Exclusive Interview with James Tealy (Songwriter / Artist / Worship Leader / Teacher)
This week I had the opportunity to interview Centricity Music staff songwriter, James Tealy. He co-wrote the single "We Are" off of Kari Jobe's album. But, he is much more than just a staff writer. You will know what I mean when you read this interview...
Wisdom: Most of our readers probably have not heard of you before. I got a chance to meet you last year when I hosted the Hymnish songwriting retreat in Nashville with Michael Farren. I quickly learned from Michael that you are a prolific writer.
As a songwriter, your songs have been recorded by Kari Jobe, Chris August, Matt Papa, Abandon, and more than 40 others. Your songs have also been featured in both film and TV including networks NBC, CBS, ABC Family, UPN and more.
Your Twitter bio (@JamesTealy) simply says: Songwriter / Artist / Worship Leader / Traveling CD Salesman. Could you start off by briefly describing how each of those roles play out in your life?
James: I've been signed as a staff writer for 9 years now (6 years at Universal Music Publishing and 3 years at Centricity Music). In 2005 Universal added an artist development deal to my contract. We made an EP and a full length album they never released and I've continued to record my own songs periodically since then.
About 150 days a year I'm on the road with a crew of great friends leading worship (mostly at student events, camps, and conferences) selling the music we make along the way. I actually wear a few more hats than I decided to put on the twitter bio. I teach songwriting now at a small Christian college, have been on staff at several church plants and travel internationally a few times a year teaching, preaching, and leading worship as well.
Honestly, I've become addicted to the chaos and would have a difficult time readjusting to just one steady job. My wife and I are both self-employed and this journey has taught us reliance and a desperate dependance on God's provision and guidance.
Wisdom: "We Are" is a song that you co-wrote (with Chuck Butler and Hillary McBride), which is on Kari Jobe's Where I Find You album. Love the song! Could you share what the co-writing process for a song like this looks like?
James: That song has had such a fun life. I was leading worship at our church in Nashville and our college pastor was preaching from the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5. As he read those famous words from Jesus he turned to me and said, "James, we need a song that helps us declare that truth to one another. We need to shout this fundamental attribute to one another to remind ourselves who we are and how to live. We are the light of the world!" I responded, "by the end of the sermon?" Thankfully he said no.
The next morning I woke up early thinking about the writing appointment I had in a few hours. Hillary McBride was preparing to record an album and Chuck Butler and I were going to help her find something to sing. Still in bed, I started searching for a way to approach Matthew 5:14. And of course the place my brain naturally went was "We Will Rock You" by Queen. I could hear a stadium full of believers stomping out that iconic beat and I instinctively began singing the chorus of "We Are" over the top of it. I shook the bed just enough to wake up my wife and she pushed me out of the covers and said "go record it already!"
Later that morning I brought the idea to Hillary and Chuck and we fleshed out the rest of the song that day in Chuck's studio. Then the song sat for a year while Hillary's project came and went. Finally my publisher set the song free and sent it over to Kari's team. Since then it has been recorded a least 4 times now plus my own version for MALE worship leaders that just released this week.
Wisdom: You've been a staff writer with Centricity Music since 2009. We have many songwriters visit our site and I know they would love to hear about your "success". How did you get to where you are?
James: I was on staff at a church in New Orleans and was writing songs for our context there fairly regularly. One year my wife bought my registration to a Christian songwriting conference as a Christmas gift. The first day I signed up for a song critique session with a veteran writer. He dug the lyric. (It was a bizarre song but had some imagery he dug and hooky chorus.) We had lunch.
Later he called to set up a meeting for me with his publisher in Nashville. I happened to be in town mastering a choral project for my church and we met for lunch that day. The two of them set up some co-writing opportunities for me in Nashville. Two years and 12 trips to Nashville later I had signed my first songwriting deal with Universal. The song from that first critique session was never recorded (and never will be! Too bizarre.)
That is an EXTREMELY rare path into the music industry but it was my story.
Wisdom: You have a brand new EP that just released, called Hallelujah Always, which you alluded to. I've been listening to it over and over, every chance I get! I love the way you recorded the project. It has a "live" feel, but at the same time has a "studio" feel. What was your vision for this project and who all were involved with it?
James: Thank you so much! I get a little needy and insecure whenever something new comes out so a little encouragement goes a long way. I really wanted worship leaders to hear these songs and say "I can hear how this would sound in my church." We kept arrangements fairly straight ahead and tried to range the songs so they would be more singable. Every song is led either on acoustic or piano with a basic rhythm section, two electric guitars, a synth pad, and maybe a rhythmic loop (I'm still trying to figure out the best way to make these tracks available to worship leaders).
We had a crew of college students worship with us at the beginning of the recording process. We recorded them first with just my acoustic guitar and then added the rest of the instrumentation later and that really shaped the vibe of the whole record.
I co-produced the album with my great friend and prolific co-writer Brian Hitt. His musicianship and attention to detail wow'ed me every day. The guys who travel with me all the time played bass and drums and sang some harmonies. Beyond the feel of it all, I recorded these five songs because their lyrics matter so deeply to me. Every one of these songs fills out a special place in my own personal worship.
Wisdom: You've written a ton of songs so far, probably more than most of us could dream to write in our lifetime. Why did you decide to do an EP verses a full-length album?
James: You're describing an excruciating, heart-breaking part of my job. The truth is, I turn in an average of 60 songs a year and only 12-15 of those ever make it out of my publisher's office and into the light. I don't believe it's because those 15 were necessarily better than the others, it's just the way it goes.
I started this process in August of 2012 with a playlist of 21 potential songs. I knew I wanted the album to be focused on the corporate worship of the church and so I gave myself some criteria (singability, theological/theme consistency, crowd response) and started ranking the songs. I sought feedback from the team at Centricity and from my circle of confidants.
Eventually, the list began focusing in on the five we would include. It is deeply painful to let go of some songs because I fear no one will ever hear them and every song has some special piece of my heart woven through it. So, we landed where we landed and at the end of the day I'm EXTREMELY proud of these five songs and the theological ground that they cover.
Wisdom: Wow! That is very eye-opening! The songs on the EP definitely are filled with great theological truths and depth. Lastly, could you share some encouragement for those of us who may be discouraged as songwriters?
James: I would be honored to. You don't work as a songwriter for this long without tasting your own share of discouragement. Whenever a writer tells me they are struggling to finish their songs I get super-stoked. It means that you haven't been willing to SETTLE for trite lyrics and easy, cliche themes. Sometimes being stuck means you're holding tight to a standard of excellence that I think can be God-honoring.
Now, at the same time, I remember a wise co-writer reminding me, "a writer's got to write!" Sometimes forcing yourself to write mediocre lyrics is the bridge you have to walk across to get to the good lyrics. And doing the disciplined work of crafting a Good song is the door you have to walk through to get to the Great songs. Forward movement is the key!
An amateur writer might tell me that the best song they've ever written is that last one. But a GREAT writer knows their best song is always that NEXT one. Keep writing. We've already hit our quota of good songs or "just as good as" songs. The Church is in desperate need of Great songs that will lift her eyes and challenge her to look more like her Lord. Keep writing!
Wisdom: That is very encouraging and inspiring! Thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us! This has been really good!
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