The Abstract Space of Worship: an Interview with Derek Webb, Part 1

I don’t know about you, but I say too many words all too often. In my church’s worship, we sing and say a lot of words together. But as of late, in my home, I feel a strong sense to listen as I go about worshipping and praying each day — chores, conversation with my husband, advice from friends, writing, reading, repentance, what have you. I am listening.

Married to a drummer, I listen to faint drum beats pulsing from his garage-studio. And I listen to a lot of records. Being a longtime fan of Derek Webb, I was excited to pick up his latest album, Feedback, which I’d heard was a worship record. “Worship music” is not always my thing — I prefer hymns — but the buzz about Feedback was intriguing, promising, and Derek has always been one to challenge my thoughts and beliefs, and Lord knows my perceptions need to be continually challenged.

Feedback is like no other worship record I’ve heard before. It is an abstract, musical rendering of the Lord’s Prayer, yet there are no actual lyrics other than the finale track. But it is one of the most beautiful, inventive, moving albums I’ve ever absorbed. It is not melodramatic to say that Derek Webb is a musical genius; if nothing else, this album is inescapable proof.

Just this morning, I rose early to see darkness. I opened iTunes to Feedback and let each movement of this musical prayer pour through my headphones. The low, guttural hum of the opening track, “Our Father in Heaven,” moved me to tears. A spiritual resonance hovered over my still, quiet home. I closed my eyes, and my ears and heart, rather than my lips, called to my Father. My mind rested, questioned, roamed, lamented, and smiled, if you will. No matter my mistakes or triumphs, my gain or loss — whatever story fills a day or week or month or years — He is my Father in heaven. 

Each track of Feedback reminds me of a great truth while offering only one real word, much like my own prayers cannot be uttered lately; thankfully Someone intercedes for me with words I cannot express.

On the flip side, in a similar vein, Derek Webb has provided a space of prayer and worship where we need not speak or sing. Just listen. Meditate, and allow the music to guide us to ponder what fills the God-shaped hole in our souls.


Jenni Simmons: My first cryptic introduction to Feedback was a short sample of the music you tweeted. The second was the Houston meet-up at Taft Coffee which was amazing; it felt holy. Would you describe that evening?

Derek Webb: Yeah, man. It was really great. I was in town finishing Feedback with Josh Moore, and just like with Stockholm Syndrome, we don’t spend a lot of time together when we’re working on projects. We’ll both work from our respective studios — he’s in Houston, and I’m in Nashville, and we’ll send things back and forth to each other. 

So that weekend was our only time to work together in the same place and we had talked at one point about wanting the only lyrics on the record to be the “Amen” track, and wanting to field-record it kind of “flash mob” style — to kind of charge into some place unexpectedly. When this Houston trip came up, it just seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that because I’ve got so many friends in Houston and I felt like we could probably put some people in a space in order to pull it off. 

I don’t know if I’ve talked that much about this aspect of the record yet; no one’s asked me about it, surprisingly. But the record is broken up into three parts of the Lord’s Prayer, which is pretty obvious: the introduction/posture movement, the petition, and the celebratory/praise kind of movement. One idea that came to us early on in the process was that we wanted to include some recorded elements in the record that would speak to the way prayer is supposed to work and the way the various parts of it work. Initially, prayer starts in your closet, it starts privately — a very personal, intimate moment between you and God. Then it moves from that place and goes out to the marketplace. 

I read an interesting thing about the second movement, or the second section of the prayer — the petitions. We don’t just ask for things. We don’t just ask, “Give us our daily bread,” “forgive us our debts,” or “keep us from things that are harmful.” We don’t just ask, but we ask and we seek. We ask and we work. We actually participate in the provision. The whole second section of the prayer is a kind of going out. It is, “OK, now I’ve postured myself correctly. I have said, ‘No matter what else I ask for, ultimately my framework is that Your Kingdom would come. That the economy and culture of heaven would come today, and would come into this place. That is ultimately the thing I desire.’ Now that I’ve said that I’m going to ask for more specific things, but all of the things I’m going to ask for specifically are in the context of the sequence of the prayer. They’re in the context of ultimately wanting the Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth. 

The last movement, the praise/celebratory movement, is a corporate action, so we thought it would be interesting to include a kind of metaphorical subtext with the audio. At the end of the first movement, once I’ve postured myself correctly, it starts in headphones — privately with these low, very quiet sounds and it evolves. You hear a person leaving their house where they’ve started this intimate interaction with God and going, because now we’re going to start asking for things. So now we go. And now we work. So here’s the sound of the person leaving the house, getting into the car, and now we’re in motion. That motion runs beneath the entire second movement of the record. In fact, if you crank up the record really loud on your stereo you will hear the car noise still ongoing between every track.

JS: No way!

DW: Yep. You can hear it, but just be sure to turn it down before the song starts because it’ll blow your speakers. We wanted that road noise, that driving, that journey, that journeying and working and moving part of the second movement to run throughout. Then at the end of the second movement, the arrival. We get somewhere and we go to a big crowded, corporate place. We go to a place where we join up with everybody because there is a joining with the saints that happens in the last movement. “For Thine is: A) The Kingdom B) The Power C) The Glory Forever and Ever. Amen” is more of a corporate statement. You hear the busy room noise come back up and then the “Amen.”

Again, that’s one of the main reasons we thought it’d be so great to publicly, spontaneously record the “Amen” because it would be part of an audio subtext that was happening — a metaphor running beneath the journey of the prayer — and so we wanted to do it out in a place like Taft because we knew that would be a great culmination, these additional field recording sounds. And it was great; we had a bunch of people. We didn’t say exactly what we were going to do other than play a little bit of the new record and at that point people didn’t know what it was about or that it was instrumental. We told people something else might happen and when we say stuff like that, you should probably go ahead and come.

JS: Yeah, Johnny and I did . . . we are curious types.

DW: Yeah, so am I. That got people in the room, which was fantastic. I also liked the idea that people could potentially miss some of the Feedback music because they would be waiting to hear a voice and think that whatever had come before wasn’t it. Josh and I had asked some people from Taft to join us beforehand and at least be ready to help with the “Amen.” We had secret microphones all over the room where we were recording, and after playing the end of the last movement (I mentioned before that’s corporate), we marched out and sang the “Amen” in the room, after which I told everybody that we had just recorded the last track of the record. Then we literally went that afternoon and mixed it and took it to mastering and it was mastered by that weekend.

JS: Well, thank you. It was amazing to be there. I keep saying it was holy, but it really was — everyone singing together, the mystery.

DW: I was surprised by how many people joined in because we were really only planning on the ten or so people that we had talked to beforehand, who we’d worked out some harmonies just to be sure we got what we needed for the record. When they stood up and began singing, everyone joined in immediately; it really happened spontaneously. When we got back to the studio and listened to it, it was much better than we even could have planned or imagined.

JS: I believe everyone sang by instinct of corporate worship.

DW: Maybe so — I just didn’t assume that in a coffee shop in the afternoon that anyone would join in a 3-part harmony “Amen,” but they sure did. It just felt like the right way to finish up Feedback.

JS: OK, I have to admit that when you first tweeted you were creating a worship record, for a second I thought you were joking. But just for a second, because I think you know that you don’t strike me or many others as someone who would make a worship record.

DW: I know exactly what you mean.

JS: But once I realized you were serious, I bugged you because I was completely intrigued knowing the record would be beautiful, super creative, and unique, and I was right. 

DW: Well, thanks.

JS: But what in the world inspired you to make a worship record?

DW: I am always just as surprised as anybody else by what I wind up doing. I rarely see anything coming. And with this worship record, I’ll be totally honest with you. For a project that now seems like it has such a reverence to it, it started off very irreverent, as a joke. Josh Moore, Sandra McCracken (my wife and also a big collaborator), and myself were looking back on the year and that particular season of creativity on the Stockholm Syndrome record, the making of that record, and the touring of that record. 

After we toured the Stockholm record, I wound up on the road with Jennifer Knapp who has been a great friend of mine for many, many years and during that tour, very publicly came out as gay and there was a lot of controversy surrounding that. It was an unexpectedly provocative year. I didn’t really see it coming. At the end of the year, at the conclusion of all that work, although I felt like I was in exactly the right kind of trouble — you know I didn’t regret any of it — I guess I started to realize that I had maybe alienated some of the more conservative elements of my tribe. I think I had alienated a little more than I wanted to. I don’t ever want to alienate anybody, but I’m willing to as a byproduct if that’s what it requires for me to do the work I have to do. 

I don’t think about or consider who might be alienated by it or who might be offended by it. That’s just not part of my consideration. That doesn’t go into the decision-making process of whether or not I’m going to do the work that I clearly have set before me. But I felt like the conservative side of my base of people had been pushed away a little bit. 

I do a fair amount of dreaming in terms of what sounds fun to do next. Who would be fun to work with? I have the luxury of being able to ask myself questions like that, and I take it pretty seriously. Josh, Sandra, and I were sitting around a few different times saying, “So what next? What am I gonna do? What follows the year I’ve just had?” And I looked at Josh with a smirk and said, “Time to make a worship record.” 

We kind of all had a good laugh at that at first, because obviously that’s something I would never consider. I’m just not gifted that way, and I’ve never felt a particular pull to make worship music. And I hate categories. It seemed like an impossibility, but in the weeks following that conversation I was like, “Man, I cannot get the idea out of my head! Like, what would I even do? What could I contribute to that particular conversation right now that wouldn’t make me hate myself?” You know, that for me wouldn’t be a compromise. Now for people who are gifted and called and positioned to do that kind of work, it’s not a compromise. It’s exactly what they should be doing. But for me to do it, would be just that.

But my mind needed to be opened to the possibility. Charlie Peacock, my mentor of many years now, has this great way he talks about calling — he talks about it mysteriously as receiving coordinates. You don’t get the whole map. You just get the coordinates to the next place. And you don’t always know where you’re going or what it means. I felt like I began to receive some coordinates in terms of making a worship record. One of the first things that came to me was that it would be instrumental, and that it would be so traditional that it would appear modern. We would try to classically compose it but make it incarnational rather than worship the 13th century because I think a lot of people consider that there’s some kind of purity about classical music in the church, and there’s some Christian colleges that only allow their students to listen to classical music as if it wasn’t pop music at some point, which it most certainly was.

We thought classical music has had a real role in the church, much more so than a lot of this modern, contemporary music has, and even the more abstract elements of it — some of it composed without lyric, some of it composed with lyric, but lyric that’s seldom used when it’s being performed and the church has used this art a lot over the years. We thought we should approach it like that. We should transcend the moment in history we’re in and try to go back and figure out has been more useful to the church, and I feel like more linear, abstract, composed music has been pretty useful. So we decided to go way back, but then make it electronic. You know, it needed to be incarnated into this moment. 

I thought a lot about it for a long time, and then finally it was a really late night in Houston that Josh and I were hanging out and just talking about the project — when we came up with the idea for it to be about the Lord’s Prayer. That was Josh’s idea — he had heard a great sermon about the Lord’s Prayer, the significance of the sequence of it, the various sections of it, and how a lot of classical music is composed into movements. The whole thing kind of crystallized all at once, even the name and everything. We were talking about the nature of worship and I remember him saying the title to me. He said, “It’s like feedback to God. It’s our feedback. It’s our response.” And I looked at him, and he looked at me, and we were like, “Feedback!”

From that point it was just a matter of the not-so-small matter of figuring out a creative process by which I could actually make this thing. I didn’t ever expect that I would make a record like this, and it was the most challenging thing creatively I’ve ever done in my career. But it was such a great learning experience, and it was such a great spiritual discipline even to come out to the studio every day completely puzzled as to what I was supposed to be doing. I did nothing but read for six months. I studied for six months on the Lord’s Prayer. I was tearing through books on the Lord’s Prayer and about making abstract art with a deliberate kind of content intention. How to take a rigid and specific idea and convert it into rhythm and melody — how do you do that without lyrics? My personality doesn’t work that way, so it took me a long time. Six whole months without making a lick of music. 

The first few weeks of the actual recording I just sat in the studio by myself in total silence, staring at the speakers wondering what was supposed to be coming out. I would walk out and say, “Today is ‘Give Us Today Our Daily Bread.’ That’s what I’m writing today.’” It was a great thing to have the Lord’s Prayer as my content because basically I would just sit out here a lot of days for hours and say, “God, give today what I need to do this. If it’s a little scrap of melody or a couple of beats, anything. Give me anything. Just give me what I need to get through this today. I can’t even imagine ever being able to finish this project or being able to figure out how to do it. It’s like a puzzle. Um, so just give me what I need to get from here to there. Just to get from 9 to 5 today.” It was real provision. It was a good time of growth. By the time I was finished with it, it was so beneficial to me personally that it didn’t matter if it ever came out.

JS: I’m so thankful you stuck with it. It’s cool because that’s very much what the Lord’s Prayer is about. I often utter it myself when I can pray nothing else, which a lot of times is my best prayer. Or the Psalms.

DW: Right, absolutely. It was not only the content, but it was the framework for my creative process. And it had to be because I had no idea what I was doing. 

But I really did feel a deeper sense of calling, like it was worth it. I felt like people could potentially benefit from a modern piece of abstract art by which to worship, or through which to worship, or at least as help in worship.

I’ll confess to you that, even as a musician, my least favorite part of any church service is the music. It just does nothing for me. That’s not a problem with the music or with the church. That’s my problem, but it’s still an issue for me and I think I’m probably not the only one. The music doesn’t really take me anywhere. I wonder if the reason is because those moments of worship are so mysterious — it’s mystical — and yet here we are provided with this very specific language with which to express the spiritual moment that we’re in. Now, I think that can be a great thing. That’s the great thing about hymns. It’s the great thing about worship songs. It can be the great thing about liturgy and creeds because there are moments when you come into church and you’re not feeling anything and you don’t believe anything.

I come into church a lot of the time not believing anything. And what I need is for someone to provide language for me to express that which I do not believe but wish to believe. And that’s what’s so great about saying the creeds or singing these songs that these writers have provided for us so I can say, “Help me in my unbelief. I don’t believe any of this, but despite my unbelief I’m gonna sing this song. I’m gonna say these words. I’m gonna declare what I believe. Even as I don’t believe it, I’m going to declare that I do believe it in hopes that I might believe it.” That’s what’s so great about so much of the more literal and structured elements of worship. 

However, I feel like there’s a real void in the church with our very efficiently planned out worship services, some churches down to the minute. I’m not criticizing efficiency. Yet couldn’t it be beneficial to some of the diversity of the body to build in some unstructured moments, some abstract moments. The church has depended upon this type of art for so long and in so many ways — be it music, stained glass, architecture. Art has such a great, potentially unique role to play in the communication of mysterious, spiritual realities. 

There was a day in which someone would walk into a cathedral and the very stained glass windows, the very structure of the building — the way it was built, the way it was laid out — began to preach to them the mysterious, spiritual realities before a priest got up and taught them. Then they would go to the Table and here’s the Gospel in a picture. Here’s a metaphor. Something will be mysteriously communicated to our spiritual nourishment and benefit through the Communion table and all of it was structured to communicate ultimately the same spiritual realities, mysterious as they are. And now, things like Communion, things like prayer — these mystical activities seem out of place in very literal and structured services. 

So I felt it was important to do this work — hard as it might have been for me to complete it, as unlikely of a person I might be to have done it — because that’s part of what I needed as part of a diverse body. My brothers and sisters around me might not need it, but I might not need some of what they need. We all have to deal with each other and live with each other, and put our preferences aside in order to be with each other. I might really need some unstructured, abstract moments that don’t dictate the spiritual moment that I’m in. Some of these songs really do that. 

"Forgive Us Our Debts as We Forgive Our Debtors" by Scott EricksonSometimes you need someone to dictate to you and you need someone to provide a specific language for you, but other times you don’t. But we also just need some time, space to sort through and let the Spirit work. So we thought: if we give somebody 5-6 minutes per movement — there’s one for every line in the Lord’s Prayer — if all you have to focus on for 5 minutes is “Forgive Us Our Debts as We Forgive Our Debtors,” start there and just let your mind wander and see where the Spirit takes you. You’ve got 5 minutes of unstructured time with art that’s fairly abstract to find out where you are and what moment you’re in and let the Spirit deal with you. It just felt necessary. It even felt potentially beneficial to the Church. All of this was pushing me along. The importance of what I felt like this could mean to just a few people, myself included, felt worth whatever labor it might require to get through it. Sorry for the monologue . . .

JS: Are you kidding? These are important, essential thoughts to share, which made me think about a lot of things. Johnny and I go to a pretty traditional, liturgical church — an Anglican church — but we are dying to introduce this music to our people, even though we love liturgy and that structure, and traditional and contemporary hymns.

DW: And you should. Marva Dawn said any church that’s truly represented by diverse members of one body should dislike about every third song they sing.

JS: Well, to switch gears, a lot of times lately I just don’t know what to pray. I often have no idea, even just sitting in our home alone with my thoughts. And yesterday I sat down with Feedback, just listened and looked at the photographs and paintings. Each song seemed like a long time to really think about that particular verse and what it means. I thought, I don’t do this enough. I don’t need to say something all the time.

DW: There is a real place for quiet and meditation. Josh really helped me with some of this, too, because this is something I’ve experimented with on other records. Like, building in some unstructured time for no good reason that seems like a waste in order to give people some time to kind of stop and slow down. I did it on my second record. I’ve tried it on a handful of records. And Feedback went further into that experiment. 

I forget which song we were mixing . . . it might have been “Hallowed is Your Name.” I was talking to Josh and listening to some mixes he was doing and I said, “Yeah, I like the mix you’ve done, but the primary melody is kind of obscure to the point where I don’t really know exactly what I’m listening to, and I don’t know what to focus on. I don’t know what the main melody is and I get a little lost. I don’t really know what I’m listening for and my mind kind of starts to wander.” And he said, “Perfect! That’s exactly what I was hoping you’d say.” He said, “I obscured the main melody so you wouldn’t know what to focus on and your mind would wander.” I mean, “Hallowed be Thy name” is such a mind trip. Jesus tells us to ascribe worth to God’s name when we don’t bring any such validation to it. We are stating the obvious if we are doing anything, and yet we are told in the context of this prayer that we should. Josh said that’s always the part of the prayer where he kind of stops and it makes his brain twist a little bit. He wanted the way he mixed that track to build in something that would pull you out of the structure of what’s happening in the music and push you out to float a little bit. And I thought that was genius, so I didn’t push for my mix changes.

JS: I hope people pick up on that. Some of Feedback you grasp and some of it you don’t, but Josh’s intention is a really important aspect for people to understand, or try to.

Now, I heard Sandra’s vocals on this record, correct? On some of the movements?

DW: Yes, she sang a pretty fair amount on the record, and that is one thing to clear up for people when they hear that Feedback is instrumental. There are vocals, but the vocals on the record are non-lyrical. They are just used as another instrument.

JS: The vocals really are like instruments. I hope you don’t mind the comparison, but it reminds me of Sigur Rós a bit. Or maybe they are singing words. I don’t always know with them, but I don’t care.

DW: I don’t think it matters, because Jonsí is singing in a language he made up, right?

JS: I believe so, but it’s almost just like his voice is an instrument most of the time.

DW: Absolutely. It is beautiful.

JS: Could you elaborate on instrumental worship music in general just a bit more?

DW: The only thing I would add is that I’m definitely not an outsider, I’m not out to criticize the way that anybody else worships. I am involved in a lot of hymn-type movements and I love old texts. But I also think it is absolutely necessary that we have modern hymn writers telling the more modern stories of what’s happening in culture and in the Body. I never just want to camp out in the old hymns and let that be the most recent news we hear in terms of the condition of the Body. 

I would love it if some modern worship songwriters who are providing a lot of content for the church would consider including and providing some instrumental, unstructured moments that for the people. I would love for that to become something that — and I hate saying this kind of thing — “catches on.” I would love for it to at least become part of the conversation. People talk so much about worship — worship music has become the new Eucharist in the modern evangelical church. It’s what we debate over, divide over, and bicker over. 

"Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread" by Jeremy CowartI think any church in this country would benefit from cutting a 1/3 or 2/3 of the music they sing any given Sunday. That might not even be in proportion to the other things they are doing in their services. Some of that is preferential on my part, but I do feel like worship music has become such an overblown conversation and sense of importance that I would love for the guys that have influence to consider including some unstructured moments, instrumental music, and abstract art. I would love to see local churches commissioning local art from the artists in their body who are not vocational ministers just in the way I am not, but who are artists and songwriters and such — to commission those people to make art that goes along with what the church is teaching and what the season of teaching is and engage their people not only with teaching, but also with abstract visual and musical elements, even performance elements. I feel like there’s so much potential there. I would love to see the church wake up to that a little bit.

* Part 2 of our interview will publish on the Art House America Blog on February 17th.

Jenni Simmons is the editor of the Art House America Blog, assistant editor and staff writer for The Curator, caretaker of three cats (Harley, Milo, and Lily Belle), freelance writer, aspiring guitarist, coffee/tea/bourbon-drinker, bookworm, and a bird-watcher.

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