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Exclusive Interview with Joanna (Reyburn) May

Exclusive Interview with Joanna (Reyburn) May

By Admin on June 06, 2011

We recently had the opportunity to interview Joanna May about her latest album - Here's My Cup. Joanna is a worship leader/songwriter at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City.

Here's My Cup is your first cd release. Can you share with us the journey of its creation? Has it been a long time coming?

It has been a long time coming. I've been at the House of Prayer since 2002 leading worship in a lot of different areas. I sensed a personal invitation to commit the first 5 years of my ministry life to the Lord; not to try and build a name for myself, record albums, or travel extensively but simply to be at His feet like Mary of Bethany. I am so thankful for that time, and do not regret it one bit.

In the last year, I felt that it was time to do an album. So I put out some "fleeces" (that's the possible plural of "fleece") like Gideon in Judges 6, and said, "Lord, if it's time to do this album, bring about A, B and C." And you know He did. I won't go into the details of all that, but I am convinced that if the Lord has really called you to do something, He has made complete provision for it. In my case, there was a season of waiting for the right time, preparing my heart, and contending for the release of provision.

I started the recording process in the spring of 2010, while my fiance and I were planning a wedding and trying to close on our house. We got most of the recording process done at that time, but as my wedding date came closer, I put it on hold, and picked it back up months later to finish the project.

This is definitely a worship album, but very intimate. You refer to it as "devotional worship". How does it differ from what we might normally associate with corporate worship? How do you hope the listener will respond to it?

When I started this project, I had a couple thoughts in mind. I wanted someone to be able to put on this album and let it play all the way through. I also wanted the album to make sense as a progression from song to song, each track building on the previous. I envisioned someone laying on the floor, and spending 50 minutes in the presence of the Lord, using this album as inspiring background music for their personal prayer time, or playing it as their children fall asleep. My goal for this project wasn't to write songs that would be sung in congregational worship, but to provide a peaceful, presence-worship soundtrack for dialoguing with Jesus. I knew that I wanted to use excerpts of spontaneous clips, prayer, and some violin because I love the violin.

Despite being a studio album, Here's My Cup has the feel of live, authentic worship. Did you approach recording the album with that in mind?

I was SO scared that doing a studio recording was going to end up sounding "canned." I wanted that same atmosphere that exists in a prayer room devotional where the Holy Spirit leads people directly into the presence of the Lord. I talked with my engineer Luke Hendrickson, and we approached the recording process a bit differently because of this.

We created a peaceful and prayerful atmosphere in the studio. I've worked on recording projects where there were day-old pizzas laying around, and 5 extra guys there goofing off. Where each take was brutally critiqued, rehashed, auto-tuned and rerecorded. I knew I didn't want that kind of a process. When I went in to record, I'd light a candle, turn off the overhead lights, and spend a few moments praying. Then I'd start playing and singing. I didn't decide a hard and fast song layout. I went in with a loose outline of each song, and if that changed during recording, we went with it. Because of this process, no take was the same. After the first recording, we went back and fixed only the major goofs, leaving a sort-of rawness to it. Later we added other instrumentation. I think this process contributed to the "live" feeling. The three songs with a full band, Ocean, Humble and Here's My Cup were recorded with everybody live in the studio in two to three takes.

The album starts with "What Do You Think About Me", a powerful song and plea. Would you share with us the story behind this song?

This song was composed during a devotional worship time in the prayer room. One of the most important things in the life of a believer is to have confidence in the affections of the Father, to know how He feels about you, and what He thinks about you, whether it's in weakness or in strength, on a good day or a day when you feel like you've completely blown it.

So many Christians are haunted by the idea that God is mostly upset with them, that they have disappointed Him, and He's not happy with them. That view is so debilitating! It causes us to live in shame, condemnation, and rejection. It thwarts our ability to walk with boldness and confidence into the things the Lord has called us to, and causes us to live with a constant expectation of judgment.

When we, like David, are sure of the Lord's affections, when we are confronted with our sin or compromise, we can run right back into His heart without spiraling into rebellion, feeling disqualified and shameful, or trying to earn back God's approval. In the place of repentance and a contrite heart, we are the apple of God's eye and His delight is in us. That's so powerful! "What do you think about me" came out of singing those concepts over a prayer room full of people, and I'm convinced it's a message God wants us to really get a hold of.

Your songs have a very fluid, almost spontaneous feel to them. Are your songs most often the result of an intentional songwriting process or do they come some other way?

My husband is a songwriter, he can sit and write a rap on a particular topic, and it's so powerful. I'm not good at that. When I sit down to intentionally write songs, I produce some of lamest stuff I've ever heard. You may think I'm exaggerating, but trust me, I'm not - it's bad. The songs on my album are the result of spontaneous singing. I'll sit down at the piano or grab my guitar, and just start singing. Sometimes I'll pick a Psalm, or a parable and weave together other Scriptures, or even sing my prayers. Other times, I'll take the perspective of the Lord and sing over myself, my family or my city. It's like a biblical stream of consciousness.

I'm a huge proponent of spontaneous singing - it's something anyone can do (even non-singers) that will benefit your heart immensely. It's a muscle you have to exercise, and it may not be comfortable at first, but learning to sing the Scriptures is something that Paul talks about in Ephesians 5:19, "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord." A good way to practice is to find an instrumental album with simple melodies, and just start singing along. I like to go on walks and sing acapella to the Lord.

We can hear you praying on "Humble". I'm sure you're used to leading prayer in a public venue; how different was it to pray for a recording? Did you prepare in advance?

Yikes, you really caught me on this question. I remember the day we recorded this prayer. It was early in the morning on a Saturday towards the end of the project, and I tried waking up my husband saying, "You have to come to the studio with me today! I'm going to pray on the recording and you have to tell me if it sounds stupid." I was terrified to pray on a recording, and I still cringe a little when I listen to it. It's like listening to yourself on a voice mail message.

I have a few albums that people pray on (Laura Woodley and Apostolic Prayers to name a few) and I have been profoundly ministered to by agreeing with recorded prayers. Praying out loud was one thing that the Lord brought to mind when I was considering what to do with this album; I felt like I was supposed to do it, but it didn't make it any more comfortable. There is something very personal about praying on a recording. And even though I'm a singer, I still don't like listening to the sound of my speaking voice. I did a couple takes, each time praying something different, and picked the one that I felt fit best. It's not the most comfortable thing for me to do, or listen to later, but I hope that people will be encouraged.

You've been involved at the International House of Prayer in Kansas City since 2002 in a number of capacities including leading worship at the Prayer Room. How did that relationship begin? How has your experience with IHOP influenced you as a worship leader?

When I was 12 years old, I heard a message about Mary of Bethany pouring out her fragrant perfume at the feet of Jesus, and I knew that I wanted to give my life to Him in adoration worship, and when I heard Julie Meyer and JoAnn McFatter spontaneously singing the heart of the Lord at a conference, I knew that's what it was supposed to look like for me too. A 24/7 prayer room began in Kansas City when I was in high-school, and I spent my weekends driving 40 miles to be there because for me, that was such a natural starting place for learning to live a lifestyle of adoration worship. After graduation, I enrolled in IHOP's internship program and began singing and leading on worship teams, and the rest is history as they say.

24/7 prayer and worship is a unique phenomenon in the earth, it's unlike many other ministry forms. As a worship leader in that environment, you have so much time actively leading worship. In the early days, we would do 12-24 hours of worship leading a week. It would take months to gain that experience at a Sunday service. With that kind of frequency, the practical benefits of being a "seasoned worship leader" come quicker like learning about song selection, transitioning, how to lead a team, leadership, practices, etc. But there are trying elements as well. In a 24-hour prayer room, people can leave whenever they want. Being a young worship leader, and having a mass exodus when you take over a session is a little disheartening, but you've still got two hours ahead of you. Not to mention major goofs? You will make them. Enunciation flubs, key change nightmares, sound issues, equipment failure, you name it. One time, I fell off the piano bench and got tangled in some cords and was completely mortified, but I had to go in the next day and do it all over again.

Another dynamic of a prayer room is that corporate worship is not the only worship expression. People are not always standing, many times they are reading, praying, studying, crying, taking communion, etc. The "2 fast songs, 3 slow" model doesn't always apply here. Not to mention that one popular worship song? It's going to be sung 12 times a day, and you're going to get tired of it pretty quick. This is where that muscle of spontaneous singing really got developed, we'd sing through whole chapters, leading the room in sort of a musical Bible study.

Your husband, J. May, is an artist as well. How does his music compare with yours? Do you ever collaborate?

My husband J.May is a rap artist, and has released an E.P. Conflict and a single, The Throne. He has also contributed to a couple compilation projects. I'm so proud of him, and love his music. He writes theologically solid raps, that are also really fun to listen to. We're still working on how to bring our sounds together on the same project, but I can definitely see some fun collaboration in the future.

A question that we ask at the end of all All About Worship interviews this year: if you couldn’t do music for a living, what would you be doing?

I think the question for me is "What would I be doing today." I am a bit of a Jill-of-all-trades. I love doing all sorts of stuff. Right now, I'm programming an iPhone app for a ministry. Sometimes I do design work, wedding photography, and web development. I also really enjoying working on marketing campaigns, and brainstorming new ideas. Recently, we moved into a new house, and I've become mildly obsessed with decorated, DIY, rehabbing furniture, and renovating, so if you asked me today what I would do, it would be to run a decorator business. But tomorrow my answer might be totally different.

Thanks, Joanna, for taking the time to share your heart and ministry with us!

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