to recite this psalm in a way that gives it its due weight. And what I’m doing is looking for the core of the psalm—the emotional core, the theme.
And then I’ll start writing the text. Sometimes it comes pretty much straight out of the psalm, and sometimes I’ll try to capture what seems to be the heart of the psalm. And I’m at the piano so I’ve got a chance to find the mood, musically. I start trying to find sounds that help me get into the mood of where the psalm is.
Whatever I have at the end of two or three hours, I’ll record just a scratch recording. Then I’ll leave it—I’ll go home and I’ll try to forget about it. I usually do that towards the end of the week, so a lot of times I have the whole weekend before I pick up that piece again. Once I come back to it, I can usually tell pretty quickly whether it’s working or not.
Somebody told me your creativity is like a child. Children need a space to play and they won’t play unless they feel safe. So the way I see it, those couple hours where I don’t have interruptions or distractions is my time to just kind of be a child and play with it.
Emily: Can you tell us a little about the artist in residency program that you have going on at your church?
Wendell: It’s cool! Our church has done a few different things kind of like this, and I would describe them as incubating different ideas or projects. I’m the first musician who’s kind of filled the artist-in-residence–type role here. They brought me on when they were looking for a new worship leader. And instead of hiring someone part-time as a worship leader, they basically said, “Let’s make this a full-time job and let’s hire somebody who writes music and encourage them and support them and request from them that they spend a portion of their time writing new music, putting it out, playing locally, and being part of the music community here in the area.”
So it’s not a traditional artist in residency in that it’s not time-limited—I’m not just here for nine months or something like that, and I don’t actually live on the church property. But I am basically funded to spend part of my time writing and playing music, and that has really allowed me to write more and better music. I’m not desperately trying to pay my rent playing in restaurants three nights a week or something like that. I can afford to live on my income.
Ethan: In addition to writing music and leading worship at your church, you also perform using a unique concert style. Tell us a little bit about your performances and what they look like.
Wendell: Basically, the songs are intended to be sung together. So as much as possible, I’m trying to make my concerts participatory events. That means passing out songbooks and inviting people to sing along. It also means in a lot of cases also playing with local musicians at the shows. It’s really all about playing and singing and experiencing the music together. And it’s cool, because every show is unique—sometimes it’s just me and a fiddle player, or three-part harmonies and a bass player. It’s different every time. Challenging, but fun and fresh.
Emily: Most of the time you perform in churches. But you’ve mentioned to us that one of your psalm-sing concerts was at a pub. Can you tell us more about that experience?
Wendell: The pub show was really the idea of an Episcopal priest in small town called Kingston, North Carolina. Rather than just having the show at his church—which he knew would mean pretty much just his church people would come to it—they asked some friends who owned a local micro-brewery and pub to let us do the show in there. And it was really cool. There were church choir ladies who came and brought their reading glasses and hymnals, and there were hipster dudes with their beards and their taste for fine-crafted beer. We got a pretty diverse turnout from the community. The people really enjoyed it.
Somebody told me your creativity is like a child. Children need a space to play and they won’t play unless they feel safe. So the way I see it, those couple hours where I don’t have interruptions or distractions is my time to just kind of be a child and play with [my music].
Emily: How do you think your music can connect with people beyond the four walls of the church?
Wendell: I think part of our call as Christians in following Jesus is to be like him in the way we live. And I think a big part of what Jesus did was showing us what God intended when he made humans. We are so messed up. We’ve lost the answer to the question: What does a real beautiful authentic human life look like? I believe that a big part of Jesus’ earthly ministry was just demonstrating for us what it looks like to be a fully alive, glorious human being—the way God intended us to be.
Our call as Christians is to be like Jesus: for the world to be able to look at us and see some image of what God intended for humanity to be. And that includes being able to celebrate well at a party, and being able to grieve and lament—basically, being emotionally whole. I think in singing the psalms, we can grow into that and learn to embody that. When we go out into the community and bring good music with us and drink good beer and celebrate in a way that is mature and responsible but also joyful, we get a chance to kind of demonstrate to our neighbors what it looks like to be alive. Even though I’m in the church and predominately making music for the church, I really hope and I believe that as the church learns to sing the psalms we will learn to be more like Jesus which—will make us better neighbors, better able to shape our communities in positive ways.
To learn more about Wendell Kimbrough and his album Psalm We Sing Together (which releases September 23), visit his website.
All photos courtesy of Wendell Kimbrough.