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Themes, influences and inspiration in song-writing

An interview with Rev. Max Woolaver, Pierce Pettis and Matthew de Zoete

Jim Dekker: Max, Pierce and Matthew, I thought your perspectives on song-writing would interest Christian Courier readers. You all explore deep spiritual themes, but don’t write worship songs. You write to express your hearts – which is where true worship resides and finds expression. So a short, but not simple question: Is there a worshipful element in your music – for yourselves, for your audiences?

Max Woolaver: The worshipful element resides as much in the act of offering the songs (that is “playing them”) as it does in the songs themselves. Music creates a community space within which relationships shift and new possibilities for rapport come into being. Hopefully the lyrical content is friendly to that emerging hope for deeper community. The hope for community pre-exists the musical event itself (shades of Jeremiah’s revelation?). The call to pay attention to what is offered in song is akin to the call to worship. Even crummy songs can make community happen! I know that very well!

Matthew de Zoete: To be honest, there isn’t a worshipful element in my music, at least for me.  But it’s possible that some audience members experience one.

Pierce Pettis: The word “worshipful” doesn’t immediately come to mind when I think of my music – I’m usually preoccupied with writing, rehearsing or playing. But I know it’s there. When writing, things can come out of nowhere that surprise me – real inspiration. Sometimes in performance it can feel like that line from Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell says, “I believe God made me for a purpose – but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.” That’s how I feel when I’m in the zone and the audience is there with me.

How do you find and choose themes?

Max: I think any songwriter will tell you that the “secret” to “finding and choosing” themes is paying attention to what is happening within and without you at any particular moment. St. Paul invites us to “pray unceasingly”– and what is prayer but attention to the unfolding Grace, Drama, Humour and Pain of daily life and life beyond the day? Song-writing, as any art, is much more a case of “being found” than “finding and choosing.”

Matthew: It’s generally an unconscious process of exploring ideas and themes that are on my mind or are suggested by the initial lyrical ideas that come up when I’m developing the music for a song. Often, I stumble upon a word or phrase that somehow fits the music I’m working on; then I follow that word or phrase to the larger idea it unlocks.
Sometimes it’s more deliberate: I might think about writing a song on a certain topic and then do so, but usually I try to stay out of the way. The issues stewing on the back burner seem to find their way through seemingly unrelated words. Details open onto larger themes.

Pierce: I don’t usually go looking for themes. I never know what I’m going to write about. Ideas seem to find me – or they don’t. A lot of my writing is going back to ideas and beginnings of ideas I’ve collected over years and adding a little here, a little there. Sometimes an idea catches fire and suddenly there’s a song. Sometimes I don’t even really know exactly what the idea is until the song is well underway.

What and/or who are the strongest influences on your song-writing?

Matthew: Life in general is the biggest influence, as that’s what I’m trying to digest and reflect. Experiences of mine, experiences of people I know and experiences I imagine. Two people who have shaped my approach to writing are Leonard Cohen and Ray Davies (of The Kinks).

Max: For me, Bob Dylan is the pre-eminent songwriter of the folk/roots/blues tradition. I’ve been drawn to him primarily because his songs transcend topicality. Unlike the vast majority of songwriters, his songs inevitably move beyond the “moment of inspiration” or the ostensible “subject matter” of the song at hand. A good example is his early tune “The Hour that the Ship Comes In.” Back in the day, he was refused a motel room because of his hippie looks. That night he wrote a scorching indictment of injustice in the world, a timeless call for justice set in overtly biblical terms.

Speaking of those who commit such crimes he sings: “. . . and like Pharoah’s tribe they will be drowned in the tide, and like Goliath they’ll be conquered.” He rises above history (“ . . . my name it is nothing, and my age it means less. . . ”) and like our best poet/visionaries he describes the forces behind the movements of the interior and exterior impulses that constitute the private and public worlds we live in. Dylan moves between chronos and kairos time with equal parts of comfort and extreme uneasiness. No single writer I can think of – Leonard Cohen is close – has such a sure grip on the received forms that brought the songs into being and with sheer creative power and exuberance transformed those same forms.

Pierce: The list is so long; I’m sure I’ll leave a lot of people out. Here’s a sample of songwriters who inspire me: Mark Heard, Don Dunaway, Bob Dylan, T-Bone Burnett, Joni Mitchell, Jason Isbell, Patterson Hood, Ryan Adams, Elvis Costello, Eliza Gilkyson, Jesse Winchester, Mac McAnally, Roger Miller, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson. And here are some writers: Mark Helprin, C.S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Hicks, Janis Owen.

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Pierce Pettis lives in Alabama with his wife and son.

Name a few songs that you consider your best artistic and spiritual efforts.

Max: I like an old song I wrote called “Airport Café.” It started as a lament for the murder of a little boy in Liverpool a number of years ago. While writing, I started crying when I realized I was writing about John Lennon. It’s an honest, spooky and unexpected song; it took a turn I couldn’t predict.

I wrote a tune called “Innocence” that I like a lot because I thought it was trash and somebody liked it. So I keep playing it!

“Aunt Abby” is a traditional Nova Scotian ballad about the oldest sister of 13 in my mother’s family. It seems to “meet the moment.” I think it succeeds in conveying Abby’s graceful, enduring presence in the countryside and shoreline she loved. The song is graced with two nice quotes from the Psalms in the refrain.

I wrote a tune called “Burdened and Broken” which I think marries the terrain of “unharvested corn” and “fields waiting for frost” with the human experience of interior barrenness. There is a spiritual consciousness of sin which haunts most of us from time to time.

Matthew: Artistically, the songs “Colour Film” and “The Money’s on the Dresser” use small, concrete details to explore larger universal themes. I think they also give the listener something to picture and see – imagery, characters, situations. They’re songs that work as short films in the mind’s eye.

Spiritually, “Warkworth Penitentiary” explores interesting ideas around guilt and forgiveness.

Pierce: “Lions of the Colosseum” is an old song that I rarely play, but I still love it. I wrote it after reading a long, depressing history of the Christian Church. It’s full of despair and hope; it captures what I was feeling at that moment.

I wrote “God Believes in You” out of nowhere in about an hour. An atheist friend once told me, “I don’t believe in God, but if I did that’s the God I’d want to believe in” – one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.

“Instrument” is a new one I haven’t recorded yet. It just came out of the blue, “writing itself” in about five minutes. I often end my concerts with it.

I wrote “More” with Andrew Peterson. I sent him the lyrics and he came up with this beautiful tune. I played it at my mother’s funeral. Andrew has recorded the song but I haven’t yet. I do it a little differently than he does.

A composer friend once told me: “For three years after my wife died, I quit hearing music in my head. I figured it was gone for good – but unexpectedly it came back.” How do you respond to writer’s block?

Pierce: I think everyone deals with writer’s block. I’ve always heard that the best cure is to keep writing. I believe that’s true. Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell . . .  keep going!”

Matthew: Sometimes ideas come thick and fast, and writing is easy. Sometimes it’s a matter of scraping and struggling for ideas or how to flesh them out. Sometimes ideas are only worth sharing with the garbage can.

Rather than actively seeking ideas, I try to stay open, allow them to come along on their own – like a state of passive awareness. Once something starts to emerge, it’s a matter of waiting for it to define itself and then pursuing it to its conclusion. It’s a balance between waiting and acting, then putting in whatever time and effort is needed to hone the piece. Like most things, the more frequently you do it, the more naturally it comes.

Max: “Writer’s block” is an essential element of the writer’s journey, just as fallow times of prayer are essential to the journey of the soul. St John of the Cross contends that fallow times are times of transition. You can only wait it out, while continuing to write (or pray). The best is yet to come.

What impact does your calling as a song-writer have on family or friends?

Pierce: What family? What friends? Sorry – little joke. Writers have a long-standing reputation of being hard to live with – which I know is true in my case. What you have is more an obsession than a job or calling. Sometimes your loved ones feel neglected or even jealous because of your writing. Sometimes when you’re chasing an idea and keeping mad scientist hours, it can get a little tense. Not sure how they should deal with that. A baseball bat, maybe?

Max: Song-writing soaks up time like nothing else. It’s prayer. Like prayer, it often feels useless. Performance is a complete and almost unbearable interruption of daily life – like a dentist’s appointment. Performance is always preceded by clouds of anxiety and self-doubt. The performer becomes a real problem during song-writing and pre-performance. But like a dentist’s appointment, you are usually glad that you went. But who wants to go? Do you want your teeth to rot?

Matthew: Song-writing isn’t the most lucrative job, so that has some fairly predictable effects on my family – as does the instability of any artistic pursuit. Perhaps my family and friends realize that to varying degrees they’re “grist for the mill.” This might colour our relationships, or how they see them. Maybe not.

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Matthew de Zoete is a singer-songwriter based in Hamilton, Ont.

When I think of musicians touring, playing night after night, I almost faint. Pierce and Matthew, how does the vagrancy of marathon tours and travel affect you?

Pierce: I feel enormously blessed that I can even do this for a living – especially at my age. Being away from home can be hard and I love being home. But I also love having the opportunity to travel and meet so many amazing people I’d never have known otherwise. And the encouragement and support you get from people out there is priceless – as is the honour of occasionally knowing that your music has done them some good.

Matthew: Mostly, it just makes me tired. But the process of regularly performing for new people in different places is also invigorating. It provides opportunities for gauging how people interact with your work – and it can inspire new perspectives and ideas. Concerts and tours that go well breed optimism. Those that don’t present a choice between pessimism and determination. Either way, they spur self-examination.

I approach travel as an opportunity to see new places, meet new people, have new experiences. When you’re on the road, you can be whoever you want to be. Seeing what kind of person you become can be quite revealing.

Max, you’re an Anglican priest with many routine and some mighty stressful duties. Can you describe how your music and your working and personal life intersect? 

Max: Just this memory: I once stood by the graveside of a woman who had frozen to death in the woods. Mose Scarlett, one of Canada’s great blues/ragtime/soul guitarist was there to play. It was a perishing cold day in Barrie, the wind was paralyzing. My body was shaking uncontrollably. I wondered how on earth Mose could play. As he began to play, “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when. . .” I felt a strange heat strike a spark within my shivering body. Within seconds, my jaw stopped shaking, my hands relaxed and my shoulders lost their tension. Mose’s playing had unlocked the moment and brought us into a kind of sacred warmth. It was remarkable. Music has the power to change us.

What keeps you writing, playing and singing?

Matthew: Mostly, it’s a need for exploration and expression. But there’s also a desire to connect with others by creating something meaningful. There’s probably an addiction to the feeling that comes when you think you’ve written a good song or played a good concert. I’m seeking the next fix.

Pierce: No other marketable skills? : )

Max: In his book Sophia, on Thomas Merton’s mystical theology, Christopher Parmuk talks about the mediating and critical role of imagination in our engagement with Christian revelation. Song-writing is the tuneful form of that engagement. Think Psalms.

The transformative power of music, the calling forth of the imagination in the engagement of the Christian revelation and the task of interpretation of that which was given us “in the beginning” keep me writing, playing and singing.

Or think Jesus. Think Jesus after breaking bread, sharing wine and now walking to the Mount of Olives on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew 26:30, ”When they sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”   

These interviews were conducted via email before both Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and Leonard Cohen's timely – almost self-timed – death.

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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