In 2014, singer-songwriter Wendell Kimbrough, 34, became the songwriter-in-residence at an Anglican church in Fairhope, Alabama. Before his arrival in Fairhope, he spent a year studying theology and culture at the Trinity Fellows Academy in Maryland. It was there that he says he discerned a call to music. Christian Courier interviewed Kimbrough to learn about his life and significant contributions to Christian music.
Christian Courier: When and how did you become aware that God gave you the ability to write songs?
Singer/songwriter Wendell Kimbrough.
Wendell Kimbrough: I always dabbled in song writing, from when I was a kid taking piano lessons. After college, I lived and studied in an intentional Christian community for a year (the Trinity Fellows Academy). The study was great for me, but more impactful was the experience of knowing and being known in that community. Throughout the year I wrote songs and shared them somewhat timidly with my peers. Their love and en thusiasm for my songs are what helped me, for the first time, to say, “I believe this is a gift I need to share with others.”
CC: Who were your mentors?
WK: When I was in high school, a seminarian named Allen Smith taught me to lead worship. Allen is now a church planter in Miami. During college, I led musical worship for the Reformed University Fellowship group at Furman University in South Carolina, and the campus minister, Rob Hamby, really poured love into me and gave me a healthy model for ministry. I spent a summer at Desire Street Ministries in New Orleans, and the director Mo Leverett was a great songwriter and passionate proclaimer of the Gospel as good news for the poor. Mo’s vision really impacted me and still shapes how I read Scripture and write songs.
CC: I was introduced to your music when Elly Boersma, the Pastor of Worship at the church I attend, led our congregation in singing “Rejoice in All Your Works.” I was moved by the profound, worshipful lyrics and singable melody. Tell us about the conception of that song and the others on your album, Psalms We Sing Together.
WK: In 2014, my Anglican church in Alabama asked me to begin writing a musical refrain for the psalm in the lectionary every Sunday. We are a folk and contemporary music congregation, so each week for three years I was writing a new piece that had to be short and easy to learn and sing. And each week I could gauge from my congregation’s response how successful the refrain was in helping them worship. The best of those refrains I then re-worked into the full-length songs you hear on Psalms We Sing Together and Come to Me.
I remember the week Psalm 104 came up, I was struck by verse 31b, “may the Lord rejoice in his works.” It’s one little line, but it captures a beautiful truth at the heart of the biblical narrative – God takes delight in what he has made, and we as his creatures declare his goodness, even in our weakness and dependency.
CC: What impact did this project have on you?
WK: Writing every week and having my congregation sing what I wrote was a gift and a game-changer for my song writing. It really helped me break free from a crippling perfectionism and grow in my craft.
Releasing Psalms We Sing Together was a big deal for me. As I’ve toured around singing these songs with people, it has really driven home for me the importance of the emotional honesty of the psalms. Singing the psalms has become an important part of my own journey toward spiritual and emotional wholeness.
CC: What is the creative process like for you?
WK: What I described above about sharing short psalm refrains with my congregation is actually a big part of my creative process. Hearing a roomful of people try to sing my songs back to me is a really helpful part of my writing – it helps me see what is working, what is not, and focus my efforts on what is most fruitful.
When I write, I’m typically alone in the sanctuary at the piano. I read the psalm aloud, listening to the words and searching for the core emotion of the psalm. I then try to translate that emotion into language that feels authentic to me and my experience.
CC: On your website (www.wendellk.com), you mention that your latest album, Come to Me, “gathers together psalms of lament, cries for justice, and shouts of deliverance.” Did current world events have an impact on you as you wrote those songs?
WK: World events definitely influenced the curation of this album, but not so much the writing. I write to try to bring the emotional journey of the psalms to life for me and my congregation each week, not to comment on current events. But when it came time to collect some songs for an album, I was certainly paying attention to which songs had most resonated. The mass shootings, white supremacist rallies, and general division of the church along political party lines were all things that caused me to weep and cry out to God. Speaking for myself, but also for my church and my friends, many of us struggle to be honest about grief and pain. Whether it’s something immediate like a lost loved one or something more global/political, we tend to hide. And the psalms many of us needed in 2017 were the ones that called us to bring our grief and pain out of hiding and into God’s presence.
CC: Have you played your music in other venues besides churches? If so, how did people respond?
WK: I did a psalm and hymn singing event at a brew pub in North Carolina, and I was surprised by how people joined in. It was sponsored by a local church, but even visitors who weren’t from the church started singing along. It was a blast!
CC: When you’re giving spiritual leadership, it’s essential to recharge. How do you do that?
WK: My best recharging comes from quality time connecting deeply with people who love and know me. When I can open up my heart, be seen and heard, and then loved and accepted, it gives me courage and strength to go out and love and serve others. For me, this is the Gospel made incarnate through relationships, and it’s what keeps me going.
Of course, sleep is nice too, but my wife and I just welcomed our first baby (it’s a girl!) so I’m not sure when we’ll sleep again.