AGM Editor-in-Chief Chris Unthank talks with one his songwriting heroes – Dove Award winning songwriter Joel Lindsey, most notably known for hit songs like “I Wish I Could Have Been There,” “Orphans of God,” and “He Made a Change.”
Chris Unthank: For those who aren’t familiar with your work Joel, give everyone a brief explanation of what you do in the Gospel music world.
Joel Lindsey: First and foremost, I’m a songwriter. I write for artists in a lot of different genres and I write musicals for church choirs to sing. Next year will be 30 years since my first song was recorded; I’m pretty proud of that! I was with Brentwood Benson for almost 20 years and I’ve been with Word for almost 4. They tell me I’ve had over 2000 songs recorded, which boggles my mind.
In addition to being a songwriter, I’m a publisher and a mentor. Wayne Haun and I started a company years ago, called Sunset Gallery Music, which I really love being a part of! Our exclusive writers are Marcia Henry, Jeff Bumgardner, Rachel McCutcheon, Scotty Inman, Barbara Huffman, Helga Kaefer, Val Dacus, Randall Garland, Jim Davis and Ed Stivers! Plus, we have a lot of other non-exclusive writers who I am so honored to get to work with. Being a mentor to some of the newer writers gives me a chance to really give back and to encourage others on their journey. I learned a lot of hard lessons along the way and I’m happy to share with new writers when I can. I get more excited when they get a song recorded than I do when one of mine gets cut!
I also host co-writing retreats twice a year where I invite songwriters from all genres within Christian music, from all parts of the country and from all levels of success to a retreat center for a weekend. We literally throw names in a hat and pick out our co-writers for each session! It can be nerve-wracking, but it’s amazing to see all the great writing relationships that have developed at these retreats. A few of the songs written at the retreat over the years are “The Potter Knows The Clay” by The Perrys, “Settled At The Cross” by The Nelons, “Broken World” by The Talleys, “Give It To You” by Cana’s Voice and so many others! I’ve had quite a few artists tell me that they wait until after one of my retreats to pick songs for their projects because they know there will be great songs available. It’s always so fun to hear all the new songs performed in the evenings that are just barely a few hours old and then to see them go on to be hits for artists, land on choral projects and be used in churches all over the world. I’m, obviously, very proud of this retreat and the caliber of songwriters who attend.
CU: How did you get your start in songwriting?
JL: In a nutshell, I moved to Nashville without a Plan B and started trying to learn from anyone I could. I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing, so I really just became a student of the craft and of the industry. I started co-writing with people from my church and with pretty much anybody else I could find. I would work jobs in the evenings and at night so that I could have my days free to write.
CU: You’ve been a huge collaborator over the years. What have been some of your favorite moments collaborating?
JL: Oh wow – there have been so many! I will say that my co-writers have really become some of my closest friends because when you’re in that little room together and you’re just pouring out your heart, you really get to know someone.
One of the more interesting moments was with a contemporary Christian singer who was in the studio doing vocals and wasn’t happy with the lyrics he had written so he called me over to the studio. I sat at his feet in the vocal booth writing lyrics onto a legal pad and holding them up for him to sing! I was literally writing the lyrics as he was recording them – talk about pressure!!
I also remember early on writing with Jerry Thompson, who was with The Nelons. I was so excited to be writing with him. It was the middle of a very cold winter and we were writing at the house I shared with three other struggling songwriters. The day of my writing session with Jerry, our heat went out! I tried to put on a brave face but I was so embarrassed. Jerry wrote most of that day with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders and another one wrapped around his waist! He was such a trooper and acted like it wasn’t a big deal but I know he was freezing!
A more recent story was when the Collingsworth family was recording their project, “The Lord Is Good.” They had already tracked one day and were finishing up the next but they needed one more song, something specific. One of my co-writers, Jeff Bumgardner, lives outside Augusta, Georgia and I live in Santa Barbara, California, so we’re literally on opposite coasts. We were talking and came up with an idea that we thought might work, so we signed onto Skype and literally spent the whole night writing, 3000 miles apart! I remember Jeff’s, wife Jody, walked into his writing room at some point in the middle of the night and said, “Y’all are crazy!” And maybe we were but we finished the song, recorded a rough version of it and sent it off. I went to bed and by the time I woke up the next morning, they had already recorded the song, “How Great His Love For Me”!
CU: What have been your favorite songs you’ve written over the years, and why?
JL: Like most writers, I would answer this differently every day. I love “He Made A Change” because it was the last #1 song The Cathedrals had before they retired. “Dream Big” by The Martins was sort of my message to the world at that time. “Orphans Of God” is a very special song to me just because of the message of the song and how it has really touched people. I love “I Wish I Could Have Been There” because it was just so much fun to write!
CU: You’ve been very open about struggling with cancer a couple times in your life. What songs have been birthed through those experiences, and how have they shaped the way you view your craft?
JL: “Calvary Answers For Me” totally came out of my first bout with cancer. I was very sick for months and spent a lot of time in bed and really had a lot of inner struggles and questioned a lot of things. That song was written as a way of processing what I was going through. Obviously, for that reason, it’s a very special and personal song for me.
Going through something like cancer, or really anything other serious illness or life-changing event, makes you really appreciate what you have and it also gives you a new perspective for the things you feel like you are supposed to be doing with your life. It makes you more compassionate to other people going through difficulties. Anything that forces you out of your comfort zone and into survival mode is going to change the way you write, the way you see God, the way you interact with other people and gives you a new focus on what is truly important in life. After you go through something like that, it creeps up in your writing in so many ways, because the scope of your life-experience and your faith has increased so much. You can’t help but write about it.
I recently went through yet another cancer scare and endured several months of chemo. I didn’t talk about it much on social media this time around because I was kind of tired of being “cancer-boy.” Of course, my close friends knew but I didn’t want to publicly give power to that. I also had several friends who were dealing with much more advanced stages of cancer than I was and I didn’t want it to ever seem like I was having a pity party.
CU: What advice do you give to young songwriters who want to make a career in this business?
JL: Hone your craft before you start trying to network yourself into the business side of things. With social media making everyone accessible, young writers get impatient and start trying to put themselves out there before they’re really ready. (A great way to begin to hone your craft is to go to Write About Jesus, the best songwriting seminar in the business!)
CU: What has God been teaching you lately?
JL: To not worry about what anybody else is doing, but to just concentrate on the work I’m called to do.