After 20 years of music ministry, 23 years of marriage, three children, 11 worship albums, 2 Dove Awards and countless conferences, teaching sessions and worship times; Paul Baloche has something to say about a valuable team of fellow- trekkers, songwriters and the “glorious” grace of God. I literally tracked him down after a songwriting workshop at the 2009 Christian Musician Summit (CMS) at Overlake in Washington. Well worth any effort to connect, this veteran worshiper obviously enjoys the journey he’s been on with the Lord, and is ready to share testimonies of God’s faithfulness, as well as practical tips on songwriting for the Church.
Aimee Herd: Paul, you have so many different things you’re doing, writing and recording your music, traveling, leading worship and teaching at conferences like CMS, leading worship at your church, not to mention (but I will) being a husband and father—you’re a busy guy. So, let me ask you, right off the bat, how do you stay focused on what God has for you to do, and not get burned out? What steps have you taken to stay healthy in body and spirit?
Paul Baloche: Well, I’m amazed that I am healthy, 2009 was a very busy year. …International ministry, sleeping in planes and trains, buses and hotels, and shaking a lot of hands. I’ve not been sick, and I’m so grateful. I’m tired a lot though, and it keeps me calling on the Lord. I think tiredness, weariness can bring us to the end of ourselves, where we say (like the song) “Jesus take the wheel.” I’ll actually use those words. I’m very aware that I can’t do this unless God will give me grace for today and strength. …Strength to listen to people as they come up afterwards, and to not just hit the “autopilot ministry button.”
I could do the same set list every night, but I try to look for that fresh thing. And I think my band guys challenge me in that, without even trying to. I want it to feel fresh for us as a community—the band—it’s like a men’s retreat. We all have our own lives, wives and families, and we’re serving in the local church, and yet, when we come together, there’s a dynamic of brotherhood. We’ve been playing and traveling together for quite a few years. There is quite a different age gap too, we kind of span the different generations, and I think it’s good because we challenge each other in our conversations.
AH: Iron sharpening iron.
PB: Yeah. I’m challenged by Michael Rossback and Ben Gowell who are in their late 20’s, and then there’s Carl Albrecht who’s an established guy—such a solid guy. It’s been a healthy thing for us.
AH: Speaking of that “freshness,” especially in relation to your new CD Glorious, I know one thing you’d mentioned regarding this recording was that you wanted “every song to matter, to be relevant and to be Biblical, and to carry spiritual weight.” It seems as though that could be a daunting task. Did you go into the project with that goal right from the start, and did it present a challenge, or did it actually make it easier because you had that focus?
PB: It was our goal, whether or not it was articulated exactly like that. I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself when it’s time to do a project. Even my wife will sort of (sighs) take a deep breath and say, “Here we go.” She feels it too. We feel like the last thing the world needs is just another CD, or—in the words of Switchfoot—“adding to the noise.”
So, I think each project adds some spiritual pressure, not in a bad way, but in a sense where it causes me to reflect and think about where I’m at right now in my season of life, and in my walk with the Lord. I don’t want to just sing clichés or rhymes that fit together. I think, “Okay, what’s going on in me, in my church, in the world, in the global Church… are there some things we should be singing about or addressing? Are there some areas of Scripture that we should pull out and mine? There may be gems in there that we really haven’t accessed.
I tried to lean toward the New Testament on this project, theologically. We typically sing a lot from the Old Testament Psalms as part of our worship lexicon in the Church, so I tried to be a little bit intentional about pulling in some New Testament themes, but then shaping those themes in a way that you could sing them in worship. As you’re singing, you’re reminded of those Biblical, New Testament truths. …Like, “You’ve saved us, we’re daughters, we’re sons all because of what You’ve done, You’ve saved us, You’ve raised us up with You”—it’s all Ephesians chapter 1.
“Shaken”, out of Hebrews, a Kingdom that cannot be shaken, “everything that can be will be shaken and only You remain.” So, there were Scriptural concepts like that, and we were saying, “how do we pull this out?”
“Glorious” is very New Testament. Looking “beyond the cross,” could almost sound offensive but, I’m saying, “Look beyond the cross”—if you will—and relate as the Apostle Paul did, to the living, resurrected Jesus. That was a revelation to me: the Jesus that Paul knew was not the Jesus that walked around in sandals, healing the sick in person and who related to the Disciples—it was interesting. The Apostle Paul was actually trying to kill people who were following Jesus at first and then he had this encounter with Jesus-the risen Christ on the way to Damascus, and it rocked his world. Then he ended up writing practically the whole New Testament! And he said, “I didn’t get this from man, I got this from revelation.”
So, I love the Apostle Paul’s desire to look inside the mystery, as it says in Colossians 1:27—“the mystery of Christ in you, the hope of glory.” It’s kind of mystical, and that sounds like a bad word, but I heard it said years ago that “not every mystic is a Christian, but every good Christian is a mystic.” Paul was a mystic, he was trying to see into the eternal realm, and he was trying to get us to see. (Laughing) …That was kind of a long answer.
AH: No, it was very good. You had a fair amount of co-writers on this album…
PB: Yeah, well tried and true—Brenton Brown—he’s just a dear, life-long friend and we always make time during the year to get together and try to stir each other up, and see if anything rises out of that. In fact, we actually wrote “Glorious” last year at CMS as we were checking into our hotel! I remember we hadn’t even emptied our suitcases yet. So, that’s kind of special, it was at CMS when “Glorious” was taking shape as a co-write.
“Wonderful God” was written with Rita—my wife. She had this chorus for like 4 years, and I loved it. She’d walk around singing it, and I’d say, “When are you going to find a verse for that?!” She’s one to not rush it. So, I had this verse idea that was more of a testimonial style: “how Your mercy fell and changed a heart, this heart is mine…”
We tease and say it was like eHarmony. com; “Hey, you’ve got a chorus, I’ve got a verse…how about if they go out on a few dates together—hey, they’re pretty compatible…” So, that became a song.
Jason Ingram, just an amazing producer guy who’s produced a lot of people in Nashville. I’d never met him before but seen his name on a ton of records. Somebody had hooked up an opportunity for us to meet, hang out and write. It was like instant “koinonia.” We were both blessed and blown away just how quickly the two songs came out; “Just to Be With You” and then the next day, “To The Cross”.
That was cool, and then writing with Ben Gowell, my guitarist, I love this guy. He just had a baby last year and is the co- producer on this album. I just felt like it was cool keeping it “in house.” Like, this is my band, let’s make a band record. So, as a band we went to Ben’s house, we went to Nashville, we came to Tyler, we kept trying to work through these songs to deliver them in a way that was musically fresh, but at the same time, still accessible to church bands. That’s still a big goal of mine; to serve the Church, to serve worship teams with songs that their church can sing.
AH: With that focus: writing songs that are specifically for church and that can be sung by different worship teams, is it ever a challenge to come up with new material? And, when you’re teaching, how do you go about teaching people to write in a congregational kind of way that is still fresh? What are some of the pointers that you give them?
PB: In 25 words or less?! (Laughing) Sometimes, I’ll just say to people, “Don’t try to write a song, just sing your prayers. Over the next 6 months, don’t try to write a song, just sing prayerful ideas.”
AH: Can you give me an example of that?
PB: Well, Open the Eyes of My Heart. That’s an older example, but that was just a phrase that I kept praying long before it was ever a song. On this album, with the song To The Cross… we were doing a tour in Canada, and in the midst of worship (we were at a kind of conservative church that night) we were in heavy worship but, I just felt like there wasn’t a lot of outward response. I think people were trying to connect but were having trouble. I said, “Look, I don’t want to make anybody do anything but, I just had this thought that Jesus stretched His arms out and did something physical for us. And in response to that, I wonder if you’d feel free to just lift an arm to the Lord, maybe lift your hands and say, ‘God, You stretched Your arms out wide, and in response I’ll lift my hands up high to You Lord.’” As soon as that came out—I was just ‘noodling’ on the guitar: (strumming guitar and singing now) “You stretched Your arms out wide, I lift my hands up high, to my Savior.”
It was kind of an off the “top of my head” thing and we just sang it for about 10 minutes. It felt “in the moment.” So, a lot of the songs begin like that. In an honest moment where I’m trying to connect. I always have our tech guy record our worship, and later I’ll fast forward through the songs and listen for between the songs, because that’s where— for me—about 90 percent of those “honest moments” happen, when you’re segueing from one song to the next.
AH: Those spontaneous worship moments, I love those.
PB: Yeah. Then I’ll take those and save them up, so when I get with Brenton or different folks, I’ll prayerfully look through those ideas and say, “Here’s something I’ve been messing with…” Sometimes that will provoke something in them and they’ll be like, “Oh, oh yeah…”
AH: It’s interesting you say that because, in some churches that can be somewhat difficult, to just allow those spontaneous times in between songs to happen, and not to be afraid of it. How do you encourage that?
PB: I encourage people to allow their set lists to “breathe.” Instead of feeling like you have to cram a ton of songs into this short amount of time; do fewer songs. Then when each song is done, maybe just linger a little, keep it simple… it’s almost like pausing for a minute with a bit of a musical bed underneath. It almost allows people to digest what they just sang. Sometimes I’ll actually use that word like, “Before we move on too quickly let’s just think about what we just sang, and if you want to close your eyes with me, sometimes that helps us to ponder and not be distracted. But let’s just think about ‘every blessing that You’ve poured out, I’ll turn back and give You praise,’ let’s just think about that. It’s a powerful thing. Let’s just think about the blessings that God has poured out this week, and let’s intentionally—in our hearts—lift that up to God…” That’s an off-the-cuff example.
Just relax and take your time. I’d say, for a piano player, just hang on that last chord for a moment, pause and then move on… We’re not trying to “make” something happen, we’re just allowing for the possibility.
AH: You want it to be authentic.
AH: So, you’ve been leading worship in your church for a long time?
PB: Yes, it’s my 20th year.
AH: Now, I know also in your heart is the goal to raise up other worship leaders. And, of course that’s a practical matter too, because you’re gone a lot. When you’ve been a worship leader that long, is that sometimes a challenge, to raise up someone else? Can you speak to that, and about how to pass on the baton gracefully?
PB: Mm-hmm. I’ve been saying for 10 years: “operation handoff.” That’s what Rita and I call it, but I’ve never said that to my pastor or anyone in the church; just in my own heart. I know that I need to be consciously handing it off, even if I stick around and still get to do it. In my 20’s is when I started there in that church, and built a core of musicians. We would just hang out for hours and our little babies would be running wild around the sanctuary while we were still rehearsing or praying. (Laughing) We’ve sort of grown up and our kids have grown up together in this community that we’ve built. I’m aware now though, with the mid-to-late- 40’s vibe in our team, it’s important that we intentionally give the 20-somethings space and room to develop their culture. And yet, still speak into it, but not to over-control it. To give them room to make their mistakes, like I’ve had room to make a lot of mistakes and say, “Woops, well that didn’t work very well…”
AH: Did you have someone do that for you, a worship leader who kind of mentored you as you were beginning to lead?
PB: It wasn’t a worship leader; it was more the pastor, and he was really gracious. He would always put the emphasis on just being a worshiper (especially when I’d try to back out and say, I’m really not that good a guitar player or a singer…), he’d say, “You know what? You’re a worshiper, Paul. Don’t worry about it, I know that was a little bit of a mess up, but that’s alright. Just keep doing what you’re doing, keep trying to put a team together, it’s good.” He would give me encouraging feedback and occasionally he might speak into it a bit. He just gave me a lot of room.
AH: Wow, that’s so valuable—it being the pastor. That doesn’t always happen.
PB: I know! Looking back I’m pretty amazed. I guess as far as mentors is concerned, I tried to find them from afar; Marty Nystrom, Lenny LeBlanc, or sometimes I didn’t even know their name. I’d get a Vineyard tape and say, “Man! I could do that.” It would give me confidence, it wasn’t super tricky— 3 chords, and the guy is an okay singer, but I feel an anointing there, let’s do this. It took the intimidation factor out of it. One of the things I love about leading worship is that all I have to do is get the song started, and then everybody starts singing. And I’m off the hook! You don’t have to be a great singer. (Laughing)
AH: Talk briefly about your French album: Ouvre Les Yeux De Mon Coeur. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I speak very little French. But, I also program an internet worship station and have put a few songs from it on there, and people have loved it. I’ve noticed that worship doesn’t really have a language barrier. Was that a challenge for you, doing a completely French album?
PB: (Laughing) Oh man… you have no idea! We did a tour across Canada, and people found out my mother was French, and my dad’s parents were born and raised in Paris. They spoke French to each other but I’d never learned it, though it was in my background.
I have a lot of French cousins in Nova Scotia and they said (speaking with a French accent now), “Oh you should do an album in French. We’ll help you translate.” I was like, “Yeah, good idea, yeah.” Next thing you know they were calling me and saying, “So, you’re going to do this right? We’ve already translated five of your songs!” I was like, “Wow, you did, huh?” But little by little I thought “I do want to do this.” From a ministry standpoint, I’d love to.
They came down and we tried to record my vocals… I’d sing, “Ouvre les yeux de mon Coeur…” and they’d be like, “No Paul, it’s ‘ouvre les yeux.’” I’d say, “I just said that.” They’d say, “No it’s ‘coeur,’ you said ‘coore’…” It sounded exactly the same to me. I felt like a failure, and after two days I said, “I’m sorry man, I need more practice.” They came from Montreal to help me with this. Bottom line, they sang my songs really super slowly– “ouv-re-les-yeux de-mon-coeur” I’d listen to it a couple hours a day, practicing, and when I was done my wife told me (and she wasn’t patronizing), “I’m really proud of you that you actually did this.” Halfway through the project I’d realized that I could make it Paul Baloche AND FRIENDS! Instead of me singing all ten songs, I can get other people to sing French—hallelujah! So, I only had to sing five songs.
We went to this church in Paris that had asked us to come this summer—we were already going to be in Ireland—so we hopped over to France. It was a dream come true to be able to sing in French. I was thinking, “Who IS this?!” We get done and the next day we saw a Christian book store in the middle of Paris. We walked in and they were playing my CD. It was the craziest experience. My wife was like, “Just stop for a minute, and inhale this moment. We’re in Paris, and I know how hard it was for you to do this thing. When you finished it was like a weight off your back. Now, here we are in Paris, in a Christian bookstore, and they’re playing your music. Just inhale that and give thanks to the Lord.” I was like, “Lord, I just receive that and thank You, I pray that You’ll use this and that it’s a blessing to French-speaking Believers.” It was like a ministry dream come true.
Integrity Music was like, “What are you doing?” But, I was glad at the end they were kind enough to say, “We get it,” and they picked it up and distributed it.
AH: As far as other “ministry dreams” go, do you have a style of music or album that you’d like to pursue that you haven’t done before, or a location you’d like to go and lead worship in?
PB: Well, last year I also did a live album in Asia (Korea) and we released it. While we were there doing a series of concerts, we said, “Let’s just record it.” And, we did a DVD. It wasn’t released in the US, but it was meant to be something to honor Korea. I don’t speak Korean, but I know a little bit… (sings in Korean) That was another ministry dream; to honor that culture.
Is there a style of music I’d like to do? Not necessarily, but I want to continue to grow. I want to have my ear tuned to the language of music as time progresses.
AH: And what would you say is that language of music that happening right now, in the vein of worship? What is the way that God seems to be leading?
PB: Well, stylistically, I don’t think God is as concerned with our “styles” of music, although we are. But God’s people will always sing. So, I think it’s important that we ask ourselves, “Will this help people sing their prayers to God?” Whatever the style is. I want to picture that 65-year-old non-musician guy, and the 22-year-old non-musician couple, and the baby-boomer family… and I want to bring the music that will unite them, not slice them up into various styles and generations. I get excited when I see three generations all together in a room, trying to connect to the Lord through a song. That’s the ultimate for me, it makes me happy in the Lord.
AH: Speaking of “happy in the Lord,” how is your family?
PB: Rita and I have three kids—two are in college. My baby’s a senior in high school.
AH: Are any of them pursuing music at all, are you handing off the baton to them?
PB: Well, they’ve all had to serve in our worship team over the years—like it or not. (Smiles) My oldest daughter is in grad-school for theater. She’s into costume, theatrical makeup and wig-making. She’d love to work with Cirque du Soleil. And my son went to college for theater for 2 years, but he’s actually doing studio singing now for certain TV shows. Our youngest daughter, this year, was my alto singer all through Ireland. We went to Kathryn Scott’s church, Robin Mark’s, we did youth worship events and then went to Paris where she sang with me. It was awesome to just look over and see my daughter Cherie. She’s got a genuine heart for the Lord.
As far as my family and my music—I’m trying to finish well. I’m trying to just keep the train on the tracks, keep both hands on the wheel, and not look to the left or the right. I say, “Lord I want to finish well. I pray for grace and strength, and humility and wisdom to finish well, and to try to leave a legacy. I’m aware that the enemy would love to just discredit my life, and my ministry. So, I try to do wise things. We travel as a band—we are a band of brothers—it’s a healthy thing. I wish that for other men and women in the Church that travel and minister. Finishing well is really important to me.
So, I hope these songs and these projects all serve to make us healthy Believers. That’s what’s really important. Are these songs serving the function of making healthy Believers and healthy communities? So, the world might look at the Church and say, “Wow, that looks so inviting, I want to be involved in that, there’s LIFE there.”
Paul Baloche’s website offers numerous teaching and worship leading resources, as well as his music.
Log onto: www.leadworship.com for more information.
• This article appeared in the January/February issue of Worship Musician Magazine. To subscribe, click here. •